14 December 2014

MHSS TED Ed Club's #BookItForward

I haven't seen a Kid President episode in a while so the one below caught my attention when I saw it mentioned on Twitter.

Our TED Ed Club has changed focus this year and I feel we have lost a little of the magic that we had last year. In an attempt to regain some of it, I decided we are going to participate in #BookItForward with Kid President.

My idea is for every member of the club to find a book that has meaning for them. It might be something they love to read over and over; it might be something from their childhood; it might be something that someone important gave to them and they want others to hear the story behind it. Each person is going to write down on an index card why this book is meaningful to them and stick it somewhere inside the book. We are also going to add a letter inside explaining our project with a Book Crossing sticker to help us track how far the books go. Then the hard part comes: finding 30 people to send the books to.

I was debating whether this would be a good project when I happened to see this post from Nick Provenzano which confirmed for me that this needs to happen.

So, here is what I need from you, dear readers. I am looking for volunteers to receive books from my TED Ed Club members.  Send me an email (marcseigel@gmail.com) with the subject #BookItForward Volunteers and your address. I will pick a book from those my club contributes and send it to you. I will also post here thanking you for participating and the story behind the book.

Thank you, in advance, to all of you who volunteer!

29 November 2014

Batting 1000

Last night I attend the Class of 2004's reunion and had a chance to hear the AMAZING things my former students are doing. One (who we all thought we get kicked out of college) is now a lawyer, another is doing neuroscience research using ultrasound, another is helping design the new class of submarines for the Navy, another took one of the biggest leaps and is a stay-at-home dad. It really warms the heart of a teacher to hear when his students are living happy, fulfilling, successful lives.

As my wife and I were driving to the event, a thought popped into my head: how many students have I taught? This is my 15th year as an educator, how many lives have I directly impacted in my career so far?

When I was in high school, my fencing coach told me that he bought a yearbook every year for his entire career. He said that when he retires, he could look at the shelf of yearbooks and say 'this was my career.' He used to keep the yearbooks in school and, as someone who's dream it was to be a teacher, it was quite impressive to me. After 37 years, he retired and it took him 3 trips to his car to bring down all of the memories.

I have followed his advice and bought a yearbook every year of my career and, even though it was after 9pm when we arrived home, I pulled them off the shelf and started leafing through them. Armed with a neon green marker I put a dot next to each student I have taught. Nearly three hours later, I was at 777. Now, I know I definitely missed a few because I couldn't remember every single face or every name that I came across.

And I was disappointed.

Only 777? That couldn't be right. As I stood to stretch I remembered that I never counted the students in my current school that haven't graduated. Since I was only using senior photos (and occasionally junior/sophomore depending on the year I left the school) that meant I left out all of my students from last year and this year that haven't graduated yet. Add in another 226 and I was 1003.

ONE THOUSAND!!! I have taught one thousand students. One thousand different faces have walked through my door; one thousand butts have sat at my desks; one thousand lives I have had the chance to make a difference with; one thousand amazing people who changed me for the better.

The picture to the right is of all of my yearbooks and of my 'This Is Why I Do This' file. I keep every
letter, picture, drawing, card, etc. that is given to me by a student. When I have a really bad day--a day that makes me question why I became a teacher--I open this folder and leaf through all of the memories. It re-energizes, rejuvenates, and inspires me to keep bringing the awesome every day.

So, thank you to all my former and current students for being the amazing people that you are. Here's to the next One Thousand!

23 November 2014

An EdcampNJ Reflection

My wife and I are putting together a presentation proposal for the 2015 Flipped Classroom conference and decided to use EdcampNJ as the location for the trial run. Since she teaches Social Studies and I teach Chemistry many of our conversations are spent bouncing ideas for our classroom off each other because we approach the same problem from very different perspectives. This means that my projects tend to have a humanities feel to them and my wife's have a more scientific approach.

Through our discussions we realized that many teachers do not have these types of conversations on a regular basis because the people they interact with tend to come only from their department. There are great ideas and great teaching practices happening all over your building every day. How many of them are you aware of? Since Edcamp is based around conversations, we thought this conference would be the opportunity for everyone to come together to share their best practices related to The Flipped Classroom or to whatever other idea they wanted to discuss.

