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#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.

#MTBoSBlogsplosion: My Favorite

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I’ve been pretty quiet recently, partially due to being ridiculously busy learning how to teach AP Chemistry this year. But also because my district has very strict policies around social media.

Anyway, I saw the MTBoS post about returning to blogging, and figured it was a good time to procrastinate to start again.  And no, I don’t teach math; Honors Chemistry and AP Chem for me!

My favorite thing in class right now is whiteboards. I know… it seems to be everyone’s favorite thing, and for good reason! My students actually cheered today when I told them to fetch the dry erase markers. I am fortunate enough to have two sets of whiteboards! A large set (about 2.5×3′ or so) for groups, and small ones for individuals (one side is blank and one side has periodic tables.)

What do we do with them?

I’ve posted previously about Chemical War, The Mistake Game, particle drawings, and Battleship.

The little boards are great for “secret ballots”. Pose a question, everyone furtively writes down an answer, and either blindly (for my eyes only) or publicly shows it on the count of three. Funny for multiple choice / review days, when I need suggestions for stuff, etc.

Then just plain practice. Yesterday, my honors students took notes about stoichiometry and using BCA tables. Working in groups today made it so much clearer to them! Plus, the groups can do different things: one group made one set of charts/calculations; several groups worked individually and compared work; one group was pretty comfy already, so split into two teams that raced for the right answer.

AP Chem does similar work together. Especially with drawing, the group work is invaluable (these kids are generally fine with the math part). Somehow, whiteboarding lets these (very advanced) kids play with pictures that they would never do on paper, and thereby increases their understanding. I found that if I don’t have a whiteboard day, not only do they complain, but their conceptual understanding has been lower.

Soooo many marker fumes! So little time! (Maybe that’s why everyone loves whiteboards…)

Cooperative, Competitive

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I started a bunch of posts, but haven’t finished them. Here they are, all combined: I like playing games with my students, and my students are competitive enough (in a friendly way) that they work well in my classroom.

Based on things I’ve seen in the #MTBoS (oh hey, it’s MTBoS season!), I’ve had my students play a bunch of games to practice new and in-progress skills. Also, I’ve never had whiteboards in class before, and I have a set of small, individual boards with periodic tables on one side, and a large set for group work. I’m all over these boards.


Battleship, which I haven’t found time for previously, was a nice way to practice groups and periods on the periodic table. And we needed a low-key class period.

Electron Memory to review electron configurations, symbols, and a sketch of electrons in their shells/clouds. Yes, it’s a match-three kind of situation! Much harder than normal. Not sure it was super effective in review, however.

Chemical War reviewed compound formation. Each kid had a slip of paper with an ion and a small whiteboard. When they met someone with an oppositely-charged ion, they raced to come up with the correct compound first. Some good questions came out of it, and these particular kids are pretty conscious about asking for clarifications.

The Mistake Game is my new faaaaavorite thing! So far, we’ve used them for practicing balancing equations, and now some stoichiometry. Stoich is funny: it’s almost too complicated to make a mistake, and they don’t want to mess up the beauty in the perfected equations. But I love that they’re seeing where mistakes can be made, and how to fix them. (And BCA tables are amazing!)

Particle drawings is kinda borrowed from the Modeling series of stuff. I haven’t gone to the seminars, but I did attend a few sessions while at ChemEd last summer, and I’ve made my own version of them, which goes along with our new textbooks’ examples. While the kids groan about doing it, they definitely have a better grasp about what’s really happening during reactions.


And now that all of this is on the table, I’m left with the educator-part of my brain saying, what questions am I asking? And therefore, what am I valuing?

I mean, I’m supposed to be posting to Sam Shah’s collaborative Better Qs blog, and I haven’t posted anything anywhere recently. Not for lack of interest, but for lack of questions. I’ve asked students to do things this year that I haven’t before (no required homework, SBG, draw reactions rather than entirely equations, etc.), but what’s my implicit question? I guess I’m looking for more explanations rather than merely regurgitating processes, but I need to shift my (non-required) homework to meet that.

Meeting Old Friends

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I met Megan and Justin on Saturday!!


There were a bunch of other people at the table too, whose names I’ve sadly forgotten.

And I tagged along to meet Christopher too. Unsurprisingly, his kids are also smart and funny. It’s so good to meet people in person. Even though I’ve been tweeting and blogging at/with them for about a year and a half, it’s nice to talk in person with someone and hear voices and shoot the breeze.

And it was cool to hear the excitement from EdCampTC and all of the ideas and stuff out of it. I’m looking at an EdCamp near me.

