20 February 2013

The chemistry sequence

My school has decided that next year they are going to remove both the math requirement and the grade requirement for students to take Chemistry.  I will tell you that this is a HUGE change.  For many years students have had to be in a "Junior level" or above math class AND had to have at least a B average in Biology to take Chemistry.  Now there are basically no requirements.  My first thought was 'Halelujah!'  Unfortunately many of my colleagues are kind of panicking.

But this got me thinking:  Should all students take chemistry in high school?

I can't believe I am going to say this, but no.  At least, not the way it is currently taught (at least the way it is taught in most schools).

The Chemistry curricula needs to change based on the needs of the students.  In my school there are  College Prep (CP), Honors and Advanced Placement (AP) classes.  AP is a 2nd year course so I am going to take it out of this discussion.  The only difference between Honors and CP is the math level of the students.  What if, instead, we redivided the class based on what the students wanted to do after HS.  Here's what I am thinking:

Honors (for Engineers)--intended for students with strong math backgrounds and the desire to pursue engineering in college.  General chemistry topics will be discussed along with chemical and materials engineering.

Honors (for science majors)--intended for students looking to pursue a career in science or medicine.  General chemistry topics will be discussed along with pharmaceutical chemistry and chemistry related to the medical field.  Students will do extensive research projects and analyze scientific studies from academic journals.  This course will be lab intensive immersing students in college-style labs and lab reports.

CP (for science majors)--intended for students who have an interest/aptitude in science, but may not pursue it as a career.  All general chemistry topics will be discussed.  This course will be lab intensive exposing students to different college-style lab techniques and equipment.  Collaboration will be expected as students will work in teams on all activities throughout the course.

CP (for the non-science major)--intended for students who may not pursue science after high school.  General chemistry topics will be discussed through a hands-on approach to the course.  The class will taught primarily through labs and projects getting students to learn chemistry through experience.  Guided inquiry activities will be incorporated and students will work on all activities in cooperative groups.  Students will be required to draw on their every day experiences to develop some of the content of the course.

I guess I am still in the academy school mindset that designs learning around specific students intended college majors.  I actually like aspects of all of these and wish they were possible in a public school.

Anyone doing a course system like this where students are taking the same course, but it is focused along different career paths?  I would love to get some examples of this taking place in public schools.

19 February 2013

This I Believe...

When I was doing my student teaching, I was asked to make a "This I Believe" statement for the first page of my teaching portfolio.  Recently, while helping a recent college graduate prepare for an interview, I told him to do the same thing.  But I have been thinking about my own statement from 13 years ago and realize I need to get it rewritten to better reflect how my practice has changed.  I am a big fan of lists that contain five things (don't ask why. Little bit of OCD in there somewhere) so here it goes:

1.  All students can and want to learn.
--they may not want to learn what I am teaching them, but they can do it.  They also do not know the way that works best for them.  Teaching HS you get a lot of kids who will tell you their method for studying and that works best for them.  Unless you get a perfect score on everything you do, there's always room for improvement.

2. "Technology should be like oxygen.  Ubiquitous, necessary and invisible" --Chris Lehmann
--no longer is it acceptable to say "I'm not that tech-savvy." The personal computer has now been around for thirty years.  It's time to figure out how to use it.  Computers, the Internet, cell phones, none of these things are going away.  If you don't start embracing them you will become irrelevant to your students.  It is OK to ask for help, especially from the students,  to learn ways to use technology more effectively.

3.  Teaching is not a job, it's a life style choice.
--teaching is an art form.  Ever notice how artists are just a little bit different than everyone else? They see the world differently and therefore are not treated like the rest of the population. The same goes for teachers.  If you are thinking about getting into education, understand that if you do not commit yourself to the job, the art, the students, then you will never reach your full potential as an educator.

