Monday, November 29, 2010

Why do we have to learn this?

I recently read a post on a teacher listserve and had such a strong reaction that it inspired me to post on my blog after a long break.

A chemistry teacher was soliciting advice from the members of the listserve on how to answer the question, "Why do we have to learn this?" from a student. Apparently a student turned in a recent quiz without attempting any of the questions and only wrote this sentiment at the top. I understand that this would be incredibly frustrating for a teacher, but the condescension and bitterness in the teacher's post are what struck me most and gave me the push to put my thoughts into writing.

Without addressing the specific chemistry topic (molarity and pH), of which I can think of numerous applications and relevant reasons as to why students must master these concepts, I'd like to address the fundamental question of "why do we have to learn this?"

If we want our students to succeed and we want our students to excel in science, or any subject, the content must feel relevant to their lives at that moment. And we as educators must have a compelling answer as to why it is important to master the concept. If a teacher is unable to articulate the specific reason why a concept is important, then perhaps that teacher should be asking himself or herself why that concept was prioritized in the curriculum.

Science especially lends itself to relevant connections to the everyday world. Chemistry has a profound impact on our daily quality of life including the foods we eat, the reactions taking place in our bodies that keep us alive, the quality of the water we drink and the air we breath, and the way we power our vehicles, homes, and businesses. I'm advocating for a more profound - and respectful - answer to the question, "why do we have to learn this?"

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Timing Activities is My New Favorite Thing

About a week ago in first period, I gave instructions for students to trim then add pages to their notebook. Students took their time, worked at their own pace, and it was a complete disaster. I had allotted about 3 minutes for students to do this, but never communicated that to them, so notebook set-up took more like 8 or 9 minutes. Ineffective use of time.

As I was watching the students work slowly, I realized I had never communicated my expectations for time. During second period, I added to the directions, "you have 3 minutes to complete this and the time starts now." Then I put up a countdown stopwatch from and paced students by announcing the time remaining every 30-45 seconds.

It's amazing how including this visual timer has really improved the pacing of my lessons.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Metric System Concept Map

A few days ago, students completed what could be considered my best processing activity ever planned to date. It was creative, rigorous, and required deep understanding of the topic.

On the right side of their notebook, students recorded notes on relationships between metric units. We practiced with conversions together (if a seat belt is 3 meters long, how many centimeters? how many millimeters?). Students need to be comfortable converting between measured units in the lab and then units required for formulas. They also need to be grounded in a firm understanding of the metric system, and be able to articulate larger than/smaller than comparisons.

I first introduced the assignment with a simple concept map, to illustrate what a concept map is.

The left side processing activity was a concept map with four boxes: kilometer, meter, centimeter, millimeter. Students connected the boxes with ten arrows total: six arrows with larger than/smaller than comparisons, four arrows with conversions (for example, 3 meters = 300 centimeters).

Monday, August 23, 2010

Processing Activity for Tomorrow

I've been tossing around an idea in my mind about the processing activity for tomorrow. One of my goals it to make my processing assignments more creative.

Today we practiced measuring length using a ruler and metric units. Instead of having students measure a bunk of stuff, I used an advertisement as a hook and told students we would be using our measurement skills to test the claim. The package of dinosaur grow capsules says that the dinos will double in size, and we will measure to see if this is true.

Today we took our initial measurements of length and width, and tomorrow students will take their final measurements. My plan for the left-side processing activity is to have students create a colorful, eye-catching advertisement that incorporates their data and makes a true claim.

One of today's challenges was the number of students who seemed annoyed that I was teaching such a basic skill. However, most (almost all) students did not correctly answer the questions on the diagnostic exam. I suppose it would have been wise to share this with them. During guided practice, I did include some common measurement mistakes and ask students to correct them.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Supply Bags for Student Groups

I have a colleague who implemented this system, and it seemed to work really well. I've modified it for my own classroom this year, and will be introducing it this week.

Every day last year, I had students pick up necessary supplies as they walked in the door. The supplies were a bit different each day, but were generally items like glue, scissors, colored pencils, markers, or rulers.

Instead of having students pick up these items as they enter class, each group will share a uniform supply bag containing a wide array of necessary supplies. I even found small, inexpensive pencil sharpeners to alleviate the need to stand up and sharpen during class. At each of my student tables, there is a place for storage which is where the supply bags will stay.

