30 November 2011

What's the point?

I gave a Quest to my CP classes yesterday and they were less than stellar.  We did all of the HW in class and, for the most part, the kids understood +90%.  We did a lab and they understood that too.  We did a review sheet and review game and they got it.  But the average on the Quest was under 70% (as an aside, 2 students scored above 100%).

I looked at the Quests and realized that it didn't measure what I wanted it to measure.  I want my students to be able to APPLY what we learn in class.  For the HW, review sheet and game, they were allowed to use their reference sheets, but I told them all along they needed to memorize the information on it.  But, for the Quest, no reference sheets were allowed.  Most of the students made their compounds exactly right, but because they didn't remember the names and formulas, they got the answers entirely wrong.  The Quest grading memorization and not application and that is the exact opposite of what I told them we would be doing in class.

So I asked myself "what's the point of this assignment?"  Well, the point was for the students to demonstrate they knew how to name and form compounds.  I couldn't erase what happened yesterday so I chose to put a band-aid on it.  I created a new, slightly shorter, assignment right before class.  I told the students to use their ion sheets to complete the assignment and that it would be averaged into the grade from the Quest.  They were much happier after completing the new assessment because they knew they would get a boost.

I think the real point here is what I need to do moving forward.  Taking a page from Josh Stumpenhorst's playbook, I try not to give HW unless I find it meaningful.  All HW is completed in class with peer and teacher support to eliminate any confusions from the start.  So the problem is in the Quests.  I have to find a way to make the Quests a meaningful measurement of applied knowledge.  I have about 2 weeks before the next Quest so I would love ideas on how to make this happen.


22 November 2011

I allow cheating

I want to be clear right off the bat that I don't encourage cheating.  But, if it happens for a good reason then I just let it happen.  Let me explain what occurred today:

Because my Honors students are working under the Flipped Classroom, my normal 5pt pop quizzes are tough to give because not everyone is at the same point.  In fact, between my 26 students there are usually 6-7 different activities on any given day.  So, I make the questions a little harder and allow the students to take the quizzes whenever they feel ready.  I put a few on there this time that really made them think and some students got stuck so they turned to the person next to them.  Because there are multiple versions of the quiz (same questions, but different numbers), it is harder to directly copy the person next to you.  What my students did was ask how to do the problem and then calculated it on their own.  In the end, they had a higher grade and a little better understanding of the question.

Now, it's a 5pt quiz grade, the lowest 2 I drop at the end of the marking period.  It would probably have made maybe a 0.1% difference in the grade.  But, what happened is a great demonstration of what teenagers do:  when faced with the possibility of scoring a low grade (and potentially looking dumb) they turned to cheating.  Is that an acceptable behavior?  No.  Well, yes.  Ok, maybe.

In reality, it matters not why they are cheating, but what they are getting out of it.  Most of the time when we think of cheating, we immediately jump to the idea that they are doing it to get a better grade.  And, while that may be the case most of the time, here the students were doing it to get a better understanding of how to solve the question.  I know this because I stared at them the entire time they were doing it and they never noticed.  They asked each other questions back and forth until both were satisfied with their answers and then went to get it graded.  They both earned perfect scores.  

In his speech about changing education paradigms, Sir Ken Robinson mentions that in school this is called cheating, but in the workplace it is collaboration.  If this had been a lab, I would have scolded the students for not collaborating with each other.  But, because it is a quiz, I am supposed to punish them with a zero.  What is the real difference between these two assignments?  If they are both checking for understanding, shouldn't they be treated equally?  

taken from fundrips.com
When this happens again (because we all know it will) will I stop it?  Yes....No....Maybe.  Honestly, I don't know.  If I stop this, then shouldn't I stop answering questions during tests?  Clearly the test is not a measurement of the understanding of the material, but how quickly you can figure out the answers on your own with no help.  

I think I have just brought up more questions than I have answers for.  Maybe I should go ask for help.  Wait, would that be cheating collaborating whatever you want to call it?

16 November 2011

Flipped Classroom attempt #2

I changed schools this year so I decided not to flip my honors chemistry class at the beginning of the year.  I learned from my previous school what when you are non-traditional in a very traditional program that has had much success with traditional methods, maybe you need to take it slow.  So, what I did this year was to slowly integrate aspects, philosophies, of the flipped classroom into each unit so that when I did flip, the transition wouldn't be so dramatic.