4.  School should not prepare you for the real world but rather for a world that doesn't yet exist.
--I saw a statistic somewhere that said most high school seniors will eventually accept a job that doesn't currently exist. That doesn't mean the company is expanding and adding jobs. Rather that they haven't invented the job title yet. To my father's generation this would be like saying you could become a software engineer. Or for my fellow high school graduates, telling us we could design blu-ray players. If we are preparing students for the jobs that currently exist we are preparing them to be forgotten and outdated. We need to give students the skills to be successful at any job they may have and learn how to adapt what they know to new situations. Actually just that last part.  We need students who can adapt.  Adapt their thinking, adapt their environment, adapt their mindset.

5.  Every problem can be solved with a logical, scientific approach.
--It doesn't matter if you are dealing with a scientific problem or not.  If you approach everything in your live with a clearly defined order, you will be more likely to get the result you are satisfied with.  Go back for a second to your middle school days and recall the Scientific Method.  Make an observation, develop a hypothesis, test your hypothesis and then refine your method based on your results.  (Yes that was an over simplification, but go with it)

That's my list.  It's not perfect and it is always a work in progress.  What's the #1 item on your list?

17 February 2013

A universal curriculum

Here is a question for you to ponder and I really beed some feedback on this idea.

Could every course in a school be taught from one curriculum?

In reality, what is the purpose of a curriculum?  We use it as a way to establish a scope and sequence to the content of our classes.  Administrators uses it as a way to insure that every teacher teaching the same course is teaching the same material.  But it is really so much more.

At the heart of a good curriculum are objectives, enduring understandings, and essential questions.  These are all based around broad skills or ideas that we want students to carry away from our class and hopefully keep for the rest of their lives.  They are usually centered on action verbs and always focus on student outcomes (The Student Will Be Able To...).  But aren't we all using the same ideas in our classrooms?  I want my students to be able to compare, contrast, define, evaluate, create, analyze, debate. Do these sound familiar?   My students also need to work collaboratively and independently, interpret data and arguments, draw conclusions based on facts given, and develop ideas.  They also need to understand the relationship between different ideas and the cause and effect nature of the world.

Aren't these concepts universal?  Is there a class where these skills are not necessary?

So I come back to my original question:  Could every course in a school be taught from one curriculum?  Once a group of universal skills ingrained as the core of every program, specific content could then be infused.  However, no matter what the specific topic, the teacher and students would always return back to the core philosophy of the academic program.

A lot of businesses use this concept in the running of their company.  I am reading Made to Stick and the authors talk about how Southwest has one idea that is at the heart of every decision they make:  Will this make us the cheapest air travel choice on the market?  It doesn't matter if implementing an idea will make for happier customers.  If it will cause costs to rise, they won't do it because it counters their core idea.

Science Leadership Academy uses this philosophy to run every part of their program.  There are 5 core goals of the school and they integrate into everything from curriculum to testing to extra-curricular activities to student discipline.  

Somewhere in the last few decades teachers and schools got lost in the deluge of content (usually driven by thicker and thicker textbooks) and suddenly that became the focus of our courses.  The problem is we can't expect our students to retain all of this information for a few months let alone years.  We are simply teaching too much.

Recently, a group of middle school teachers came to visit my classroom to see a Flipped Classroom in action.  As we were talking later, they asked me what kinds of things do I want my students to know so that I don't have to teach it again (they used as examples density, properties of matter, definitions).  I told them that what I want are students who love science, who think critically, who work well independently and in groups, who can analyze data and arguments, and who can work in a lab setting without the teacher holding their hand.  All of the content I can teach them, but I have a hard time teaching content and basic skills.  Give me a group of students who have a strong foundation in those skills and you can teach them anything.

Ok, this has become a little bit of a ramble.  What do you feel are essential skills that every student needs to have to be successful?  Are these skills that should be built into every curriculum?

16 February 2013

The fun projects

I am in meeting and the discussion turned to how to incorporate STEM activities into our classes.  One teacher commented that she would live to do more but our new schedule doesn't allow for it.  She said, "I don't even have time for all my fun projects." 

