31 December 2013

My 2013 Reflection

I had 2 professional goals for 2013.

  1. Reach 10,000 Tweets
  2. Do 1 audacious thing
Well, I fell way short of #1.  My goal in 2012 was to increase my tweets from 2500 to 5000 and I beat that easily so I wanted to try and double my number of tweets in 2013.  Even though I didn't hit my mark, I did increase the number of tweets I made to nearly 4000.  

The second goal on my list, on the other hand, I crushed.  You can read about why I chose this goal here.  Being the over achiever that I am, I didn't do 1 goal, I did THREE!

  • Audacious Goal #1--Be the number 1 fundraising team at Relay for Life.
    • Relay for Life has an event in my district every year, but the students from my school never really participated.  Two years ago, one student got 10 of his friends to join him and they fundraised over $1000 together.  So for the 2013, we wanted to get more of our school involved.  Through mostly word of mouth, 90 students signed up.  Since we were extremely disorganized, fundraising really only happened in the second half of April and all of May.  But, in the end we brought in over $20,000!!!  We were the #1 fundraising group at Relay representing 20% of the total for the event even though we were less than 15% of the people there.
  • Audacious Goal #2--Pilot a TED Ed Club
    • So this wasn't supposed to be a goal.  There were no TED Ed Clubs prior to July so I had no intentions of ever starting one.  But the opportunity came up and I jumped at it.  We were one of 25 TED Ed Clubs from around the world this summer.  We continued the pilot through the fall being one of only 150 clubs.  Our application has been submitted to TED to be a full club, allowing us to publish all of our work and use the TED logo in everything we do.  I never knew that I wanted to be a TED Ed Club advisor until I became one.  You can read about some of our work here.
  • Audacious Goal #3--Own a pair of Google Glass
    • When I saw the announcement of Google Glass back in the spring, I said to myself that I needed to own a pair no matter what the cost.  When the application to own a pair was sent out I applied, but I missed the original deadline by a few hours.  Fast forward 6 months and the invitation email was in my inbox.  I have only scratched the surface in December with what I am going to do with these, but I know it will be huge.  Google Glass will definitely be part of my professional goals in 2014.
I have some tentative goals in mind for 2014, but I am going to wait a day or two more before I make them official.

28 December 2013

Challenge Accepted!!

Mr. Brett Clark has given me a Blogging Challenge.  I didn't want to get into the whole process because it is becoming very much an altered form of a chain letter.  However, I do not want to let my friend down (I mean, he did let me live in his basement).  Unfortunately, in my last post, I decided to do many of the things in the challenge so I am only left with the 11 questions that were asked of me:

11 Questions From Brett:
1) What is the most rewarding professional experience you've ever had?  I am very fortunate that I have had many of these over the years.  I have yearbooks with comments from students expressing their gratitude and colleagues that I have been friends with for my entire career despite having changed schools several times.  But, I think one that will always stick out in my mind will be the AP Chemistry student I had in my first year who earned a 9 for her marking period grade.  She barely passed her senior year of HS.  After working for a few years at a Barnes and Noble, she realized she was wasting her life.  She went to community college, then transferred to Rutgers.  She is currently finishing her Masters in Biochemistry.  When she started her MA, she messaged me on Facebook to tell me about everything that happened to her since HS.  She said that one of the reasons she chose biochemistry was because of how much my AP Chemistry class had helped her in college.  She is the perfect example of why not everyone is meant to go to college right after high school and how some people just need time to find themselves.  
2) If you were made the emperor of education, what would be the first 3 things you would change?  First, I would do away with the term "Emperor of Education."  It implies that one person's opinion is more important than everyone else's.  Second, standardized tests that involve scantrons and one right answer would be replaced with meaningful tasks to measure understanding and true learning.  Third, I think more schools need to adopt the academy model of education similar to what you find in Magnet and vocational programs.  Programs that are designed to train you with particular skills.  There would still be a "general studies" program, but gone would be 'home ec' and 'foods' to be replaced with culinary arts.  Those wanting to become engineers would take mechanics classes, electrical design, and team building.  Those not wanting to go to college would do apprenticeships and study to pass their licensing exams in whatever area they choose.  Schools need to find ways to tailor the academic offerings to the students instead of a 'one size fits most' mentality.
3) What was the last book you read for fun? for work?  I always reading several books at a time.  Currently, I am listening to (35 min commute) Ape House by Sara Gruen, reading In The Woods by Tana French, and Flipping 2.0 by, well, a bunch of awesome people.
4) Who is your favorite director? (If you say Brett Ratner or Michael Bay, I may unfollow you.) Steven Spielberg.  But, I was just having a discussion on Facebook about what an amazing director Michael Bay.  He may not produce Oscar worth films, but you cannot deny both his an Ratner's gift for turning our childhood fantasies into reality.
5) If you could be on any TV show, what show would you want to be on?  Big Bang Theory.  I would fit in so well there.
6) Paperback, hardback, or eBooks?  As much as I am in favor of digital textbooks, I cannot read for long periods of time on a digital device.  I love the feel of hardcover books; reminds me of my mom who always felt like reading hardcovers was a status symbol (even though hers almost always came from the library).  In the end I always wait until paperback for a good book.
7) Who's your favorite celebrity to follow on twitter?  I only follow 2 celebrities on Twitter:  Steve Martin and Alton Brown.  Alton Brown's tweets are hilarious because he writes his tweets on post-its. sticks it to the computer monitor under the tweet he is responding to, then takes a picture and tweets that.  
8) How close or far away are you right now from where you thought you would be at this point in your life when you were a kid?  I have wanted to be a teacher since I was 8 (got ya beat Clark!).  Mrs. Platt in 2nd grade is who inspired me.  So I am exactly where I wanted to be.  The adult version wants more, though.
9) What's the most embarrassing hair style you've ever had?  When I was in HS, I used to comb my hair across and it produced this wave effect.  When my hair got too long the wave was more tsunami size.  I definitely have pictures around, but I don't want my students who read this blog to see them.
10) I always loved how baseball players have a song they walk up to when they bat. What song would you pick?  Wait and Bleed by Slipknot.
11) What's your favorite browser and how many tabs do you have open? (I'm really looking for affirmation that I'm not the only one with an addiction to tabs.)  I am Mr. Google (currently on a Chromebook) so it is only Chrome for me.  I have 5 tabs open.  I have an unconscious thing about groups of 5.  My wife, on the other hand, is a tab junkie.  She doesn't close anything, not even programs she is no longer using.  Her phone will easily have 30-40 tabs open and her computer will have the same.

