30 September 2011

Writing in the science curriculum

So having the day off for Rosh Hashanah proved to be a great time to collaborate with educators from across the country.  I started with a post by Brian Bennett where he talked about using a picture-prompt to have his students perform a writing task in his biology class.  I thought this was a pretty clever idea and after talking with him over Twitter, we developed a couple of tweaks for the assignment which I tried out today.  Here is the picture I used:

The funny thing is the same thing happened to me as Brian.  As soon as the picture came up I got:
"Does it have to be about science?"  No
"Can I write it in bullets?" Sure
"Does it have to be about the picture?"  Don't care.
"Are you grading this?"  No
"Can I make up a story?"  Don't care.
"What's that a picture of?"  No clue.  Write a story about it.

Students have been so conditioned to write to specific requirements that they have a hard time when no restrictions are given.  There was an amazing difference between my Honors and College Prep students and not just in their writing.  I could go on and on about my interpretations of how each of these groups are being prepared in their English classes, but I would rather focus on the interesting responses I received.  Here are my favorites:

He was at McDonald's.  Jimmy spent most of his day there.  Oh how he loved the playground inside of the fast-food restaurant.  The ball-pit was always the first place Jimmy would head to.  The huge pit filled with different colored ball felt like home to Jimmy.

People make mistakes.  If you don't make an effort to fix them and amend them your not doing it at all.  I don't know what to write at all.  I mean theres an atom picture ans some words but I don't know what to write.  hmmm.  I'm tired. Wow 6:20 am is early.  I don't why school is so early in the morning. and what are those red things on the picture?  So many questions so little answers.

"Please" my teacher said "ask questions if you think you're doing it wrong.  Go ahead, screw up. It's ok as long as you ask questions."

Science is an incredible thing.  We explain the world with it.  When our ancient ancestors were around, they used gods and goddesses to explain things in nature they didn't understand.  It's fine for somethings to do it that way, but when someone is sick with say a cold, and people 'heal them'  by praying to the gods.  But we know that didn't really do anything.  They needed actual medical attention.  And ya know, it's a tricky thing because some very religious people still believe and do things that way.  Even though we have an explanation now a days.

neutrons, circles, blue, red, black, science, make mistakes, woo, CUPCAKES, 8 circles, red dots, black background, chemistry, Today is Friday.  I don't want to be here. WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO, How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?  A woodchuck could chuck as much wood as a woodchuck could chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood.  Once upon a time....

There once was a man names Marc.  He was the captain of a ship called the S.S Daretofail.  Yes that is one word.  I believe it is of German origin, like ununquadium, except I think that's actually latin...But I digress.  Captain Marc had decided that he needed a crew for his beautiful ship so he sailed to the distant island of Room 244 to see if any of the natives were interested

I have been working hard for weeks on this but I finally created an amazing candy.

This is the first time I have used a writing prompt and I absolutely will do it again.  What ways are you using writing prompts in your classroom?

27 September 2011

I think I did something right

So, it happened again.  Actually it happened twice.

I gave my students time to work on their post-lab questions during class.  One of the questions was "Prior to its discovery on Earth, how did scientists know Helium existed in the sun?"  Some students asked me questions trying to discover the answer and gave them the guidance to come up with it on their own.  But there was one group of students all looking around one person's paper and they hadn't asked me a single question.  I wandered over to find them intently reading something on one student's phone.  It turns out the reason they weren't asking me any questions was because they simply googled the discovery of Helium.  The article described the entire method of using a spectroscope to break down the light from the sun which is exactly what we were doing in class.

During the next period, my next class was presenting their Animoto videos for the element project.  I always like to give a small award to the video voted best by the class.  So, I passed out little strips of paper and had everyone write down their vote.  As I am collecting the votes, one student says "Mr. S, why didn't you just have us text our vote to polleverywhere?"  I had them use their phones earlier in the month, but it never occurred to me to use them for this.

Today made something abundantly clear to me:  give them the right tools and get out of their way.