While at the table, someone threw out the idea about having them all teach at the same school, and whether it would work or drive everyone nuts. The discussion didn’t last long, but it seemed like generally people thought it would work. Here’s why I think it would work: enthusiasm and respect. Every person at that table was interested and invested in their profession, and they’re willing to work and change for the benefit of kids and themselves. I think if there were some sort of disagreement in that kind of faculty, I’d like to think they could have an open discussion about the perceived issues. Every school (and probably most jobs) has the people who can be reasoned with, as well as the ones who are good for advice, for mentoring, for ideas, for commiseration. Often, a few of these positive traits overlap in individuals. And there’s also a few people with whom you can’t talk, can’t ask for advice, can’t advise, or can’t deal with, either because they aren’t receptive to you or are against change in general. I think that this kind of trust is part of what makes many workplaces good (or bad) places to work. That if there’s to be a team-based workplace, then most people have to buy-in and contribute to the overall good of the organization. If it’s all about individuals, then people can come and go, and individuals can be replaced easily.

I just like hearing enthusiasm for the profession I love.

A Bunch of C-Words

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Ahem. Competitive, Cooperative. College, Career.

Being competitive is a positive trait for business in America these days. Businesses must get to the top, and they only want the very best people to get them there! We even have entire “reality” TV shows about getting to the top (including Survivor, America’s Next Top Model, The Amazing Race, Creature Shop Challenge, American Ninja Warrior, Project Runway and, of course, The Apprentice). Success, especially very-public success, is clearly rewarded. What’s wrong with success? Why shouldn’t my kid do the best and be the best? Some college applications still ask about class rank, and kids still vote for “Most Likely to Succeed”, right?

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with success. After all, who doesn’t want to be successful? But maybe there’s a problem with defining “success” (or even “competitive”) as “being-top-dog-all-the-time”. Even for schools without explicit class rankings, students make their own comparisons and know their place in the line. There’s a world of difference between being a leader or top of the class and being domineering and/or a poor winner. Someone posted a link to this op-ed on America’s obsession with getting kids competitive, as well as this one, advocating not sending your kids to Ivy League schools. It reminds me of this NYTimes bit on Worriers and Warriors and the genetic component with how kids (and adults) handle stress.

As a non-competitive person, I think that all of that stress and pressure to be Number 1 has to be draining. Parents start their kids in pee-wee soccer at age three (okay, some start soccer for sheer exercise, but some have actual goals in mind for their kids), they have to get their kid into the highest-ranked pre-schools and private schools, they make their kids sign up for lists of AP courses and music lessons and tutoring (although UNC researchers recently found that more AP courses predict better college GPAs, but only up to five courses before a plateau), and there’s tons of leadership camps and courses in- and outside of school. Moreover, if a kid must be on top of every list (i.e., aggressive domination), that’s at the expense of every other kid.

Many of today’s teaching methods include cooperative skills and training (Think, Pair, Share; group work; global pen pals; lab partners; etc.). These techniques increase information processing (over passively listening to lectures in class) and boost student learning. This doesn’t necessarily mean a lack of student-leaders, but possibly a reduced emphasis on the domineering aspects that can come with domination of some students over others. I’m not saying that a school-room’s goal should be to have across-the-board even achievement with no rankings (that’s silly and unrealistic). Leaders don’t necessarily have to be cut-throat and aggressive; instead, they can help others to find their best traits. Again, students always compare themselves to others, and everyone knows who the smart kid is in the room.

What do competition and collaboration in K-12 education have to do with the President’s goals for students to be “college– and career-ready”? Lots, but there’s also a gap. Arguably, kids need both some sort of drive (competitive nature) and social skills (collaborative skills) to survive much of further school (college) and employment (career). So how do we know students actually have the skills they’ll need in college? Standardized tests cover course-content in (English) language arts, and math (and sometimes science). But neither competition (except athletic) nor collaborative skills are tested in public schools. Common Core curricula advocate for flexibility in thinking and understanding, rather than for merely finding correct answers (confirmed by this amazing article from the NY Times talking about why Americans stink at math).

What’s not been mentioned? Creativity. Culture. Cross-disciplinary. Compassion. These traits are, similarly, hard to measure or even define. But most people, certainly colleges, view them as important.

So is bridging the gap a K-12 teacher problem? Kinda. There are lots of teachers who are changing or have already changed their methods for the better. But there are many more who need to: some refuse to do so, and some don’t know how to. Is this also a post-secondary problem? Kinda. There’s a big difference between getting numbers about kids and getting the kids. Is this a parent problem? Kinda. Expectations and support for kids will, of course, vary for each family.