I do have a hesitation about implementing this: How will I monitor theft/destruction of supplies? I might scaffold this system in the beginning, and collect the supply bags at the end of each class (or the day) to do a quick visual check and redirect student behavior based on what I see.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Great teachers come in many forms

While reading an excerpt from The Courage to Teach, I came upon a quote that made me stop to think. The author recounts several anecdotes about teachers and students, adding that the stories "remind [us] of many facts about good teaching: that it comes in many forms, that the imprint of good teachers remain long after the facts they gave us had faded" (22).

I am particularly inspired by the idea that good teaching comes in many forms, because it celebrates the diversity of technique and practice that is present in the classrooms of effective teachers. Even within a highly effective school team, while commonalities are no doubt present, each teacher will likely have a unique style. And that's a good thing.

I'm reminded of a particularly fabulous class I took in college, which by almost all definitions of best practices and buzz words in education, the professor would be deemed terrible. The class met once a week for a lecture with 300+ students, and was held from 7 - 9:50pm. The professor lectured for the entire time, without the use of visual aids or multimedia.

But the class was fabulous, and possibly one of the most engaging courses I've taken in my entire educational career. I'm trying to reflect on why that class was so engaging, and why I still have the notebook from that class that took place over four years ago.

The professor was engaging and charismatic. He shared his personal experiences and made the content come to life. But most of all, the course was relevant and he was knowledgable. Entitled Media, Money, and Power, the class focused on the way corporations controlled media outlets and how general public opinion around current events was formed in deliberate ways by those who had a vested interest in the outcome. He talked about issues we cared about, particularly from a perspective we had never heard before. And while attendance in most college classes typically dwindled as the semester went on, his lecture hall was consistently filled. He didn't enforce attendance by taking it for a grade, or offer pop quizzes to force students to attend lecture. Instead, he provided an incredibly relevant curriculum in an incredibly engaging way.

As I move toward my third year in the classroom, and think about my former students in the past two years, I wonder: will my class be one to remember four years down the road? and how do I make the content so relevant, that students can't wait until the next class? if my class was held in the evening, and attendance was optional, would students show up?

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Feedback from Students

At one point during my teacher training, someone wisely said, "if you want honest and effective feedback, ask your students." I honestly can't remember the context of this advice, or even the person who said it, but I remember my initial thoughts were, "Yes, that's so true! My students are with me day in and day out! For the good lessons and the bad! They are the ones who can tell me how to improve!"

When I read over my students' end-of-year surveys a few weeks ago, my perspective changed. Out of all the surveys that were turned in, I had only a handful of really effective feedback that could be used. I will highlight the others below (teacher question in bold, student response in green).
What was the worst part about the interactive notebook used in science class?
"Carrying it around all the time"
"Too much writing"
"Too much work"
"Don't make us answer questions after a lab. Just do the lab and that's it."

How could the interactive science notebook be improved?
"Taking notes should be optional"
"Stop using cornell notes"
"Don't do writing like the full page conclusions for the labs and stuff"

What changes would you make to this chemistry class to improve the atmosphere or learning environment?
"Let us light stuff on fire and do explosions without goggles."
"No homework."
"We can turn in one lab per group."
"Give us some free days to just sit and talk. Don't do work all the time."

When I read a lot of these surveys, my jaw literally dropped and my mind went blank. Then I thought "Um. Seriously? The overwhelming consensus is less work and more unsafe experiments? How did we travel this far down the wrong path?"

I think there are a lot of different issues tied up in this outcome, mostly stemming from investment in my class. I obviously did not spend enough time investing students in the importance of working hard in chemistry and doing assignments like writing lab conclusions, taking cornell notes, and practicing independently at home. A lot of my students did really well and had really positive gains throughout the year, but did they know why the assignments were important? Many students learned to write great lab conclusions and make strong real-life connections, but did they understand the importance of this task? I need to effectively portray the importance of different assignments and procedures to my students, not just what we are doing in class but why are are doing it.

On the other end of the spectrum, many of the other surveys I received contained some sugary comments about how much students liked me and my class, how they learned so much and were really going to miss me. I suppose these responses are nice for emotional reasons, but have no value as far as improving my practice. These responses make me wonder, "how do I teach students to give effective positive feedback?"

Perhaps these survey responses are also a symptom of a school culture issue. It is challenging to maintain the momentum in a difficult class when other classes have very different expectations.

Overall, I guess it is difficult to expect students to give me effective feedback when I haven't modeled this practice or directly taught it. This year's end-of-year surveys left a lot to be desired, and also a lot of room for improvement in regards to investment.