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


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