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Stoich Speed Dating

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Kinda based on the idea by Kate Nowak, I had my students Speed-Date (is that a verb?) stoichiometric practice problems. It’s a little different in format, and it’s in groups… on whiteboards… okay, maybe it’s a lot different.

My students normally sit in pods of three or four. They’re super familiar with the whiteboarding we do (which is at least weekly). After one practice/review stoich problem, I had them clear the boards. We picked some random numbers, and I added “grams” to each (something like, kids shouted out 5, 17, 207, and 73, so I would declare 20.75g and 17.73g). I posted a list of chemical equations on the document camera. Each group picked a random 2-reactant equation from the posted list of equations and started the stoich process (balancing the equation, filling out the BCA table, good sig figs, etc.). For example, if they chose the combustion of hydrogen, then using our random numbers, the stoich problem they worked on started with 20.75g H2 and 17.73g O2.

Now for the speed dating part: Every 2 minutes, I yelled “ding!” and each group moved to a new board to continue whatever the last group had left.

The first “ding!” usually happened just after getting molar masses calculated, so a lot of groans came out, but they knew approximately the step to work on for the next board. The second switch came part way through the BCA table, which really bothered some perfectionists. Some groups found mistakes and had to correct them. Four cycles usually got the boards completed and double-checked.

What I liked:

  • Even in a large class (10 groups), nearly every board had a different equation, so switching meant some big changes but the same process. It’s actually quite a bit of practice.
  • Limiting reactants were not always in the same place/order from one board to the next.
  • Students improved in figuring out the sequence of steps in stoich because they had to repeat/check and see the status of the new board.
  • Struggling kids were able to see how a particular step changed when equations changed (I may have “ding”ed intentionally when I saw a half-fast/slow group getting too comfy).
  • I was able to help one particular kid while everyone else worked through switching boards and checking each other.

What I need to improve/think about:

  • This worked for one round, but wasn’t interesting enough for two.
  • I did not check/grade the boards, but relied on students to check themselves.
  • For the groups that found mistakes, I’d like a way of discussing the mistake with the previous group. I don’t want them making the same mistake on the next board(s).

#MTBoSBlogsplosion: Soft Skills

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I’ve worked at a large public school, a science museum, a tiny private school, and a small public school. The places I’ve worked have each taught me valuable skills in how to teach different kinds of students.

The private school, in particular, helped me learn how to talk to lots of different kinds of kids. At this school, teachers met with individual students twice a week for 30 minutes. In this way, I taught various sciences (about 6 different kinds of classes), but since each student had different strengths and challenges, I really had a separate prep for each kid (about 30+ different preps). Teaching chemistry to a “normal” high school student is different from teaching to one with dyslexia; to one who is dyslexic, dysgraphic, and dyscalculate; to one with high-functioning autism; to one who has clinical anxiety and depression. And, a lot of these students had previously slipped through the cracks of public schools and larger classrooms. I have no formal special ed training, so a lot of my preparation was on my own and on the fly. But a lot of my work, especially when students came to us in the middle of school years, was to make them comfortable with school and to boost their academic confidence.

Part of making them comfortable again revolved around allowing kids to be wrong without penalty. It’s sort of in three phases: allowing kids to be wrong; brainstorming possibilities; and encouraging fixes to original answers.

I truly believe that it’s invaluable to make mistakes, as long as you figure out how to fix them once you know better. Part of this is classroom culture: I think math and science classes are especially guilty for having only single correct answers to any problem, which may be true for numerical calculations, but usually, there’s something that’s right about most answers. I think this is why I really love the “My Favorite No“, although I haven’t formally used it in class. I can’t always get students to commit their thoughts to paper, but I can get them to write all kinds of stuff on impermanent whiteboards. We use The Mistake Game fairly regularly. It’s on me to not say “no” during class. Instead I try to do the improv thing of “yes, and…”, and request others to help out or refine. (There is a limit to my tolerance, however, when there’s safety issues, like personal insults or goofing off in lab.)

Once kids figure out there’s no penalty in wrong answers and that I don’t shut kids down (which takes at least a month, often more), they’re more wiling to brainstorm. Early in the year, I ask kids to go home and “interview” people about the word “nuclear”. I keep expecting crazy answers and misconceptions, but my kids are (sadly!) so trained to only give correct answers, that they won’t volunteer the weird ones. I have to frame my questions intentionally so that I encourage off-beat things and everything is acceptable. Instead of, “who has an answer?”, I say, “what are some possibilities?” or “what’s the strangest thing you heard?” Distancing their verbal responses from the specter of “correct” has been really useful in getting more kids to talk more often.

Fixing answers is, to me, like making final works out of rough drafts. I’ve been bad at intentionally circling back to original questions (and I wonder if making that connection between original and new would be helpful), but I’m pretty good at helping classes think through lines of logic. Once being wrong isn’t a problem, and brainstorming is totally okay, it’s much easier to try out new things. It’s still difficult for me to stay out of the way and allow kids to try to sort out whether new ideas are right or not (addressing misconceptions seems to work really well). While it’s relatively easy for me to avoid saying “no”, it’s soooo hard to not immediately praise the right answers and get on with my lessons and goals. But I have to remember that it’s not about my learning. I don’t have a method for getting to this third step. I feel like I should be able to verbalize it, but I can’t. It’s a lot about kids’ comfort in class with me and with each other.