Now, if you want to participate, feel free.  You can answer the 11 questions Brett asked of me, the 11 questions that I stole in my previous post, or the 11 that I have below.  If you do decide to do the Blogger's HW, please leave a comment with a link to your post.  Thanks for reading and sharing!

11 Questions for You:
1.  If you were going to get a tattoo, what would it be and where on your body would you put it?
2.  You find a old, tarnished lamp on the beach.  You rub it and a Genie pops out.  What's the 2nd thing you ask for? Don't forget about the 3 rules of wish giving
3.  What is your favorite TED Talk?
4.  Puppies:  cute or ugly? (please include a picture as part of your defense)
5.  Deep Dish or NY Style?
6.  If you could be an educator anywhere in the world (besides where you currently live), where would it be and why?
7.  What is the best blog post you have ever read or written?
8.  What piece of technology do schools need to use or use better?
9.  What one politically correct term should be banned?
10.  How many licks does it take to get to the center of a tootsie roll pop?
11.  What's the coolest thing about science you have ever learned?  (thank you to my wife for suggesting this one)

23 December 2013

A Blogger's HW

I have not been reflective enough this school year; at least not here and not in a formal manner.  A random tweet came up about The Homework Meme.  While I am not interested in participating in the actual meme (still not sure what a meme really is and why they are so popular), I thought some of the topics would make for an interesting blog post.  Also, it would give me the kick in the butt I need to write more.

1.  Share 11 Random Facts About Myself
  • I have been in 2 movies.  I was at a Mets game with my father and grandmother and they filmed the crowd to use in a scene for Three Men and a Little Lady.  Then a few years ago, I was visiting family in Pittsburgh and while at a Pirates game, they were filming a scene for Abduction with Taylor Lautner.  We were half a section over from the filming and saw him.  If you slow the movie down, you can see an extremely blurry view of us.
  • I once drove from NJ to Vegas in 41 hours.
  • As of this posting, I am one of only three people in NJ with Google Glass and the only educator in the state.
  • Despite my occupation and what everyone thinks about me, I have a serious fear of talking in front of a large group of people.
  • My first three part-time jobs all went bankrupt within a year of me quitting.
  • One of my many summer job experiences included working in a butcher shop.  Learned a lot that summer!
  • You can find my name on Wikipedia.
  • I name all of my cars.  It is something I picked up from my childhood best friend.  Penelope, Clarise, JoJo, Portia have been mine while Amy and Sadie have been my wife's.
  • I have a hard time creating lists that contain more than 5 things on them.
  • I could say chocolate before I could say mommy.
  • If I could meet anyone it would be my sons in 30 years to see what they are like when they are my age now.

2.  11 Questions from The Homework Meme
  • If you weren't in education, what would you do instead?
    • I am fascinated by pyrotechnics and fireworks.  I think it stems from my love of science and chemistry, but it is also because they are so amazing.  It is a controlled explosion that produces wonder and awe.  How could you not love them?
  • Pencil or Pen?
    • I was raised in school to always use pens.  If it is not neon, I won't pick it up.  But, I lean toward pencils now.
  • Last Book You Read
    • I am currently in the middle of Ape House by Sara Gruen.  Her previous book is Water for Elephants.  It is pretty good so far, but I am hoping it gets a little better in the middle like Water for Elephants did.
  • Guilty Pleasure
    • Twizzlers.  I bought a 4.5 lb bag at Hershey Park this summer and ate it myself.  I would have eaten it that day, but my wife wouldn't let me.  I actually ate a 1lb bag while watching a movie and made myself sick.
  • Has tech made your life easier or harder?
    • Yes, but in many ways I have had to work so much harder because of it.  But, overall, I can't imagine my life without it.
  • If you could give your younger self advice, what would it be?
    • It is all worth it.
  • What is your favorite blog to read?
    • There are several that I really enjoy and several that I like to read because I always learn something new and several that I read for both reasons.  I would hate to say there is one that is my favorite so I linked three here.
  • Would you ever wear orange pants?
    • Hell's no.  But I do have a pair of orange socks with black dots.
  • What is the one thing you hope to do in the future?
    • I want to win an award.  I was watching the #EduBros Award show and was thinking that I want to be nominated for something next year.  
  • Favorite thing to do on a Friday night
    • Watch Grimm.  Love that show!!
I tend to write in pieces.  This post took 7 days to put together.  I promise to make a better effort in 2014.

15 December 2013

Being a Google Glass Explorer

I have been obsessed with Google Glass since I first saw this video on YouTube.  I showed it to my Honors class at the time and said that if I was given the chance to buy one I wouldn't hesitate.  The original pilot for Glass included only industry leaders and companies looking to design apps for the device (now called Glassware).  About 6 months ago, I saw a tweet announcing that they were looking for additional Google Glass Explorers for the second phase of the pilot.  I don't know how I forgot to follow the link, but by the time I remembered, I literally missed the application deadline by less than 6 hours.  I submitted an application anyway and got a very nice email telling me that the deadline had passed, but they would be happy to keep me in mind.

Fast forward to this past Monday.  I open Gmail to find an email from Google Glass telling me I had been accepted into the 3rd pilot and I had 7 days to decide if I wanted to pay the large price tag for one of the devices.  The longest part of the decision making process was figuring out which color I wanted (of the 5 colors, only Tangerine and Sky Blue were left).  I literally ran across the hall to a colleague and asked her to help me make a life-altering decision.  And Tangerine it was!

I ordered the Glass on Monday at 12:30pm EST.  Received an email that my order was being processed about 3 hours later, and another email at 3:30am Tuesday saying they were shipped UPS.  Then came the email at 9:30am THAT SAME DAY saying that UPS tried to deliver them, but I wasn't home.  By 5pm I had the device in my hand.


It's been nearly 2 weeks and I love them.  There are some problems that I will go into in a different post.  I want to talk about some of the projects I am getting involved in to really impact education.

