31 December 2012

I'm tired

I'm tired of the term "Flipped Classroom."  Besides the fact that it is a mouthful to say, no one seems to like it.  Apparently no one likes the idea of having the students more engaged in class with less HW to do outside of school.  No one likes the idea that the teacher, by no longer taking up time to lecture, no longer the focus of the classroom, is now free to converse with students for longer periods of time.  No one also seems to like the idea of experimenting with new teaching methods, but rather would prefer to judge them based on articles and blog posts on the Internet.

So I am tired of using the term Flipped Classroom to describe what I am doing.  When I cut my students' workload in half by using this method, I got attacked.  When my students began to do more inquiry labs, which require more time on everyone's part to develop, people questioned my methods.  When my students' grades in class began to rise and the lowest anyone earns is the grade that they want to earn, I am told I inflate grades (despite the fact that my students complete 3 times more work to get that grade).

So I am going to just use the term #LEARNING.  Maybe it will involve #flipclass, maybe PBL, maybe lecture, maybe discovery, maybe Mastery.  It might even have a little bit of a lot of things.  But no matter what method we choose to use, it will be about my STUDENTS  and their LEARNING.

Now that's something I can't get tired about.

27 December 2012

New Year's Resolution

A few years ago I decided never to make a New Year's Resolution again.  Usually I failed to complete them and felt like a failure at the end of the year instead of looking toward all of the good things that could happen in the following.  A week ago a student came to interview me for a piece he was doing on New Year's Resolutions for Video Production class and I sent him away disappointed because I refused to make one.

But today I had the realization that I need to make one, but it is going to be the same every year from now on.

Do one audacious thing this year?

I am still reading In the Plex (see previous post), and they were talking about these quarterly objectives/benchmarks that every employee must keep.  The first thing that amazed me was that every employee had to publish them on the company website with their bio and picture (can you imagine publishing your Professional Growth Plan to your class website?).  The second, was that you were not expected to fully achieve your goal each quarter.  In fact, you were actually in danger of being fired if you exceeded your goal because it shows that you played it safe and were "audacity challenged."

We can't keep playing it safe.  We have to be better next year than we were this year.

So, any suggestions?

23 December 2012

In The Plex

I picked up a copy of In The Plex:  How google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives.  We hear so much about how Google is changing the world, I figured there has to be something to learn from their experiences.  I am only about halfway through it (and to be honest I haven't read everything as it tends to get too technical for what I am looking for), but there are number of quotes that I wanted to share, along with a couple of ideas of my own.

We are focused on users.  If we make them happy, we will have revenues.  We focus so much on test prep, but if we provide more meaningful coursework for the students, they will work harder to learn the material.  The standardized test scores will take care of themselves.

A healthy disregard for the impossible.

The only true failure was not attempting the audacious.

If we are not a lot better next year, we will already be forgotten.

Their hires would show traits of hardcore wizardry, user focus and starry eyed idealism.  I think this is a great philosophy to use when hiring new teachers.

Discipline must come through liberty.

Nothing a teacher does should destroy a child's creative innocence.

Our core values should be manifested in our work environment.

Anyone hired...should be capable of engaging him in a fascinating discussion should he be stuck at an airport with employee.

Can you imagine sitting in an interview and the principal turns to you and asks "Do you have a healthy disregard for the impossible?  We are only looking for educators who view teaching as a form of wizardry."  I guarantee if asked this you would look at the principal like he/she was nuts, thank him/her for the interview and quickly run to your car.

But is it too much to ask that teachers have starry-eyed idealism?  Or be interesting enough to hold up their end of a conversation about almost any topic?

One of the problems that so many of us run into is making our "crazy" ideas (or our Googliness) work within the traditional system.  Google was able to set up their ideals so easily because they were a start-up.  In fact, many of their employees left larger companies like Microsoft and Apple for the, at the time, smaller Google because of it radical philosophy (others did the reverse move for the opposite reason).  Would the Google founders have been successful if they had instituted these radical ideas in an already established environment?

When you take educational administration classes, they tell you not to make major changes for 6 months to a year.  First you must sit back, evaluate the system, and gain the trust of the staff.  But a year is a REALLY long period of time.  What steps should a new administrator have to take in order to bring some of these ideas to fruition?  Is it too much for a school/staff/student body to handle these changes right from the start of school?

Thoughts?

18 December 2012

Perspective

Something happened today which kind of shook me.  A student is having some internal conflict problems and it is spilling into school.  I don't want to go into it all here.  Needless to say, I originally wrote this long post about going back in time and yelling at teenage me because I see a lot of what this kid is going through in what I went through 20 years ago (damn I am getting old).  It was very cathartic.  I was emotional writing it, shaking and almost to tears.  But when I got to the end I was fired up.  I remembered the speech I gave at my high school graduation, something that has stuck with me ever since.  It is a poem written by Charles Osgood in 1986 and I think what he says is truer than ever.  I hope it means as much to you as it has to me.  The following is the only part of my original post that I felt was worth keeping.

We have a real problem with mediocrity in this country.  Too many people are perfectly fine living simple lives where they have no problem never meeting their full potential.  Pretty Good Isn't Good Enough.



30 November 2012

"It's fricking blowing my mind"

My Honors Chemistry class is just starting to learn about the mole.  For HW (the first one I have given since September) they had to watch the following TED video:

While it doesn't teach them how to use the mole, it got them really excited to learn about how to use it in chemistry.  I started the class with a DO NOW
What, in your every day lives, could be expressed in terms of moles?
I gave them a chance to consider it and then discuss with their groups.  We got some really good answers like sand on the Jersey shore, Doritos, and hair on a human head.  I let them figure out how to calculate hairs on someone's head (someone used their iPhone to Google how many hairs are on a human head.  FYI 90,000-150,000) and we figure it is somewhere in the range of 9x10^-24; they decided that it was not at all useful for every day things.

Then the questions started.
"What if we added up all the hairs on every human head on the planet?"
"What if we added body hair?"
"Eyelashes?"

Someone grabbed a computer and started Googling and found that if you added up all of the cells in every human on the planet, you would only have about half a mole.

The mole is still not useful because the numbers are still unbelievably small.  So then I pull out 1 mole of water (18mL) which is about the amount that fits in the palm of your hand.  

One girl says, "Wait. That's 1 mole? You mean that small amount of water is the same as if we covered the Earth in 5 miles of donuts?! This is fricking blowing my mind!!"

I love it when it clicks.

27 November 2012

Excessive talking

A former student of mine was given lunch detention by a substitute for "excessive talking."  Our school policy is if a referral is written you get detention or some other punishment depending on the "crime."

But maybe we are looking at this all wrong.  Maybe we should tap into the skills of the kid instead of punishing the behavior for lack of obedience.