We decided to call our presentation:

Improving Your Practice, No Matter Where You Start:
A Flipped Classroom Discussion

We broke our slides into 7 parts:  Administration & Parents, Technology, Homework, Colleagues, Mastery Learning, Instructional Alternatives, and Assessments. These are the topics that come up the most often in flipped classroom discussions so we figured this would be a good place to start. When the session began, we explained our purpose, showed the 6 topics, and let the participants choose where they wanted to go. We figured that if people wanted to spend more time on one topic than another, we should allow them. It would also leave flexibility if the discussion headed down a different path than what we originally planned.

The presentation went fine. It wasn't great, but it definitely wasn't terrible. There were some really good parts of the discussion where we discussed PRIDE cards (cards given to every student so when they completed all of the tasks they received a reward), giving more praise and positive reinforcement in a flipped classroom than a traditional classroom, and Plickers.  There were a lot of great questions and we ran out of time before we covered all 7 areas.

The problems that we found was something we have seen at other unconferences, but can't figure out how to overcome. First, most attendees (especially first-timers) are not used to coming to a conference and having to engage in a discussion. They arrive with the expectation that the presenter is the expert and they are going to learn from him/her. Second, as teachers we are too used to dominating the conversation so it can be difficult to let others take control of the presentation. The first problem definitely led to us spending too much time talking. 

Overall, we felt this presentation had a good idea and format. We will probably keep the same format, but definitely need to work on how to engage more participants in the discussion. This will probably involve more methods of response such as Polleverywhere or backchanneling in a Google Doc or on Today'sMeet.

If you have presented at an Edcamp and run into the same problem with a lack of participation from the group, what strategies have you used to engage the audience?

22 November 2014

Reflections of TEDYouth 2014

I had the opportunity to take three members of my TED Ed Club to the TEDYouth event this past weekend at the Brooklyn Museum and it was a fantastic experience. For those who don't know, TEDYouth is basically a TED Conference, but attendees are entirely Middle and High School students and their chaperones. The theme was "Worlds Imagined" and every talk had the underlying message of 'You can do whatever you want in this life' and 'Your ideas matter.' There were about twenty speakers ranging from a 15 year old chef to an astrophysicist to a street dancer to a social photographer to a leech guy. At the bottom of this post you can see some of the pictures I took.

As with every conference, there were good speakers and some less-than-stellar performances. I wanted to discuss 2 of them in this post: Ruddy Roye and Flynn McGarry.

Ruddy Roye is a photojournalist who describes himself as a 'social photographer.' One of my students had the chance to introduce him on stage and he turned out to be my favorite speaker of the day.
During his talk, he explains how he feels it is his job to tell the story of the people on the street that he meets through his photographs. He said everyone has a story and we rarely make any effort to learn other people's stories.  There was one story he told that I wanted to relay to you. He said he was walking down the street and heard some men behind him catcalling at a woman that he realized was walking up from behind him. He let her pass and noticed that she crossed the street to stand in front of a door with a cross on it. He thought this was very odd so he followed her to ask why she was standing there. She turned to him and told him that it was Easter and for Lent every Christian was supposed to give up something. On that day, she decided to give up being a prostitute and Ruddy knew he needed to capture her image (unfortunately not pictured above). I was so completely taken by surprise that I actually lost my breath for a second. The story was so touching and the picture was beautiful. I highly recommend following Ruddy on Instagram (@ruddyroye) to see his amazing work.

The other speaker who had a great story was from Flynn McGarry who is a 15 year old chef. He started cooking when he was 10 because his father kept serving him beets and he very much disliked them. One day he was watching a cooking show and thought 'what if I cooked them like meat?' So he started using methods you would use on different meats to cook the beets such as smoking, grilling, barbequeing.
He found a few recipes that seemed to work and began to apply them to other vegetables as well. Instead of meat being the focus, he would use the flavors of the meat to highlight the vegetables. Then he asked his mother if he could hold a dinner party in their living room. The family kitchen couldn't keep up with his experimenting so he asked his parents to turn part of his bedroom into a kitchen (seen above). Eventually his home-based dinner parties expanded to restaurants in both New York and Los Angeles. During the activities session we had the opportunity to taste one of his creations. It was a smoked, grilled beet with a cranberry reduction and Greek yogurt. I am not a beet lover and I found it delicious!