  1. Broadcasting lab experiments--I have a student on home instruction because of having heart surgery and is going to be out for at least a month.  Since I run a flipped classroom, my lessons are already on YouTube so she doesn't miss any of the material.  But, she is going to miss all of the labs we do.  So, one of her friends in the class is going to wear Glass while performing the lab and do a Google Hangout with her.  Labs are performed on Google Docs so the girl will be able to record results and observations right along with her in-class lab partners.  Connected to this idea, we will also be recording our labs and posting to YouTube.  There will be no missed classes anymore.
  2. Art from start to finish--I can only do so much in my room, so I am expanding to the arts wing.  I saw a post of a 4th grade teacher who had her students wear Glass during their art time, recording the entire process.  Working with several students, we are going to record the entire Art process from initial brain-storming and rough sketches to the final product.  All of the time will be recorded as a video, edited together, and run at triple speed to create a 5 minute video of the entire process.
  3. A concert from the perspective of the band--unless you played an instrument, you have no idea what it's like to actually sit in the band while they are playing.  Working with one of our spring concerts, we are going to have a member from each section of the band wear Glass during their final rehearsals.  All of the videos will be edited together to show what a song looks like from the stage.  Unfortunately, Glass came 1 week too late, otherwise we were going to record the marching band performance from the perspective of the band.
  4. In the show--we have several fundraisers in the spring including Dancing With the Teachers.  I think it would be amazing to live broadcast the performance on YouTube so that those who can't make the performance can still witness everything live.
These are just some of my initial thoughts after a week of use.  My students have been having a blast taking pictures of random things in the classroom using Glass and are fighting for the chance to record their labs.  I can't post pictures of my students so below are some pics I have been taking with Glass.
This was my very first picture using Google Glass.  My sons have been obsessed with it, especially my older (not pictured).  He is a real technology junkie.
Glass has a Translate feature.  The original picture is bottom left.  In the upper right you can see how it translated the text using augmented reality.
We got a couple of inches of snow last week.  I was testing out how fast the camera worked on Glass.  You can see just to the right of the garbage can the snow ball my son was throwing at me.  
Google+ has added some interesting features called Auto Awesome.  The snow effect is caused by that.  On Glass, you can make Vignettes, which is basically a picture within a picture.  I downloaded a holiday theme and added it to the upper corner.
The shimmering lights is another Auto Awesome effect.  Again, I used the Vignette feature.
 I think the best part of the camera is how fast Glass takes a picture.  There are so many times that by the time I get my phone out, open the camera app, the opportunity has passed.  Now I have the picture within seconds.

I will post more about my experiences as they happen.  Big things happening in class this week so another post coming by Friday.

03 December 2013

You know who's awesome?

Ms. Flood is awesome!

My older son qualified for the 1st grade Gifted & Talented program; something both of his parents
participated in.  We were very excited because he earned his place due to his creativity and imaginative problem solving skills. It wasn't test scores nor teacher recommendation, but the traits we value most in our children.

Since the teacher is shared between multiple schools and my wife and I are both educators, we asked for parent-teacher conference outside of the normal scheduled time.  We feel it is very important to meet our children's teachers face-to-face.  Ms. Flood agreed to meet us, but the only available day was a Friday afternoon at 3:30.  +1 in the awesome column for a Friday afternoon conference.

Our conference lasted nearly an hour because my wife and I were fascinated by everything Ms. Flood was saying.  She tells us she threw out the curriculum because it didn't put enough emphasis on things like problem solving skills, collaboration, and creativity.  Right now they are designing their own lunchboxes.  They have to create blueprints, collect materials and physically build the entire thing.  Nothing is "HARD" in her room; everything is a CHALLENGE.  When someone is struggling, she has the other students help instead of the answer always coming from the teacher.  The homework is to analyze things in their own world to see how they can be improved upon and have more creativity added to the design.  These are engineering concepts the teacher is teaching them in FIRST GRADE!  +2 in the awesome column.

I tell Ms. Flood about the science demos I had done that week for my son's class and told her it would be great to partner on something for the entire first grade.  Since she has a background in science (that's right.  An elementary person with a real science degree) she was very eager.  Now we are going to create a STEM challenge night for parents and students that are going to involve a variety of engineering challenges throughout the school to emphasize everything that we both value.

My son has been very lucky in the teachers he has had over the past 2 years.  They are caring and creative educators who always put students first.  I know that won't always happen, but I am glad it has because he really loves going to school every day.

14 November 2013

The purpose of standardized tests

It was explained to me that the purpose of standardized tests is to measure a student's level of retention of material.

I don't disagree with this statement, but it shines a light on the fundamental problem and philosophy of standardized tests.  By default, this assessments can't require critical thinking or problem solving, and the primary skill a student needs to be successful is a strong memory.

Last year, a former student would use my room during lunch to tutor students in other classes.  One day, he was trying to explain how to solve a particularly difficult math problem.  One of the students in the group turned to him and asked him how he could possibly understand how to do this when no one else in the class did.  He said that when he was in my class, I had the students watch videos that explained topics in the class.  Whenever he doesn't understand what his other teachers are saying, he just goes on the Internet and finds other resources that explain it in a way he understands.

cenblog.org
To all my students who read this blog:  I am not preparing you to win at Chemistry Jeopardy.  Hopefully,
during our time together, I will help you develop the skills to solve problems creatively and, if nothing else, learn how to find the answers you seek.

Winning at Jeopardy doesn't prove you are smart.

Creating the show Jeopardy does.

23 October 2013

Best. Meeting. Ever.

We had another TED Ed Club meeting this afternoon.  These meetings always have 3 parts:  evaluation of our recent project, discussion about the newest TED Talk, and setting an agenda for the next meeting.  After school meetings are tough because so many students are involved in extra-curricular activities that they just can't find time for everything.  But, in the end, we had about 15 attend with a few of those arriving late.

Our latest project involved what we were calling the "Thank You Wall."  Using the TED Talk by Drew Dudley as our inspiration, we decided to create a space for anyone in the building to say thank you to someone who had a positive impact on their life.  It was extremely well received as you can see from the pictures below.  The columns we created were 6ft tall by 2 feet wide so between the 2 of them there was 96 square feet of whiteboards filled with nearly 400 messages of thanks.









The project was headed up by one of our seniors.  He commented in the meeting that on one day he saw a girl glance up at the board, see a message that was written to her, and a huge smile broke out on her face.  He said right then it made all the planning and time worth it.