What if...
http://goo.gl/grdFL
  • the excessive talker was put on the debate or forensics team?
  • the kid who drew graffiti in the bathroom was asked to design a mural for that same bathroom?
  • the kid who cut class to smoke outside was asked to be part of the leadership team for the REBEL anti-smoking club?
  • the student who hacks the school firewall is hired as an IT person to design safer Internet protocols for the school?
  • the kid who is always tipping in his chair (or worse, breaking furniture), works with the administration to find furniture that is more comfortable and suits the students' physical needs?
  • the student who cuts school is found an internship to give him meaningful work to do during the day?
Obviously, there are indiscretions that require actual negative consequences.  However, what these students must do as "punishment" should not just eliminate the problem, but should create better people in the end.

Just my thoughts.

26 November 2012

What I've been up to

I have been terrible about blogging this school year.  One of the reasons I started this blog is to showcase the  fantastic things that happen in my classroom so I want to share some of that with you.  This year I decided to balance the boring aspects of my curriculum with some exciting (an over the top) activities to get my students excited about science again.

At the end of October, my supervisor asked me to perform a science demo for a group of 8th graders to keep them from choosing to go to a magnet school in the area.  Originally I was going to go with the typical Hydrogen balloon explosion or even shooting a T-shirt across the auditorium.  But then I came across this video on YouTube.  I looked at this and immediately said "I NEED TO DO THIS!!"

So here is the video of my demo.

I used about 1L of Liquid Nitrogen and covered it with 1500 ping pong balls.  I found them on Amazon and it cost about $100 with free shipping.  I apologize for the shakiness of the video; it was taken by a student on  my phone.

Doing this experiment inspired me to raise the bar a little on my demos.  A few friends of mine took the cornstarch and water demo to the next level by filling a small swimming pool with the stuff.  The video does not contain my friends.  I figured if they could do it, so could I.  I went to a Restaurant Depot near me and bought 300lbs of cornstarch (yes, 300 POUNDS!).

It turned out my pool was too small and I only used 150lbs, but now I have some for next year!!  We added about 10 gallons of water to the pool and, voila!, I turned seniors into Kindergartners.

And let me sophomores truly express themselves

And just let them explore science.

25 November 2012

Can't we all just get along?

If you are a reader of this blog you know that I run the Flipped Classroom.  Lately, this model of instruction has come under fire from a number of people in the education world because of a narrow view of what they see the Flipped Classroom really doing.

Here is what happens in my classes throughout the year:
http://goo.gl/3IGqy
1.  Video instruction
2.  Direct instruction
3.  Group work
4.  Inquiry and problem-based lab assignments
5.  Traditional worksheets and HW
6.  Collaboration on nearly all assignments
7.  Alternative assessments
8.  Traditional Tests
9.  1:1 instruction with the teacher
10.  Peer instruction almost daily

Do all of these happen every day?  No way.  I transition my students so that by the end of the year nearly every one of them happens in every unit.

The problem that a lot of people have with the Flipped Classroom is, to take a mass media perspective, 'the teacher lessons are recorded on video, which is watched at home, and homework is done in class instead.'  While this does happen, this is the most elementary view of this model.  Most of us who have been using FC for more than a year have adopted a large number of alternative methods to use for both instruction and assessment, and are insulted when what we do is boiled down to the above sentence.

But what has been really bothering me is the fact that so many refuse to even see the Flipped Classroom for what it CAN be: a better use of face-to-face time with the students.  This system doesn't work well for every kid.  But, guess what?  No system does!

There are teachers who are absolutely amazing lecturers.  Decades of teaching have given them an amazing presence in the classroom and their lessons are mesmerizing.  But many students don't connect on a personal level because they limits student engagement.  I have seen teachers whose students score 4s and 5s on the AP exams year after year, but who hate the subject matter when they leave in June.

Here's my point:  I don't care what method you use (UbD, POGIL, PBL, or pure traditional), if you are doing what is best for YOUR students then you are ok in my book.  But, don't assume that your way is the only way or even the best way.  Be open to new ideas and be willing to accept others for doing it differently.

For more information, here are a couple of great links that show that the Flipped Classroom can't be summed up in a simple definition:
15 Schools Using the Flipped Classroom
Flipped Classrooms:  Let's Change the Discussion
The Flipped Classroom: Pro and Con

05 November 2012

There's always a need

http://goo.gl/8fScy
When it comes to what's in the best interest of the kids, there's always a need.  In fact, as educators, we should go out of our way to make it a need.

Kids are hurting.  Families are struggling.  Schools need to be a beacon of strength and hope; the crutch and foundation that the community leans on in times of trouble.

When did that change?  When did the school stop being the center of the community?

The better question is:  How do we get that back?

04 November 2012

Normalcy

I am an educator in NJ.  If haven't been watching the news, NJ and NYC were hit hard by Hurricane Sandy exactly one week ago.  The district I teach in is right on the shore (just north of Seaside Heights where many of the pictures of the destroyed boardwalk are from) and my students are going on 7 days without power.  Many were evacuated and are living with relatives in other parts of the state or country.  Many stayed and currently are either running on generator power, living in shelters or have no electricity at all.  Now they are predicting a Nor'Easter to hit on Wednesday with sub-freezing temperatures and possible flooding.  Luckily, no snow is predicted for our area.

In NJ, we have to complete 180 school days for it to count for a year.  We schedule 183 to account for 3 possible "snow days."  My district has been closed for 5 days and is not scheduled to reopen until the 13th which would give us 7 days missing (there were vacation days already in these weeks because of the NJEA Convention).  So, IF the schools have power again and are repaired, the students will have been off for a over 2 weeks.

http://goo.gl/s9Kca
Some of my Facebook friends are saying that if a school can't open then the students should just be allowed to go to whatever district they can to get back "normalcy" to their lives.  Or, if the school can bring in trailers then they should just run classes in them.  Here's my problem:

When did going to school become what "normal" kids do?

I think what people are trying to say is go back to a routine because kids function better on a routine than without.  Schools provide that (sometimes) safe environment to escape to because what happens in a school day is predictable.  But let's create 2 scenarios that buck this notion:

1.  Samantha's lives near the shore and her home was badly damaged during the hurricane.  Luckily, her family evacuated to her grandmother's house, which is 1 hour away in another part of the state.  The district her grandmother lives in has decided to allow Samantha to take classes there until she can return home.  The problem is, none of Samantha's classes match the district she is now living in because they use a very different schedule and teaching model.  Samantha is placed in classes well below her ability, or in several cases, needs to enroll in classes she has never taken before and catch up on all the work she missed in the first 2 months of the year.  Three months of being at her grandmother's, her house is ready and Samantha returns to her home school, but is now extremely behind in every class, causing her grades to drop.

2.  Riley's school was able to obtain trailers while they repair the building so classes are in session.  Unfortunately they have half the number of classrooms they had before so his class has doubled in size even though the classroom is smaller.  His house, on the other hand, still has no power and he must do all of his school work by candle or lamp light.  His family eats out every night so they can have hot food, but return to a dark home.  Because there is no electricity, there is no heat so he also shares his bed with his two younger siblings.

