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Reflections on 2020-21

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Oof. I haven’t written in a while.

Like many teachers, I’m thinking about the complexities of this past school year. Here’s my take on things (tl;dr: The overall plan didn’t work, and as we kept trying to return to it, it continued to not-work, which felt like failure after failure. But nothing is all bad, so what did I get out of it?

In March of 2020, my school (like so many others) closed due to Covid-19 restrictions. This was the correct thing to do, in order to protect the health of students and staff.

Fall of 2020, we started in an all-virtual world of school. While furiously trying to re-imagine a lab science in virtual spaces, as well as cut content so that students weren’t overwhelmed, this felt like so much non-success… and at the same time, society praised teachers for doing the impossible thing of doing our jobs. Except that teachers knew that this wasn’t how school was supposed to work, that we’ve done it differently for years and years and it’s not the same. Very few of my 12th graders (whom I knew from 2 years ago) or the new-to-me 10th graders turned on cameras for very long. It felt like I was tossing materials into the digital-void (and somehow got anonymous materials back). There are a number of students whose faces I did not see all year and will not recognize them next fall. I had no feeling for how my students were doing, whether they were doing anything, or whether they were present at all. All I knew is that I was terrible at my online job.

It was announced that we’d go back in person in April, and that students would be given the option to do so too. I now taught in-person kids and at-home kids simultaneously (the “concurrent” model). While I’d gotten used to the long pauses and wait-times for student responses while entirely online, It was particularly challenging to create the norms for waiting for some kids in front of me, while stalling for bandwidth and electrons for the at-home students. Society demonized teachers for doing their jobs in a way that they didn’t like. Students weren’t allowed to sit too close to each other, weren’t allowed to share materials, could not pass. things to each other, or even face each other in a classroom. Labs still had to be done online because I didn’t have enough spaces in lab for 15 in-person students 3-feet-apart (and 6 feet from water/sinks/me), all assignments were still virtual; it was only that I could see the eyeballs and masks on some students’ heads. For two months, I’ve felt terrible about my two jobs “concurrently”.

Now that school is nearly done for this year, I’m thinking about what has gone well (or at least, not-badly).

I asked students to fill in an anonymous end-of-survey. Things they universally liked this year:

  • Having consistent methods/sources for homework.
  • “Evaluations” instead of tests (I should blog about this separately).
  • Social justice conversations.

That’s it.

Everything else, from chemistry content to pace of course to how I speak was liked and not-liked by somebody.

So, from that list, what can I learn? I didn’t actually change that much. I’ve always been really consistent (sometimes even if it hurts in the long run) about where to find information regarding homework and expectations. Social justice conversations (although I run them differently from that link… that’s another blog post) are an integral part of my class, and although these talks were curtailed this year (along with other chemistry-related content), students saw them as a new side of science class.

Does this show me that they succeeded? No. Does it show student trust? Yes, since some were very blunt and honest about what they did and did not like. I’m glad they’re comfy with me to tell me so. Students wrote that I was the only teacher willing to give leeway and leniency this year (which is why it felt like I’d sacrificed more content than my colleagues… apparently, I did). Did I make room for more students and their anxieties? Yes, and I was able to help a few particular kids who came back in-person and were then able to ask for help that wasn’t available to them online.

Does the survey show that I succeeded? No. But it also doesn’t show that I failed.

What will I take into next year? I need to continue to work on making my class welcoming and open. If I can keep that reputation of being “chill”, I think I’ll continue to get buy-in and, therefore, more work from kids. And we need to keep talking about race and gender and other social constructs and how science fits into those pictures.

On Pursuing Higher Ed

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Today, my principal asked how I liked working at my school. I enjoy the autonomy of being the only chemistry teacher in the building. I’m beholden to no one else’s schedule, grading policies, or lab constraints. But I also can’t share my responsibilities with anyone else, have to get ideas from outside the building, and (because I do things differently) can’t trade curricula with anyone else. This year is my 3rd year back in public schools, and I love it. I missed it so, but I’m also so glad that I can afford to choose to be part-time.

Lately, there’s been a number of my Twitter-teacher-friends (more than one, less than 15) who have declared that they are going to be taking time off for mental health and/or personal reasons. And a number of them will be pursuing advanced degrees!

I’m completely in awe and in admiration of these teachers’ dedication to enhancing their educations and advancing their practice. I’m so happy (maybe a little jealous?) that they’re getting this chance.

I’m also acutely aware that, for some, pursuing a PhD or EdD is less work than teaching.