23 September 2011

Can you put a price on learning?

There is a limited amount of technology in my classroom for anyone to use, let alone students. I only have three netbooks, but I always keep them charged and have told my students repeatedly to use them if they want to do a search for something I was discussing.

I have 1 student whose computer has been broken for weeks and he still has not filled out the first day of school info sheet on the website.  So, I turned on the netbook, plopped it on his desk and had him complete the form.  I move on with the lesson and I notice that about halfway through the period he still has the computer open and is staring intently at the screen.  There's no way that it is taking him 20+ minutes to fill out this questionnaire, so I swing over to see what he is doing as the rest of the class is copying some notes.

In the course of the lesson on the atom, I mentioned that you can put a halogen lightbulb in a microwave and it will glow from the microwaves excited the atoms.  He heard this and decided to look it up on Youtube.  Well, that video led him to a series of videos of people microwaving different materials and explaining why the material that it was made of smoked or conducted electricity or glowed.  He was fascinated!  When I asked him what he was watching, he got so excited and started describing to the class what happened to a CD.

Can he write shorthand notation for identifying protons, neutrons and electrons in an atom? No.  Was he excited about learning and engaged for the entire period? Absolutely.

So, what was the more important lesson he learned today?

21 September 2011

Flipclass Infographic

I hope that most people who read this blog have seen the Flipped Classroom Infographic.  But, just in case you haven't, I wanted to share it with you. The Flipped Classroom
Created by Knewton and Column Five Media

19 September 2011

Time to change

I will not....
...reprimand students for using cell phones in class for non-educational purposes..  Clearly my lesson was not engaging enough and I need to work harder to help you find meaning in my class.
...keep talking.  Too much of today was me talking.  You need to do as much of the teaching as I do.
...stop you from asking questions that interest you.  If I can find a way to make the material relate to what we are doing, I will do so.  Clearly the topic is important enough for you to ask a question about it so I need to give it some attention.
...write referrals for bad behavior.  Sometimes kids are kids and you can't control your urges. Students who act out do so because they are bored or need some more attention.  I guess we are back to the lack of engagement topic again.
...force you to do it my way.  I am not the expert on you.  Who am I to tell you how you should learn?  If you need the ipod to help with your ADHD, then use it.  If you want to use a 3-ring binder or a notebook or a shoebox to keep your papers organized, then go right ahead.  Now, if it is not working, then listen to my suggestions to help you improve.
...punish you for being late to class.  Things happen that are out of your control that cause you to get delayed. Get here as fast as you can and get right to work.
...allow you to eat in class.  I mean, it is a chemistry lab and there are certain safety rules we need to keep.  However, I know your teenage world revolves around food so I will do my best to incorporate it into as many lessons as I can.

I will...
...ask you to think critically.
...spark that imagination and creativity that sometimes gets shoved to the side in school.
...force you out of your comfort zone.
...ask you to trust me.
...ask you to take risks.
...make the information as meaningful as possible.
...let you use the technology as much as I do.
...find a way to have class outside once in awhile.
...trust you.

These things I owe to you as your teacher.

09 September 2011

Is this pushing it?

About a month ago, Brian Bennett (@bennettscience) mentioned that he was going to be using students blogs in his science classroom.  I was a little surprised by this (only a little as Brian is extremely innovative and is flipped classroom trainer) because all of the talk I have seen thus far has been about student blogs in Social Studies or English (or some other humanities-type course).  Little is really being done in math and science from what I have seen.  I had messaged Brian about it because I would like to bring some of this to my chemistry class.  Unfortunately Brian is not doing it in chemistry so I couldn't see any student products.

But it got me thinking:  There is a big push with Common Core Standards to bring a greater amount of literacy into every classroom, couldn't a blog help me reach that goal?  But the problem remained, how do I put all of those fancy symbols, subscripts and ion charges onto the blog without all of the necessary format features?  