But, the most important part of the day had nothing to do with sessions or activities. One of the reasons I love being an advisor is the opportunity to build relationships with my students outside of the classroom; to see them as young people instead of just students. Eating lunch with my students, hearing their ideas, joking with them, recording a stop-motion animation, watching the smiles on their faces as they got to experience a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; these will be the memories from TEDYouth 2014 that will stick with me forever.

02 November 2014

When Chemistry Becomes Math Class

At a convention I was at the presenter told the following anecdote:

A group of science educators wanted to see what students' impressions were of Chemistry class. Immediately before the first day of class, the evaluators asked the students to describe what they thought Chemistry was in three words of less. As they expected, words like fire, explosions, reactions, chemicals, dangerous were among those at the top of the list. At the end of the first quarter, the evaluators returned and asked the same question and were surprised at how the students' idea of chemistry had changed. Now words like math class, boring, work were at the top and nowhere could be found words about science.

One of my biggest complaints about typical Chemistry curricula and textbooks are that they start with significant figures, scientific notation and conversions, very little of which has no impact on Chemical principles or the understanding of Chemistry in general, but rather only how students report their answers. I decided to start with actual Chemistry and teach naming and forming ionic compounds. We then worked backward through the curriculum, through the Periodic Table, basic Atomic Structure, and now we are in the dreaded sig figs and scientific notation.

Since I am very activity driven in class I wanted this to be more than notes and worksheets. I trolled Googled looking for "innovative significant figures activity." It is amazing what some people call innovative. Some things I found were webquests, an "interactive" website that was a just a digital worksheet, and an activity that required students to count popcorn kernels. I decided to just make my own.

I went through my sons' toys and grabbed random objects as seen below.

Each student received either a 6 in ruler, 12 in ruler or a meter stick as they walked in the classroom. I then asked them to measure the length of the object in both centimeter and inches and compared the accuracy of both. This part was fun because I made sure the kids with large objects received small rulers and the ones with small objects got the meter stick.

We then calculated the volume of their object. This led to a lot of questions because we needed to figure out what was the better measurement to use for the calculation. After this, we answered the Essential Question for the day which was "How many of your object will fit into this room?" My room is an odd shape so the class needed to figure out how to find its volume as well as make the measurements of length, width and height with meter sticks.

Once each student calculated the number of their objects that fit in the room (the answer really surprised them as many of them had in the millions or even billions) we needed to discuss accuracy of their answers which is where significant figures came in.

As we just finished the Quarterly where they needed to use significant figures and scientific notation I saw a definite improvement in the scores involving those questions. There were still students who got those questions wrong, but I noticed during the exam students who were clearly recalling the rules we used and, hopefully, the activity.

Was this a fool proof method? Absolutely not. Did we have a lot more fun learning about something so dry as sig figs? Definitely!

06 October 2014

Leading With The Lab

As I mentioned in my previous post, I have been asked to write 2 articles for Carolina Biological Supply's monthly newsletter. My first was about transitioning students to using video as instruction. Sorry for not making this post last week. The second article is below:

Leading with the Lab

When I first started teaching fifteen years ago, I ran my classroom the way my high school chemistry teacher ran hers. I decided to become a teacher when I was eight years old so I paid close attention in school to what my favorite teachers did with us so I could duplicate it when I finally became a teacher. A typical unit would start with notes. We would cover basic definitions and vocabulary that would be used throughout the unit. I would then move on to example problems and have the students complete questions from the review sheet in class so I could see they knew how to solve the problem correctly. I would assign daily or weekly homework to reinforce what we were doing in class and administer 5 point quizzes every couple of days to check for retention of learning. Somewhere in the middle or latter half of the unit we would perform a lab to give a context to what we had been learning and then close the unit with some sort of major assessment, like a test.