But what I really wanted to share was the discussion that ensued for the next hour.  The talk we chose was by Shawn Achor about what makes us happy.  There have been a lot of changes in our school/district, not all of which have been well received by the students.  I thought this video would be a chance for the students to get refocused on the important things in their life.


This discussion was intense!  I decided to try a new system and had the students write down their comments on post-it notes and stick them to their faces whenever they had something to say.  We have a tendency to get very passionate and talk over each other so this was a way for us to stay organized and keep track of our next comments.  Students had 3 and 4 notes stuck to their face, they are standing on desks trying to be recognized next.  Two girls who are best friends got into a huge argument over the ability to have selfless acts.  It was amazing!!!  I have never seen students debate so adamantly before over something that was, in reality, so trivial.

In this whole discussion, the students decided that we needed to have a better focus, a mission statement to guide us in our future meetings.  Here is what they came up with (I had no part in this at all!):

Objectives of the MiddSouth TED Ed Club:
1. Make a positive impact on the school community
2. Do something to benefit others
3. Change the way people treat each other.
4. Create a bonded community.
5. Make a change in ourselves.
6. Do something that other schools don’t.
7. Provide a forum for unique ideas that have nothing to do with what happens in the classroom.
8. Put ideas into action.
9. Bring our ideas to younger kids.

In all the years I have been an advisor, I have never seen a group of students so excited at a meeting. I can't wait until next week's meeting and I wish it wasn't only 30 minutes long.

26 September 2013

I'm excited

This year is going to represent one of my biggest challenges.  I'm going to be teaching over 140 students in six sections of chemistry.  Now I understand that there are English teachers, social studies teachers, gym teachers and I understand that grading an essay can take a long time.  But there's one thing a chemistry classroom has that other classrooms and that's labs, lab safety, and fire.  My sections are all over 20 kids several of them over 25 students in a classroom.  Again I know there are teachers have a fire worse, but I've never had it like this and to be honest I'm a little scared. I've never tried to run chemistry with so many studentsl; I'm scared of the number of assignments I am going to have to grade.  And, most of all, I'm scared that I won't be able to be as innovative or creative as I want to be. I've been dwelling on this for the past couple of weeks and I realized, once again, I need to take a different approach. I need to look at this from a different perspective and I don't mean flip the class.  I need to focus in on the things that get me excited every day so here's why I'm excited to start this school year:


  1. I am excited to start my 14th year in education.   I know there are a lot of teachers who have far longer careers, but there are a lot that never get that far.  But, I'm very proud of the fact that I have been an educator for 14 years and have had a successful career.  
  2. I'm excited to have more students than I ever before because it gives me a chance to have a positive impact on more people.
  3. I'm excited to get more students excited about chemistry and have them view the world through chemistry colored glasses.
  4. I'm excited to see kids learning with technology.  I have discovered some great tools this year and can't wait to expose them to some fantastic ideas.
  5. The more students I teach the more that I have a chance to connect with through social media.  That means building stronger relationships than I could when I first started teaching.  
  6. I'm excited for my TED Ed Club. I'm excited that we have the opportunity to be one of only 25 groups in the world that got a chance to pilot this club.   I'm excited to have them looking at videos they didn't know were out there and I'm excited to connect them with partners all over the world, from Colorado to Texas to Algeria to Queensland, Australia.
  7. I'm excited to be part of the Technology Committee which is going to rethink how the district is going to handle technology integration.  Basically, we are going to Google the crap out of everything. We are going to help students learn using mobile technology and how to make learning happen on their time, in their own way, using cell phones, iPads, Chromebooks, and GAFE.  
  8. I'm excited that my principal and my supervisor trust me so much that they let me run my classroom the way that I feel is best for my students. I'm excited that my principal trust me enough to let me be involved in the the planning of new teacher orientation and training across the district.
Note:  I wrote this several weeks ago and wanted to let it steep in my brain.  Well, I completely forgot to post it.  It is a little rough because I don't remember how I was going to conclude it.  But I still wanted to get it out there.

20 September 2013

Piloting a TED Ed Club

Back in June, I stumbled across this website on Twitter from TED Ed.  I show TED Talks in my chemistry class, occasionally for chemistry, but mostly just to expose my students to innovative ideas and a different perspective on the world.  A few days after submitting the survey, I received an email from TED telling my that I have been selected to be one of 25 pilot clubs from around the world.

There were 2 choices for the type of the club:  Discussion or Presentation.  Since I received the email on the first day of summer vacation, I chose the discussion format.  I figured that we could treat the club similar to a book club, but we would be watching videos instead of reading chapters from a book.  I sent an email to every student I had had over the past 2 years and a few colleagues posted it on their class Edmodo sites.  In the end I had 12 students sign up.  We met in the public library, classrooms, and a Panera.  The discussions ranged from creating situations of absurdity, alternative fuel sources, what constitutes beauty, and a theory of everything.  The discussions went in every direction and it was amazing to hear what the students had to say.

The most fascinating aspect of the club was the type of student who came to the meetings.  Almost all of the students are those that you might classify as "wallflowers."  They are excellent students who would prefer to sit quietly in class and complete their work rather than answer questions or have any attention drawn to them.  However, pull all of these students out of the classroom, give them a non-school related topic to discuss (that actually interests them), and suddenly they won't be quiet.  Our meetings ran over time every time because the discussions were so interesting.

So fast forward through the summer and we were selected to continue our pilot through January.  While I really enjoyed the discussions, I couldn't see us meeting for another 5 months and continue with the same format.  I was on a family vacation in Portland, ME and my wife starts eagerly pointing at the wall of a restaurant where I see "Before I die..." painted on top of black chalkboard paint.  Then, along the wall people wrote in things they wanted to do in chalk.  Apparently, this is based on the TED Talk by Candy Chang.  And that's when the lightbulb went off.  All of the newer TED Talks have some sort of profound message, what if we create student-driven projects centered around this message?

One of the concerns I have is that my students are going through school without really knowing the people in their classes.  I wanted to create a project that not allow students to feel connected to others around them, but also increase school spirit (something we are really lacking).  Today was our first home football game and our fans are called the MiddSouthNation.  So I printed out 3000 of these stickers
and starting at 6:30 in the morning, members of the TED Ed Club started handing out stickers to every member of our school:  parents, students, staff, cafeteria workers, custodians, bus drivers.  We also contacted our Touchdown Club to get the giant inflatable South Eagle mascot for the front entrance.  Have you ever seen kids getting excited to be at school at 6:30am??  Me neither, but these kids sure were because they were engaged in something meaningful to them.

