06 October 2014

Leading With The Lab

As I mentioned in my previous post, I have been asked to write 2 articles for Carolina Biological Supply's monthly newsletter. My first was about transitioning students to using video as instruction. Sorry for not making this post last week. The second article is below:

Leading with the Lab


When I first started teaching fifteen years ago, I ran my classroom the way my high school chemistry teacher ran hers. I decided to become a teacher when I was eight years old so I paid close attention in school to what my favorite teachers did with us so I could duplicate it when I finally became a teacher. A typical unit would start with notes. We would cover basic definitions and vocabulary that would be used throughout the unit. I would then move on to example problems and have the students complete questions from the review sheet in class so I could see they knew how to solve the problem correctly. I would assign daily or weekly homework to reinforce what we were doing in class and administer 5 point quizzes every couple of days to check for retention of learning. Somewhere in the middle or latter half of the unit we would perform a lab to give a context to what we had been learning and then close the unit with some sort of major assessment, like a test.


This method proved to be effective for a long time. I thought I was a successful teacher because I would see the light bulbs go off for students during the lab.  I incorporated more and more lab activities to show students there was a practical reason why they had to balance reactions or memorize Boyle’s law.  Lab experiments were the “real-world” uses of the material we were learning because “this is what chemists do.” When I heard students say ‘now I get it’ I felt like a success.


Deep down there was something missing for me, though. Science is a ‘Why?” subject; we observe something in the world around us, ask ‘why did that happen?’, design an experiment to test our hypothesis, then go back and revise our original thinking. I wasn’t getting a lot of kids asking why. I got a lot of ‘Oh!’ and ‘Why did you say that in the beginning?’, but not a single ‘why did it do that?’ If lab is my students’ favorite part of class, why do I wait so long to have them perform labs?


I decided that I am going to lead my units with the labs. When we perform the labs first, students ask “why did that happen?” Now the questions drive the learning!  At the end of the lab, each lab group must submit 3 questions to a Google Form that I created. I look through the questions and rearrange the lessons for the next day based on what they want to know.  Let me give you a couple of examples:


  • For Atomic Theory, we start the unit with a flame test lab. It is a traditional lab in which students move to different stations, insert different ionic salts in a burner flame, observe and record their results. Questions that come from the lab are ‘why did each chemical have a different color?’, ‘what other substances change color in flames?’, ‘Could I perform this lab with any substance?’
  • For Solutions, we start by making kool-aid of different concentrations to set up our molarity and molality notes. Students choose how much Kool-Aid mix and how much water they want to make their drink out of. They weigh the mix and use a graduated cylinder to measure their water. Students will ask ‘why did I get a different amount of drink at the end if I used the same amount of water each time?’, ‘could I still measure concentration without measuring the Kool-aid in the beginning?’
  • For Thermochemistry, students design and conduct an experiment to determine the specific heat of substance. They are given standard lab equipment and a list of objects to study which include toothpicks, cotton, rocks, glass marbles, various metals, isopropyl alcohol, water, and  vegetable oil.  A thorough explanation of specific heat is given in the introduction along with links to videos explaining the topic on YouTube. They utilize Google searches to find experiments to model theirs after, conduct their experiments and collect their results. They analyze the results after we complete the lessons on heat transfer and specific heat. Questions that arise are ‘Why are metals the best objects to conduct specific heat experiments on?’and ‘How can you test the specific heat of a liquid when it evaporates easily?’

The labs we use in class are very similar to traditional lab experiments. What has made them more effective is their placement in the learning, how student questions are driving the direction of the lessons, and how students are beginning to see science as exploratory instead of sit-and-get.

20 September 2014

Transitioning from direct instruction to a Flipped Classrrom

I am writing a pair of articles for Carolina Biology Supply for their monthly newsletter that it is sent to science teachers around the country. I am not sure when they will actually appear, but I wanted to share the first one here.

