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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?

Day 108: Physics Subbing

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Day 108/180: subbing for a short day in physics

The sub assignment said math, but it was physics instead. No problem! I’ve seen versions of the one-battery-bulb-wire lab before. It was fun to see it in action. I also love watching normal classroom routines. It’s May, so every classroom knows what they’re to do with “warm ups” and “work in groups”. Expectations, when engrained, work so smoothly. I liked that they were to work together, but individually explain portions to other people and collect signatures. This worked pretty well, although a few kids just asked for anyone to sign their lab notebooks. Those who took it more seriously created some interesting dialogs about experiments, and even caught some mistakes between groups.

Teachers: For your subs, please list your schedule for the day, even if it’s a normal-schedule day. It’s good for subs to know, especially when it’s an alternating schedule.

Day 103: Chemistry Subbing

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Day 103/180: Chemistry and physical science subbing

One of the frustrating things about being a sub is not always knowing exactly what you’re assigned to. Through the online sub system, I can pick the assignments I want, and I aim for the math and science classes because I know many other subs can’t do them (and frankly, I feel somewhat incompetent in other disciplines). But there’s a pretty big difference between prep for, say, geometry and algebra… or chemistry and biology. Not that I have the same kind of prep as a normal classroom teacher, but I like to be somewhat prepared.

After I picked up my folder and went to my assigned room (chemistry! hooray!), an announcement told all teachers to read an email regarding the 16 absent teachers and to check for period coverage assignments. The chemistry classes were just taking unit tests, so I got to proctor most of the day. I also covered an extra class of physical science, where there were no lesson plans and I couldn’t get hold of another teacher. A para-educator, who’d written down homework for his student, gave me what the kids were supposed to work on.

Had an interesting conversation with the para-ed. Finally got to talk to an adult during the school day.

It was also a Day of Silence for kids in ASL. Strange how they were totally silent with me, but not-so-quiet with their peers. I guess friends don’t count as talking (which is pretty funny in an all-text-all-the-time environment).

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 99: Half Physics

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Day 99/180: subbing for physics in the afternoon

Physics in the afternoon, especially on a nice, sunny day, is hard. Good thing that the kids were generally good and mostly focused. Studying gravity, the students had to work through a sheet and a PHeT planetary system simulation. It really helps a sub to know what the goals of the worksheet are, so as to better guide the kids. I didn’t do a good job of guiding the first class (and they weren’t very interested in listening to me, either). The second and third classes went better.

Day 90: Physics Subbing

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Day 90/180: subbing for physics, physical science, and study skills

Today, I subbed for science in the last of the “neighborhood” (non-lottery-based choice) high schools. Good kids (either I’ve so far lucked out in the good-kid-department while subbing, or I’m pretty tolerant of things, or they’re all playing nice with me, or…??). I really should try to learn physics again. I was always able to get the concepts, and I could also do the math, but somehow, putting those two things together was really challenging for me. My free-body diagrams always had too many arrows, and the math I thought I needed was usually excessive. No wonder I was relieved to have chemistry!

I’m still amazed that going to the staff lunchroom is so solitary. Only once has anyone ever asked who I was, or who I was subbing for. I know that there’s lots of little sub-groups for lunch, as well as down-time, but I’m not sure people recognized me as not-staff. Is the staff so disconnected that they don’t recognize new faces? Too shy to ask me? Or is it my responsibility to introduce myself to everyone?

Day 89: Middle School Subbing

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Day 89/180: subbing for middle school science

Middle school isn’t really my thing. I much prefer nearly-adult-persons with nearly-adult-faculties-and-decision-making-abilities. While each class took a quiz, I got to observe them and see how much Earth science I’ve forgotten review Earth science. I do like a good volcano and earthquake study.

It was hard to tell much about the kids, other than they were generally good. What I did like was the school. It’s a choice school, part of the public system. But it just felt… friendly. Coat hooks were in the hallway, not in lockers, and kids could even leave bags without fear of stuff getting stolen. This was the first staff room that actually had people in it during lunch (and someone’s birthday meant cake!) Atmosphere in a building, whether it’s school or household or workplace or museum or whatever, makes a big difference in people’s experience while present in that environment.

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…

Day 80: Daily Sub Duties

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Day 80/180: Things a Daily Sub Should Do

I got to sub for a science teacher today. Got to see a few of my old kids too. Getting hugs when I go to work is totally addictive!

I’ve already written my advice on Things A Long-Term Sub Should Do, so here’s a contrast with what a daily sub should do.

