Sunday, September 29, 2013

Human Dimensional Analysis

This week I decided to #BeBrave and try something I had never done before.

 The whole idea came about on a random Wednesday, when, by 4th hour, I was decidedly grumpy.  I knew I was grumpy, and I didn't want to be grumpy.

 We have been talking a lot about controlled experiments and variables in my class, so I shared with my class my hypothesis: If I stand on the lab desks, then I will be less grumpy.

 And, I jumped on the table top, pencil skirt and all.

There were a ton of variables in my experiment, and it wasn't exactly controlled, but the kids loved it. I taught all hour from on top of their tables, freaking them out when I stepped too close to the edge and making them giggle as I attempted to hop from one table to another in my dress clothes.

Despite the lack of control in the experiment, however, I have to admit that my mood was much better at the end of the hour than at the beginning. And it got me thinking about other ways to incorporate nonsensical fun like this in a legitimate instructional way -- and Human Dimensional Analysis was born.

 I love teaching dimensional analysis because I believe in its power and its ability to help in other areas outside of the chemistry classroom. For those of you who are non-science folks out there, dimensional analysis is basically a slick, no-mess way to convert units--that is, once you learn how to do it.  It can be very messy if you haven't mastered it.  I have had several students go away to college only to return telling me how valuable it is.

In my head I'm all like, "I KNOW...why do you think I spent so much time in class trying to tell you that?",

but in my heart I'm all like, "AWWWWW! I looooooove my job so much!"

and with my mouth I'm all like, "Good!  I'm so glad!"

Anyway, I like teaching it and it's important to me that they get it.  But it's not always easy, and it's an area where there is initially a wide range of ability.  Some students get it after only one short example. Some are totally clueless after 3 days of instruction.  Some saw it in pre-calculus and know it coming into my class.

So, here's what I did this year.

I taught the material like I normally do.  This entails explaining the steps and rationale to my students and going through a couple of examples in detail.

Then, instead of assigning a set of practice problems to work individually, I instead took the practice problems I normally assign and made a post it note for each numerical value that showed up in those problems.

For example, if a problem said, "If you are traveling 108 ft/sec across London Bridge, and the speed limit is 32 km/hr, are you speeding?" I would make the following post-its:

108 ft
1 sec
60 min
1 hr
60 sec
1 min
3.4 ft
1 m
1000 m
1 km

This represents all of the numbers needed for answering this particular question using dimensional analysis.  I did this for a grand total of about 5 questions, ranging from those with only 1 conversion factor to ones like this, which I saved for the end.

I asked students in my first hour to create a sign on 11 x 17 white paper that showed the number value in whatever color marker they wanted and the unit in black.

Along the back wall in my classroom is a countertop that spans the width of the classroom.  I told the students that a number on top of the counter represented the numerator and a number on the floor represented the denominator.

Then we talked about conversion factors.  I asked whoever had the sign with 60 seconds on it to come up to the counter.  I let them choose whether to stand on the ground or on the counter.  Then, I asked for someone who was equal to the 60 s person to also come up.  Of course, the person with 1 minute walked up.  If the 60 seconds person stood on the counter, then the 1 min person stood on the floor.  We talked about why it was okay for them to stand either way, why the numerical value of the conversion factor was actually one, and why it was so important to make sure that two people standing together as a conversion factor were equal to one another.

Then we set up a simple problem.  I asked a student volunteer to read the question.  For example, "Adelai Joy Sharp weighed exactly 7 lbs at birth.  What is her weight in grams?"

Someone out in the crowd had the given.  I decided to include the given because I often see students try to use conversion factors first or put the units for the given in weird places.  So we talked about how the given always goes on top and is not a conversion factor.

Then, we talked about how we would choose the first conversion factor to use by looking at the units of the given.  I asked students to look at the list of their conversion factors to find one that made use of pounds.  We would then get the two members of the 2.2 lbs = 1 kg conversion factor.  We talked through how if the 2.2 lbs person went on the bottom, then the "lb" unit would cancel, which I first started having students show by simply putting their hands over the unit, but eventually moved to folding the paper so that the unit no longer showed.  Then we would continue until the only unit(s) left showing were the ones asked for in the question.
This isn't the best picture, but it gives you the idea...I love the range of facial expressions.

