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.

Left Side Processing Examples

The structure of the notebook is very specific, which I really love. Right-side pages are "teacher-input" which can be lecture notes, lab procedures, reading assignments, etc.

The left-side pages are intended to be creative, student-driven assignments that process the material on the right. So, each left/right side pair is linked in content.

Over the course of the year, my processing activities became more mundane and worksheet heavy. Next year, I want to challenge myself to make those processing activities really strong and give students an opportunity to be really creative and use their unique voices.

Some of my creative processing activities from the past year appear below, with an explanation of the linked content on the left-side page.

Right-side teacher input: Students observed a teacher-directed demo called elephant's toothpaste (hydrogen peroxide and potassium iodide, very
exothermic!). Students practiced making high-quality, scientific observations.

Left-side assignment: Write two questions you have about the demonstration. Sometimes this experiment is called elephant's toothpaste, and sometimes this is called Old Foamy. Give this experiment a new name and illustrate the name with at least four colors.

Right-side teacher input: Cornell notes on solutions.

Left-side assignment: Frayer models, a fairly common vocabulary strategy that I love. I pre-cut colored paper to make this a little more exciting.

Paper is divided into four sections. The vocabulary word goes in the middle. In the quadrants, students fill in: the definition, another gets characteristics, examples, and a picture.

I've seen multiple variations on this model (also multiple spellings... Is it Frayer? Or Freyer?). I will sometimes do definition, picture, examples, and non-examples depending on the word.

Right-side teacher input: Cornell notes on mixtures.

Left-side assignment: The only foldable I did all year. I'm not a huge fan of foldables, but I learned this at the CAST conference and it was too awesome and perfect.

One piece of paper folded in half, then cut three strips and label with heterogeneous mixture, homogeneous mixture, and pure substances. On the inside, include the definition, and example, and a picture.

My favorite part: underneath the "pure substances" flap are two additional flaps! One for element and one for compound. Very clever. Inside these flaps, include a definition, an example, and a picture.

Other assignments I have not done but want to try next year include: haikus, acrostic poems, comics, cartoons and songs. One idea a colleague and I had while brainstorming was to choose 8-10 creative assignments and teach these over the course of the first unit in the year. Then create a wall in your classroom with each of these assignments displayed with the guidelines for each. As you get to a left-side processing page and all of these creative assignments have already been taught and practiced, you can start to allow student choice by saying "choose a creative assignment from the wall" or "choose from these 3 options." That way, students are still processing creatively but there is more freedom of choice.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Tape vs. Glue vs. Staples

Attaching pages to the notebook was a daily occurrence in my class. I have read on other blogs that claim it's best to have students attach as many pages as possible at one time, but my planning was never far enough in advance to have students attach pages for multiple lessons at one time. (I read about one rockstar teacher who has students attach all the pages for a semester during the first day of school. Fabulous! I hope to get to that point soon.)

The entrance procedure for my class was:
  1. Read the sign outside my door, which communicates the number of handouts and supplies needing to be picked up from the supply table (located inside the door as you walk in)
  2. Pick up the handouts and supplies and sit in assigned seat
  3. Update table of contents (my example was projected on the screen using a document camera)
  4. Attach handouts to appropriate pages using the glue picked up from the supply table
Step 4 is where the flow broke down for me during the first few weeks of class. Glue sticks were a source of anxiety: will I have enough glue sticks?; will the glue last long enough?; how will I afford to buy more if it isn't on sale?.

I also learned quickly that students needed to be taught how to glue. Yes, I taught 10th grade and yes, they have experience gluing but no, that gluing was not uniform and was causing me stress! The lack of uniformity in gluing caused a number of challenges:
  1. Some students took forever to glue because they methodically (slowly) covered the entire page in glue.
  2. Some students glued extremely quickly. This posed two problems: they wasted time waiting for other students to finish and their pages started to fall out due to lack of appropriate adhesive.
  3. Some students refused to use glue (they claimed aversion to stickiness) and spent precious moments in search of a stapler or waiting for a student to finish using the stapler.
  4. Some students preferred tape, and like the staple-preference students, spent time looking/waiting for the tape dispenser. If tape dispenser was empty, chaos ensued.
So I taught a short lesson on gluing. I taught my students to use their glue properly: a rectangle around the border of the page and a giant X in the middle. I demonstrated and modeled this, then enforced it with an iron fist.

I still had tape and staple hold-outs. I purchased more staplers and more tape dispensers, and put these on the supply table. I had a deal with a small group of glue stick protesters: if you pick up your page-attaching tool of choice from the supply table as you walk into class, and if you can attach pages quickly and efficiently using your preferred method, then I won't force you to use glue.

Most anxiety was alleviated by these solutions. But I'm still hoping to get to a point where we attach all handouts for an entire unit in one sitting.

Using the Notebook for Lab Investigations

During unit 1 last year, students investigated the relationship between mass applied to a rubber band and length of stretch. Goals for the lab were: practice writing a testable hypothesis, use a ruler to accurately measure length, graph data properly, and communicate a valid conclusion supported by experimental results.

The lab I created did not necessarily fit into the right-side/left-side notebook structure. On the right side of the notebook, students wrote a hypothesis, recorded their data, and illustrated the experimental set-up. After the lab, students took notes on a few key vocabulary terms (independent variable/dependent variable).