You know you have to take attendance and maintain some amount of order. But please also familiarize yourself with the classroom. Know where the following are located: extra pens/pencils, the sharpener, hall passes, tissues, and paper towels (especially if you’re in a science room). Also know where emergency plans and medical information is, as well as what you do in the event. Also, get to class early enough so that you can figure out where supplies are for today’s assignments and/or how to log onto a computer or work the video player (leave enough time before class to ask neighboring teachers for help, if necessary).

Do write your name on the board. It’s cliche, but helpful.

Go through the sub notes, and have a notion of what students should be doing. Even if you’re not knowledgable in the subject area, know whether they should be taking notes, cutting out paper slips, or searching the web. This also give you something to ask kids about: “Hey, how’s that diagram going?” And it keeps them on-track too. Especially know when this thing is due.

Give students the goals for the period at the beginning. “Your teacher says you should be able to finish most of this today.” “Check the online assignments for more info.” “You’re to finish through problem 18 today, in class or for homework.”

Don’t help kids too much. Just as if this were your normal classroom, you shouldn’t be doing the work for the students.

Consider giving yourself some cred, if you do know something about the subject. “I don’t usually teach math, but I do teach science, so if you need some help, let me know.” They may take you up on the offer.

Leave comments for the classroom teacher on a class-by-class basis. Note anywhere kids had difficulty, or were confused. Also note anything you did that might be out of the ordinary or not on the lesson plan.

Remember good behavior as well as misbehavior. Strange inside jokes are funny too. I still remember when I was in a high school, and we’d all finished the assignment early. The sub just listened while we talked about how hungry we were and where to go for some really good Mexican food. The next day, our teacher asked us what the sub meant by “very well-informed class”.

Thank the classroom teacher for letting you sub. Remember that many systems can allow teachers to request you, as well as request not-you! Leave a business card, especially if your name is spelled strangely.

What’s in a Lab Credit?

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My son is three, and we just had a teacher conference with his teacher. Strange for a preschool, perhaps, but I appreciate hearing what his strengths and weaknesses are. Since they have one, I asked what they had been doing recently in their science curriculum, and she said that it’s hard to work in science with all of the writing and numbers practice. While I disagree with her bias (and, probably, she with mine), I think it’s a real wasted opportunity to not encourage curiosity for a bunch of three-year-olds. (They’ve also made the science updates a lot more prominent since I asked.)

I’m not an elementary school teacher, but the (little) science I remember doing was doing science. Playing with circuits, crushing stuff, watching bugs and caterpillars, and pouring liquids together. Then in middle school, it was still mostly lab-based: dissections (not my favorite), pinning and labeling insects, making a scale model of the universe, Rube Goldberg contraptions, a sludge lab. In high school, there were a lot of notes to take, worksheets to fill out, and some more labs. I strangely don’t remember the labs nearly as well as when I was younger. Labs suddenly had particular aims in mind, and heaven help your grade if you missed what it was supposed to mean to you, rather than the lab making an impression on the student.

And we wonder why high school kids aren’t curious about science anymore. So when is the curiosity supposed to be turned off in favor of merely hearing about science? And why are the labs that count on transcripts not the ones that count in a person’s head?

It’s that time of year when some Seniors start to get nervous about the numbers of credits they have versus the number they need to graduate. I haven’t done extensive research on grad requirements, but from what I’ve seen, students have to take 2-3 credits in science, and 1-2 of them have to be lab-based (more, if they’re college-bound). I don’t have a problem with requiring a certain number of credits to graduate. I’m a little mystified, however, about the distinction between science credits and lab science credits.

I know there’s a few courses that can’t actually have labs because of certain limitations, like not having equipment for an organic chemistry lab, or few resources for a hands-on anatomy/physiology course. But take freshman science, often designated as “Physical Science” or “General Science”. It doesn’t usually count as a lab credit, only as a science credit. I’ve never understood this. What is going on in those classes, if not labs? The kids in those classes are supposed to be learning lab techniques and how-to-do-science. Are they sitting in place and hearing about science rather than doing? I stuffed as many labs as I could into my freshman science course (the last thing I wanted was 36 bored freshmen in a single room). And they didn’t get lab credit for my course. I know teachers who don’t do labs because they take too long or the students might screw up and get the wrong answer. Kids also get answers wrong on worksheets, so we should stop assigning worksheets, right? Maybe I’m more mystified about science teachers who don’t actually conduct laboratory courses. And part of my frustration lies in not knowing how to tune my own chemistry classes into meaningful labs (hence, wanting to go to a modeling instruction).

So I’m wondering what’s a lab credit? My state requires 12 labs per year for lab courses (but still no lab-credit-love for general science). And why do biology, chemistry, and physics automatically get the designation? I’m not advocating course audits, but maybe there needs to be something else, some bigger expectation of kids (and teachers and coursework) in high school.