This year will be my 5th year flipping HS Chemistry. My learning environment is very different than many of my colleagues and I find that my students function better by transitioning into a flipped model of instruction than by simply jumping straight into it at the beginning of the year. I start the year by changing their mindset about learning by altering my assessments (using mastery and student choice) and lab activities (introducing guided-inquiry), and then start using video for instruction about 2 months into the school year. By the time I remove myself from the front of the room and put myself onto the computer, they are so used to thinking differently that the adjustment period is much shorter.
If you are thinking about flipping your classroom, here are a couple of methods that have worked for me for transitioning the students:
  1. Use the videos to start a class discussion--The TED Ed website (ed.ted.com) is a wonderful resource for finding short, animated science videos to illustrate topics and taking the first steps toward using video for instruction. Just How Small Is an Atom? by Jon Bergmann (http://bit.ly/smallatom) and How Big is a Mole? by Daniel Dulek (http://bit.ly/chemistrymole) are two that I use as starter activities to introduce a lesson and begin a discussion on a topic. The TED Ed videos work well because the content is created by educators for educators so it uses simple terms and also gives real-world analogies to make it easier for students to understand. Also, the animation is excellent and helps keep kids’ attention. The TED Ed videos can also be used for instructional purposes as well. One of the few instructional videos I use in my AP Chemistry class is How to speed up chemical reactions (and how to get a date) by Aaron Sams and Mark Paricio (http://bit.ly/kineticsreactions). This video perfectly summarizes everything my students need to know about collision theory and reaction rates for the Kinetics unit. I assign this video for HW, ask them a series of follow-up questions the next day, then we perform a rate-law lab that demonstrates what they learned in the video. Students are then required, as part of their conclusion statements, to explain how the different reactions in the lab illustrate the methods for speeding up the chemical reaction that was shown in the video.  
  2. Record examples you complete in class--The first instructional video I created was simply a recording of me completing two example problems in class. A student made a comment that she really wished there was a way to hear me explain the hard examples again when she was studying. I used a video camera to record the computer monitor while wrote everything out on the interactive whiteboard (IWB) and then dubbed my voice over the writing later. You can do this easily now simply by asking a student to come by during lunch or after school, handing him/her your cell phone, and asking him/her to record what you write on the board. It will take 5 minutes to record and seconds to upload to YouTube or your website. Or, if you have an IWB, use a program like Snagit by TechSmith to capture all of your writing to share later.
  3. Instructional videos as notes only, no examples--One comment my students make is that either my videos are too long (keep them to under 10 minutes!) or that I provide too many examples. What I have started to do is create two sets of videos: one that is strictly notes that contain things like definitions or diagrams, and a second that contains only examples of how to solve problems. Some of my students watch the videos on their bus rides to athletic events and say they can’t concentrate well enough on a bus to truly understand the problems I show, but the definitions are easy to get down in their notebook without much thinking.
  4. Hold Student Accountable.  What you will need to remember, regardless of the purpose of your video, is you must hold the students accountable for watching the videos. You can use a Cornell notes system, have students generate original questions based on what they learned, tie all assessments directly to the learning in the videos, or have them complete reflection logs after each video. Kids are used to watching videos for entertainment only. You need to help them see them as learning tools as well and help them develop ways that aides in retention of that learning.

I hope these tips are helpful as you transition from a classroom utilizing a lot a direct instruction to a flipped classroom. Video is a powerful way to excite students about a topic and to deliver content that will help you better utilize class time.

19 September 2014

Play the ball where the monkey drops it

This post is again inspired by something I read in Creativity, Inc.

Story told in Creativity, In.:
When the British first brought golf to Calcutta, they were faced with an unforeseen problem. The monkeys that lived in the area around the course were fascinated by the flying balls and would run onto the course to snatch them. After trying a variety of methods to prevent the monkeys from doing this, this simply instituted the rule 'Play the ball where the monkey drops it.'

Related story not from the book:
I remember hearing a story about a university that was redesigning the buildings and green spaces along a section of campus. Instead of putting in walkways immediately after finishing the new buildings on campus and laying new grass, the landscape designer decided to leave everything dirt for 1 month. After a month, he returned and found the paths worn in the dirt by the students as they chose for themselves the best route to get to their next location. Then the landscaper poured concrete paths where the students traveled most and landscaped around it. The university never had worn grass sections or damaged landscaping because of this.

