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Giving Them Nothing

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Monday, my chemistry students started their semester final: a three-week, single-partner, no-outside-communication, all-hands-on-deck lab practical. I handed them a stack of papers and told them that I expected to see polished write-ups in three weeks.

Okay, so I don’t give them nothing. They can use virtually anything printed, including their lab notebooks, the textbook, the Internet… Other than people.

But I didn’t tell them exactly how to accomplish the experiments or how to write them up. This is throwing a lot of them for a loop. It’s making them think a little too hard. I had two pairs, who, after pouring a chemical in a beaker and watching it sink to the bottom of a beaker, discuss how to get a chemical to dissolve. After about 5-6 minutes of contemplating various heating implements, acids, and catalysts, I was afraid they were going to actually hurt themselves: I handed them a glass stir rod.

But the thing is, as I struggle to not talk or nudge kids in particular directions (which makes me think about how much/little I do during the rest of the year), they’re realizing how much they rely on being told what to do. They’re finally thinking about what to do rather than what I say. And to do this, they have to ask questions of themselves (and their partners).

I’m starting to think about how to give more goals, give fewer questions. It’s kind of a riff off of Dan Meyer talking about removing questions from textbook problems to make things more interesting/compelling/think-y. [Hmmm… curriculua as a state function? Many paths to get to the end?]

Cross-posted to Better Qs…

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.

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.

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?

Portfolio Day

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Because I work at a private school, we don’t have to worry about the latest version of the standardized tests. Instead, we have our Seniors do something much more meaningful: Portfolios.


Each of these 3-ring binders is the culmination of years of work. They should contain good-quality work samples from each core subject (and anything else they want to add, such as contestant numbers from ski racing or pictures of dance recitals or photos of sculptures). All of the academic awards they’ve received in their high school career are in another section. And there are two essays. One on their school experience thus far (for better or for worse), and one is on future goals of some sort. The rules to these essays are pretty loose, other than the title, but many of our students finally realize what a different experience they’ve had in our alternative environment. Teachers are required to read through all of the stuff in those binders and make comments (some say “love notes”) to students, which get tucked into the binders.

And Tuesday is Portfolio Day. It actually has nothing to do with the paper part of this Senior assignment. Each kid has to give a 20-30 minute talk on something — anything! — to three teachers (or more) of their choice. Parents and friends can come, if they’re invited. I’ve seen talks on how to be a good athletic coach, rebuilding antique tractors, the physics of a Van de Graaff generator, the current fashion outlook for New York, student-composed songs, and hand-made dolls. After the talks and a quick Q&A, the kids get their binders back with the teacher comments, there’s often hugs or pictures, and they go skipping away.

The most amazing part of the whole thing is that although we teach one-on-one and I know what these kids do, I haven’t seen them doing it until many of these talks. Despite nerves, the kids are usually pretty comfortable (in their element) and things go really well, they get onto strange and cool tangents, and I see whole other sides of kids that I didn’t know about before. Makes me kinda sad to not be able to talk further with them.

I’m looking forward to Tuesday.

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.

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.

Goals: New vs. Veteran

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When I finished my teacher prep program and was working through my first teaching job at a large public school, I suddenly remembered pulling all-nighters in college. And I hated grading. And planning was crazy. And learning all of the stuff at school, including what kinds of resources were there, and who to ask for what, and who to not ask for what, and how to order lab supplies, and what an evaluation really means, and how the union worked (and lots to think about with the narrowly-avoiding-a-strike negotiations), and salaries, and… oh yeah… the kids. Being in class was actually calmer and more fun than being outside of class, and I loved it.

I’d been told that the first year is mostly about survival. Just make it through. I’d had a good feeling because I’d taken copies of worksheets (and therefore, a rough curriculum guide) from two teachers while student teaching. But merely having a curriculum didn’t prepare me for all of the issues at hand.