You can't really tell from this picture, but this dimensional analysis reads (from left to right, not including me):

   7 lbs   x   1 kg      x   1000 g 
                 2.2 lbs          1 kg
After about 1 example, they started catching on pretty quick, and students would start getting out of their chairs when they saw that they were needed without me having to lead them too much.  My favorite part of all of this was the students shrieking "YES!" when they were needed and running up to the counter, or students helpfully waving students around from the audience to get their classmates in the right spots.  If a student was a part of the problem, they were excused from doing that one on their paper.  If they weren't a part of it, they were expected to copy it down as it appeared to them from the audience.
Another thing that was cool about this was that it was easy to see how to calculate the answer.  The given was multiplied by anything on top of the counter and divided by anything on the floor.  I think it made it visually simple for them to process.

I loved doing this and I believe the students loved doing it.  It got them up and out of their seats, made use of the bodily-kinesthetic mode of learning (good for a Friday afternoon), and made the hour fly by. It wasn't boring for the students who were already getting it, either. But I also feel that it truly helped the ones who were struggling still.  And while I wouldn't go as far to say that everyone gets it 100%, I think those stragglers now have a huge head start of where they would have been after struggling through one practice problem on their own in the same amount of time.

Finally, I felt empowered because I tried something new.  It wasn't perfect, but it was pretty darn good and definitely a step in the right direction.  It also helped me with my mission to have more fun and provided me with one more piece of evidence to support my hypothesis that standing on desks really does make you less grumpy. :)

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Accountability, Week of 9/16/13

My mission is to 

  • Create a classroom culture where being brave is encouraged, fostered, and deliberately and diligently taught.

  • Create a love and appreciation for science through exploration and discovery.

In order to stay true to my mission this year (even in the throes of the school year, when the novelty of "back to school" is long gone), I have hung a simple form behind my desk that I use to fill in evidence demonstrating my commitment to my mission.  

I hope to reflect on this document weekly.


Week of 9/16/13

I did two things that were fun:

_x___1) Read The Story of Fish and Snail by Deborah Freedman to my juniors

_x___2) Showed Kid President's "Pep Talk to Teachers and Students" for "Feel-Good Friday"

I did two things that encouraged exploration and discovery:

_x___1) Lab: Laboratory Techniques

_x___2) Lab: Make a Solution

I put up a new quote: "Don't wait for extraordinary opportunities.  Seize common occasions and make them great." Orison Swett  Marden

I put up a new joke: Why are ghosts bad liars?  Because you can see right through them!

I put up a new "way to be brave": Make conversation with a stranger.

I put up a new Throwback Thursday sign-up: __x___

I encouraged students to use the brave board:  __I didn't do a very good job of this. :(_


This week marked our first week of "real" labs in both regular and advanced chemistry.  With the new classroom set-up, I'm finding numerous issues that I have to deal with that I didn't need to in the previous arrangement.  But, I'm learning as I go.  It always amazes me how completely clueless the juniors come in as far as being able to operate lab equipment.  I always lose ( them break) about a dozen test tubes, along with several evaporating dishes and a couple of beakers or flasks.  This year, instead of doing a lot of micromanaging, I simply let the students try to figure it out, only intervening when safety was a concern.  It took much longer to complete the lab, but I think overall the students got a lot more out of it this way because they were able to experience and learn from their (many) mistakes.

One of my favorite things about this year so far is my implementation of "Feel-Good Friday" and "Throwback Thursday".

"Feel-Good Friday" started as a way for me to show something inspirational or encouraging.  It has gone over exceptionally well with the students, who only three weeks in are already looking forward to it.  This week I showed Kid President's "Pep Talk to Teachers and Students," which they loved.  Many of them had seen the original pep talk and were totally geeked to check out this new one.  This is considerably lighter than what we've seen so far, but it was fun to laugh and smile together as we watched.
"Throwback Thursday" is becoming my favorite part of the week.  The objectives are simple: choose a scientist who has done something brave, and describe a time in your past when you did something brave.  Students get the first five minutes of class to present both and a different student goes each week, with a maximum of two per class per week.  I love the scientists the students have chosen and learning what they think of as brave.  For example, this week I learned about Don Walsh, one of the first of very few people to have descended into the Marianas Trench and Roger Gonzalez, who designs low-cost artificial knees for amputees in developing countries.  I also love hearing their own brave moments, from stepping into a bullying situation, to supporting family members through illness or death, to rescuing loved ones from danger.  It has been incredibly powerful and I love all the stories and getting to know my students on this level.