Where's the normalcy?  Are these extremes?  Absolutely.  Are they happening right now or going to happen starting this week when schools resume?  Yes.

I understand that your kids have needs that are met only during the school day, but please find a way to make that happen at home.  My son is in Kindergarten and to keep him active we gave him assignments to do which he will show his teacher on Wednesday when classes start again.  He is even going to volunteer with me to help kids like Samantha and Riley so he can better understand what they are going through.  We need to provide structure in the home first and let school be school.  

We rely so heavily on school to provide "normalcy" for our kids, no wonder teachers are so frustrated in September.  The kids have been "abnormal" for 104 days while on summer vacation.

17 October 2012

Internal Strife

Why do I question myself?

Today was one of those days that ended with a lot of personal reflection.  I heard a lot of comments and criticisms that disturbed me from both teachers and students.  After internalizing a little too much, the following questions kept popping up:

Why am I doing all of this?
Am I having the positive impact I think I am having?
Has my philosophy pendulum swung too far in the non-traditional direction?
Are my students going to be thoroughly prepared for future chemistry classes?
Is all of this in the best interest of my students?

Naturally I love to hear my students to say "I love B days because I get to come to chemistry." and "I was so excited over the summer when I saw 'Seigel' printed on my schedule."

But I still wonder if things wouldn't be easier if I just did it like everyone else.

Addendum:
So I wrote and published the above last night.  Then this morning, after I had arrived at school, I was thinking about it more and had an epiphany which totally changed my mood.  This morning I was kind of in a dark place and for the first time this year, not excited about school, which made me more upset.  So I said to myself, literally out loud in the parking lot, "why do I let others empty my bucket?"  And that was it.  I smiled, stood up straighter and had to start whistling a song that had been stuck in my head (I am terrible with music so don't ask me the name.  The tune is just very catchy).

I remembered that:

  • I have great kids this year.  We are comfortable with each other, laugh every class, and have no problem joking around.
  • I have tried completely non-traditional methods in my classroom and every one of them has been well received by the students, administration and parents.
  • The classroom is a warm, comfortable learning environment (as was expressed by my principal in my post-conference and in my observation) where every student, regardless of ability or desire, is welcomed.
  • In this space students are encouraged to Dare to Fail and given the support they need to do so in a collaborative working environment.
Why am I letting the petty stuff that others fling in my direction pull me down?

You want your class to only be for the elite? No problem. Send all the others my way.

In my our classroom, YOU can learn succeed
Simply Become Who You Are.

28 September 2012

A better use of time

I thought I lucked out this year by being assigned lunch detention as my duty.  This would be a great opportunity to sit in a room by myself and grade papers.  Sure, once in a while some student would get detention, but that shouldn't happen that often.  

Well, except for the first 2 days of school, there has been someone in there every day with me.  Still, not so bad and can still get a lot done.  Then the rules came out.
http://goo.gl/3AJQo
No cell phones
No talking
No ipods
No sitting near each other
No sleeping
Students are to do school work or sit quietly
Students are expected to have the same behavior as found in your classroom

I had been struggling with some of these rules as I see the fact that the students are being pulled away from their friends and put into a room with no windows for 52 minutes as punishment enough.  But the last comment is what was really bugging me.  If you are a reader of my blog you know that I encourage collaboration, cell phone use, iPods every single day.  My students are encouraged to make the classroom as comfortable a learning environment as possible.

So Thursday comes and a student walks in absolutely radiating anger.  This was now his 7th day of detention out of 10 days of school.  He had no school work so he spent about 10 minutes muttering a stream of very unpleasant phrases while he colored on scrap paper.  He put on his iPod at some point when I wasn't looking and I only noticed it because the music was loud enough for me to hear.  I told him the rule on iPods, but since it calmed him down (music soothes the savage beast?) I let it slide.  But this angry teenager got me thinking:
  1. If detention is designed to be so miserable that no one wants to come back, why is this student back for the 7th time?
  2. This student is going to sit in a room for 52 minutes and fume over the fact that he is there.  Now he is going to be released to a classroom for 80 minutes where he is likely to lash out at another student, or worse the teacher, and get suspended for some new infraction.
On my drive home, I decided that I didn't want lunch detention anymore because it went against everything I believe in.  Isn't the point of being an educator to develop relationships with the students and to find innovative ways to educate them about the world around them?  So as I am discussing my day with my wife a thought popped into my head:

If a student was found to be on drugs during school, the school would find ways to help the student get over the addiction and rehabilitate his/her life.  Why don't we do the same thing with lunch detention?  If a student is being assigned to multiple detentions, shouldn't we be taking steps to stop the bad behavior in the first place?

Here's my idea:  develop a character building program within lunch detention.  We have different punishments for different offenses so we will develop a tiered system depending on what the students have done.  If a student is 1st time offender and is only given 1 day, they may get nothing.  A student who has received several days or is returning for a different offense might have to watch a TED talk and complete some critical thinking questions.  A student like I mentioned above might have to read a thought provoking book, again with guiding questions, and discuss what his thoughts were with the lunch detention proctor.  In all of these, the students would report back to the administrator who assigned the detention to build that relationship, measure growth and understanding, and have meaningful conversations about the behavior.

Doesn't this approach make a lot more sense?

If your school is using something like this, I would love to hear about it.  All thoughts/comments are welcomed.

25 September 2012

Conflicted

I have been coming home frustrated this school year and it wasn't until today that I figured out why. I have fantastic students. I am lucky enough to teach classes that I want and do not have to share a classroom. At first I thought it was the transition back to the block that was getting to me but lessons have been going pretty smooth. Then today as I was reflecting on the day on the drive home I kept coming back to the thoughts I had in my last post: why am I teaching this?  Not why am I teaching this topic, but why am I teaching this?

My goal this year was to flip the mindset of my students first (paperless labs using Google docs, focus on inquiry, non-traditional seating, using personal electronic devices every day). Really get them to see my classroom as a different learning environment. While many of the new things I have tried have gone very well, I am in a very boring section of the year without many activities and a lot of notes.

I AM BORED.

I am so disappointed in my teaching because I am not doing the innovative things I want to do because I am just trying to cover curriculum. I need to get back to the flipped classroom. The boring instructional stuff needs to move out of the classroom and our time together need to be more meaningful.

There needs to be a better use of our face to face time.

My favorite section of the year doesn't start for over a month.  Many students are still interested in the class, but I am losing those on the fringes.  I can't skip this information, but there needs to be a modification on how it is presented.  My computer is being fixed tomorrow so things are going to change.  We need to move forward.  The classroom needs to have more voices other than mine.  All of the desks are arranged in pods, but I am not doing anything to build collaboration on assignments.

http://goo.gl/fKNcH
I wanted to hold off on introducing instructional videos until the mindset has been shifted.  I don't know if my students are fully where I want/need them to be, but the focus needs to be moved off me.