This year has been rough for a number of reasons. Some are personal, but in addition to teaching my normal load of kids, I’m also working on renewing my teaching license and trying to combat the teaching sloth that I’ve felt recently, as well as a general degree of negativity. Oh yeah, and spend time with my family and take care of myself. It’s a hard balance, but this year feels a lot more productive than the last couple.

So here’s my question: when does it shift from merely surviving to thriving? What’s the thing that makes you (as a professional) get beyond the challenges of day-to-day junk, and transform into the teacher you want to be?

Getting My License

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Actually, I already have my teaching license. In two states. And I have to renew it. In two states. At different times. And in different intervals of years. And the procedure is different for each state. And the fee is different for each state. And the process to get each in the first place is also different.

So that’s not a pain or anything.

It does no good to grumble about it: I don’t have control over the states’ requirements, I only have to follow them. And I thought about going through the National Boards program (NBCT), but I don’t have a class of 6+ kids needed to do the test/experiment thing. Plus, it’s apparently shutting down temporarily. (Side-note: I have to say, when I called the NBCT hotline, the woman on the other end was fantastic, and we ended up chatting for more than half an hour about teaching and stuff.)

The reason I’m keeping the first state’s license? It’s stronger; that is, if I move, it’s more likely to get me a new license in the new state. My current state’s license may or may not do that. It seems like each state thinks their license process is the best, so no licenses actually transfer across state lines very well.

Here’s what I do mind: I’ve got the top license for one state, and it doesn’t translate to the top license in another state. And if I move again, I’ll most likely have to work through even more licensing procedures in the next state. I don’t mind doing professional development: it’s something, as a professional, I should be doing anyway. I do mind jumping through more hoops to prove that I can jump through hoops in a different state.

Group Work Rubric

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Justin Aion (also @JustinAion) wanted a rubric for class conduct. Explaining it over Twitter was fairly ridiculous, so here it is, hopefully a little more clearly.

Ric Long was my Cooperating Teacher when I student-taught in his 6th grade math/science block class. I will admit that I had no desire to teach in a middle school, but he had every single 6th grader wrapped around his finger. He ran a tight ship, and they loved him. One of the things I really liked in his class (but don’t think it’s quite right in a high school setting) was his grading of group work.

The desks in his room were in groups of four, and kids were assigned to new groups every new unit (about every 6 weeks or so). The kids immediately next to each other were partners, and the tables were the groups for group work. Kids were expected to, when working together, only talk to the appropriate people. (Side note: I student-taught in January, and I actually wanted to go back to see how he set up all of these expectations at the beginning of the year.)

During group work, Ric copied a blank seating chart (except for names) and stuck it to a clipboard. While walking around the room and helping kids, he kept an ear out for the following positive and negative behaviors:

  • E = encouragement (kids saying, “good job!” or “hey, that’s a great idea!”)
  • PD = polite disagreement (“no, I don’t think so because…” rather than, “WRONG!”)
  • SOT = staying on task (sometimes great to point out to ADHD kids)
  • SR = good silent reading (lots of quiet kids got this one)
  • PTM = polite transfer of materials (i.e., using please and thank you)
  • SV = small voices (now that I think about it, I think this was actually a positive value of kids using appropriate decibel levels, but it could be declared in the negative value too.)
  • IW = invisible walls (I thought this was genius… if conversations started wandering, Ric helped them draw some invisible walls, force-field style, between parties. Kids could even draw their own invisible walls if neighbors were bothering them.)

This list was posted on the board, so all could see (and aim for it). On the clipboard, Rik made sure to give each kid at least two letter-evaluations (more chances for those having bad days), along with extra verbal praise for kids who have trouble behaving appropriately, had a rough time last time, or need to know that they’re doing well. Good behaviors could also be crossed out (along with verbal acknowledgement/wag-o-the-finger), and kids could choose to re-earn the good letters. When he graded the finished group work papers, he’d give them a grade for the work, as well as points for the behavior chart (5 for one-day work, 10 for a multi-day project). Kids could earn 0’s for poor behavior, but he really tried to work with kids to avoiding it.