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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.

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?

“I CHARGE Thee!”

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Last night, I saw Neil deGrasse Tyson in person!IMG_2219

Amazing lecture about the intersections and interactions of science and world events/thinking. Super cool ideas about introducing periodic table via historical context (which I’ve wanted to do for a while, but haven’t pieced together).

Afterward, he had a Q&A. I got up and asked him a question (although I figured mentioning my blog was kinda tacky and/or stalker-y, so that didn’t come up). My audio’s not very clear, but I asked him, “How can I keep my students interested past the explosions?”

I have been CHARGED!

The Unexpected: Vaccines

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Last week, a friend pointed me to a link. The Gates Foundation is having a social media summit with Bill Nye about their work with vaccines. So I filled out the application.

They accepted me!

What would you want to ask of Bill (Gates or Nye… or Melinda, for that matter) if you could go??

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?

Thinking Is Hard (When You Tell Me What to Do)

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I like to think of myself as a fairly calm and rational person, but there’s a few things that really set me off:

“Science is hard.”

No, it’s not. Mythbusters says so. It’s the story behind the science that may be hard.

I drew this at the beginning of the school year. I don’t remember why. But this is how school often feels to people:


Maybe I should make it my background.

And while I was good at school, I hated memorizing lists and vocabulary (and I am still terrible at remembering names and dates). It’s just not 1. interesting, and 2. meaningful. One teacher called standardized tests “bulimic learning,” because you take in massive amounts of facts, regurgitate it all, and forget it immediately. (Sorry for the graphic nature of that last sentence.)

I taped a quote above my desk:

I am always ready to learn although I do not always like being taught. — Winston Churchill

The reason I’ve been uncomfortable with a couple of sections of my curriculum is that it’s very mechanical and boring; I need (really, my students need) a better story. The reason I hate teaching empirical formula calculations is that it’s not very useful now that lab equipment does the detection and even some identification automatically, and students won’t need this stuff unless they take college placement tests.

There’s a big mental shift between doing calculations mechanically and explaining why it all worked. This conversation (of which similar versions have floated around the math Twitter community lately, regarding algebra, geometry, and calculus curricula) is starting to congeal some ideas I’ve had all year. There’s a question about the depth versus the breadth of the material covered in any classroom.

So where do you draw the line? Teaching chemistry, which isn’t on state tests, I have the luxury of relatively little external pressure (however, there are still elements of chem in the NGSS, although those standards are nebulous enough to get by with a physical science course, rather than a full-blown chemistry course). However, I feel the pressure of potential colleges: if it says “chemistry” on my students’ transcripts, I assume the college thinks I covered particular topics. I feel obligated to give my students what I consider a first-year chemistry course, with chemical reactions, balancing equations, sig figs, moles, and stoich. But all of that is mostly mechanical, and frankly, not very interesting. It also lulls students into thinking that calculations will always be presented in a particular way. They have little to no knowledge as to what they’re actually calculating or why they should care.

After my fantastic class yesterday, I feel obligated to change, not what I’m doing, but how I’m doing it.

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.

What’s The Problem?: Fortune Fish

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Act 1: Observations and Hook
Have you seen these before?

The writing didn’t focus well. It reads:
Place Fish in palm of hand and its movements will indicate
Moving Head … Jealousy
Moving Tail … Indifference
Moving Head and Tail … In Love
Curling Sides … Fickle
Turns Over … False
Motionless … Dead One
Curls Up Entirely … Passionate

Act 2: Questions, Possibilities, Resources

  • What happened?
  • Why?
  • What’s the fish made of?
  • Does it have to be red?
  • What might make it curl versus merely move?
  • Here’s what happens when hands are rubbed together first:
  • Here’s what happens when the fish is placed on the forearm instead of the palm:
  • Here’s what happens when hand lotion is applied first:

Act 3: Resolution and Continuation

  • What might happen if a person iced their hand before holding the fish?
  • How would a person get a fortune of “dead one” or “passionate”?
  • Will it work if you dunk it in a fish tank?
  • Will it work if you put it on a heating pad?
  • Will it work on any part of your dog?
  • What other situations would the fish work?
  • If you stack two, will one or both or neither work?
  • So, what does the fish indicate?
  • Steve Spangler details how the fish works here.

The Female Bill Nye

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Who’s the female version of Bill Nye?

Oh, come on… you know one…

Don’t you? I mean, there must be one out there somewhere. Right?

Apparently, there’s not. Dr. Sten Odenwald on HuffPo says there aren’t any female science promoters. And then he looks for significant women in history.

I think that’s the wrong comparison.

The women he mentions, including Rachel Carson and Jane Goodall, didn’t seek fame: they were doing research that they wanted to be popular, trying to promote particular agendas that were acceptable to the public. They were not necessarily the greatest minds of the day or even of their time, however important their research. And Albert Einstein, perhaps the best scientific mind ever, was not a science promoter. When you think of the-next-Einstein, you don’t think of Neil deGrasse Tyson. The current best science promoter may, however, be Dr. Tyson. This title of science promoter… it’s not about intellect. I mean, PhDs sure don’t grow on trees, and I fully respect the people who have earned the title of Doctor. But their fame has to do with the particular fields these people are known for. Carson will be known for Silent Spring, Goodall for chimpanzees, Einstein will be associated with relativity, and Dr. Tyson will be associated with killing off Pluto and harassing Jon Stewart over the direction of The Daily Show’s turning planet.

There are a lot of female science promoters out there, if you know where to look. Besides I F*ing Love Science by Elise Andrew and Brain Pickings by Maria Popova, there’s The Brain Scoop by Emily Graslie. Ms. Graslie gives, what I think is a pretty good reason for not having many female popularizers in Where My Ladies At?, where she describes the marginalization of her videos’ content by commenters who apparently only care about her looks and denial of her skills and knowledge:

(I’ve written of my lunch-date-love for Ms. Graslie already.) I think that’s also why a number of women who do write about science choose to not have their own names associated with their channels/handles/columns. It’s a desire to be taken seriously. It’s, frankly, one of the reasons I chose a non-gendered title for my own handle.

But the problem lies more in this: the idea that online and in real life, women aren’t taken as seriously as men, especially in business and STEM-related fields. A few days ago, the NYTimes just posted an advice for how women should negotiate for a raise in the workplace. Even hiring women in the first place isn’t so easy. I, sadly, don’t have many women in my own science/math lists, but a decent number in the education lists. What that says about gender ratios in those fields, or who I read, or whether I also (unconsciously) prefer, I’m not entirely sure.

And why do we need another Bill Nye anyway? Absolutely nothing against Bill Nye, but I’m going to guess that whoever fills those fantastic kid-enthralling-shoes is going to want his/her own legacy.

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:


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:


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):


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):


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?


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


Ahhhhh… that’s better.


  • 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.


  • 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…