Do I stick with my original plan and wait until they are better prepared or do I jump in earlier now that the foundation mostly set?

Help?!

21 September 2012

Moving toward creation

One of my unofficial goals this year is to move my students away from consumers to creators of content.  Every year I give the typical Adopt an Element Project.  It has morphed several times, but in the end it is simply a research paper in which students regurgitate on paper what they found online.  I have been experimenting with alternative assessments and this seems like the perfect opportunity to try something different.

So this year the project took on a different focus. I put the following up on the projector:

What would the world look like if [Your Element]...

  • was never discovered?
  • was solid/liquid/gas?
  • was flammable?
  • was used as currency?
  • was poisonous to humans?
  • was/wasn't a precious metal?
  • was non-reactive?
  • was the building blocks of life?
After picking one of the questions above, the students are basically assigned to create an alternate reality in which the question would be true.  For example, if the selected Aluminum, the question they chose might be "What if Aluminum was flammable?"  Now, they can't just say "Well, we wouldn't have Aluminum foil or Aluminum cans because they would explode in our houses."  The whole point of this is to think outside the box and determine what WOULD we have.  Find alternatives, create new worlds.  If we don't have aluminum foil, what metal would be substituted.

Some elements are hard (Oxygen, Nitrogen, Hydrogen) because they have such an important role in our world.  I am hoping that these students really step up and push their imaginations to make something amazing.

The final product will be presented to the class in about 5 weeks in a 2-3 minute presentation.  They can use Google presentations, Prezi, Animoto, interpretive dance, basically anything but a Microsoft product.  Many of the students stumbled a little today as they began their research but I will check in with them in 2 weeks.

I am really excited for the student who asked permission to make a children's book!

Why am I teaching this?

Just as a preface, this post will focus a lot on my chemistry curriculum, but it applies to most courses these days.

At the beginning of every year, I give my students a Student Info Sheet to fill out.  One of the questions on there is "What 1 question do you have about Mr. Seigel?" and the most popular question every year is "Why do you love Chemistry so much?"  It is a pretty simple answer:  cool stuff happens.  I mix 2 clear liquids together and get a yellow solid; I put this metal in water, bubbles appear and it catches on fire; 2 solids are shaken in a flask and frost forms on the outside of the glass.  How could you not love chemistry?!

My love of chemistry stems from chemical reactions.  If I could have my way, that is all I would do all year:  tons of labs involving chemical reactions.  In fact, I could totally run a problem-based lab chemistry class in which we develop solubility rules, activity series, types of reactions all by doing them first and studying the results.

But then the year starts and my first units are The Periodic Table, Atomic Theory, and Bonding and Molecular Geometry.  These are three units that have few labs and are mostly notes and theoretical learning that can't be demonstrated in a HS course.  Sure there are activities that I do, but it isn't the cool stuff that happens later.

http://goo.gl/oXrla
Removing the Periodic Table from this discussion, I keep coming back to the question "Why am I teaching this?"  If I were to skip Atomic Theory and Bonding, would my students still be able to understand chemical reactions?  If you think about it, these are 2 concepts that are relatively new in the world of chemistry.  The modern theory of the atom is only about 70 years old and bonding slightly older than that.  My father gave me a chemistry textbook published in 1896 and the entire thing is chemical reactions.  No atomic theory, no bonding, no Periodic Table.  Somehow chemistry students were able to still study this subject for hundreds of years without any of this knowledge and were deemed competent in the material.  Hell, some of the greatest chemists never knew any of this.

Ignoring the fact that I have a district midterm and final that I have to prepare my students for, what would happen if I just skipped these sections?  What if my lab-based class was actually lab-based?  Am I really teaching the most important information or am I teaching it because someone else told me it was important?

So now I have asked more questions than I could possibly answer.  I would love to hear your thoughts and how you tackle these questions in your course.

15 September 2012

The annual goal setting post

This blog has been a fantastic way for me to formalize the random thoughts that run through my head (and dreams) and typically keep me up at night.  Last year I made the typical post in which I laid out my goals for the year.  At the time it felt very cliche because it came out when everyone was making theirs (duh, at the beginning of the year).  But looking back it was the best thing for me as it focused my brain at the start of the year and gave me specific items to work towards.  It also helped keep out the random musings that popped up that sometimes deter my better intentions.

So, this year, my goal setting post has arrived.  I hope they inspire you to formalize your goals and, if you haven't done so already, blog about them so others can gain inspiration.

GOAL #1

http://goo.gl/Q94Aj
  1. Be a Johnny Crayons.  School has stopped being fun because we have taken the inquiry, the excitement and passion, and tested the crap out of it.  My students came in the first day of school and expected to have notes and quizzes.  Really??  Is that what the real world is like?  I teach therefore not a good judge of the real world.  But, I have never seen one of my friends post on facebook "Started my new job today.  Damn was that pop quiz tough!"  So I am going to make learning more about the fun and less about the curriculum.  I am going to grab onto non-traditional ideas that I see on Twitter and blogs and try them.  What's the worst that could happen?  They fail.  Well, that's #4 on my Classroom Guidelines.  We now have 4 bungee chairs that I bought from Target (students LOVE them), we draw on lab benches with neon markers, and created a classroom PED policy together on gigantic whiteboards.
  2. Technology is more than just a tool.  A lot of people post on Twitter that technology is just a tool; that the content and learning is more important.  While I agree with that in principle, I think this generation is a little different.  I feel like they view technology as learning.  They learn something about themselves as they tackle tech problems and discover things they never knew existed, but was at their fingertips the entire time.  So, technology will be everywhere this year.  Phones and computers will be used whenever and wherever they can find a way to use them.  Labs are paperless, quizzes will typically be electronic (and the occasional test), on the fly research will be conducted.  Let's put those pocket computers to use and stop fearing them!
  3. Change the mindset.  School has become learn in the building, work at home.  Learning needs to happen 24/7 and more importantly, when the students are ready for it.  If that means in my classroom, great.  If it means on the bus ride to school, that's fine too.  This means that I need to make myself and my class available at all hours of the day.  I have given out my email, website, Twitter name, and even my phone number (that's right, my students can text me on my Google Voice number).  Homework can be done on the whiteboards and submitted via picture.  Quizzes can be completed on wireless devices.  Instructional videos are ready on YouTube to be watched whenever.  I need my students to stop viewing my class as something that only happens for 80 minutes a day.  We need to hunt down chemistry in the world around us and bring what we find to class for discussions.
What are you doing differently this year?  I look forward to hearing your goals for the school year.