This deserves a whole lot of conversation, starting with expectations of K12 teachers in general, along with the internal and external pressures of the job, the dedication with which many teachers throw themselves into everything they do, the money teachers pour into classroom supplies, and the outside hours we use to do that last lesson tweak. It’s the extra time mixing chemical solutions, proofreading both versions of the exams, attending one sports match and a drama production and the orchestra concert, writing letters of recommendation for colleges and scholarships, applying for grants from the PTA, listening to the sobbing student found in the hallway, and filling the copy machine after the last set of originals are fed into the machine. It’s helping the unsure students who come to your room for help and tracking down the weak ones who don’t voluntarily show. It’s confronting the kids who think they got away with cheating and celebrating the ones who finally get it.

The Emotion of Science Class?

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The past week, I’ve overheard my students reciting passages from various Shakespeare plays, which they have to recite during their English classes next week. And I’ve also heard them grumbling about how easy it is to memorize something, so why bother learning a particular passage.

Although the English class poems are long-gone from my memory, I can still recite a Goethe poem from my high school German class (“Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind? / Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind….”). I also remember that although every person in class memorized the whole eight verses, part of our grades was on how the person emoted through the passages. It’s a depth-of-meaning kind of thing, which some people are good at expressing and some are not. And there’s a whole other depth when it comes to poetry contests and spoken word presentations (like this breathtaking example from Harvard’s School of Ed 2016 graduation by Donovan Livingston). Recitations are, for some, a whole art and passion.

So, in science classes, what is worthy of this kind of passage-memorization? And what would be the equivalent of emotion? Mere application of equations seems to be less significant than emotional response, and more of a logic puzzle than art. Application of concepts, however, somehow seems closer. To see something more like Beautiful Reactions or categorization of birds or even videos of marbles and magnets takes the rote skills and makes it into something more sublime.

So what is the emotion of science class?

What’s the Problem?: Pepper Water

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Act 1: Observations and Hook

Water, pepper, dish soap.

Act 2: Questions, Possibilities, Resources

  • What happened?
  • How does the pepper behave differently at the start, at the end?
  • Why does it swirl around?
  • Where does pepper come from?
  • Does it work with something other than pepper? other than water? other than dish soap?
  • What is soap? What is it designed to do?
  • What does “clean” mean?

Act 3: Resolution and Continuation

  • Here‘s a pretty good explanation of how it works.
  • Would it work again/faster/better if soap was added a second time?
  • What if soap was added in two places at the same time?
  • How’s the pepper/water experiment similar to this? Are they related?

Stick-To-Your-Ribs Learning

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I’ve heard the term “authentic learning” going around recently. It’s being used (by teachers) as a reason to get kids into projects and hands-on stuff, and (by politicians) to make certain curricula sound productive. It’s a pretty disingenuous term, though. I mean, even kids who just memorize vocab, take tests, and forget all of their information have learned (they learned how to game the system, which is arguably a useful skill). Instead, here’s my proposed term:

Stick-to-your-ribs learning

I want students to digest material, to process it, to use the good parts and get rid of the useless stuff. I want them to ruminate on ideas. I want them to be mentally nourished (and challenged!) by its content and rigor. And maybe it can feed their heads and help them grow.

Thanks to My Teachers

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I was lucky enough to have a few good teachers in my white, suburban, middle-class, Midwestern upbringing. I was also lucky enough to have several truly inspiring teachers.

Mr. Feller
I’ve already written a bit about Mr. Feller. Besides being required to have our concert band play at pep rallies and Memorial Day concerts, the concerts and competitions, and the amazing instruction, he always showed us the utmost respect as people and as musicians. He composed his own music, and encouraged anyone and everyone to do their own thing in addition to music. He was one of the first teachers with whom we could joke while still respecting his authority.

Ms. Aubineau
Ms. Aubineau was my 12th grade Honors English (excuse me, Enriched English) teacher. And we earned it. She guided us through literature, starting with Beowulf and finishing with Death of a Salesman. She collected sheep, and would dance around the room screaming, “SHEEEEEEEEP!” if one appeared on filmstrip. The final exam consisted of three days of writing, comprising every shred of text we’d read through the year. I might still have the “I finished Ms. Aubineau’s 12th grade final” badge somewhere.