So the MiddSouth TED Ed Club has become a community impact club.  Our purpose is to use the profound messages from TED Talks to create student-driven projects that help our community see the world just a little differently. Every student wasn't wearing a sticker and many didn't really understand what we were doing.  But, the staff were smiling a little more today than yesterday, several hundred students were more involved in school than yesterday, and we increased attendance at the football game.

I can't wait to see what our next project entails.


22 August 2013

Rolling on Chrome

My colleagues call me Mr. Google because when someone comes to me with a technology problem, my answer usually has something to do with a Google application.  I mean, their products do everything short of making your dinner and walking the dog so I use it whenever I can.

While at the Greater Clark County Conference in Indiana, I saw the release of the Chromecast and knew it was exactly the device I needed to get my hands on.  Here is a picture of the moment it arrived

In a nutshell, the device connects to the HDMI port of a projector or TV and allows you to send what is in your Chrome browser to the TV over the local Wifi.  Currently I use a Warpia VGA to USB wireless adaptor to transmit my computer screen to the projector in my classroom.  While this device works well for general use, one of the downsides is that everything that is on my screen ends up on the projector.  The Chromecast app allows you to connect a single Chrome tab and then work on anything else on your computer.  A huge benefit to teachers who might to show a slide show or video, but then work on sensitive information (emails, grades, etc.) at the same time.  While showing videos in class, my wife backchannels with the class, posing questions and engaging in discussions.  Her district no longer uses DVD players since every computer has a DVD drive so this allows her to do both tasks without interrupting the students' attention.

After installing the Chromecast app on the computer, an icon appeared on my extensions bar in Chrome,  This allows me to instantly display the tab I am on in seconds.  YouTube and Netflix have been modified also with Chromecast buttons that will display the videos in full screen automatically.  The one major downside it the device only works with Chrome.  You can't display any other software or browsers.  Great for doing presentations on Google training, but not for my every day teaching. (oh and great for parents who can now show Netflix on a TV in a hotel room while on vacation!)

So that was July.  August rolls around and I stumble across a $30 coupon for a Samsung Chromebook available for 1 day only.  I think it took about 30 seconds before my car keys were in my hand and I was out the door.  It turns out Staples only had 1 left and it was an open box (which always makes me nervous), but after 2 coupons and a discount for the open box, I was walking out with a new computer for $50 less than listed.

So the Chromebook.

If you don't know what it does, you are living under a rock.  The device runs Chrome OS and needs an Internet connection for most of its functions.  While it will work offline for several Google Apps, it really needs Wifi to be more than a shiny paperweight.  I can't foresee giving up my laptop for teaching and everyday use, but I am not likely to be carrying around a heavy laptop to meetings or lunch duty.  The Chromebook feels like it weighs nothing and is smaller than a paper notebook.  I have to say that I am definitely in love with this device.

11 July 2013

Left us wanting more

The College Board decided to change the AP Chemistry curriculum and exam.  The entire course is shifting toward specific Learning Objectives and guided-inquiry lab activities.  The exam has fewer questions which require more application of knowledge than pure recall, and emphasizes students analyzing pictures and word expressions for chemical processes.  The whole shift is actually really exciting and will fit very much into the philosophy I have for my classes.

In order to get better prepared for this paradigm shift, I registered for an AP Summer Institute (APSI) at Rutgers University, which happens to be 4 miles from my home.  This will be my 9th year teaching AP Chemistry and my scores are primarily 3 or above so I was looking for three things: a better understanding of how the exam was structured, how to incorporate these 16 labs College Board wants us to use, and how to get my students' scores to the next level (3s turned to 4s, etc.).  What I got was something very, very different.

I was originally writing this post as a way to get my thoughts in order before I send a disgruntled email to Rutgers and the College Board about the lack of preparation this APSI provided.  Then I remembered my goal here: to flip the way I see the world.

Now, there is no way I can put a positive spin on this experience.  There was a tremendous amount of time where I was not engaged in the learning which meant I could better reflect on learning that occurs in the classroom.

  1. Lecture really doesn't cut it anymore.  It doesn't matter how amazing and entertaining you are, today's learners have far too many other things going on in their brain to listen to long lectures.  There are distractions on their phones, computers, lives that are keeping them from devoting the amount of energy toward focusing on learning your content.  There needs to be engagement of the learners.  This may mean small group discussion, organized large group discussion, hands-on activities, analysis of a reading passage.  Really anything that gets the brain actively involved is important.  While I was taught in a time where you could get away with lecturing for 45-60 minutes (and it happened often) today's brains are used to multiple stimuli.   They also have an unbelievable ability to multi-task and teachers need to remember that just because someone isn't paying attention, doesn't mean they aren't listening.
  2. Differentiation is extremely important.  It doesn't matter if it is the main lesson for the day or the lab activity that you are about to complete as a class, if you have students who are advanced and want to move forward without you, don't hold them back.  The teacher used to be the authority in the classroom and students were told to respect the teacher no matter what.  Now, you have to earn that respect on a daily basis.  Unfortunately, that's not the hard part.  The hard part is when the teacher has to re-earn that respect after it is lost by saying/doing something that offends the students.
  3. Remember that no matter what you are teaching every student, every day.  It doesn't matter if the student asked the question or not, if the person is on the right side or left, front or back, or if the person is even in the classroom.
  4. Students need to be respectful of each other as well as the teacher.  Students can't be disrespectful of the learning of others.  But, those who feel disrespected cannot be rude is return.  You need to speak up about what is happening and the teacher needs to regain control of the learning atmosphere.
School needs to change. I wish I had the exact recipe to make that happen, but things definitely need to be different.  But, I can only do so much.  I fell more importantly that I need my students to want the change, embrace the change, and help me make the change too.

