16 March 2015

America versus the World

The Media likes to pull out the random fact that the US is falling farther behind other countries in terms of Math and Science testing. Clearly our public schools are failing our students because we are not the best in the world on this standardized test. But, maybe that's ok.

This weekend I was at the NJ GAFE Summit and a student from Ramapo College spoke about a project he completed for one of his classes. His teacher used Google's Moonshot Thinking idea to ignite his passion to complete a project centered about building a strong community on campus around the World Cup Soccer matches. The student was from Nepal and mentioned that if he was in his home country the focus of class would have been to memorize the facts in the books and recite them back to the teacher for a grade. He came to America expecting school to be the same and was amazed that he was able to use his creativity to complete a project based on his passion: soccer. And that comment made me stop and think.

What if the reason we are falling behind on these Math and Science tests is because the US has been focusing more on creativity and less on knowledge?

Even though we are standardized test crazy right now, nothing is going well for schools when it comes to state tests. More and more schools are approaching failing. If I gave a test in my class and half of the students failed, would I blame the students or my test? Yet, when school after school fails the state test, it is the school's fault.

When today's students live in a world where anything they want to know is at their fingertips, maybe a focus on creativity and passion is the better topic to be teaching.

08 March 2015

That's What She Said

In my second year teaching, I was hit with the proverbial slap in the face when a student openly disrespected me to her peers. Julie was a sophomore at the time and as she was walking out of my classroom she said, ‘that guy is such an [nickname for donkey’s sphincter]!’ As a young teacher who, even 15 years into his career, is trying to figure out this whole classroom management thing, two scenarios from teaching school raced to my head
  1. Ignore the situation. Play it off as if you didn’t hear it. That will allow me, the teacher, to save face and I won’t have to punish the student who will now feel like I am always out to get her.
  2. Punish the student. Go into the hallway and demand that Julie come back to my room and apologize to me. Give her a lecture on respect and how you 1) don’t use that language in school, and 2) never use it to describe a teacher. This student needs to be reminded who is in charge.
Both of the scenarios ran through my head in a split second, but I choose unwritten, untraditional option #3. You didn’t know there was a 3rd option, did you?

I ran out of my room (yes, literally ran), leaving the few students who were in my room and who heard what Julie said wide-eyed and trailing after me to see what was about to happen. The entire time I am calling for Julie to stop, which she ignored by putting her head down and trying to get to her locker as quickly as possible. [Side note: why do teenagers think the area around their locker is like some invisible fortress adults can’t see through. You should hear about the things I have seen happen in front of lockers that students are totally oblivious to.] I get right up in front of Julie and say, ‘Excuse me. Did you just call me a nickname for donkey’s sphincter?’ (this time I actually used that phrase. I am still a teacher and swearing, even if you are repeating a student’s words is still a No-No). She got red-faced and tried stumbling out an apology, saying she really didn’t mean it. I said, ‘it was a simple yes or no question, did you call me a nickname for a donkey’s sphincter?’ She replied with a yes. I said, ‘Thank you. I wanted to make sure I heard you correctly.’ and I walked away back to my room, splitting a crowd of students who just stood there dumbfounded.

Every year on the first day of school I tell this story and every year I am met with the same wide-eyed look of shock. I tell them ‘you have every right not to like me. In fact, you can outright hate me. However, if you are going to say nasty things about me, say them to my face. I have worked hard for at least that bit of respect.'

Teaching is not about imparting information. It's about building relationships.

03 February 2015

How Chemistry Explained Deflategate

I love Chemistry for a lot of reasons, but mostly because it helps explain the world around me.

In case you were living under a rock, during the AFC Championship game, it was found that the New England Patriots deflated their footballs by about 2 psi. The ensuing scandal was named Deflategate by the media. At a press conference, about a week later, the Patriots organization claimed that the rapid change in air temperature from their equipment room (approximately 72F) to the football field (approximately 47F) caused the pressure to drop.

A colleague (Mr. B) came to me and said that he saw a piece on a news channel that had Bill Nye the Science Guy facing off against a Harvard professor debating whether Chemistry was at fault for the pressure drop. It was very West Coast vs. East Coast like the Super Bowl was going to be. And, let's just say, that people need to stop doubting the genius that is Bill Nye.

Anyway, any good Chemistry teacher knows that the relationship between Pressure and Temperature of a gas is directly proportional so, technically, if the temperature went down the pressure would go down as well. But, any good Chemistry teacher will also tell you that what applies on one side of the football will apply on the other; meaning if the Patriots had this problem so would have the Colts. Ok, I digress again.

Mr. B and I brainstorm and come up with an idea about mounting a pressure gauge on a football and having the students immerse the ball in several water baths. We knew that the small change in pressure the footballs experienced wouldn't cause the almost 20% pressure drop caused at the game so we made the water baths go from over 100F to around 35F to have a more dramatic effect. After trips to Dick's Sporting Goods, Sports Authority, Five Below, Home Depot, AND Lowes, I found our original idea of simply installing a pressure gauge attached to a ball pin wouldn't work. I made some modifications and decided to add a Vernier Pressure Sensor to the footballs to give us better readings.  Here is a picture of the final setup:
This is the lab setup with the Vernier Pressure Sensor and Temperature sensor all attached to the football.
This is how I spent my weekend. Not pictured are the 3 footballs I destroyed trying to figure out how to remove the air valve. FYI, this was a lot harder than it seems.
I wrote up a lab experiment for the students to follow just so that we could have consistent results. I had some Gatorade containers like they have on the sidelines of football games for the hot and cold baths, and simply filled sinks for the room temperature baths. You can see the students holding the footballs underwater in each setup so that the air in the balls would actually change.
Room Temperature--approximately 23C

Hot Water--approximately 40C

Ice Water--approximately 5C
I ran the experiment with 6 groups in each of my 4 classes and NONE of the groups had more than about a 10% change in pressure and that was probably due to the fact that their valve was leaking and letting in water. We absolutely confirmed that Pressure and Temperature are directly related, but there was no way that only temperature caused the pressure in the Patriots' footballs to deflate.