Here's an example of a Throwback Thursday from this week:

This week got away from me a little bit.  At this point in the school year, it's easy to just put your head down and go.  Normally, when I felt this way, I would cross out things like Kid President and use those precious moments instead for jamming in more content.  I'm proud of myself for staying true to the mission and using those minutes for teaching about life instead.  It's different for me.  But I'm liking it more and more every week.

Sunday, September 15, 2013


My mission is to 

  • Create a classroom culture where being brave is encouraged, fostered, and deliberately and diligently taught.

  • Create a love and appreciation for science through exploration and discovery.

In order to stay true to my mission this year (even in the throes of the school year, when the novelty of "back to school" is long gone), I have hung a simple form behind my desk that I use to fill in evidence demonstrating my commitment to my mission.  

I hope to reflect on this document weekly, starting today.


Week of 9/9

I did two things that were fun:

_x___1) The Color Wheel Lab

_x___2) Scaredy Squirrel Does a Lab Project

I did two things that encouraged exploration and discovery:

_x___1) The Color Wheel Lab

_x___2) Scaredy Squirrel Does a Lab Project

I put up a new quote: "You have to expect things of yourself before you can do them." Michael Jordan

I put up a new joke: Why was the sand wet?  Because the sea weed!

I put up a new "way to be brave": Admit you were wrong about something.

I put up a new Throwback Thursday sign-up: __x___

I encouraged students to use the brave board:  __x___


I am not sure if it's lame or really cool that my "fun" activities were also the ones that encouraged exploration and discovery.  But, for now, I guess that I will say that I don't believe that those two have to be mutually exclusive.  

The Color Wheel Lab went beautifully in advanced chemistry.  I gave the students several topics pertaining to the lab to research prior to performing the procedure.  It's a beautiful, simple lab that demonstrates the principles of solubility, polarity, and convection currents.  After they finished making their observations, I allowed them to use any of their research to explain why they saw what they did during the lab.  There was a ton of critical thinking that took place and I was incredibly happy with the results.

Scaredy Squirrel Does a Lab was a project I dreamed up over the summer, while reading my kids the book Scaredy Squirrel by Melanie Watt.  You can read more about this project here.

I had some really cool Throwback Thursdays done by students too.  I learned that Albert Einstein was a member of the NAACP and called racism America's "worst disease".  Other students chose to highlight the bravery and innovation of Nikloa Tesla by defying traditional ideas about electricity.

The brave board is slowing gaining popularity.  My favorite additions this week were both by seniors. One posted "10 senior band members traveled to Olivet for a "home" football game to play and support the team." Another mentioned "_______________ singing live in front of the class during review karaoke."

Scaredy Squirrel Does a Lab

Instead of the traditional lab safety discussion I have done year in and year out (which I have always dreaded and is indeed as boring as it sounds), I decided to make this year's emphasis on lab safety take a decidedly different form.

I read Scaredy Squirrel to them on the second day of school, promising he would make another appearance later.  Then, on Tuesday, I introduced the project, placing a different Scaredy Squirrel book on each group's table.  The objective was to demonstrate their understanding of lab safety and the proper use of lab safety equipment using Scaredy Squirrel as inspiration.  I told them that they could create any "artifact" that would help them demonstrate their understanding.  My suggestions included a video, comic strip, keynote, children's book, or infographic.  Colby and I had even purchased two stuffed Scaredy Squirrel puppets that I allowed students to use if they wanted.  To make the assignment a little more well-rounded, I also included a component that required the students to include the proper names and uses of at least 3 pieces of laboratory equipment.  

On Tuesday, with roughly 20 minutes of class remaining, I asked students to form groups of 1, 2, or 3.  Then, they drew from a beaker for the 3 pieces of lab equipment and the 4 safety rules they had to demonstrate.  The rest of this time was designated for brainstorming.

Then, on Wednesday (an early release day), I gave them the entire class hour to work on their artifacts (approximately 48 minutes).  This was a super-fun day:

  • The fire blanket came out of its container for the first time in my career, because I allowed students to start small (safe, contained) fires on their lab benches to demonstrate its proper use. 

  • There were baking soda and vinegar volcanoes to show -- well, nearly everything; from the proper use of various pieces of equipment, to safety guidelines, to the "what not to do".

  • The safety shower was pulled and the eye wash triggered -- repeatedly.   This is another thing I've never done, worrying about the mess.  It was definitely messy, but it was worth it to see the students so into it.  The Scaredy puppet even used the eye wash and the safety shower...which was pretty entertaining.