27 June 2013

The Way We Were

I am teaching AP Chemistry again in the fall.  This is now the third school I will have taught AP at.  I didn't need a summer assignment at the last school because of the extra time we had during the year.  But, due to block scheduling, I am short about 80 minutes per week so we need a summer assignment again.  As I was going through my computer files (something I haven't looked at in 2 years), I came across the cover letter I sent to the students from 2005.  Per a request from Cheryl Morris and Brad Campbell, I have been asked to post both the old and the new letters.  I can't believe I am about to do this, but here they are:

14 June 2005

Dear AP Chemistry Student:

Let me begin by telling you a little about the Advanced Placement Chemistry program.  The intent of the AP Chemistry program is to simulate a first-year college chemistry course by giving you a rigorous course of study which includes a heavy workload and exposure to college-level lab work.  You must have received at least an 83 in Chem I to enroll so I know all of you have the ability to do well.  You will need excellent time management skills as you will have at least 1 homework assignment each week, a lab report approximately every week and a test about every other week on top of your other course work.  Hopefully I have scared you a little.  AP is nothing like Chem I.  I am here to challenge you and, maybe, we’ll enjoy ourselves at the same time.  

Now down to business.  Enclosed you will find 4 Chapter packets.  You will receive a packet like this at the beginning of each chapter.  Sometimes the book is difficult to understand so I have broken down all the information for you and put it in these packets.  At the end of each packet is a list of Exercises.  Your assignment for the summer is to complete all the exercises.  All work is due on August 1st so this means you must bring it into or mail it to the school.  It must be RECEIVED by this date not post-marked.  All work must be included in order to receive credit for the assignment.  You will see there are no Exercises in Writing Chemical Reactions because this is not an actual chapter from the book.  It is something extra I am adding because writing reactions is a very, very large part of the class so you will need to know how to identify the different types and predict products.  In the remaining packets I give, you will not need to complete the exercises because I will be assigning other homework.  Those exercises can be used as extra problem sets to aide you in studying.  Also, these packets are not meant to be your sole source of information for a chapter.  Use the book and the packets to guide you.  You will need to pick up a book when you get this letter.  This will be your book for the remainder of the year so make sure it is covered and you take care of it.  The information that you are reviewing this summer in these packets will not have a test devoted to it.  This information will be included in the Atomic Theory Test and is also vital to every topic we encounter throughout the course so make sure you learn it.

Many of you are probably asking what types of notebooks or binders you need for the class.  I require the following materials:
1 three-ring binder with dividers for the different chapters
1 notebook for taking notes devoted solely to AP Chemistry
Writing utensils
1 lab notebook (spiral bound)
I will discuss the lab notebook in more detail on the first day of class because I am still trying to find the best one.  The reason I am requiring these materials is you need to learn organization for this class and I am going to teach it to you.  There will be unannounced binder checks throughout the year and I will discuss how I want it organized when we first meet.  

June 27 2013
Dear Brave Souls,
             First, welcome to the adventure that will be Advanced Placement Chemistry!! 
Second, the purpose of this course is to simulate a first-year college chemistry class in content and lab skills.  Obviously, there are not 650 people packed into a lecture hall so it won’t be exactly the same experience, but you get the idea.  This course is intended for those wishing to pursue science and engineering in college or who just have an out-right love of everything chemistry (yes, there are people like that!!).  This is not an exposure to the chemistry in the world around you class like your previous chem class was intended to be.  We will cover everything in the first year course as well as explore them more in depth with a few new topics thrown in.  Third, to answer your question, yes this course is challenging.  Notice I didn’t say hard.  Hard is relative; what comes easy to one may not to another.  However, even the best test takers will be challenged by the workload and level of understanding required to truly grasp some of the topics we will discuss.  This is not intended to scare you!  My policy is to be honest and upfront with my students so I want you to know what you are getting yourself into.  I will be there to support you the entire time, but more importantly reach out to your classmates for help.  Develop study groups, a facebook page, anything that will make sure that everyone succeeds.  The hardest part of this course for most students is being willing to say they need help.
Finally, I wanted to tell you a little about my background.  This will be my 9th year teaching AP Chemistry and have taught it at a Magnet school (on block scheduling) as well as at a school similar to South (on traditional 45 minute periods).  Except for my first year teaching it (which was also my first year teaching ever), I have had  AT LEAST 60% of my students earn a 3, 4 or 5 with seven of those nine years having +80% earn a passing score.  There are 5s every year and a 1 every year but my third.  Your group will be the smallest group I have taught and my largest was 67 (spread over 4 sections).  Trust me when I say I know what I am doing.  With that being said, The College Board is completely revamping the curriculum and exam for AP Chemistry for 2013-2014.  I will be attending a week-long conference to learn how to teach to the new exam and test.  I have also developed a partnership with a teacher in Texas who is both an exam grader AND question writer so I am hoping to get a lot of helpful tips/tricks from her.
Some of you may be worried about your level of preparation because you came from a different teacher.  Stop worrying!! Everyone is welcomed in my class regardless of who taught them and what grade they earned.  All of you are here because you want to be here and I love that.  On the next page, you will find the summer assignment with all of the instruction necessary.  If you need to get in touch with me over the summer, email me at  or call/text.  I don’t check my school email often during July/August so you won’t get a timely reply there.  The others I just mentioned push to my phone so I will respond quickly.

Have a great summer and I am very much looking forward to September!!

My how times have changed.

11 June 2013

Grit

I have been running into problems this year with how I structure my Flipped Classroom.  I am facing all of the usual issues:  students not watching the videos, not using their time effectively in class, goofing around, and copying of papers.  I have a variety of policies in place to help limit the impact of these on the flow of the class.  But there was something else going on this year and I couldn't figure out what it was exactly other than it seemed like students just gave up.  At least that's how it felt.  As soon as something challenging was placed in their path, instead of working harder to overcome it, they just simply stopped trying.  Or, at least, they found the path around it with the least amount of work necessary.

I was an overachiever (actually still very much am) so I thrived when given the opportunity to use my creativity and imagination into developing a novel solution to a problem (probably would have made a great engineer if there wasn't so much Calculus involved).  In every unit, students were given a list of optional assignments they could complete instead of the required ones, all non-traditional and creative, and nearly none of them were tried.  Actually, over 5 months, exactly 3 students (out of 105) tried the alternate assignments.

I was stumped.  My students were saying they wanted to do more creative work, I provided ideas for them, and they stuck with the traditional.  There had to be a rationale for this.  Then I saw the TED Ed Talks on PBS and saw the following segment:

LIGHTBULB!!  My students lack grit.  Actually, not all of them, just the majority.  The students who were excelling and getting the most from my class, truly demonstrating learning not just getting A's, were the ones with the most grit.  Teenagers today have learned to play school.  They have learned to take the easiest route to getting the highest GPA.  Sure many of them load up on AP classes (another blog post coming soon about a conversation I had today with a student who is taking AP Music Theory even though he doesn't play an instrument), but they do so to pad their GPAs not because they are interested in the content.