Thinking forward to next year, there are a number of changes I need to make to the lab. First, my valves kept popping out which caused massive error. The valves definitely need to be sealed permanently into the footballs so that they can't leak. Second, I need larger containers for the water baths. Mr. B is going to try this with coolers instead and we think that will solve the problem. Third, since the plug on the football has a valve that will close to seal the air inside, I think I will have the students close the valve and move only the football to each station instead of moving all of the equipment. It became almost like a team-building exercise as they carried wires and probes and data measuring devices around the room.

Overall, this lab was a success. I loved that I planned this with a first year teacher. I loved that it had real world application. I loved that it was STEM driven. And I loved how it was real chemistry, but didn't feel that way to the students. It reaffirms my belief that we need less formal labs and more real-world activities for the students to be doing. I also love that it was messy because that's what learning truly is.

30 January 2015

Lucky Teacher

I have been very fortunate this year to have a fantastic group of students as well as a wonderful co-teacher. Every crazy idea I have had they have all supported 100%. I get up every day excited to go to work for the chance to work with these wonderful people.

My Honors students are exceptionally open-minded. I decided to do away with traditional notes for the Gas Laws unit and let them tell me what they know about the properties of gases. We spent about half of the block breaking through all the misconceptions they had about their world and it led to great discussions in both classes. Then we learned about the relationship between Pressure and Volume using pressure sensors and a syringe. They quickly understood the inverse relationship between the two properties and I was very satisfied with the lesson.

I planned on using the Gas Properties simulation from PHeT just to verify what they had discovered earlier using the pressure sensor. The sim was projected onto the board and I asked for a volunteer to go up and manipulate it. The student quickly figured out how to add gas and I asked the students to explain what they were seeing. The shouted out things like:
  • The molecules are constantly moving
  • They spread out to fill the container
  • They are all moving with the same speed
And while this is going on, the student at the board is playing with the simulation. She is moving the little man to change the volume and pumping in more gas. Well, that's the point where I was no longer needed in the room. The class began to yell out things they wanted her to do: raise the heat, lower the heat, pump in heavier things, blow the lid off, add tons of gravity. I had planned to use the simulation as the next class' lesson, but the students were so into what they were learning that I literally couldn't stop them. I tried to do it. TWICE. But I was completely ignored.

I sat down at a desk and snapped these pictures. 


Naturally others wanted a turn so we needed to rotate. I made whomever went to the board make a statement for the class to add to their notes on the topic. No PowerPoint, no outlines, no formal notes. In one block we covered an entire unit's worth of material. And the best part, every word is theirs. I told them nothing.

I am a really lucky teacher to work in a school that has amazing students that let me do the crazy things that I do.

27 January 2015

The Four Rules of Meetings

I get a lot of inspiration from Audiobooks I listen to while doing other things. This post comes from Bossypants by Tina Fey. In the book, Tina Fey talks about the 4 Rules of Improvisation. They are:
http://bit.ly/1uz7cQI

  1. Always Agree and Say Yes--Someone points their finger at you and says it's a gun. You say, No it's your hand. You have effectively killed the conversation.
  2. Say Yes, And...--Instead of saying No,-- say 'Yes. And it's the gun I gave you for Christmas last year!' Now you can go somewhere with this. Not only has the person pulled a gun on you, but ironically it's the one you gave him.
  3. Make Statements and back them with your voice and actions--If you ask questions, you put the pressure on someone else to come up with all of the answers. By making statements, you helping drive the direction of the conversation.
  4. There are no mistakes, only opportunities--you may not have meant to say or do what you just did, but now that you did, where are you going to take it?
I got energized listening to this list (which I have heard before, but it never lit the lightbulb). Let's take those 4 rules and apply them to your next faculty/department meeting.
  1. Imagine that your Principal announces that the school will be participating in a new initiative for the school year and no one groans or complains. Instead, they all nod their head and agree that this is something they could see incorporating into their classrooms.
  2. The Principal decides to let everyone discuss what he has presented for 5 minutes in small groups. You turn to the teachers around you and start brainstorming ways that you could see this working with your students. Then, you start adding other elements to it, putting your own spin on the foundation that has been set for you. You decide to work with another teacher to develop joint lessons because you have a number of common students on your roster.
  3. At the end of the meeting the Principal asks if anyone has any questions. You raise your hand and, instead of asking if it is ok to do something, you explain to the faculty what your small group had discussed and the methods you are planning to make this a success with your students.
  4. During the course of the next several units, you realize that you have left out some key parts of the initiative and need to change what you are doing for the next unit. You work with your supervisor to make sure all the changes you are planning better align and your students are open to the changes because you have been invested in it from the beginning.
I know that my example is that pipe dream situation for all Principals, but why is it a dream? Could these 4 rules be used in schools? 

Sorry, I violated Rule #3.

These 4 rules could be used in schools to drive everything we do from classroom management, to curriculum, to discipline, to department meetings, to club meetings. Think of the possibilities if you were never allowed to say No, and had to be open-minded to what someone else had to say, no matter how crazy (read awesome) the idea is.