The project went better than I ever could have imagined.  I loved seeing the students engaged, working hard and being creative.  

On Friday, I designed a "showcase" for students to display their artifacts.  Each group's work was displayed at a different table in the room, and I allowed them to rotate about the room, observing the work of others.

There were some really incredible artifacts, including some amazing children's books, some very cool audio/video "books" made using the "Show Me" app, Keynote presentations, comics made using "Comic Life", and iMovies.  There were even a couple of live skits.  I hope to post some examples of student work later this week.  In the meantime, here is a tiny example of one group's presentation, in which they used an app to graphically "enhance" an existing image of Scaredy:

I am so blowing this up to poster size and hanging it in my room.

I loved that I took a risk and tried this project.  Not only do I think it was more fun that what I have done in the past, but I know the students got a lot more out of it and will be more likely to remember it throughout the year.

Monday, August 26, 2013

My Goal This Year

School starts in exactly one week from tomorrow.

My room, by the way, is a complete disaster. I can't even fathom how I am going to be able to teach in my room. It sort of makes me want to drink an entire bottle of wine.

Okay, I can't lie. It absolutely DOES make me want to drink a whole bottle of wine. Which I did. Last night.

So, any how.

I have been thinking more than I probably should about what I want this school year to look like. All kinds of crazy things are floating around in my head, such as:

Using Evernote -- how, why, when?

Incorporating Project Based Learning -- where in my curriculum does it already fit naturally?

Improving upon my existing Standards-Based Learning framework -- what does it mean to really assess my students accurately?

I know. Fun, right?

And when I start thinking about this, I get even more flummoxed and want to drink even more wine. Which is a bad idea, because I

(a) only have so much money with which to purchase said wine; and
(b) only have the one liver.

So, I have completely re-thought my perspective on this year.

My goal for this year --The only one--The most important one--The only one that matters-- IS (drumroll please...)


Yes, that's right. Chemistry needs to be more fun. No more boring classes. No more freaking out about Common Core or PBL or SBG or NGSS or anything else equally ridiculous.

I refuse to be that teacher. I will not gripe, whine, or complain about the state of my room, the state of the school, or the state of the government.

I am going to have some freaking fun.

I will wear costumes.

I will yell and run and be crazy and blow things up and let kids explore.

I will be a dork.

I will be excited about science and questions and let kids try to find the answers. Even if they couldn't possibly.

I will laugh and hug and share and read children's books and not give a cat's patootie about anything that is an acronym.

Because ultimately if I am having fun, the kids are more likely to be having fun, right?

And if they are having fun, they are going to be fully engaged, right?

And if they are fully engaged, they should be learning. Like, a lot. Right?

So, I will sacrifice myself for the good of the cause. And, for the record, it is much more enjoyable to lesson plan when I keep my goal at the forefront of my mind. Advanced Chemistry's review packet has already turned into "Review Karaoke-palooza" and Chemistry's first activity has gone from the painful icebreaker to the creation of an informercial from the perspective of sumo wrestlers and boy bands.

I'm pumped.

Let the fun begin.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Called Out

This morning when I walked into the office to check my mail, I had an envelope in my box that said



 By the way, multiple exclamation points are one of my pet peeves. But I digress.

 The words were typed by a label-maker, which I found strange, but I opened up the letter. As I started to read, the words hit me hard in the solar plexus and I found myself wanting to sit down and throw up at the same time.

 The letter was from a student and typed. It started out complimentary, talking about how I was this student's favorite teacher, how my class was their favorite of the day, and how I was someone this student looked up to.

 Then, it spent several paragraphs explaining how, lately, it seemed to him or her that I was becoming impatient with students, making them feel stupid, and becoming angry when students asked for help. The student explained that he or she no longer enjoyed my class or felt that he or she could ask for help any more. The letter was not signed.

 It pains me beyond measure to know that a student feels this way. I had been noticing lately that I had been more tired and irritable with students, especially after school. But it's one thing to see this in yourself and vow to change; another thing entirely to have it called out by a student.

 My first response was to be miserable. I felt like a horrible teacher and person. I internalized every word. I wanted to quit teaching because I was obviously so awful at it. How could I let this happen? How could I make a student (or as the author put it, several of them, actually) feel so poorly?