To be clear, my supervisor, while open to my crazy ideas, was hesitant to let me have full control so I am only flipping in my Honors Chemistry class.  The class is made of 26 sophomores: 12 boys and 14 girls.  While all of my students have computers at home, the level of technology use is extremely varied to the point where I had to show one student how to find my videos on Youtube.  I have 8 netbook computers in the class only because I stole borrowed 4 from a colleague who never uses them.  Otherwise the only other piece of technology in the room is my personal Tablet PC and the school's projector.  

Change #1:  Objective based grading
I wanted the grade in the class to be less about the assignment and more about the objective behind the assignment.  I have 3 objectives for my stoichiometry unit:
  1. Determine the number of grams of a compound produced in a reaction given the amount of reactant.
  2. Explain, citing specific sources of error, why the percent yield of a reaction in a lab was not equal to 100%.
  3. Explain why it is necessary to identify the limiting reagent in a reaction and how it can be used to explain the results of a lab.
Each activity whether it be watching the podcasts, completing a HW, or performing a lab, had one of those three objectives with it.  While all of the assignments were always linked to an objective, this time I just made it more obvious which ones.  I also identified some assignments as REQUIRED and others as optional.  This threw the students off because they saw an assignment name and immediately thought they had to do it.  What I explained was this optional assignments were going to be used as a way to better demonstrate their understanding of the material to me.  Everyone has to do certain assignments as basically a benchmark to compare each student, but the others are ways to help them pull up their grade.  Also, every objective has multiple assignments associated so just because you get a perfect score on 1 activity, doesn't mean you have mastered the objective.  You need to demonstrate it in a variety of ways.

Change #2:  Vary electronic assessment
Even though I use Moodle for my website, not everything runs the way I want it to.  Last year I saved class time by having my quizzes online.  While I initially had that setup, it has failed me so quizzes are going to be done in class as well as the tests.  I had rumors of cheating last year and I want to squash as much of that as possible.  I am trying to integrate more electronic assessment into the class, though.

Change #3:  More problem-based labs
I have always wanted to do this one lab that is adapted from an AP Chem exam question.  The question gives the students a variety of pieces of equipment, a few chemicals and asks them to develop a procedure for producing a specific amount of Barium Sulfate.  It is a great question and the perfect problem-based lab. My labs are typically cookie-cutter labs where as long as they follow the procedure, they are fine.  This will be the first time both my students and I are doing this type of lab and I am excited to see how they handle it.

Change #4:  More examples
One of the most common suggestions I received from my students last year was that they wanted more example problems in the podcasts.  The dilemma I faced was fitting in the information as well as the examples into the 15 minutes (Youtube doesn't allow videos longer than 15 min).  Such an easy, and obvious fix, is to simply make entire podcasts of example problems.  All of the problems come from the Review Sheet and it is just me going over the work.  Using Camtasia Studio makes it simple because I can switch from a document to the PowerPoint and zoom in on the question we are working on.  I don't have to create more problems or make ppts just for them.  Has helped a lot of the students and allowed me to ask more in depth questions during our 1:1 time.

We are only 1 week into a 3 week unit so check back after Thanksgiving to see my update.  I will also post the survey results that I am doing on Stixy.

09 November 2011

Another brick in the wall

Every teacher knows the Pink Floyd song "Another brick in the wall" from The Wall.  I think we all know it because it bugs the hell out of us.  "Hey, teacher, leave those kids alone."  That line kills me because it obviously implies that the teacher is getting in the way of creativity and of the students true passions.  Also that they imply that education is thought control....argh!

As I heard this song on the radio, the image of a brick in a wall is what popped into my head.  It really struck me hard.  If you think about a large brick wall:
Yes, you might see something boring and mundane, or you could see something that represents a piece of the architectural structure that if removed would cause the entire building to collapse.  But, now look at one brick; it doesn't matter which one.  Notice they're all different: different sizes, different shapes, different textures.  What would happen if you removed one?  Would the wall fall down?  Would it even be a little unstable?  Or except for an empty "seat" would you even notice that it was missing?