We often create policies and procedures to prevent behaviors from occurring. We do things like install heavy filters on our Internet firewalls to prevent students from visiting inappropriate websites or unlock certain bathrooms to limit where we need to supervise students or ban cell phones in the classroom because we feel they will be a distraction. But what if we stopped doing that? I mean all of it. What if we let the students use their best judgement and then developed policies based around their behaviors? Or better yet, create policies that encourage and reward proper behaviors rather than only punishing bad ones?

14 September 2014

A glimpse of Google Classroom's potential

To be honest, I wasn't going to use Google Classroom this year. I see that it has a lot of potential, but it just didn't really fit what I wanted to do with my students this year. Last year I moved from my Moodle site to Edmodo. This year I was going to shift back to Moodle so that I could do more online assessments and free up time in the classroom for other activities. Unfortunately, Moodle is taking so long to get up and running the way I want it to that I needed to make another shift.

Enter Google Classroom.  Well, sort of...

So I didn't decided to use Google Classroom until the end of my first class of the day. The night before I shared a document we would need for the next class with all of my students. During the first block, I showed the students how to find the document, make a copy, and share it with me. In between classes I had the realization that everything I just did could happen a lot faster if I used Classroom.  Later in the day another class came in for the same lesson plan as earlier and, but we used Google Classroom this time for the assignment.  That class, despite having more students, were into the activity TEN MINUTES faster than the earlier class.

So I learned my lesson with that one. But the purpose of this post is not to talk about how prior planning would have helped with this. I wanted to share one aspect of the review process.

We are working on Naming and Forming Compounds. After explaining the process with ion cutouts as manipulatives, the students joined the Google Classroom and accessed the assignment for the day. First, what we found was the assignment doesn't appear in the students' Google Drive until the access it in Classroom first. This forces the students to log into Classroom to see any announcements or directions prior to starting the assignment. Once they have clicked on the assignment Classroom makes a copy in their folder (if you set it up to do that) and creates a link for the teacher to access it at any time.

For this assignment, I wanted to be able to check how the students were doing as they were both naming and forming ionic compounds. I told them that I would leave feedback in the document for them for the next class so they can correct their mistakes before the due date. Below are 2 screenshots so you can see my comments.:
As you can see above, this student had a number of mistakes that needed to be addressed. I left both short and long comments depending on what needed to be fixed. Also, any changes I recommend making can be left either as comments or "suggested edits" which is a new feature in Docs.

This student only made a minor mistake so I left positive note at the top.

All of the assignments for the class was in an alphabetized list for me in Classroom instead of being in my Incoming section of Google Drive mixed in with all of my other documents. Since everything is technically in my Google Drive, I was still able to leave feedback on the students' work from my phone (this is how I kill the hour my kids are in swimming class). I never found this easy to do from Edmodo and not possible at all in Moodle.

While Classroom really made this aspect of my job easier, the jury is still out on whether this will be my go to method for distributing assignments. It is great for HW/Classwork, but anything that requires group work doesn't function here. I will continue to update on how I use Classroom as the year progresses.

If you are using Google Classroom with your students, I would love to hear the ways it is working for you. Please leave your comments below. Thanks!

11 September 2014

Be audacious, get fired

I am reading Creativity, Inc. by Tim Something who is the founder and CEO of Pixar Studios. In the section I am reading, he talks about how he met John Lassiter--the Executive Producer and Director for many of Pixar's blockbusters like Toy Story, A Bug's Life, and Toy Story 2.  Here is a story that I found fascinating:

John Lassiter was a Disney animator in the early 1980s before coming to Pixar. He had this idea to create a short film which integrated computer generated graphics with hand-drawn animation. He, along with other Disney animators, visited George Lucas' ILM studios in the graphic arts division (where Pixar was born). He became amazed at the work they were doing with computer animation and decided to pitch his idea to his project managers at Disney. The managers listened to his ideas and shortly after that fired him. The animation team felt, at the time, that computers had no place in animated films. Within a few months, Lassiter was hired by what would become Pixar Studios.

Lassiter would go on to actually make the film which is what you can see below:
Lassiter's story is not unique. Many of the people we call geniuses in their field were originally laughed at or shunned because their ideas were too bold, too unique, or too revolutionary.

So, here is the message that I took away from this:  Be bold. Be daring. Be audacious. If your employer values you and values creative endeavors, you are set. If not, then find a place that will and you will better off because of it.