Why this idea didn't hit me sooner, I have no idea.  I decided to type a chemical reaction into Word, make the necessary formatting changes and copy/paste it into the blog like this:
CH4   +   2O2   à  CO2   +   2H2O
And suddenly, I can now have my students create electronic lab notebooks entirely on a blog.  Oh yeah, and it's free.

Now when colleges ask students to demonstrate the lab work they have done in their science class, the students can show them the blog.  Not only will they be reading and writing more, they are not limited to the small space on the back of the lab sheet.  They can write longer entries to better explain their observations and deductions which improves not only their overall literacy, but their science vocabulary as well.  And from a grading standpoint, I would much rather take my laptop home every day than lug huge stacks of papers in my bag.  

It is also has the added benefit of reducing paper as my students won't need to add page after page of conclusions to the lab sheet I gave in class.  I can actually print 1 lab sheet per station for the lab, post the electronic document to my website, and the kids can copy/paste from there to their blog in order to answer the questions.  I might have stumbled upon something here.

I would love to hear thoughts and suggestions on this idea.

08 September 2011

I'm the fire starter. I'm the instigator.

I have been fond of using several phrases to describe myself.  When students asked why I am always doing things different than my colleagues and changing what the school does, I would say: "if you aren't making waves, then you aren't kicking hard enough."  Then the superintendent called me a troublemaker in a meeting, and not in a funny, sarcastic way.  That's when a friend said "You're not a troublemaker.  You're a trendsetter."

I am the only one in my school using a Tablet PC to teach and today I finally got my wireless device to work so my teaching was completely mobile.  My kids didn't know what to do.  I put my PC on a kid's desk so she could work the problem out for the class and it was like an alien just beamed in from Mars and landed on her notebook.  She looked at the stylus like she had never picked up a pen in her entire life.  As others realized what I did, there were whispers of disappointment and envy because she got to be the first one to write on it.  Not sure what they are going to do when they have to start using Animoto, Prezis, and the Flipped Classroom.

I'm not a troublemaker.  I get the ideas rolling and the wave of change started.  I light the fire within my students to push themselves to do something they didn't know they could do.  This is going to cause problems for some of my colleagues.  And, well, maybe it should.

I'm the fire starter.

06 September 2011

What's the worst that can happen?

picture courtesy of ansam518.wordpress.com
If you tried something new...
some technique...
some activity...
some piece of technology...
some method that you heard about/saw/thought of yourself...
what's the worst that could happen?

Now, really think about it.  What's the absolute worst thing that could happen?

If what you did was in the best interest of kids and improving understanding, and that new idea failed, you have lost nothing.  Your students understand just as well as they did with the old way.

But you are now different.  You are not the same person you were last year at this time.  You have pushed yourself to be better, to fight stagnation.  And that is all the reason you need.

05 September 2011

Keep kids busy or they might start thinking

While reading Teacher Man, Frank McCourt makes the comment "Keep kids busy or they might start thinking."  He is talking about how too many teachers are just assigning work, yet they have little meaning for the students and rarely makes them think.

I had a conversation with a former supervisor over mandating summer assignments in all Honors science classes. The reason he gave me was: 1) we need to reduce the number of students who are dropping out of the honors program after school starts; this will hopefully scare a few of them off, 2) we need to provide assignments that keep the kids busy for the summer, and 3) we need to eliminate the summer slide that so many of them experience.  You can imagine my reaction.

Now, I am not opposed to summer assignments, but the kids need to find meaning in them.  Give them articles to read and perform research on or give them experiments to do in their kitchen so they can explain the science behind them (or food is always a great experiment) or let them pick their own book to read to demonstrate their understanding of theme or character development.  Don't give them copies of a textbook (which is what came out of my colleagues) and have them mindlessly complete exercises.  If the teachers don't want to grade it because it is so boring, what makes you think the students will want to do it?

One of my goals this year (a formal list will be coming later this week) is to have the students develop 1 assignment in each unit.  I will give them the requirements and the learning objectives and let them run with it.  If one of my classroom rules is going to be "Think Critically" then I need to give my students the opportunity to do so.

Am I wrong?