 I struggled with this for the rest of the day. It made my mind spin and I battled to make it through the day without spiraling into an overwhelming depression.

 This is one of my greatest weaknesses. I have a hard time with keeping perspective, I internalize people's opinions, and I see my own flaws disproportionately to the good things that I do. It took me most of an evening cuddling with a cute puppy and a 12 mile run to work it out, but I finally arrived at an answer to my questions.

 How could I let this happen? How could I make a student feel so poorly?

 Because I'm human. I make mistakes. Yes, I have been more impatient than normal lately, especially late in the day. I noticed it in myself, so why should I be so surprised that students have noticed too? I'm exhausted and overwhelmed because I bust my butt helping students the best I can all day long. And while this is understandable, it needs to be addressed.

 This doesn't define who I am as a teacher. What defines me as a teacher is how I respond to this. 

And I have decided that I will respond by improving myself. I will make changes that set me up for success in this area.

 First, I will establish more defined office hours after school for my students. One of the reasons I think I was becoming so irritable was because of the steady stream of students coming into my room after school at seemingly random times. Immediately after the dismissal bell rang, students were trickling into my room for extra help, a re-assessment, or to make up a lab. Any time this happened, I found myself stressing out about how to help them all at once. I wouldn't be able to get anything else done (like grading assessments, setting up labs, or planning for future lessons), which caused me significant anxiety. It was also causing me to leave school much later than I wanted to, be pressed for time in my Ironman training, and worry about picking up my kids on time from daycare. I think if I create established times for my students to be in my classroom for these needs, I will be more likely to be able to always interact with them positively . That time is specifically carved out for them, and no other reason. Likewise, I will have designated times for taking care of the other things I need to get done without students in my room.

 Second, I am going to create a form for students to fill out when they need help or when they are going to re-assess. This idea came from Mr. Abud's website, who has students fill out a Google Form before being allowed to re-assess anything. I love this idea, because it builds in some student accountability for their own learning. It asks students to reflect upon what they already know and what they have already done to help themselves before coming to the teacher for extra help and/or re-assessment. Part of my frustration was with students coming in for help, saying, "I don't get any of it," and with students who would approach a re-assessment through a "winging it" mentality. I think this will generate authentic reflection and responsibility in my students and help alleviate the irritation that was associated with these activities.

So, there you go.  I feel like I'm making myself pretty vulnerable here, but I needed to get it down in words and out of my system.

This letter will help me get better.  I need to remember that.

But now, it's going in the shredder -- and I'm getting to work.

Out of My League

My name is Alaina Sharp and I am a high school chemistry teacher. I don’t really belong in the ELA world. I couldn’t tell you the difference between alliteration and allusion without looking it up on Google, and I couldn’t fathom diagramming a sentence.

 But, I do have one very important thing in common with ELA teachers: I love to read and I desire to share this love of reading with my students.

 As I watch my students in class and talk with them, I get the funny feeling like they aren’t reading anything at all. For the most part, they hate their assigned books in English class (and use Spark Notes to get by) and don’t read for pleasure.

I feel that reading has made a huge difference in my life. It has made me more creative and eloquent, more experienced and imaginative, more empathetic and observant. I think it would be a disservice for me not to pass these opportunities for growth to my students.

 As a science teacher, I have to get a little creative in order to address this. Our school offers a forty-five minute per week session on Wednesdays called “Power Play”. During this time, students are offered remediation in classes they are currently struggling in. Those who do not need remediation are offered an enrichment session.

 This time I’m offering one of these sessions called, “Reading Doesn’t Have to Be Horrible! Come READ with me!” To my delight, a full classroom’s worth of students signed up for the session, but now I’m stumped. After looking at the names of the students who signed up, it’s apparent that many of them are already students who love to read and wanted the time during the day to be able to do that. I’m not sure how many non-readers I managed to snag on my list. What do I do with these students during this time? I am totally out of the realm of my own expertise and I could use your help.

 One option I thought of was to bring a huge stack of books to the session and spend the first 20 minutes giving a short “book talk” about 5-7 of these books. For the remaining time, I could have students choose a book that looked interesting and just read. If they like it, they can take it with them for the rest of the week. If they don’t like it, they can try another one.

 Am I way off base here? What else can I do or should I do? I want to do right by these kids, so any and all advice would be greatly appreciated.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Inspired by the Easter Bunny

Watching my kids hunt after Easter eggs today in my backyard, I kept thinking to myself how fun it would be to watch my students do the same thing.

