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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.

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On Sorta Being Part of the #MTBoS

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Five (!!) years ago, I was working in a space that didn’t match well with what I believed I should, as a chemistry teacher, be doing. For the record, I don’t think that school is doing education poorly, but it (and I) had changed over the time I’d spent there. I felt stuck, demoralized, and thought about quitting. I needed a place to explore my professional work as well as to get inspired again. My husband suggested my new handle, and I started this blog. 

I searched for blogs of chemistry teachers, and found very few that were active. But I found this math guy, who was thinking about teaching. And this guy had some pretty faithful followers, who also thought about teaching. This was my gateway back to being involved

As I lurked (and religiously read every post and comment), I became familiar with some frequent names. Their exquisite mental work on how teaching could work in the classroom (beyond the theoretical) was deeply fascinating, optimistic, and supportive, even when disagreeing. They could suggest hypotheticals and explore the intricacies without hints of malice or derision: exploring of any ideas was practically required. Most importantly for me, these names started to sound like old friends and the teachers I wanted and needed to hang out with, even though I had never met them. This was the PD I needed. 

So when someone posted the Math-Twitter Blogosphere and issued challenges, I told my husband that I (the Technophobe) had a digital thing to do, and took some time in crafting some entries, responding to others’ posts, and starting this wacky thing called Twitter. I wasn’t disappointed. Even though I’m not A Math Teacher, sciences are pretty close (I’m of the mind that any teacher can benefit from watching other teachers work their skills). I was welcomed into the fold. 

I’ve borrowed activities, lab ideas, and classroom techniques liberally from countless teachers; learned new ways to calm myself, tried crafty things from a math/analysis perspective, and thought about beauty in images; and I’ve also given back in terms of my own techniques and advice. The sheer number of good teachers who not only want to improve their own teaching, but actively help others also improve, in one small (virtual) space is staggering. And there’s no expectation of publications, excessive praise, or monetary returns. Instead, there’s supportive smacktalk. This, for me, is what the #MTBoS embodies and why I’d be sad to see it go. I even thought about getting a math certification, in no small part so that I’d have a better justification for attending Twitter Math Camp in the summer. 
There have been mentions of cliques, and I’d agree that, yes, there are cliques in the #MTBoS. I don’t think it’s any different from other channels, where there’s a few dominant voices. Unlike some channels I’ve visited, I don’t believe there’s intentional exclusion of newcomers, but just as it is in high school hallways, it’s hard to break into conversations between people who are already real-live-in-person-friends. 

As far as changing the hashtag, there’s some pretty serious blow-back. I think one of the reasons to this defensive stance is that it felt like A Grown Up told The Clique to not talk to each other. That doesn’t go over well in middle/high school, and generally doesn’t work. Also, other hashtags (labels, really) don’t encompass the same group of people. I do not teach math (although I still want to re-learn calculus… it has been so long!), I do (heart) math, but that’s not what the questions are about. Many teachers do a combination of math and something else (two of our science teachers also do math). 

But license-endorsements aside, the #MTBoS isn’t really about math: collegiality in teaching (that’s mostly math-class-related) is what I see as a mostly-outlier. I’m proud to be an honorary #MTBoS member. 

Day 36: Fake Out

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Day 36/180: Lab not really due, workday

I’d been told to project the due date for the formal lab report a day early so that kids would actually do it. I don’t like deceptive tactics like this because it really stressed out a bunch of kids; on the other hand, many only had a few sentences written, so it didn’t work anyway. It was also pretty easy to predict which kids were in those two camps. Perhaps the ones who only had a few lines will actually get something done, and hopefully the usually-on-task-anyway kids can cope with the stress and now-minimal work for the weekend.

I did get to help some of the really struggling kids. It’s nice that they want to get help during class, but a few who swear up and down that they’ll come in outside of class, just haven’t.

There’s always these few kids in every class, it seems, and I’m doing my best to keep them on top of things. At what point is it out of my hands and now in theirs?

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?

Titration Experimentation

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It’s rare for Seattle to have beautiful weather, but this week has been gorgeous. What better way to spend all of class outside, than to measure titrate unknown acids?? ***


I’m generally of the mind that kids can do a lot more than what people allow them to do. It’s why my husband and I are teaching our nearly-3-year-old to chop vegetables with a kitchen knife (supervised, of course), and really like Gever Tulley‘s ideas.

So when one of my students, who has a penchant for performing his own experiments, found an old bottle of muriatic acid in a dark corner of a barn (I didn’t ask), and he asked what the label meant by “35%” strength, I figured it was actually an opportunity.

Having just gone through a unit on acids and bases, we went through the whole shebang of performing titrations: neutralization, choosing appropriate reactants, balancing equations, titration procedures, using indicators, calculating molarities, and (of course) safety measures. Students here aren’t often trusted with the one nice, glass buret (which I think is ridiculous, and, frankly, I didn’t trust plastic for this particular titration).

So after performing a more controlled titration on Tuesday, my students decided that this new titration should be done outside, on a lab table, upwind, and with limited amounts of acid. I approved their procedure, including choices of base and indicator, and they impressed me with their careful handling of materials and glassware and chemicals, as well as careful measurements and each taking a turn with the pipette and buret (even the extra-timid student!). All three trials lead to pretty tight data. Their assignment is to calculate the acid molarity for each trial, and give an average.

In addition to this awesomeness, the neutralization produced a visible precipitate, so they wanted to crystallize it to see if it has the properties (thank you, introduction to the CRC Handbook!) of the predicted salt. I might even throw some stoich/limiting reagents in there to see how much salt should have been generated. For the record, I’ve no idea if crystallizing will work, or if the indicator or impurities will get in the way or something.

For me, this is the best day of the year so far: we covered all of the year’s major “chemistry” topics in about 75 minutes, and it was mostly student-generated. Even better, we’ll have another day (at least!) with more of their questions and ideas.


*** Important note: I don’t generally blog about my current students. Teaching individually means that people could potentially identify them very easily/quickly, and I don’t want that problem. Today, however, my class really, really impressed me!

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.

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.