Mr. Spreeman
Everyone who went to my junior high and high school knew Mr. Spreeman. He also probably knew you by name, even if you weren’t in his class. For 8th grade Geography, he made the world clear, starting with, “You can’t know anything about the world until you know something about where you’re from.” He was born and raised in our hometown, and he’d tell stories about things he did as a kid. He told stories about things he did in school. He told stories about his family and when his kids (one was our age) were little. He told THE ghost story on Halloween. He taught us what it meant to be a conscious citizen and a good person, as well as what you can do those times when you realize you’re not a good person. He had time to listen for anyone who needed to talk. He took us to see Schindler’s List in the theater, as well as The Gods Must Be Crazy on videotape. It was the first class I distinctly remember as a personal growth experience.


Karen Harpp
And in college, Karen Harpp was not only a fantastic teacher, but a dedicated researcher. She created a student-run chemistry show. She made crazy experiments to see what would work, but only if it was interesting to her. She wouldn’t give “I don’t know” even a passing glance. Because she’s a geochemist studying volcanic structure and history through rocks, I actually ran into her while on my honeymoon in Hawai’i. The biggest part of her education of me was her unrelenting “why?” Her standards for analytic chemistry were through the roof; it was the hardest class I ever took, comprising analysis, statistics, rigor, creativity, and (of course) chemistry. Her desire to expose chemistry in everyday stuff is a large part of my current passion in high school science.


And this is my thanks… thanks to you guys, I became a teacher. I’ve even become an icon (from our art department, representing our science department):
BnJuRlBCAAAY5FQ

The Elevator… and Elevating

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I’m an introvert. I’m not much for small talk, and even though I want to talk to people, I’m very bad at it. When I meet people (or get my hair cut or meet people at a party or talk to teachers at the pre-school), conversations often go like this:

New Person: So what do you do?
Me: I’m a teacher.
New Person: What do you teach?
Me: Chemistry.
New Person: Oh. I loved my chemistry teacher! He was soooo weird and blew up stuff! OR Oh. I hated chemistry… no offense. You must be smart!

There are a few things wrong with this common-for-me conversation:

  1. I need to work on self-marketing and conversation skills in general.
  2. That the word “chemistry” automatically means smart (which is self-deprecating and harmful to the speaker).
  3. That being a teacher did not make me smart.
  4. The conversation ends quickly.

A few people have asked me what-could-I-possibly-like about teaching chemistry. Today, I (and my students) played with dry ice all day long, making it sublimate, change indicator colors, vibrate coins, and (of course) blow foggy bubbles. I do enjoy being the teacher that’s remembered for doing stuff with fire/explosives/danger. It’s pretty fantastic when you hear your group of 5-year-olds school somebody on non-Newtonian fluids. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get a rise out of it, too. But these aren’t things to get a conversation going with strangers.

@Mythagon, besides having awesome link-mouseovers, says that instead of an elevator speech, teachers need an elevator question in order to draw people in and ignite conversations. Coincidentally, I saw this article posted on Twitter. And then this article on Brain Pickings, about Dan Pink and his ideas into becoming a better salesman. Put your own profession into mind before watching Attunement, Buoyancy, and Clarity in this (short but super interesting) animation.

It’s a bit of a different tact from Dr. Tyson’s art of a soundbite idea. Instead of just impressing someone (especially people who are probably not enamored with school, since most people aren’t), get them onto your side by getting them to talk first.

So what’s the question? I’ve tried, “Why didn’t you like chemistry?” but that sounds defensive, and the person is usually apologetic to me. There’s, “Well, science is just one kind of ‘smart.’ I can’t fix drains or perform concertos or even cut my own hair,” which just sounds patronizing. And “teaching is slightly less taxing than my past life of making explosives,” sounds like bragging. “Have you seen Cosmos?” doesn’t go far if they haven’t. But none of these elevate the profession of teaching, nor get really into why you like your job, nor get someone on your side.

And it’s hard to talk about science and math when most of the rest of the world doesn’t think they want to. Talking about teaching science seems like an insurmountable challenge.

But I do get paid to make silly putty and blow things up.

Balancing Dyslexic Equations

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I have a dyslexic student (several, actually). One’s pretty bad, though. Although she has some pretty good coping skills to compensate, balancing chemical equations, where numbers and letters are supposed to be mixed up is really, really hard. So, I took the writing part out:

20140313-144121.jpg

Some common ions on 3×5″ index cards cut in half.


Let’s make calcium carbonate. Normally, my students look up calcium on the periodic table and figure out its charge (Ca2+), and find carbonate on the ion list (CO32-). For my dyslexic student, she has to find the cards:

20140313-144137.jpg

Calcium and carbonate, the charges are in the upper-right corners.


Next, check the charges and make sure they balance each other out in the compounds (or use multiple ions to get to neutral charge):

20140313-144155.jpg

These charges are equal. Fold over the corners so the numbers don’t show.