I agree that the move this year to block scheduling has made it very difficult to get through the district curriculum.  This block schedule contains nearly 90 minutes LESS per week of time in science classes.  Over the course of the year we have lost weeks of time which has forced all of us to cut activities in order to cover more material.

But it was the fun projects comment that got me thinking.  What is the purpose of projects in my class?  Are they simply there to add a level of fun to the learning? If that's the case, why is the rest of my class so boring?  Why are the projects the only way to have fun in an academic class?  Or, maybe even worse, are the projects the only part of my class that the students find any meaning in?

When I started teaching, I definitely used projects as the fun part of my class mostly because I didn't know how to make the rest of the course entertaining without literally putting on a show.  But as my teaching practice has changed, projects are used to get the students to use critical thinking and creativity to find novel solutions to problems.  

As I working through this, I am having a hard time determining if the problem is that projects represent the only fun part of our course or that the rest of the course has been weighed down with too much mundane.  I know it seems like the same thing, but if the rest of the coursework had greater meaning and engaged students, projects could be used simply as fun learning.  

How do you use projects to enhance the learning in your classroom?

08 February 2013

I'm better because of you.

I'm a better person because of my sons.  They remind me that I must be humble, passionate, caring and courageous.  They show me the wonder that is the world around us and to not take things so seriously.  I see the world anew through their eyes as they discover it's wonders for the first time.  They also show me that love has no boundaries.

I am a better person because of my wife.  She reminds me to be loving and spirited, to not take things at face value, and to always look for the good in people.  She keeps me in check and challenges me in ways no other person can.  Her devotion to our family is inspiring.

I am a better person because of my friends.  They are perfect examples of how unpredictable life can be and how you can be happy and successful doing just about anything.  The road of life has many forks in it and regardless of the choices you make, my friends show me there are joys to be had no matter what.
I am a better person because of my students.  They allow me to love what I do and never feel like I am actually working.  Their trust inspires me to not fear failure when I try risky activities with them.  And if it does fail, they support me with smiles, encouragement, and ideas of how to improve.  They inspire me with their resilience, strong work ethic, and friendly personalities.  We learn together in the classroom, both about Chemistry and life.  Their experiences help make me a more well-rounded teacher.

Who inspires you to be a better person?

05 February 2013

Living in beta

Have you noticed that we have shifted to a beta world? A place where it's is perfectly fine to produce something that isn't quite finished or polished as long as you promise to make refinements later.  I've noticed it a lot lately especially in games for mobile devices.  You download a game, beat the first 4 levels and bam level 5 says " Coming Soon!" 

Google has made an art form out of being beta.  Gmail was beta for FIVE years!!  In fact most of their products come out as beta or invite only,  but they give us their word that they are constantly updating services and we trust them to do so.

So if beta is the accepted norm, why do we still insist, in education, that everything is perfect before it is rolled out?  Curriculum has to written over the course of a year, then checked by a supervisor,  then approved by a Board of Education before finally being put into practice.  Teachers fear new methods or activities unless they have been thoroughly tested and widely accepted.  Even new courses and clubs can take years in the approval process causing those who propose them to lose all interest in running them. 

This begs the usual question "why aren't schools adjusting to the changes in the world around them?"  I am sure that at some point there was a purpose to all of the beauracracy but I don't think those reasons are here anymore.

You know who understands this? Charter and Magnet schools. They are schools of choice; kids have to muster the courage to leave their hometown school and go to this new location where they may not know anyone.   If these choice schools do not constantly modify and make improvements to the program, their enrollment will decrease and they may have to close.  But local districts have a guaranteed enrollment so there is no motivation to change.

Maybe the key to success is to think more like Magnet schools:  Develop desirable programs that entice kids to want to come to school everyday.  And every year/month/day refine it so it is evolving and just a little bit better than it was before.

What is your school doing to stay on the forefront of education?