09 September 2012

Flipping the Mindset

When I first tried the Flipped Classrom, I did it all wrong.  As Aaron calls it, I did Flipped Classroom 101.  I turned my lectures into podcasts which I asked the students to watch at home, and when they came to class they worked on HW assignments, reviews sheets and labs.  While it started out fine, both in the pilot unit and the third marking period, when the topics became really difficult the class became monotonous.  Every day the students seemed to be doing the same thing and every day I answered the same questions.  The mistake I made was not the assignments nor the videos, but the mindset of everyone involved.  The assignments (both completing them and grading them) were driving the pace of the class, not learning.

It had to change.  By the end of the year, class had become boring to everyone involved.  So, when I started again, I decided to throw so twists into the assignments.  Occasionally I let the students opt out of the unit test and submit anything they wanted that demonstrated their understanding of the objectives; inquiry labs began to appear; all of a sudden the days didn't blur into each other.

I realized the problem was still not my assignments (well, not entirely), but the mindset.  Six out of the 7 classes my students took each day were delivered in a traditional format.  Mine was the exception and it was difficult for them to flip on and off the innovative thinking switch.

So this year that's what I am tackling first, changing the mindset.  I am flipping my assessments and how the students behave in class.  Every single kid adapted very quickly to no teacher-led lessons, but not everyone can think critically about the work they are doing.  We will be using Personal Electronic Devices nearly every day, labs will be a mix between inquiry and traditional format, but all will be paperless using Google Docs and neon dry-erase markers, and students will have options as to how they want to submit work (on paper, using white-boards).

If you are thinking about flipping, here's my message to you:  flip your assessments first!  Don't worry about videos as they are pretty easy to do once you get the hang of it.  Change how your students view your class and the learning that needs to be done in it.  Once you get them thinking critically and daring to fail, then go for the full flip.

Oh, and no matter what you do, make sure EVERYONE (that means teacher and students) are having fun doing it!

07 September 2012

W. W. JC. D

Do you know this kid?
http://goo.gl/l5IXG
You have probably seen this photo with the caption "I freaking love coloring!!!!"  I want to be this kid.  I want my passion for whatever I am doing to absolutely explode out of me.  But, more importantly, my students should have this type of passion for whatever they are doing.

A good friend and fantastic teacher is an innovative teacher whose classroom is like mine, organized chaos.  His students are engaged in meaningful activities and the volume in the room tends to grow as the discussions grow more heated.  His colleagues call him Johnny Crayons because crazy, non-traditional ideas tend to be the norm for him.

I have 1 goal for this school year:  BE JOHNNY CRAYONS!  I am going to try every non-traditional, off the wall, crazy idea I find.  If it sound fun, engaging and my students are still going to learn the material, we are doing it.

Every day I am going to ask myself "What Would Johnny Crayons Do?" and then I am going to do that.  I am going to take lots of pictures of the creative work of my students and post it here and Twitter.

If you are doing something creative in your classroom, tell EVERYONE about it!  Open your doors and let everyone see the great things, too.  If you are on Twitter, post pictures and tag every off the wall activity with #JCrayons.

Let's #JCrayons the heck out of this year!

04 September 2012

Invisible

Connected to my post from yesterday, I ran across another tweet that has really bothered me.  One of my students from last year, retweeted something from a student I will have this year.  I am paraphrasing

'I am one of those people who will go through HS and no one will notice I am there.'

This statement really disturbs me.  First, my former student is a wonderful person.  She is intelligent and hard working, and a pleasure to have in class every day.  I always noticed when she was working and when she was absent, but clearly I didn't make enough of an effort to demonstrate that to her.

But now I have an incredible opportunity because I know how this new student feels about high school and I can do something about it.  Every chance I can get I can try to show her that she is important and I know that she is there.  So, to this student and to all the other students I will have this year (because everyone is important to me)


03 September 2012

Life's too short for hate

Since I encourage my students to follow me on Twitter to see the interesting things I am saying, I follow them as well if they follow me first.  As the school year approaches I am seeing more comments that look like this:


I don't think I'll ever fully understand why anyone would want to go back to school. Am I the only one nauseated by the thought? #ItsHell


Thinking of going to school in a week actually makes me sick


Now I know that students have been doing this basically since public school was invented.  The problem I see is that social media intensifies the problem.  Before it was 1 person in his/her room or maybe with a small group of friends complaining.  Now they are making a general post on FB or Twitter and 400 other "friends" are seeing, then liking it or commenting on it, and suddenly it is a misery party.  Others are jumping on there to share sob stories.


The worst part is school hasn't even started!!  This is just what is going through their head; garbage that they are inventing with their imagination.  It could be the greatest year of their life coming and they think life is over.  Sure teenagers are melodramatic, but there is something else going on here.


I feel schools educators parents hell everyone needs to take advantage of opportunities like this.  Let's nip this in the bud and do crazy, memorable things to start the year off every day!  Somewhere, every day, every student needs to find joy in school.  Teachers need to throw the curriculum out for 10 minutes and do an activity, lab, video, ANYTHING that keeps kids wanting to come back tomorrow to see what curve ball we are going to throw at them.


I love the following videos, and they will definitely make an appearance the first weeks of school, but what things do you do with your students to make them love being in school?





21 August 2012

Flying buttress

As I have said previously, I have no problems simply jumping feet first into a new method/technique.  Forget getting your feet wet, I dive in and figure it all out as I go.  However, to make a flipped classroom work really well you need to take it slow.  But more importantly you need to find a good support system.
http://goo.gl/vrkCK
I use the term flying buttress here, partly because I am juvenile and giggle when I hear the word (what?! I work with teenagers every day!), but a buttress is the support used on the side of cathedrals to make it stronger.  The building could stand up on its own with no problem, but it will last longer when additional stresses are applied to it because the weight is distributed through its support system.


More teachers are talking about starting to flip a few lessons.  I ask them their method, what resources they are going to use and if they need help, and I keep hearing things like "Oh, I'll figure it out as I go."  I did that and while I didn't fail, I would have been far more successful if I had reached out from the beginning and asked for help. (probably would have been less stressed too)

If you are thinking about flipping, please check out the Flipped Learning Ning (www.flippedclassroom.org) and get on Twitter and follow the hashtag #flipclass.  There are amazing educators there willing to do whatever they can to provide you the assistance you need to get started.

And, of course, feel free to shoot me questions whenever!

03 August 2012

This sucks

I hate this phrase.  I teach chemistry so this gets thrown around a lot.  While I would love to make my class as real-world as possible, there are just some topics where it is not possible.  The connections are there, but things like balancing reactions and conversions are just mechanistic topics that have to be pounded through and practiced.  So, naturally, students love to say "this sucks" when they are not interested in what we are doing.  One student this year said this, on average, at least once per day.

But here's the thing, when a student says "this sucks" I hear "you suck."  They don't truly hate me, but if I am the one designing the activity that is causing them to feel this way, the negative comments are really an attack on my thinking and teaching.

I wish I had an easy way around this.  Besides designing more creative lessons, which I am always trying to do, what strategies do you have for getting students to say more constructive comments for your lessons?

