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?"

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...
  • 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:
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

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


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.

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.