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.

29 March 2012

Just kids

I subscribe to the philosophy of Supervision by Walking Around.  You learn a lot about the program in which you work by simply getting out of your classroom, wandering the halls, and listening in on classes.  Since I am not an administrator, I never actually go into the classes, but just eavesdrop.  Since I am in several committees in the school, and eat in the teacher lunchroom, I also hear a lot of teachers talking about their students.

No matter what, I take the attitude of they are just kids.  Kids do dumb stuff sometimes.  Kids don't always make the best choices.  Kids don't always give 100% of their free time to do school work.  Sometimes there are more important things in a kid's life than my class.  But, in the end, they're still kids.  Show them respect, and they will respect you.  Talk to them like they are adults and, most of the time, they will act like adults.  If you are in a meeting about them and they are in the room, talk to them directly; don't talk about them like they are not there.

And, most importantly, talk about them the way you would want others to talk about you.

Just my thoughts.

24 March 2012

Definition of School

A student came to me begging not to do the Flipped Classroom in the 4th marking period.  After going back and forth over why, the only real reason we came up with was that procrastination had taken over and now she was thoroughly stressed out.  I explained that the assignment sheets I give outlines exactly how she could manage when to do each assignment over the course of the unit so if she sticks to the approximate schedule she should be fine.  Her response is what really frightened me.  She said

"I want you to tell me what to do each day and what to learn.  Isn't that the definition of school?"

Really?  REALLY?!  Is that what we are teaching students?  A social studies teacher-colleague of mine used to tell his students to check their rights at the door.  When did schools post "Check your brain at the door"?  

I think we need to change the definition of school.

09 March 2012

Flipping over assessment

Not to give away part of my presentation for the Flipped Class Conference in June, by I have to talk for a minute about how assessment has changed in my class.  While there are still the typical assignments (HW, quizzes, tests, labs) I have tried to not only make everything objective-based, but also put some sort of inquiry into as many as possible.  This has been the most fun in my recent 5pt quizzes.

I have always used my quizzes as a way to do a quick check for understanding and to keep the students studying the material throughout the unit instead of the night before the test.  When I started the last unit I was looking at the typical problems I put on the quiz and decided that it bored me to even type them up in the first place.  The problem was a Boyle's Law problem (Pressure and Volume are inversely proportional) and I remembered I had this great demo involving shooting a slug of potato across the room.  So, I told the students to take out a half sheet of paper, did the demo (spraying potato everywhere) and told them to explain the demo using what they knew about gas laws.  The entire class got a perfect score.  But the best part was they had fun for that quiz.

So we are now in the Solutions unit and I needed to come up with a good quiz question.  I focus heavily on making solutions and what better way to demonstrate that you can make a solution than by making pink lemonade.  I told my students they were to calculate and write out the procedure for making a solution that was no less than 1.0 in concentration (Molarity or molality was up to them) and then make the solution.  They jumped right into it and immediately did it wrong.  They didn't know they were wrong when they did the calculations because everything looked perfect.  It was when they went to make the solution and overflowed the cup that everything became clear.  What students typically forget is that when you add solute to solvent the volume increases.  Easy to say, but better to experience.

One of my best students gets a 4/5 because of this and begins to negotiate with me on how he can earn back the lost point.  So I looked at him and said that if he can figure out the concentration of a solution made from directions on the back of the container, he could have his point back.  And off he went.  15 minutes later he is back with all of his calculations.  The reason this was challenging is the measurements are in fluid ounces for the total volume and tablespoons for the powder (which we assume is just sucrose), neither of which are units of measurement we use.  I look at his calculations and notice that he had converted everything to grams and milliliters.  As soon as I open my mouth, he interrupts with "I Google'd the measurement conversions that I didn't know."  Well, it turns out that pink lemonade has a concentration of about 0.237M.

The key to this story is that when you move to the Flipped Classroom everything is about the conversations. There is no question that this student understands the material.  Sure I could have given him a traditional written quiz and he probably would have earned the same grade.  But he was far more engaged and will probably remember what he learned from this experience far longer than doing some problem from a textbook.

08 March 2012

What I learned this week

This has been an interesting week which really gave me a different perspective on things in my life. Here is what I have learned:

  • Standardized testing is good for no one.  Not the students taking it, not the teachers proctoring it, not the administrators organizing it.
  • The carrot and stick method doesn't really work.  It works less when the carrot is replaced by another stick.
  • Administrators and teachers need to find a way to work together to drive learning in the school on a daily basis.  Nothing happens if only one of the groups is doing the work because the other will get resentful.
  • Educators can be really petty.
  • Trying to organize a large gathering while running a fever and hacking up a lung is really not a good idea.
  • Trust in the creativity of your students.  Also, they love to talk about the cool things they are doing in their classes if you give them the chance.
That's it.  It's been a pretty busy week.