I wonder if these kinds of skills are limited to my classroom only. If these ideas are so classroom-dependent, I wonder if it carries to other classrooms or not. Which means I want to know how I can extend open investigation to every class. This isn’t in my control, but I’d like to think my students can get out of the always-only-correct paralysis for an hour a day.

Week 4 begins

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Whew. Today was the unit test on measurement and matter. I’ll start grading shortly. 

It’s been a whirlwind already, with some pretty intense students. I’ve never had students who could review significant figures, dimensional analysis, measurement rules, and other number handling… in 30 minutes. I’m starting to wonder how much I can throw at them, and how much I should throw at them. I hafta figure out pacing on a whole new level. I have a feeling that they might take what I toss their way. I’ll have to be careful about what is actually reasonable. 

Day 104: Starting an SBG Curriculum

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Day 104/180: Starting to work through SBG, and feeling unsure

Part of this year’s sabbatical goals were to create an SBG curriculum so that I could possibly implement it into my shiny new next-year-job. So far, I’ve just made a list of chemistry topics for the year. I’m not yet sure if it’s better to be more or less specific as far as content goes, so I’m erring on the more side. I’ll also need to figure out how to combine these into larger units (i.e., fewer unit, non-chapter, tests), as well as the non-curriculum-specific skills I want students to have.

I’m working off of TEACHING|CHEMISTRY and Always Formative and Crazy Teaching for SBG information.

The curriculum works in my head, but it’s been a while since I’ve actually written out plans. My previous school was more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of place, since each student was on his/her own schedule. I had a list of topics to cover by the end of the year, but the pace, and even the order changed for each kid. I feel like a first-year teacher again.

Additionally, I’m sad that #chemchat is a kinda lonely place. Apparently, there used to be a weekly Twitter chat there, but hasn’t been around for a while other than a tag for random classroom experiments and thoughts. I don’t really have time to do a weekly chat (especially on the West Coast), but I’m working on maybe a thing… maybe a #slowchemchat thing…

Day 102: Cleaning Out

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Day 102/180: The rest of “Mindset” and some old links

School and mindset. Praise effort over innate ability. The kids I worry about hitting an academic brick wall in college: I’m probably sensing a fixed-mindset-ness about them. Page 235: Ask about efforts and mistakes made (and learned from!) Emphasize value of learning over merely achieving or completing. Be careful of the perpetual over-achiever. Again, emphasize the learning rather than the completion or ranking.

Having a growth mindset for controlling weight loss or anger, etc.. Cool. Reminds me of “you can’t change what others say/do, only how you respond to them”.

I thought “Mindset” would be an optimism/pessimism thing, but it’s really not. While having a growth mindset is probably less pessimistic thank fixed mindset, it’s more of a way of thinking past all of the lemons and toward the lemonade.


I’ve been very bad in getting to an article by Matthew Hartings (sorry!) in J.Chem.Ed, about making the Junior and Senior years of college chemistry essentially a focused research project. Pretty cool.

In high school, I had a 2-year chem/physics class. Because of eliminating some overlaps (like gas laws), there’s an extra quarter. The extra quarter was spent on an independent research project of our choosing. To my recollection, the rules were as follows:

  • Each quarter of Year 2, students were to find 10 sources of information (in an annotated bibilography) on their topic. If a new topic was chosen, additional sources had to be found. (This was pre-internet days.)
  • Students had to produce some kind of physical object/project.
  • Students had to produce a ginormous lab write up of all experiments and results.

Thoughts on the paper:

  • For college-level Juniors and Seniors in chem, they’re presumably going into the sciences. Giving them research and related problem-solving experience is probably pretty valuable. I did not have this structured experience, and think that it hurt me in grad school.
  • Giving students a starting point (everyone started on some aspect of gold nanoparticles), narrows the field for the faculty to work with and prepare. Probably also easier for students to come up with topics, since the subject of research (but not the variations) is already chosen.
  • I wonder what happens when a research topic fails.
  • It sounds like a serious ton of work for students. Yes, they get more transcript-credit, but does the potential time-commitment drive away some? (Thinking about my art studios and science lab requirements for my double-major.)
  • I did do some minor research in college, but was never given the training in what or how to think about problems, and definitely not how to further my questions longer than one quarter. I’d like that experience now. I’m kinda jealous!

Day 85: Clearing Out the Backlog

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Day 85/180: cleaning out email links, watching/studying lots of links

There’s a thing about keeping your inbox at 0. I’m kinda in the opposite mindframe. My email houses lots of things for me to look at later. Today is for housekeeping.

I finally watched Casey Rutherford‘s BigMarker talk on sense-making through physics. His ideas on making sense of an event, versus questioning why (and how) the event happens is a pretty big shift for students. I need to think more about incorporating this consciously into my curricula.

I also finally watched Moses Rifkin‘s talk on social justice in science classes. I’m super interested in doing this kind of (necessary!) conversation in class, even though I’m not comfortable with leading discussions (having never led them before, as well as being an introvert). I’ve signed up for the Science Teachers for Social Justice group, and find it interesting that all the teachers (so far) work at independent/private schools… no public. Hmm…

Uff da. So much thinking needed. Processing time kicking in…