Calcium nitrate (Ca2+ and NO31-) need a little more work.20140313-144311.jpg


Do similar things to make whole equations. For example, calcium carbonate breaks down into calcium oxide and carbon dioxide (note: carbon dioxide gets its own card; it’s not ionic):

20140313-144213.jpg

This equation is balanced as-is. Colored Post-Its are a good visual for distinguishing operations vs. chemicals.


How about aluminum plus copper(II) chloride producing copper and aluminum chloride?

20140313-144225.jpg

Small yellow numbers needed to balance charges in ionic compounds. But the overall equation isn’t balanced…


20140313-144237.jpg

Ahhhhh… that’s better.


Advantages:

  • Far harder for students to mix up letters and numbers (at least, until they try to copy them down on their own paper).
  • Harder for kids to mess with the subscripts in polyatomic ions.
  • Really nice with practicing single and double replacements.
  • Easy to remind kids that when making ionic compounds, they can only use small yellow numbers, and when balancing whole equations, they can only use large green numbers.
  • Manipulatives get more kids (dyslexic or not) involved.

Disadvantages:

  • There’s a lot of cards and bits of colored paper operators to mix up and lose.
  • Takes up a lot of table-space.

So far, it’s actually working pretty well. I’ve even had a kid take a test using this method. Maybe I should patent it…

Silent Instruction

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I was sick over the weekend, and for some reason, I always get laryngitis after I’m better. Today is no exception. So, it’s time for another silent class.

I picked this up from my high school band conductor, a wonderful instructor (and apparently, now the district flipped-classroom guru and @fellbop on Twitter), who had actually studied mime in college (a long story, I’m sure). It also made him incredibly expressive while conducting, and the “Feller Lean” was something no one else could do without guide ropes (yes, we tried).

At any rate, one day, Mr. Feller had laryngitis, and couldn’t talk over 100 band kids. By miming and charades, we had an entire period of really intense rehearsal that made us listen to each other and respect his conducting at a high level. Between actual playing, when there was normally chatter, it was pin-drop-silent as everyone’s eyes watched Mr. Feller for the next instructions. It was so effective that we had other silent rehearsals through the year, even when he could use his voice. Clearly, it stuck in my head too.

When I taught public school, I did it. I ran a class without talking. Granted, I did have some instructions written on the board, but I didn’t talk the whole day (actually, two days). The kids had to respect me and my miming instructions, otherwise they didn’t know what was going on. They tried asking me questions, and I tried croaking out answers, but when they heard how little voice I actually had, they’d tell me, “oops! I’ll just ask my neighbor.” Like actual games of charades, usually one or two kids would shout out (and translate) what they thought I meant, and the others would catch on. Okay, I had some problems miming “stoichiometry” and “freezing point depression,” but the drama kids helped me out and since the kids had a worksheet or project in front of them, I could point to what they were working on, and they’d get the idea. The strangest part was that while they worked, it was near-pin-drop-silent, although they had no restrictions from me on their noise levels (and I couldn’t tell them to be quiet, even if I wanted to).

For them, it was kind of a game, figuring out what was happening (who doesn’t like watching someone else do charades and jump around the room?), and for me, it was awesome to have that kind of respect from my students. It also showed me what kind of respect they had for each other.

Watching My Words

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Cliches are like chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get (but you can guess based on the person giving it to you).

While working on renewing my teaching license, I’ve started to realize just how much jargon is in the education profession. And not really jargon (since the definition of jargon doesn’t exactly fit here because a lot of non-educators use it), but buzzwords liberally inhabit our professional culture. I think, however, the scope of these words is mostly limited to professional development situations, resumes, and political organizations and isn’t found during class time. That being said, teachers need a lot of terminology to describe what they do, at least so their administrators can tell anxious parents that yes, the staff does provide CCSS-aligned differentiated inquiry-based flipped-classroom educational services.

And buzzwords are confusing. They’re supposed to mean particular techniques or methodologies, but can (have to?) be tweaked into a teacher’s own personality and classroom situation to fit teachers’ and students’ personalities.

With that, I’ve started a page of education lexicon (also linked above). Use it for translating political language, resumes, or for a starting point into the terms themselves. I am not judging the efficacy of any of these terms or topics, I’m just listing items that I have found.

Post more terms below (if you have an informative link to go with it, so much the better!) I know I’ve missed some obvious ones, because they’re so ingrained in my own vocabulary. I’d love for this to be a more-or-less permanent glossary.