That is what was going through my head as I was driving to work today.  Are my students bricks?  Being a cog is boring, but without an important cog, the machine stops.  I need to instill in my students the desire to not be bricks.  I don't want them to be cogs either as long as they are the important cog; the one that the machine needs to keep functioning smoothly (the linchpin as Seth Godin calls it).  I want them to be creative, to stand out, to use their talents and passions every day in every situation.  I want them to be unique (like everyone else), but more importantly I want them to feel special.  I want them to be appreciated for what they contribute to my class, my life and the lives of the people around them.

Now, the question becomes how do I do that?

07 November 2011

When to give the test

We are in a weird situation this week in NJ because all schools are closed on Thursday and Friday due to the NJEA state convention.  Combine that with election day on Tuesday (which my school is closed for due to some schools being polling locations) and we have a 2 day week.  Oh yeah, and Wednesday is the last day of the marking period.  So this week is really bizarre.

I don't like to give a major assessment on the last few days of the marking period because that is usually when everyone else gives one.  I don't see a reason to burden my students with one more assessment so I always close my gradebook a few days early.  But, as is typical this year, life got in the way.

Early in the week, I was asked to attend at district wide meeting on implementing Google Apps in all of the schools on Thursday.  This would not allow me to do my typical test review so I moved the test to Monday and the review to Friday.  Then my meeting got cancelled so my students reviewed.  On Thursday night, my son was running a 102 fever which meant he couldn't go to school on Friday so I stayed home with him.  This of course meant the review game was off, but the test was still Monday.  I emailed all of my students on Thursday night to tell them I wouldn't be in school and to tell them all of the answers for the review sheet were posted on the website.

As my students walk in today, some of them are surprised we are still having the test.  Some wanted me to push the test back to Wednesday.  I finished teaching the material on Tuesday and had them review for three full days.  Over the weekend I received exactly 1 email asking questions about the content of the test.

I am sure that some of the nervousness comes from uneasiness about the material, but there is little more that I can do to prepare them.  So, when is the right day to give the test?  How many students complaining about not being ready warrants pushing the test back?  What if one class wants the test moved, but another class wants to take the test?  Is it ok to give a test on different days to different classes?

03 November 2011

Strike one, you're out.

Imagine if sports were really like this?  You get one mistake, one chance to succeed and if you don't, you're done, go sit back down.  It would be ridiculous.  In fact, most sports are designed to give you dozens of chances to make changes and try again.  But, for some reason, in education we too often take the strike on, you're out philosophy.  Let me tell you what happened this week:

I found out that 2 AP Calc teachers in my school decided to try out an aspect of the flipped classroom for a previous unit.  I was ecstatic because I have been told that many of my colleagues are behind the times and that the flipped classroom is just too radical in this school.  So, I practically ran down to the teachers to introduce myself and hear how it went.  It turned out they didn't do it for an entire unit, but for one lesson.  The teachers assigned a series of 5 short videos of college professors teaching several concepts for their students to watch over the weekend and then discuss as a class on Monday.  The teacher I talked to had 3 students not watch the video and the other teacher had nearly half the class.  There were many excuses as to why they didn't watch it, most of them completely lame (like the link didn't work when they should have copied and pasted it into the address bar).  The teacher said that she is not doing this again because it was too unreliable to get the students to watch the videos and be prepared for class.

My heart sank.  She tried it one day, it didn't work, so she is done.  No tweaking, no asking for suggestions.  Just done.  I talked with her about it asking the questions like I always do:  what do you do with kids who don't do the homework?  Are all your lessons only a single day?  What do you do if students are absent?  Just trying to get the teacher open to doing this one more time.  What turned out to be the problem was who was doing the videos.  While the teacher really liked the professor's teaching, she felt the students couldn't connect with him as well as they do her.  She figured that if she did the video herself it would have been more successful.  I gave her suggestions on how to incorporate her SMART board into the videos, to make them short (5-10 minutes) and to get the students to work in small groups rather than following up with a whole class discussion.  By the end of our conversation, she was open to the idea of doing it again, but wants to wait a few months to get things ready.