02 August 2012

Hug it out

Before I say anything more I want you watch the following video:

Now that you are all warm and fuzzy inside, let's talk about building relationships.  It's the first day of school. Students are beginning to roll off the buses, excitement rolling off of them as they get ready to see friends who were missing from their lives all summer, and tackle new teachers with new challenges for the next 10 months.  As they approach the entrance, they look up to see half a dozen students holding up large signs with
http://goo.gl/oeAic
The first reaction would be apprehension, but some would take a hug, some will walk right by, some will run right up and take the sign from us.  But, the hope is some of those kids who really dread coming to school, who move through their day with their head down, who try to hide in plain sight, will forget their troubles and reconnect with some bit of sunshine inside of them.  Hopefully they will be just a little bit more interested in being there that day.

What better way to connect with someone than through a hug?

Oh, and if you want to participate, make sure to check out the Free Hugs Campaign.

18 July 2012

What's the point?

We have to teach a lot of topics in a given year.  I don't know of a single teacher who didn't wish they had more time in the year to cram in a few more of the items that we stuffed into the textbook/curriculum.  If I could create the perfect chemistry class, it would focused around chemical reactions--as much is physically possible.  Chemistry is a lab science in which we study the interaction of molecules in a variety of scenarios.  Yet, an inordinate amount of my time is spent teaching math.  Not just teaching math, but trying to come up with real-world examples of the math to develop "meaning" for my students' question of "Why do we need to know this?"  I understand real-world examples are important, but if I have to manufacture examples, maybe the information isn't meaningful in the first place?

This coming school year we have a challenge.  We are shifting to an A/B Block which actually reduces the time in class by 88 minutes per week, but are not modifying the curriculum nor the district-wide exams.  Some teachers turned to the textbook and started looking at what chapters could be shrunk or cut.  I took a slightly different approach to the problem.

One of biggest pet peeves is "teaching math" inside of chemistry.  While there are obvious places it is necessary (stoichiometry, moles, solutions because they all relate to chemistry), there is one place it is not and that's Dimensional Analysis.  You remember this:  I give you a measurement in feet and ask you how many nanometers it is.  Where's the chemistry in this?  What purpose does this serve in either my class or the real world?  I used say things like "Well, if a person walked up to you on the street and held a gun to your head and said 'Perform the following metric conversion' you would be able to do it", but that's ridiculous.  In today's world, if someone actually did that, I would pull out my phone and GOOGLE THE ANSWER!!  I have a friend who is an actual scientist for a pharmaceutical company and he hasn't performed a metric conversion since he took Physics back in college 14 years ago!

So, why do we continue to teach topics that have no relevance in both our curriculum and the real-world?

Please don't let the answer be "because it is in the textbook."

24 June 2012

My thoughts on #flipcon12

There is so much to say that it is difficult to decide where to begin.  I finally got to meet some of the amazing people with whom I have only ever conversed in 140 character conversations (each of the previous words links to someone's twitter profile).  There were fantastic conversations with people from all over country (and Canada!) who are looking to transform what education will look like in the future.  There will be lots of blog posts talking about what everyone learned or took away from this experience, but I want to focus on something a little bit different.  I want to talk about the sponsors.  No I am not kissing up.  Each of the following companies represent a small group of people who realize that 1) teachers are people who need individualized attention, 2) education is no longer about making cogs in a machine, 3) need our support in helping them help us make significant change in the way education happens in the future.

One evening, each of the sponsors hosted a dinner at a different restaurant.  I had already been to a dinner with TechSmith at ISTE11, and as much as I love those guys (more to come on them later), I wanted to hear what one of the smaller, lesser known sponsors had to say about their company.  Tammy Stephens was our host and she brought us to this fantastic tapas restaurant.  Food was outstanding!  But eclass4learning is a way for teachers to get training on Moodle and for schools to host their Moodle site for a low cost.  While there is a few, eclass4learning helps school districts by taking the administration of Moodle and the need to have extra serves to host it out of the responsibility of the district.  The cost is relatively low considering that private hosting companies are charging $6-$10 per month per site.  The company is based out of Wisconsin and they seen the need to make things as easy as possible on the teachers involved.  They provide webinars and on-site training to get the school up and running.

2.  MentorMob
This was the first time I had the chance to use MentorMob even though I had seen information about them before.  MentorMob was one of the conferences main sponsors and we had the opportunity to visit their offices (2 rooms) in Chicago for pizza and beverages.  The site is a great way for all of the presenters to host their presentation materials in one common location and for conference organizers to disseminate handouts and other information in a paperless environment.  Now, I honestly don't know if I would use it in my class on a regular basis, however, I am definitely thinking about them for TeachMeetNJ in a couple of months.  What struck me about this company was they are just a few people in literally 2 corner offices (the entire company crammed into the small space), but they conduct themselves as if they are giants in the software world.  The employees were extremely friendly and were so gracious to have us there.

3.  TechSmith
I have talked about TechSmith before.  Their products (Camtasia Studio, Snagit, Jing) are all in the top 5 programs that get opened on my computer.  The company sponsored my presentation at NJSTA last October and the Middletown Web Challenge this past February.  I cannot say enough great things about the conferences number 1 sponsor.  Oh, they also gave all attendees a free copy of Camtasia AND Snagit.  At the end of my 2nd presentation, I guy walks up to me and starts talking to me about some of the things I said and how I use TechSmith products in my classroom.  We are talking for awhile, he hands me his card, and I realize he is one of the Directors of the company.  So I am not just sitting with some sales rep, this is a guy who sits with the CEO and advises him on how to run the company.  But most importantly he is really listening to my ideas.  At the end, he asks me to email him and offers to come to my school personally to train my students in how to use Snagit.  How many companies would do this?  Sure they might send you a free software, but how many would volunteer their time to help out teenagers better use the software for learning?

Like I said, there will be lots of people who blog about what they learned from the different presentations, but I wanted to highlight some of the caring companies who are not big names that are truly supporting teachers and students, and trying to help schools really teach 21st century skills.

25 May 2012

Focus

Next year we are moving to block scheduling and this is very frightening for many teachers because we are losing a lot (88 minutes per week in science) from the instructional time.  Having spent the first 6 years of my career on almost an identical schedule as what will be adopted, I haven't really been as concerned with the changes as many of my colleagues.  The focus of too many of our conversations has been on how to get through all of the content in the curriculum.  But this has got me thinking:
http://goo.gl/iSxyz

if we focus on skills, will the content take care of itself?