This method proved to be effective for a long time. I thought I was a successful teacher because I would see the light bulbs go off for students during the lab.  I incorporated more and more lab activities to show students there was a practical reason why they had to balance reactions or memorize Boyle’s law.  Lab experiments were the “real-world” uses of the material we were learning because “this is what chemists do.” When I heard students say ‘now I get it’ I felt like a success.

Deep down there was something missing for me, though. Science is a ‘Why?” subject; we observe something in the world around us, ask ‘why did that happen?’, design an experiment to test our hypothesis, then go back and revise our original thinking. I wasn’t getting a lot of kids asking why. I got a lot of ‘Oh!’ and ‘Why did you say that in the beginning?’, but not a single ‘why did it do that?’ If lab is my students’ favorite part of class, why do I wait so long to have them perform labs?

I decided that I am going to lead my units with the labs. When we perform the labs first, students ask “why did that happen?” Now the questions drive the learning!  At the end of the lab, each lab group must submit 3 questions to a Google Form that I created. I look through the questions and rearrange the lessons for the next day based on what they want to know.  Let me give you a couple of examples:

  • For Atomic Theory, we start the unit with a flame test lab. It is a traditional lab in which students move to different stations, insert different ionic salts in a burner flame, observe and record their results. Questions that come from the lab are ‘why did each chemical have a different color?’, ‘what other substances change color in flames?’, ‘Could I perform this lab with any substance?’
  • For Solutions, we start by making kool-aid of different concentrations to set up our molarity and molality notes. Students choose how much Kool-Aid mix and how much water they want to make their drink out of. They weigh the mix and use a graduated cylinder to measure their water. Students will ask ‘why did I get a different amount of drink at the end if I used the same amount of water each time?’, ‘could I still measure concentration without measuring the Kool-aid in the beginning?’
  • For Thermochemistry, students design and conduct an experiment to determine the specific heat of substance. They are given standard lab equipment and a list of objects to study which include toothpicks, cotton, rocks, glass marbles, various metals, isopropyl alcohol, water, and  vegetable oil.  A thorough explanation of specific heat is given in the introduction along with links to videos explaining the topic on YouTube. They utilize Google searches to find experiments to model theirs after, conduct their experiments and collect their results. They analyze the results after we complete the lessons on heat transfer and specific heat. Questions that arise are ‘Why are metals the best objects to conduct specific heat experiments on?’and ‘How can you test the specific heat of a liquid when it evaporates easily?’

The labs we use in class are very similar to traditional lab experiments. What has made them more effective is their placement in the learning, how student questions are driving the direction of the lessons, and how students are beginning to see science as exploratory instead of sit-and-get.

20 September 2014

Transitioning from direct instruction to a Flipped Classrrom

I am writing a pair of articles for Carolina Biology Supply for their monthly newsletter that it is sent to science teachers around the country. I am not sure when they will actually appear, but I wanted to share the first one here.