Did school beat the grit out of kids?  If so, how do we teach it to them so they can be successful?

Teenagers say they "survived high school."  Why?  Are the ones who survived the only ones gritty enough to do so?  What do schools need to revived in order to bring some of the joy back to learning?

Ok, PLN, need your help with these questions.  Please leave your comments below so we can start a meaningful conversation.  I know some of my students are reading this and I want to hear your comments, too.

08 June 2013

And the winner is...

So it has been a week since I made the announcement about the Wacom Bamboo Tablet giveaway.  I used a program called Rafflecopter to run everything.  Everyone who tweeted, made a comment, and followed me on Twitter received points based on their type of entry and the points have been tallied.

And I am very happy to announce that the winner is....


(I am trying to build suspense, but it is really hard to do in a blog post)
Katie Lanier!!!

Katie is an amazing Flipped Classroom Physics teacher from Texas (their football stadium holds more people than most college stadiums!!) who enjoys looking at tall buildings as she walks around Chicago and finding rare delicacies in 7-Eleven (like hard-boiled eggs).  You can congratulate Katie in a couple of weeks at the Flipped Classroom Conference in Minnesota where she will be presenting about De-mystifying Flipped Learning for Your Parents.

Thank you to everyone who left a comment.  I enjoyed reading everything you said.  If I had more to give, I would make sure every one of you got a Wacom Tablet too!!

01 June 2013

A fantastic opportunity

About a month ago, Wacom contacted me with a fantastic opportunity.  Wacom wants to help teachers, especially those looking to create instructional podcasts, find better ways to make their videos more engaging.  So, being a teacher who makes those types of videos, they asked me to product test one of their
tablets and give share my thoughts on the device.  But, there was a catch (isn't there always?).  Wacom said that no matter how I felt about their product, I had to raffle one away on my blog.  That's right!  Dear readers, one of you will be receiving a brand new Wacom tablet simply for reading this post (details and fine print at the end).  So here are my thoughts on the device.

I was given the choice between the Bamboo Create and the Bamboo Splash.  To be honest, I really knew nothing about either device.  I had used a Bamboo tablet at the Flipped Classroom Conference last year for about 5 minutes.  But, being a Tablet PC user, I have never had the need to use an external tablet.  My attitude has always been 'Go big or go home' so I asked Wacom if I could test the Create simply because it was physically bigger, and I'm definitely happy with that decision.  Here are some of the things I discovered.

First, here is a short video about the product:

  1. I like to do most of my work on my family room couch with my computer in my lap so I prefer devices that do not require me to sit at a table.  With my computer sitting in front of me, the Create's size made it almost like a small lap desk giving me room to lean my arm on the device without interfering with writing.  This was a huge benefit because the extra room around the edge of the writing space meant my arm didn't move the pointer.
  2. Wacom offered me the wireless adapter and I feel that is a definite must.  I do not have a clean desk at work, in fact the only clean spot is usually the small rectangle that my laptop occupies, so something that allowed me to push back from the desk is ideal.  I also like the idea of being as wireless as possible in the classroom and the adapter definitely aides in that.  I found that my writing was still pretty accurate at about 10 feet from the computer.  The product details indicate that it is good up to 10 meters, but I didn't test it that far.
  3. The device has buttons along the side that serve as the left and right mouse buttons, but also 2 that can be programmed as short-cut keys for specific programs.  I didn't have a need for these extra buttons, but the art teachers that I shared the device with found it handy when working with programs like Photoshop.
  4. The device is extremely slim and light weight.  It added very little weight to my computer bag (a concern for my shoulders carrying it back and forth to school) and was easy to carry around in class.  The other benefit of this physically larger device was it rested in my arm nicely as I was writing.  Other, smaller, tablets that I have seen before have to be held in one hand while the person awkwardly writes on it or they have to put it down on a flat surface.  This tablet could be cradled in the arm while writing standing up.
  5. The Bamboo Create came with several different programs that help you not only learn how to use the device, but also to become comfortable with looking away from your hand while writing (more on this below).  I found some of the games extremely useful and fun.  My 5 year old was also able to play the games with little problem.
  6. Absolutely zero issues with inking in PowerPoint and Word.  I was a little concerned about this as my Tablet PC is not really designed to use external tablets and have had issues with other types of third-party devices in the past.  But, the drivers were loaded quickly and PowerPoint treated the device like an external mouse.
So those are some of the positives.  Now let's discuss the drawbacks.

  1. If you are not going to purchase the wireless adapter you will need to plug the tablet into a USB slot with a short cord.  Connected to my laptop, this wasn't much of an issue, but a huge problem with my home desktop.  My CPU is under the desk in my home office and the short cord made it so I had to lean over to use it.  Also, at work, I had to move my keyboard to get the tablet close enough to the computer.  This can be a deal breaker for some users.
  2. Now, to preface, I have been using a Tablet PC for nearly 5 years so I found it difficult to adjust to an external tablet.  I can use my stylus to write directly on the screen, but with an external you need to look at the computer screen while your hand is writing off to the side.  This took me a while to get used to.  My handwriting was so bad for some of my videos that I couldn't read what I was writing.  But, that is a personal issue.  Others who used the device adjusted much faster as they weren't accustomed to doing it a different way.  I think if I had the patience and time to sit walk through all of the training programs, it would have solved the issue.
Other than that, there were no other drawbacks about the device.  My students were eager to try it out and the art teachers in my school are excited to have something that will allow them to do more digital work with the students.  If you are a person looking to take your podcasts to the next level, move to a paperless environment (great for annotating on work students submit digitally!), or make what you current do with a mouse easier, this is the device you are looking for.  Seems like a winner for everyone!

So, here is how the giveaway is going to work.  Think of different ways that your classroom, students, and teaching methods could be improved by having a Wacom Bamboo Create and leave your ideas as comments below.  Comments will be accepted for the next 7 days.  You can earn additional entries by tweeting about this blog post, and following me on Twitter.  On Saturday, June 8th, the winner will be randomly selected and announced on this blog.  Thank you to everyone and Good Luck!!
a Rafflecopter giveaway

07 May 2013

The Detention Intervention

I have written about my thoughts on my lunch detention duty before.  The last couple of days have been out of control with the number of students in detention.  Maybe it's just spring fever, but there are at least 9 kids in detention every day for everything from swearing to cell phones to cutting class.  I don't have a problem with the number of kids, but when you stick 9 kids, who are angry about being there, in a small, windowless classroom with a teacher who's only recourse is to write a referral, you have a recipe for chaos.  We have kids who are swearing, others yelling at us, others trying to cut detention.