This right hand page, which is supposed to be teacher input, was actually a student-written hypothesis, student-collected data, and student-created illustration. The cornell notes on vocabulary and graphing guidelines were the only teacher-driven item on this page.

This specific layout seemed to work well for this lab activity. On the left-hand page, students created a graph of their data and wrote a conclusion.

While this is a type of processing activity, it isn't one of the most creative assignments I've seen for a left-hand page (A colleague of mine has had students write acrostic poems and haikus as concise conclusions to a lab).

I'd like to think through ways to make this particular lab stronger. Modification for next year in physics - students could complete the lab investigation on the left side first, and then on the right side page record teacher-guided notes on whether or not a rubber band obeys Hooke's Law.

This modification raises more questions:
  • Shouldn't students arrive at the conclusion about Hooke's Law on their own, rather than during a teacher-guided lecture?
  • Is there any portion of this lab investigation that should be teacher-directed?
  • Was the notebook set-up for this lab last year a strong way to structure the activity?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

First Homework Assignment

As students entered my class on the first day, the desks were identified by a letter (index cards were taped to the desks, and I handed out a letter as students walked through the door). This process randomized seating and scattered students around the room. Presumably, they walked to class with a friend, and if they filed in the door together, they would strategically be given letters across the room from each other.

Also included on their desk assignment were three numbers which corresponded to sections of the class syllabus (written of the back of their index card). And therefore, their first homework assignment was randomly assigned. The requirements were: illustrate three assigned sections of the syllabus and include at least four colors.

On the right side of the notebook (page 3), students stapled the syllabus. On the left side of the notebook (page 2), students completed their illustrations.

This represents the two sides of the notebook: the right side is teacher input, in this case the syllabus which I wrote; the left side is student output, in this case colorful illustrations to represent a specific syllabus section.

My first goal for this assignment was to start the course with homework on the first day, to get students in the habit of completing homework during each class meeting. My second goal was for students to be familiar with the syllabus by reading at least three sections (I'm sure students were so intrigued and enthralled by those three sections, that they continued to read the syllabus in its entirety).

On the second day of class, I put students into small groups of four. Each student presented their illustrations to the group and explained their assigned syllabus section. This was an opportunity to introduce and enforce expectations for collaborative work.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Maintaining the Table of Contents

At the beginning of each unit of study, my students started a new table of contents. The format appears below.

I organized the table of contents the way I was taught to do so - with right and left sides to chronicle the different types of assignments present in the notebook. Also included: the title of the unit and dates.

Everyday when students entered class, my example table of contents was projected on the board (using a document camera and LCD projector). Their first task was to update their own table of contents, then attach handouts or set-up cornell notes appropriately.

On the end of year survey, a student gave some excellent feedback regarding this set-up. She suggested a main table of contents at the beginning of the notebook to outline each of the subsections. This idea is worth thinking through, and definitely something I'm trying to decide on for next year. Another modification for next year - using the table of contents as a tracker. Instead of setting up the table in two columns, I might use one column and then include a far section for "grade earned" by the student on that particular notebook page.

Including a grade earned brings me to my next point about the table of contents. The student example below reveals a check mark and a grade of 100%.

This raises a lot of questions as I reflect on last year's notebook.
  • Why did I give a grade for the table of contents? I won't try to justify giving a grade, because at this point I admit that was a bad idea. I was thinking that giving students a grade for the table of contents would hold them accountable to keeping it maintained and completed.
  • What skill was I assessing for this assignment? Apparently I was assessing the ability to complete a mundane task (copying an example). Bummer.
  • How do I motivate students to maintain a table of contents and how do I enforce non-compliance? I'm still thinking through the answer to this. Suggestions appreciated.
  • Is it really important for students to maintain an organized table of contents? I would argue that yes, the most organized notebooks I saw were ones that included a complete table of contents. I think a student's diligence in completing the main page for the unit was a behavior that stemmed from their intrinsic motivation to comply, perhaps regardless of whether it was graded or not.
  • Why didn't all my students earn 100% for this "assignment"? There is investment and classroom management tied into this answer. Not all of my students were invested in my class and in using the notebook. Unfortunately, I failed to effectively portray the purpose and usefulness of the notebook to that group of students. Also unfortunately, I often assumed that if a student was starting to glue in handouts, then they of course must have already updated their table of contents. Not exactly.
There are many things to think about as I structure next year's table of contents. I plan to spend more effort on investing students in using the notebook and explaining its purpose. Possibilities include: posting my example on a class website (or on a bulletin board in my classroom) and allowing students to maintain the table of contents for homework or printing and copying a table of contents "tracker" and essentially doing the table of contents for students (I prefer the former).

Monday, June 7, 2010

Science Notebook Covers

Last year, I tried using an interactive notebook for 10th grade chemistry. On the first day of class, students were responsible for creating the cover for their notebook. The requirements were: at least four colors, first and last name, and three creative pictures that represent your personality/goals/interests.

I created an example to demonstrate my expectations for the assignment. My example appears below (with a full year of wear and tear).

By including a photograph on my own notebook, a lot of students followed this lead and included pictures of family and friends. It may seem like an expendable assignment for high school students, but I definitely plan to do the same next year. The notebook covers gave insight into my students' personal lives, and allowed me to learn even more about them as people outside the classroom.