This year will be my 5th year flipping HS Chemistry. My learning environment is very different than many of my colleagues and I find that my students function better by transitioning into a flipped model of instruction than by simply jumping straight into it at the beginning of the year. I start the year by changing their mindset about learning by altering my assessments (using mastery and student choice) and lab activities (introducing guided-inquiry), and then start using video for instruction about 2 months into the school year. By the time I remove myself from the front of the room and put myself onto the computer, they are so used to thinking differently that the adjustment period is much shorter.
If you are thinking about flipping your classroom, here are a couple of methods that have worked for me for transitioning the students:
  1. Use the videos to start a class discussion--The TED Ed website (ed.ted.com) is a wonderful resource for finding short, animated science videos to illustrate topics and taking the first steps toward using video for instruction. Just How Small Is an Atom? by Jon Bergmann (http://bit.ly/smallatom) and How Big is a Mole? by Daniel Dulek (http://bit.ly/chemistrymole) are two that I use as starter activities to introduce a lesson and begin a discussion on a topic. The TED Ed videos work well because the content is created by educators for educators so it uses simple terms and also gives real-world analogies to make it easier for students to understand. Also, the animation is excellent and helps keep kids’ attention. The TED Ed videos can also be used for instructional purposes as well. One of the few instructional videos I use in my AP Chemistry class is How to speed up chemical reactions (and how to get a date) by Aaron Sams and Mark Paricio (http://bit.ly/kineticsreactions). This video perfectly summarizes everything my students need to know about collision theory and reaction rates for the Kinetics unit. I assign this video for HW, ask them a series of follow-up questions the next day, then we perform a rate-law lab that demonstrates what they learned in the video. Students are then required, as part of their conclusion statements, to explain how the different reactions in the lab illustrate the methods for speeding up the chemical reaction that was shown in the video.  
  2. Record examples you complete in class--The first instructional video I created was simply a recording of me completing two example problems in class. A student made a comment that she really wished there was a way to hear me explain the hard examples again when she was studying. I used a video camera to record the computer monitor while wrote everything out on the interactive whiteboard (IWB) and then dubbed my voice over the writing later. You can do this easily now simply by asking a student to come by during lunch or after school, handing him/her your cell phone, and asking him/her to record what you write on the board. It will take 5 minutes to record and seconds to upload to YouTube or your website. Or, if you have an IWB, use a program like Snagit by TechSmith to capture all of your writing to share later.
  3. Instructional videos as notes only, no examples--One comment my students make is that either my videos are too long (keep them to under 10 minutes!) or that I provide too many examples. What I have started to do is create two sets of videos: one that is strictly notes that contain things like definitions or diagrams, and a second that contains only examples of how to solve problems. Some of my students watch the videos on their bus rides to athletic events and say they can’t concentrate well enough on a bus to truly understand the problems I show, but the definitions are easy to get down in their notebook without much thinking.
  4. Hold Student Accountable.  What you will need to remember, regardless of the purpose of your video, is you must hold the students accountable for watching the videos. You can use a Cornell notes system, have students generate original questions based on what they learned, tie all assessments directly to the learning in the videos, or have them complete reflection logs after each video. Kids are used to watching videos for entertainment only. You need to help them see them as learning tools as well and help them develop ways that aides in retention of that learning.

I hope these tips are helpful as you transition from a classroom utilizing a lot a direct instruction to a flipped classroom. Video is a powerful way to excite students about a topic and to deliver content that will help you better utilize class time.

19 September 2014

Play the ball where the monkey drops it

This post is again inspired by something I read in Creativity, Inc.

Story told in Creativity, In.:
When the British first brought golf to Calcutta, they were faced with an unforeseen problem. The monkeys that lived in the area around the course were fascinated by the flying balls and would run onto the course to snatch them. After trying a variety of methods to prevent the monkeys from doing this, this simply instituted the rule 'Play the ball where the monkey drops it.'

Related story not from the book:
I remember hearing a story about a university that was redesigning the buildings and green spaces along a section of campus. Instead of putting in walkways immediately after finishing the new buildings on campus and laying new grass, the landscape designer decided to leave everything dirt for 1 month. After a month, he returned and found the paths worn in the dirt by the students as they chose for themselves the best route to get to their next location. Then the landscaper poured concrete paths where the students traveled most and landscaped around it. The university never had worn grass sections or damaged landscaping because of this.

We often create policies and procedures to prevent behaviors from occurring. We do things like install heavy filters on our Internet firewalls to prevent students from visiting inappropriate websites or unlock certain bathrooms to limit where we need to supervise students or ban cell phones in the classroom because we feel they will be a distraction. But what if we stopped doing that? I mean all of it. What if we let the students use their best judgement and then developed policies based around their behaviors? Or better yet, create policies that encourage and reward proper behaviors rather than only punishing bad ones?

14 September 2014

A glimpse of Google Classroom's potential

To be honest, I wasn't going to use Google Classroom this year. I see that it has a lot of potential, but it just didn't really fit what I wanted to do with my students this year. Last year I moved from my Moodle site to Edmodo. This year I was going to shift back to Moodle so that I could do more online assessments and free up time in the classroom for other activities. Unfortunately, Moodle is taking so long to get up and running the way I want it to that I needed to make another shift.