So I was thinking today, as I was begging for the students to be quiet for the 10th time, that the reason my students act out in class is because they are not engaged in the lesson.  When these students are put in this room, they have nothing to do for the 56 minutes they are there so the only thing left for them to do is act out.  Plus, most are simply going through the motions of school and don't bring homework with them to complete. I need to give them something to do, something that I can't require of them, but will still be of interest.

So Wednesday begins the Detention Library.  I found a list of the best books for teenagers on Goodreads.com.  Many I already had on my bookshelf at home and the rest I am going to supplement from the school library.  Maybe if I offer them something to keep their attention occupied, I can have 1 day of no frustrations.

*The above was written on Monday evening, mostly in frustration.  Below is an update*

Today I went to our librarian to see how many of the books on the list she could help me obtain and boy did she come through!  Not only did they give me nearly everything on my list, but they started adding others that are popular with the other students in the school.  Then they started asking about the personality of the students to try and suggest books directed toward their needs like graphic novels and car magazines.  I am so impressed with our library staff!

30 April 2013

Waiting to be picked

Schools seem to be waiting for a leader. A creative person is who going to step up and say 'I's your turn, I want you to be on my team, I want you to be successful.' Teachers are waiting for that magic bullet, the magical leader who is going to say "Today, we are now going to do something amazing." The problem is these leaders only exist in our heads. These perfect leaders aren't around, aren't where we want them to be. 

We put people on pedestals. We create an image that no leader can possibly live up to and so therefore we are sitting and waiting to be picked.

Steve Jobs made Apple computers amazing. He built a huge computer company around a single person's ideas and he hired people who could carry out his ideas. But where is Apple now that Steve Jobs has passed? And what has Apple really created since Steve Jobs? They've created smaller versions of a great product that they already had, but they're not crushing the market like they used to. Now compare that to Google. Google has brilliant CEOs.  These guys created the company around the central focus that they wanted everyone to have instant access to information and search information was the central focus of everything that they do. But the key to the success of Google is not the people who started it but it's all the thousands of people who are underneath them who just simply run with ideas not waiting for their leaders to tell them 'yes, today is the day to do something amazing.' They  are going to do something amazing on their own every day. If you look at products like Gmail or Google Earth, Google Apps for Education or the Android system any of those products were all created by people who are simply picking themselves to do something great that day.

I think that's what teachers need to start doing. Teachers need to start picking themselves and stop waiting to be picked.

Create your own team:  there's only so many great leaders and there are way more schools then we have great leaders to fill them.  If you don't have a good leader, create a great team within your school.  Go and seek out people to inspire you. Inspire others. Inspire your students. Teach your students how to pick themselves. Teach your students how to create teams of other great students. 

It doesn't take one person doing something great; it takes a whole team of great people to do something well to create a great school.  A group of caring, dedicated teachers can change a entire school on their own. You have to start small and let the greatness spread.  

The real key is don't wait for a leader to pick you.  Go out today and make today count!

06 April 2013

Going through the motions

This week I received my second observation of the year and on it was the phrase "teacher and students appear to be 'going through the motions.'"  Anyone who is doing the Flipped Classroom knows that it is very difficult to simply "go through the motions."  Being the scientist that I am, I decided to test a hypothesis and start doing what the observation said I was already doing.  I discovered some interesting things about myself and the class:

  1. I hate going through the motions.  When I reduced the amount of effort that I was putting in each class, I became frustrated.  I felt like I wasn't being myself and, in turn, wasn't giving my students the best version of me.  On a related note, it is really boring sitting at a desk and just watching people work, even if it was for only 5 minutes.  How do people do this on a regular basis?
  2. I was far more frantic getting things ready for class when I wasn't preparing properly beforehand.  I found I needed to print out material right in class that should have been copied, the advanced students were always waiting for me to get to them and therefore wasted valuable class time, and I ended up cleaning up the lab benches after my students were done because I wasn't making sure they were doing as they went along.  In the end, I felt more overworked while attempting to do less.  This led to feeling exhausted at the end of the end; drained of energy for the wrong reasons.
  3. My students are hate not going through the motions.  Whenever they encountered something that required real thought or directions that didn't clearly state every single thing they needed to do, they balked at it.  There are guided inquiry activities in each unit we do and those represented the biggest struggles for my students.  I had known this was the case already, but it was more obvious when I was spending more time behind my desk simply observing them at work.  This isn't true for all, but the majority (even many of the "A" students) kept asking for me to "just tell me what I need to do next."
This last part really disturbed me.

Why is it that students are frustrated when they have to think/problem solve in school?

So it comes down to expectations.  Is what we expect students to do during the school day too low level for them?  Do their brains really want more?  From their teachers? from the school? from the curricula?  From society?  

Somewhere along their path to my class, they learned the wrong message about what school should really be.  Now, how do we unlearn them?

02 April 2013

The Engaged Learner

One of the reasons I like guided inquiry labs is it inspires my students to ask more 'What if...' questions. I tried a new lab this year for Stoichiometry in which the students mixed different amounts of baking soda with vinegar. A balloon was placed on the top of each test tube and the students got a great visual for the amount of gas produced.

One group finished the lab and I noticed they started to fill another balloon with a very large amount of baking soda.  When I inquired about what they were doing, they said they wanted to figure out if they could pop a balloon only using baking soda and vinegar.  With wry smile, I told them they could do it, but only if they showed, using Stoichiometry calculations, how much vinegar they would need based on the amount of baking soda they had already weighed out (28g).  

After some Internet research and a bunch of calculations later, they figured out they needed nearly 400mL (for the non-chemistry folks, that's A LOT) which is more than would fit inside their 25 mL test tube.  I happen to have a giant test tube and the experiment was off.

Here is what the face of an engaged learner looks like:
The balloon didn't pop, but it got really close.  When doing these labs, sometimes you just need to let the students' run with their ideas.  It's amazing what they will come up with and what they will learn (about science and themselves) in the process.