I was tossing around the idea earlier in the year of revamping how the beginning of the year starts.  In the past, my year started with the typical song and dance on the first day and then we jump right into activities and content on day 2.  I don't want to do that anymore.  My students need to practice and become proficient in some specific skills before we can move forward with chemistry learning.  Here is what I am thinking:

  1. Google Docs--I am definitely moving toward a paperless environment.  I have already moved all of my labs to Google Docs so I think it is time to do it with more of the course.  The best part of the Gdocs is the collaboration and I want my students doing more of that.  Also, becoming a Google Ninja will definitely be a priority on my list of activities for my students.
  2. Search skills--Science is about research and inquiry, and few of my students have any ability to complete in depth searches.  When we start the material, it is going to start with specific web searches and then grow to more open-ended research.  From these searches we will develop the notes for the unit and I will simply supplement whatever is in the curriculum that the students didn't find on their own.  Through this I will also help develop the skills for learning outside of class for when I introduce the full flipped classroom.
  3. Web 2.0 Tools--My students know Animoto and that's pretty much it.  I have found so many great web tools that can enhance their learning and they need to start exploring these.  This will be on-going as we will also be working on incorporating presentation skills into most of these.
  4. Focus on Objectives--Students seem to get so wrapped up in what work they have to do, when it is due and how many points it is worth that they forget about the real purpose of school.  Every assignment that we complete, whether it is just exploration of a web tool or something chemistry related, will be related back to a clearly defined objective.  Part of the final assessment in every section will be a demonstration by the students that they have understand and mastered the objectives.  
I figure if instead of starting the year by jumping into content, and instead focus on skills that can be used all year and in every class, my students will be better prepared for learning.  From there I can integrate the content and let it take care of itself.

I would love to hear how about the changes you are making for the start of next year.  Any comments are always welcomed!

24 May 2012

Jump

Twice in the last year, administrators have told me I am "too passionate."  Out of curiosity, when did passion become a bad thing?  I have been pondering this question for the last few days and I think I have an answer.

Passion is a negative when the status quo is the objective.

Now when I say status quo I am not talking about being stagnate.  You can still be moving forward, but you are following the same 5 year goals that you had 5 years ago.  That isn't necessarily a bad thing, and a lot of good schools are doing this and having great results.  But I want need something more.

I thought of this analogy this morning:  You are standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon.  Far below you is the canyon floor with the Colorado River running through it.  You have 3 choices: sit there with a pair of binoculars and watch the river from the top of the canyon wall, ride a donkey or walk down a twisting path to the bottom, or base jump off the top of the canyon and parachute down.

All three choices get you a view of the river.  None of them is necessarily a bad choice depending on what your intended outcome is.

http://goo.gl/gXwuy
But I am a base jumper.  I love the thrill of doing something that few others are and I love the rush of not knowing exactly how everything will turn out.  I never jump without a parachute (ok, almost never).  I want to help others to learn how to take that first leap and I want an administrator who is going to be standing there handing out parachutes.

So, who's with me?

16 May 2012

Shifting the focus

In NJ, many school districts use an online application process for hiring in which there is a question that reads: "From your point of view, how important is technology in education?"  When personal computers first hit education, they were productivity tools; devices that simply made publications, spreadsheets, and typing documents easier to create.  As they became more advanced, computers turned to devices for consumption of information through CD-Roms and eventually web site searches.  Unfortunately, too many teachers see integrating technology as one more thing they have to do rather than using them in ways to make their lives easier.  I think we need to shift the focus.


Chris Lehmann said in his presentation at ISTE11 in Philadelphia, “technology should be like oxygen; ubiquitous, necessary, and invisible.”  We need to help teachers realize that technology is not something else we have to do, but rather that it can help make our jobs easier and replace some of the things we currently use.  I encourage students using cell phones in my class, especially during lab days.  What better way to document a chemical reaction than to take a picture of it and put it along side a data table on the lab sheet?  Why should students have to make a graph by hand, on graph paper, when spreadsheets will do it for them as well as do the calculations necessary for the graph?  If a student has a question about material from class, why shouldn't I encourage them to pull out their phone and simply Google the response?  Sure they can raise their hand, wait for me to call on them, and hope I have the answer.  But, isn't it better for them in the long run if I teach them to find the answer on their own.


One of the most common phrases in my house growing up was, "go look it up."  My parents weren't shirking their parental duties.  They were teaching me to take ownership of my learning.


We need to shift the focus of technology from "integration into learning" to "ubiquitous part of learning."  We need stop viewing mobile devices as distractions (yes, sometimes they represent that too) and start recognizing the power they have to create stronger students.


Now the question becomes, how to we make this happen?

30 April 2012

Their 20%

Our district requires a research project in the science classes.  This sometimes manifests as a science fair project, but because I was new to the district, I totally missed the deadlines and didn't get the information out in time to have my students prepare something of quality.  So, suddenly it is the last 9 weeks of school and I have to squeeze in this project at the same time as the sophomores (half of my population) are doing their English thesis papers.  I didn't want to burden them with a science project that forced them to study something they have little interest in so I turned to Google.

Google is known for thinking outside the box (actually they redefined what a box is) for the creative projects of their employees.  One thing they are most known for is their 20% time.  One day per week employees are allowed to work on anything that they want to learn and are the most passionate about.  From that time has come Gmail, Google Docs and Google Street View.  Well, if it can work for Google, why can't it work in my classroom?

So starting 2 weeks ago, my students have been given every Friday to work on a project of their choosing.  The only requirements that I gave them was it has to be something they are interested in, they must demonstrate what they learned, and it can't be easily learned through a Google search.  Thus far, some of the projects are:

  • learning how to bake 10 different types of cookies
  • decorating cakes
  • time travel
  • connection between color and taste preferences
  • hair braiding
  • perpetual motion machines
  • Rube Goldberg devices
  • Ben and Jerry's ice-cream
  • relationship between the size of a combustion chamber and the distance a potato will travel in a potato gun
  • meteorology
  • agronomy
  • lock picking
  • the physics of the wiffle ball
  • a history of St. Mark's cathedral
Some students are working in small groups, but most are working by themselves.  All of their work is being stored in a Google Docs collection so I can see their progress and I regularly check in with them on Fridays.  Some students dislike it because it is so open-ended and they just want me to tell them what to research.  But my biggest surprise was from one of my best students who wants HS to simply prepare her for college classes.  She openly said she loves this project because she finally gets time to learn more about a topic she hasn't had time for because school work gets in the way.

I don't know what this project will bring.  All I do know is this year has been about trying new and radical ideas in my classroom and this is just one more stepping stone in that journey.

27 April 2012

Broken

Seth Godin has a take from the Gel conference (also posted on Ted.com) about things that he sees as broken.  Systems or regulations that are in place that don't work and no one seems to be making an effort to fix them.  I have something for Seth's list:  Best Buy.

My laptop broke and I needed the information backed up by Geek Squad (note to everyone: get an external hard drive and back up your data NOW!).  I take it to the store and they are able to do it that day.  I go in the next afternoon to pick it up (Monday at 3pm), I am the 2nd person in line and I wait nearly 20 minutes for the 1 Geek Squad member to help me.