Enter Google Classroom.  Well, sort of...

So I didn't decided to use Google Classroom until the end of my first class of the day. The night before I shared a document we would need for the next class with all of my students. During the first block, I showed the students how to find the document, make a copy, and share it with me. In between classes I had the realization that everything I just did could happen a lot faster if I used Classroom.  Later in the day another class came in for the same lesson plan as earlier and, but we used Google Classroom this time for the assignment.  That class, despite having more students, were into the activity TEN MINUTES faster than the earlier class.

So I learned my lesson with that one. But the purpose of this post is not to talk about how prior planning would have helped with this. I wanted to share one aspect of the review process.

We are working on Naming and Forming Compounds. After explaining the process with ion cutouts as manipulatives, the students joined the Google Classroom and accessed the assignment for the day. First, what we found was the assignment doesn't appear in the students' Google Drive until the access it in Classroom first. This forces the students to log into Classroom to see any announcements or directions prior to starting the assignment. Once they have clicked on the assignment Classroom makes a copy in their folder (if you set it up to do that) and creates a link for the teacher to access it at any time.

For this assignment, I wanted to be able to check how the students were doing as they were both naming and forming ionic compounds. I told them that I would leave feedback in the document for them for the next class so they can correct their mistakes before the due date. Below are 2 screenshots so you can see my comments.:
As you can see above, this student had a number of mistakes that needed to be addressed. I left both short and long comments depending on what needed to be fixed. Also, any changes I recommend making can be left either as comments or "suggested edits" which is a new feature in Docs.

This student only made a minor mistake so I left positive note at the top.

All of the assignments for the class was in an alphabetized list for me in Classroom instead of being in my Incoming section of Google Drive mixed in with all of my other documents. Since everything is technically in my Google Drive, I was still able to leave feedback on the students' work from my phone (this is how I kill the hour my kids are in swimming class). I never found this easy to do from Edmodo and not possible at all in Moodle.

While Classroom really made this aspect of my job easier, the jury is still out on whether this will be my go to method for distributing assignments. It is great for HW/Classwork, but anything that requires group work doesn't function here. I will continue to update on how I use Classroom as the year progresses.

If you are using Google Classroom with your students, I would love to hear the ways it is working for you. Please leave your comments below. Thanks!

11 September 2014

Be audacious, get fired

I am reading Creativity, Inc. by Tim Something who is the founder and CEO of Pixar Studios. In the section I am reading, he talks about how he met John Lassiter--the Executive Producer and Director for many of Pixar's blockbusters like Toy Story, A Bug's Life, and Toy Story 2.  Here is a story that I found fascinating:

John Lassiter was a Disney animator in the early 1980s before coming to Pixar. He had this idea to create a short film which integrated computer generated graphics with hand-drawn animation. He, along with other Disney animators, visited George Lucas' ILM studios in the graphic arts division (where Pixar was born). He became amazed at the work they were doing with computer animation and decided to pitch his idea to his project managers at Disney. The managers listened to his ideas and shortly after that fired him. The animation team felt, at the time, that computers had no place in animated films. Within a few months, Lassiter was hired by what would become Pixar Studios.

Lassiter would go on to actually make the film which is what you can see below:
Lassiter's story is not unique. Many of the people we call geniuses in their field were originally laughed at or shunned because their ideas were too bold, too unique, or too revolutionary.

So, here is the message that I took away from this:  Be bold. Be daring. Be audacious. If your employer values you and values creative endeavors, you are set. If not, then find a place that will and you will better off because of it.

07 September 2014

First Day(s) of School

One of my unwritten goals for this year is to make a post every week. The idea that I want to pursue for the TED Ed Club is to help others see the awesome that is around them every day. The truth is I have awesome students and we do awesome things in the classroom so I want to share that with everyone.

This was the first week of school. My oldest son entered 2nd grade and every year he comes back and tells us he doesn't remember anything he did that day. When he entered Kindergarten, I remember him saying that the entire first day was him listening to his teachers tell the class the rules: where to sit, where to stand, when to talk. As he spoke all I heard was 'Sit. Stand. Speak. Good boy.' This year I vowed not to make class an obedience lesson.