There seems to be a big communication gap between what all the parties want in their kids for each stage of their education, and what they get out of them later. So perhaps a more pertinent questions is, what do you want for your kids, and why do you want it?

Even better: give your kids some say. What do your kids want, and why?

GMD: Addressing Racism

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I’m white. When professional photographers say that my skin reflects their flashes too much, that’s pretty white. I grew up in a very white suburb of MN. There were 3 black kids in my high school graduating class of over 538 (although a number of Korean kids who’d been adopted). But that’s it. Race wasn’t really addressed in school, except, of course for Black History Month of February, when we talked about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech. Every year, we did some kind of simulation about discrimination, to make us learn (although how could we not know) that racism was wrong and unfair. Senior year, I (and a bunch of my honors-level friends) took a humanities course. We were assigned to write a racist term paper. At first, we thought it was a mistake by the teachers, that they couldn’t possibly mean what they had written in the assignment page. After more than a week of arguing (our class and the other section too), they still insisted that we write the paper. More than half of the class flat-out refused, including two black students. There’s more to this story, but that’s pretty much been the extent of my personal experience with really blatant racism.

During teacher training, the graduate-level Diversity course was pretty useless. Most of the other people in the class were white and had grown up in the area (I hadn’t, and had just moved to the state). The required journal entries were dutifully graded by the Hispanic professor, who wrote comments like, “That’s an interesting idea!” or “Your concerns are valid!” was not helpful nor interesting. We did have to do a semi-anthropologic project of attending a [something] that we didn’t normally do. My group went to a local Islamic service (with a very helpful guide, who assumed we were all Christian) and talked with a few worshippers. Lovely, but I had nothing for or against Islam in the first place, so I’m not sure what I was supposed to get from the experience. I do remember being terrified of accidentally offending someone (the example of a “flip chart” being offensive to Filipinos blew my mind, as I didn’t even know that was a use for the word “flip”.)

In short, I’m really uncomfortable with addressing race in person or in class or online. I just don’t know what to do or when to crack down on (un)intentional racially-charged statements (which partly due to my poor classroom management skills) or to promote minority readings and authors and role models without it being a token gesture. So, I really wanted to “attend” the Global Math Department‘s* lecture by Anne Schwartz (a.k.a., @sophgermain) on Tuesday, but had to settle for watching the recording tonight.

Wow.

Really, totally worth it. Seriously, go watch it now.

Her last slide was awesome (darn, can’t get a screenshot!):
Seven Harmful Racial Discourse Practices
Making it about yourself, falsely equating incomparable acts, diverting topics from race, portraying government as overreaching, prioritizing political policy over impact, condemning through coded language, silencing/devaluing history.

Anna’s message was mostly about listening to kids and their experiences, and recognizing where racism exists in hidden places. White people have a lot of privileges, and don’t always see how our appearance benefits us over others. She also gave a list of resources, which looks fascinating.

I work at a predominantly white and affluent school. I only have one student of color this year (and two Jewish students). There are very few people of color in traditional Western introductory chemistry history (although more in upper-level stuff). I don’t know how to put them into my coursework without it being a token gesture.

I’d love to get past the terrified state, and change that into the proactive-involve-all-cultures stage. I still need some good key phrases to help me get past just nodding to a student, and into support mode. A friend of mine is a huge advocate of social justice, but I’m not comfortable with talking yet (and don’t know what would make me comfy… more experience would help, I’m sure).

I need to do more thinking on this, and probably some reading from that list Anna posted.


*Where’s the Global Chemistry Department? No activity for months! Darn!

Gratitudes

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Towards the end of the year, people get nostalgic for the previous 360+ days. I’m not usually one of those people, because it seems to me to be a forcing function to change something in the new year. I’d rather change when needed rather than save it for January.

Anyway, I feel a need to thank the MTBoS in a huge way. My professional career thanks you bigtime. As a science teacher (read: applied math), I know I don’t always fit in. But really, you’ve made me more excited about my job than I have been for a long time. I now probably spend a little too much time checking Twitter, a little too long thinking of blog posts, and a little too long attempting origami (to the detriment of lesson planning and a lot of what used to be down-time). I feel like I know some of you (or at least your online personalities), and I’m in awe of the amazing stuff you do.

It’s just so nice to feel professionally connected again.

So where’s the January resolution? Well, I want to continue blogging, but in a more focused way. As long as this pesky license renewal doesn’t get in the way, I’ll hopefully add some more What’s The Problem? entries and maybe more Talking Science With Kids too.

At least, that’s the plan. So say we all. Timey wimey. To infinity and beyond. And all that jazz.