That's not the broken part.  If you have never been in Best Buy, Geek Squad is the computer repair guys and they are at the same very large area as customer service.  At customer service are 3 employees who are doing NOTHING except chatting with each other.  They all made eye contact with me at some point, but never bothered to come over and see if they could help me.  I very clearly was not carrying a computer in my hand so I wasn't look for them to fix a technical issue.  But never once did they make any effort to come around and help me.  The store manager even walked by and never glanced in my direction.

Basically what I saw was a "It's not my job" situation.  Customer service felt it was the Geek Squad's job to handle people in that line, not theirs.  If Geek Squad is backed up, it is Geek Squad's job to get the line down.

BROKEN!

And I am disappointed in a company like Best Buy to train their employees like that.  It is everyone's job to make the customer happy regardless of what department he is in.  Going above and beyond every day should be your normal job duties.

09 April 2012

Flipping my Flipped Classroom

I ran into some problems last week as the marking period was drawing to a close.  Lots of stressed out students who were not good about time management were cramming assignments in at the last second.  One of them even exploded in class almost yelling at me, saying that she used to look forward to my class and now she hates it because of the flipped classroom.  Time to do some serious reflections.

Now, why is it that great ideas seem to come when you don't have access to pen and paper to jot them down?

Of course I am in the shower when I had an epiphany.  Actually it was a series of ways of how I can change the structure of my class to make this method work better for everyone.

  1. Change the structure of the room--I think part of the problem with allowing the students to structure the room is they work with people that are at their level in the material and so have no one to really turn to when they get stuck except me.  If specific parts of the room are focused toward different types of work, it will create more heterogeneous groups.  Three lab benches will be dedicate to lab work this way I don't have to worry about constantly setting up and tearing down labs because all of the necessary equipment will already be there.  The place that students typically need help the most is on homework and review sheets so 1-2 benches will be dedicated for this purpose.  If all of the students at the bench are working on homework, they will give them a better chance of getting immediate help.  This will now leave the desks space for general purpose or test taking.
  2. Redesign the videos--The videos mimic my previous lecture style:  a bit of notes followed by examples the illustrate the content.  One student this year is tried to complete the entire marking period without watching the videos and learning everything from the homework problems or other students.  This got me thinking that maybe the examples don't need to be in the video with the content.  So, the main videos will be strictly content with all examples problems moved to separate videos (think video 1a and 1b to keep them connected).  This will give me more time in the videos to explain content and throw in some animations or other short video clips as illustration.  The videos will also be a lot shorter.
  3. Standard-based assignments--while I started to make this change this past marking period, all it really do is make it clearer what objective the assignments are linked to.  However, I don't feel I could really say whether a student mastered an objective based on the results of the assignment.  So, homework and test questions will be focused on specific objectives first and then have some integrated problems at the end.  Each assignment will also be broken down into smaller sets with fewer points.  They will add to the same in the end, but this will allow me to evaluate them more frequently and give better, more specific feedback prior to final assessments.  
  4. Tests--The tests will also have a radical change to them.  The fact that tests take an entire period really hurts the flow of the class.  Tests will be broken up into 3 parts of 15 minutes each to allow them to be taken over the course of the entire unit.  What does sitting down for a 45 minute stretch of time at the end of a unit really prove about their ability to take a test?  That they can recall information they learned 3 weeks prior?  Since the questions will be focused on specific groups of objectives, as soon as they feel they have mastered the objectives, they can sit for that portion.  If a student wants to take multiple or all of the parts on the same day, so be it.  I used to think that tests were a great way to prepare students for midterms/finals, but how does a 45 minute test on 1 unit really prepare them for a 2 hour semester examination?  I'll let the other courses prepare them for that.
  5. Weekly progress indicators--The number one complaint from the student who hated my class is that she couldn't manage her time properly and needed me to tell her what to do.  Now, I still give the assignment chart which details all of the "due dates," but she needs more.  So each week the students will receive a grade out of 5 based on their completion of assignments/objectives.  If they are on track, they get a 5; if they are behind they get a 0.  I know this is a little unfair, but carrots can be great motivators, especially little ones like this that will add to be about 2 homework assignments by the end of the MP.  Now, unbeknownst to them, the grade will not be averaged into their MP grade, but will still be visible to them and their parents.  
I don't know if any of this will work.  But, what I do know, is what I am doing isn't working for everyone.  Sure most of the class has said how much they enjoy what we are doing, but the ones who don't really, really hate it.  Changes need to be made for that latter group.

I would love to hear thoughts/comments.  Any help you can give is greatly appreciated.

30 March 2012

Their vision of school

We are trying to develop a new vision for the school.  My principal put out a survey asking for our opinion, but I realized that I couldn't make an informed response until I had talked to the most important part of the school:  my students.  So, I tweeted out the question yesterday and followed it up with a polleverywhere.com question. Here are the most common responses:

  1. More and better technology--this makes a lot of sense when our laptop carts are over 5 years old and the classroom desktops are older than that.  Plus, these teens don't know a world without computers or the Internet so technology really needs to be part of everything they do.
  2. Classes focused on specific careers--you would think this would come from my Honors students, but just as many of the College Prep students wanted this.  They said they are tired of taking classes that never seem to help them get any better as students and want classes based around their interests.  Having started my career in a Magnet school, I completely agree with them.  I feel the school-within-a-school or academy model is something that traditional public schools need to investigate and embrace.  If a student wants to be a doctor, they should take classes focused on medicine.  If someone wants to pursue business, why shouldn't they be allowed to take management, finance and entrepreneur classes?
  3. Hire better teachers--I don't encourage students to talk badly about other staff members, but sometimes they need an outlet.  Some of the stories they told me made me cringe and I don't believe it is appropriate to share them here.  However, the class that really focused in on this came up with a list of qualities that they feel every great teacher should have.
    1. Enthusiasm--get excited about what you are teaching no matter how boring it is
    2. Content experts--or at least have confidence that you know what you are talking about
    3. Classroom presence--be the mayor. Move around, talk to everyone, demonstrate control
    4. Outgoing--get away from the desk and get in with the students
    5. Have fun--enjoy what you do
    6. Involve the class in the lesson--even during lecture remember they are more than just note takers
    7. Class plan--don't wing it and if you do, make it look convincing
    8. Clever--be able to think on your feet and develop innovative ideas
    9. Classroom management--both enforcement of rules and keep control of the class
    10. Treat students as equals--never talk down to them
    11. Be open to criticism--and don't attack students who try to offer it
What I found the most surprising was the lack of a specific comment.  Not a single person said "less homework" or "fewer tests."  They always seem to complain about the amount of work they get, but no one really wanted that to change.  Maybe it wasn't at the front of their mind because they were focused on instruction and assessment is usually not seen as a form of instruction.

No matter what, this little exercise demonstrates clearly that when developing a vision for a school, it is absolutely imperative that you review the comments of every part of the school community.  Students want to know their opinions matter.  Give them a say in how the school and I am sure the school will be a better place for it.