So, here is my message to those thinking about flipping:
  1. This is a constantly evolving process.  You need to put aside time to constantly tweak what you are doing to make it better.  It is not like a normal teaching unit that you can wait until the summer to improve.  You must make the changes immediately.
  2. Students need to be transitioned.  Start to bring in the videos as added instruction or for those who are absent.  Start doing more collaborative work in the weeks preceding the full flip.  Then they won't be as reluctant to work so much on their own.
  3. Remember that the flipped classroom is about increasing the 1:1 time with the students.  Having them watch videos to then do a full class discussion doesn't really accomplish that goal.  You need to redesign your lessons to get the conversation happening between the students in small groups to allow you to circulate the room.
  4. Plan lots of activities for the varied learners in the room.  You want variety and choice.  Letting them choose what to work on every day will make the class time more meaningful.
  5. Don't look at the Flipped Classroom as a way to get more material covered.  Yes, you will have more time so you could get in more topics, but it would be better if you covered things more in depth.
  6. Don't give up!!  What works for one teacher may not work for another.  The flipped classroom needs to be tailored for your students and your style.  Don't use other's videos unless you know it is exactly, word for word, what you would say.  The kids will tune it out if they feel you are wasting their time.
Give it and yourself a chance and you will see how successful it can be.

02 November 2011

Mole Movie Posters

Every year, the American Chemical Society has a poster contest.  They pick a theme (usually some sort of movie) and the students are to create mole poster based around it.  Unfortunately, the contest is set for 10/23 and rarely am I in the mole conversions unit when it happens so my students would have no clue what they were making this poster for.  So I decided last year to just do it for my classes.  Their assignment is this:

"Recreate any movie poster so that The Mole is the theme."
I am all about not giving specific guidelines so I let them pick any movie and do with it whatever they want.  Some students hand draw their posters, some use Photoshop.  Some pick very popular movies and some pick obscure ones that are their favorites.  The key is the creativity that they put into it.  I also tell them in advance that the class will vote on their favorite and that person wins a prize.  I never tell them what the prize is so they always think it is something really, really cool.  This year the prize was one of those squishy ladybug toys that when you squeeze it, it expands in a different spot.  I am not describing it well, but I found it in the $1 part of Target.

The kids got really into this year and several handed the assignment in days in advance.  They were arguing with each other over who got to do what poster, but in the end I had no duplicates anyway.  I want to share the amazing work they did, so here is the photostream from Flickr.  Enjoy!!

01 November 2011


I rarely do this, but somehow my Honors class managed to convince me to let them bring in food and have a party on Halloween.  While this makes sense on the surface, I am not a fan of food in the chemistry classroom except on rare occasions.  They organized it and we had a ton of great baked goods (should have reminded them we would need drinks).  I gave them 2 rules before anything was distributed:

  1. They must clean the room before they leave so that my CP classes don't get jealous (only my Honors class asked so they were the only ones that got to have a party).
  2. They could socialize and eat as long as they were being productive on the work that was assigned for the day.  Anyone not working would have their food taken from them.
About halfway through the period I look up and my supervisor walks in the room.  I pause in helping a group of students on a problem and survey the room.  The volume in the room was in direct proportion to the amount of food that each student was consuming.  The students rearranged all the desks to better group themselves with friends (something they do normally when working on review sheets or "homework") and from the causal observer, it was absolute chaos.  I mean scary levels of chaos.

Then I started to really examine what each group was doing.  Even though nearly every student was engaged in a conversation, they all were working on either the review sheet, the homework, or arguing about where the QR codes for the scavenger hunt were hidden.  Not a single student was off task.  Several were even giving instructions on how to solve problems to the members of their groups.

After just short of 10 minutes in the room, my supervisor left, and, ironically, the students began to lower their voices.  Some even commented that they saw him walk in and made sure to work extra hard to demonstrate how well I had taught them.  The thing about that was what they were doing didn't look any different from any other day.  

I don't know what was running through my supervisor's head when he left the room.  Sometimes learning is messy (especially in my class) and doesn't conform itself to what we typically think a lesson should look like.  The classroom needs to be a relaxed environment where students feel like they can be themselves, demonstrate learning in ways that are best suited for them, and where they can dare to fail.