*cough*nerd alert*cough*

I know, I know.

I also know that the day coming back from a break is notoriously rough, so if I could have an activity that served as a review under the guise of fun, that would be just freakin' awesome.

I also know that I have a ton of those plastic eggs laying around my house right now and if I really, really "needed" them for school on Monday, I would totally have an excuse for not putting them away.

So, here's what I am thinking for the Monday we return from break.

The Great Easter Egg Hunt Review of Awesomeness (?):

1) No groups for this activity.  This is a class vs. class competition.  3rd hour vs. 4th hour vs. 5th hour vs. 6th hour vs. 7th hour.  Winner gets cookies or candy or a cavity (or maybe some combination therein).

2) Around my room or the courtyard across from my room (weather permitting...this is Michigan after all; 3 years ago we had a snow day the first day back from break) I will hide as many of those plastic eggs as I have at my house.  Since I have Advanced Chem 1st hour, I am sure I can talk them into helping me hide the eggs for my third hour class, thereby cutting down substantially on time.

3) Inside each egg will be a slip of paper with a question pertaining to one of the following topics:

a. Stoichiometry
b. Nomenclature
c. Writing Formulas for Ionic Compounds

4) When I say "Go!" students will scatter around the room/courtyard.  When they stumble upon an egg, they will open it up.  They will peruse their notes to come up with the answer.  When they have the right answer, they will bring the egg and the question up to the front of the room.  They will tell me the answer.  If the answer is correct, the question slip will go in a beaker, the egg will go in the basket.  This will help me keep track of how many eggs are still out.

5) I will time how long it takes the class as a whole to find and solve ALL of the eggs I have hidden.  Students may use their classmates for help, or design any strategy they'd like to finish faster, so long as each student only has one egg in their possession at any one time.

6) The game ends when all eggs have been found and solved.  The class of the day with the fastest time wins.

7) When the game is over, I will have the class re-stuff and re-hide the eggs for the next class.

I imagine this taking 25-30 minutes, after I will have a better idea of what students are and are not remembering accurately and address that collectively, assigning practice problems accordingly.

I'm excited to give this a try, but do you see anything that I should watch out for as I am?  I would welcome your thoughts and suggestions to help me make this a successful activity.

And because I'm one of *those* moms, I leave you with these pictures of my super cute kids hunting Easter eggs.  You're welcome.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

When Real Life Shows Up

It's so easy to get so caught up in my own little bubble, teaching my fanny off in room 301.  My students come in, I teach/facilitate/flounder/blow minds (or maybe all of these, depending on the day) for 52 minutes and then -- poof!  They disappear into the ether.

I think that's why it hits me so hard when real life shows up.

I have a student in my third hour class whose brother has been battling a brain tumor for a year with a poor prognosis.  She and I have talked about it many times during our 52 minute interludes.  This student (we'll call her Abbi) is a beautiful soul, full of life and enthusiasm.  She is also one of those students you just crave to be able to have in your classroom.  She might not pick up things the fastest, but she works hard until she understands concepts fully.  She is dedicated and responsible.

But as the year progressed, this I could see her worry in the sag of her shoulders.  I could see her on the verge of tears when I asked her how things were going.

This morning, when I opened my email, I had a message from my principal stating simply that Abbi's brother had passed away over night.

I said a silent prayer for Abbi and her family, but before I knew it, the day was rolling along as if nothing had even happened.

In my third hour, when I marked Abbi absent, I spoke with the class about what was happening and encouraged them to reach out to her in love during the challenging days ahead.

And in my fourth hour, she appeared in my doorway at the back of the room.

As I gave my students a quick directive to begin working on some practice problems, I rushed to meet her.  As soon as I started toward her, she dissolved into heart-wrenching sobs.  I took her out into the hallway and just hugged her.  I cried for this beautiful girl whose heart is broken.

We stood together for a long time.  When she pulled away from me, she looked at me and asked for any make-up work she would have from being gone.  I was so shocked that it took me a moment to recover.  I told her not to worry about that, but to focus on her family.  Before she left, she asked me to attend the funeral on Saturday.  I told her I would absolutely be there, and she turned to leave.

I don't know if Abbi visited any other of her classes today, but her appearance today really hit me hard.
I need to stop being surprised when real life shows up.  Students do not live in my bubble.  They live in a world that is broken.  They might not have such obvious tragedies as Abbi's, but that doesn't make them any less real.

I focus so much on how I can help students learn the material.  I know that's important.  That's my job and I so badly want to do it well.

But, it's good to be reminded that part of my job has nothing to do with chemistry.  Part of my job is maybe to help students on a personal level too.  It might be as simple as demonstrating patience (one of my weaknesses), kindness, or empathy.  It might be laughing at myself when I screw up something simple in the math I'm working through.  When it's 3:00 pm and I still have 5 students asking to take a re-assessment and 2 who are asking for help with a learning target, I need to remember that I have the opportunity to connect.  And like designing lessons based on best practices, this will take planning.

So, beginning tomorrow I'd like to make a more concerted effort to be aware of the life that exists for my students outside of my class.  It's time to burst my own bubble and make an impact in real life.

Monday, March 25, 2013

A Whack at Differentiation

I don't know about any one else, but there's not much more I dread than coming back to classes after I've had a sub in the room.

Scratch that, I do know what I d

Coming back to classes after I've had a sub in the room for 2 days in a row.

Last week, I attended/presented at the MACUL conference in Detroit, Michigan.  I found it an invigorating and enlightening experience to learn from like-minded, enthusiastic educators who are doing nothing short of amazing things in their classrooms.

But, when push comes to shove, the reality of today was that I needed some lesson plans.  And regardless of whether or not those lessons were done on Evernote or in a spiral-bound notebook, they needed to be done.

After going through the practice problems my students worked through on Thursday during class, I wanted to take a decidedly differentiated approach to today's activities.

We are working on some basic stoichiometry for ionic compounds.  I want students to be able to take the mass of an ionic compound and convert that value to the number of formula units in that sample or vice versa.  This is one of those compounds that certain students pick up very quickly and others with struggle, slogging painfully through each problem and never seeming to really pick up the pattern.

Knowing that I would have some students who had done every single practice problem and thoroughly understand the concept and others who had done very few (if any) practice problems, and even those were done "collaboratively", I decided to go the following route.  I was extremely pleased with the results:

1) As students came in, I placed a single conversion problem on the board.  I gave them 5 minutes to answer this question on a piece of scrap paper.  I called it a Fake Pop Quiz (FPQ) -- and my students are used to these, as we participate in FPQ's fairly frequently in my class.  I asked students to work individually to work the problem to the best of their ability.  Here is the question I used:

"A sample of lithium hydroxide contains 1.26 x 10^23 formula units.  What will the mass of this sample be?"

2) I had a student read through the answers to Friday's practice problems as I checked the students' answers to the FPQ.  Based on their answers, I was able to group the students in the following manner:

*: Totally clueless -- needs desperate help from me

M: Okay on the stoichiometry set-up, but had errors in either the molar mass or the calculation of the final answer.

I: Okay on the stoichiometry set-up, but had an incorrect formula (resulting in an incorrect molar mass and final answer)

T: Totally fine -- everything correct.

3) Based on this information, the class "assignment" was different for each group. I gave one member from each group a set of directions for the assignment:

* : My totally clueless group stayed with me.  We worked through problems on whiteboards together -- each person with a whiteboard.  Then, I gave them each an additional set of 4 conversion problems to do at home by themselves.

M: These students did a set of additional practice problems as a group, with a key to check their molar masses and final calculations as they worked.

I: These students created a paper slide video tutorial about writing formulas for ionic compounds (there weren't very many of these students, to be honest, so I had some of my T's do this as well).  I left scrap paper, a set of markers, and an iPod out at their station and told them a video on the iPod was due by the end of the hour.

Here's an example of one of the videos made:

T: These students created a video tutorial about how to successfully complete a mole conversion problem in similar fashion to group I:

What I loved about today:

1) I got a chance to help the students who needed help, but also made them accountable for the work they didn't complete.  I worked with them, answered their questions, discussed what was causing them problems, but I made them finish the practice problems they didn't do after we were finished.

2) I gave the students who were fine the chance to do something different.  They were able to do something a little bit more creative rather than more practice problems that were unnecessary for them to understand the concept.

3) I killed two birds with one stone.  The videos the students made can be used as an additional resources for students who continue to struggle or were absent.

4) The students who made little mistakes (group M) were able to build confidence in their skills through just a little more exposure and practice.

This is one of the best days back from a sub I think I've ever had.  It really didn't take too much work on my part, and I think most of my students walked away from my class with more than they would've with a traditional approach.