The first day of school is a clean slate. I can be anyone I want. I can be the person I was last year or I can completely recreate myself. I chose the latter.

On the first day, I told my students that I didn't want to talk about procedures or grading or a syllabus. I talked about learning and my expectations for them and their expectations for me. I talked about my experience at the Google Teacher Academy and how it changed my life. I did a lot of talking, unfortunately, but they did a lot of smiling.

My classes are very different from each other. I think my Honors classes surprised me the most. I talk about my bungee chairs and how I encourage the class to make the classroom their learning space, to be as comfortable as possible. One of classes just stared at the chairs as if I told them they could sit on a bed of nails all class. My other class stopped me, asked if I was serious, and the second we broke for the activity, began pushing each other out of the way to get to the chairs. One student didn't make it so he sat on top of his group's desks, happy as a clam.

Colleagues came up to me on Friday and told me how their former students who have me told them how excited they were for my class. That makes me feel good, that they actually heard what I was trying to tell them. But on the 2nd day of class I wanted to be sure. I ran a PollEverywhere poll and asked "What was your biggest takeaway from last class?" Obviously each kid took something slightly different away, but here is a screenshot of my favorite:

I wasn't going for fun, but many realize that they will learn chemistry, they will learn new skills, and that they actually have to work. The ball is rolling and now I just need to keep this momentum going.

06 September 2014

Shuffling the deck

Think back to your HS science class days. The class probably looked something like this:

  1. The teacher introduces a new unit by giving you notes, then assigns HW that night based on what you just learned.
  2. The next class, you turn in your HW and then take a short quiz on what you learned last class.
  3. The teacher gives more notes, which are slightly more in-depth and complicated than last time, and gives HW again.
  4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 as necessary.
  5. The teacher has you perform a lab that illustrates what you have been learning.
  6. You take a test on the unit.
I have to be honest, I am guilty of following this plan. As a teacher, I would find activities and labs that would help the students better understand the material that I have already taught to them. There were a lot of lightbulbs going on during the lab because now students could finally see why what they had been learning was important.

But if the lab is so important to the learning, why did I leave it until the end of the unit?

I decided to rearrange the order of some of the items above. I am going to activity the heck out of my class. We are going to start the unit with the activity and the labs. My hope is this will generate questions from the students about WHY something has occurred. The WHY is what we are always seeking in education and yet we are satisfied with an OH, as in 'OH, I get it now."

I understand that sitting quietly and taking notes while someone is speaking is an important skill. However, if you think about the average person in the average job, they probably spend maybe ONE hour a day doing that. We ask kids to do it for SEVEN! If I told you that your job would be to sit in a room all day and listen to other people talk for 7 hours a day, I guarantee you would be dusting off the resume and looking for a different employer.

School, and science especially, needs to be about doing. Even if the activity is a little crazy or boring we are going to be DOING things during class this year.

20 August 2014

If you're a freak like me...

I have an unhealthy obsession with a number of things:
  1. Google--this is pretty much everything they do. I am obsessed with their products, their corporate philosophy, how they treat their employees, how they want to change the world, and the fact that they offer pretty much everything they create for free.
  2. The color green--it used to be just forest or hunter green, but a few years ago it turned to neon green and I have never looked back. I especially love the combination of neon green and black. I have a neon green tie, neon green shoelaces on my sneakers (which also are black and grey), neon green and black Google sunglasses (yes the obsession goes that far), a neon green doorstop for my classroom, and a neon green case for my Nexus 7.
  3. Chemistry--actually this is pretty much anything science, but my true love is chemistry. I have chemistry shirts, a chemistry clock, and even my wedding ring is pure Tungsten.
  4. The word Awesome--I try to include it in everything I do. My class hashtag is #chemisawesome, my quote board is #wordsofawesome, I have a shirt that just says AWESOME, and another one that warns that my awesomeness is contagious.
  5. Lists that have 5 things in them--it is not OCD. Five just seems like a nice number of things to have in a list. In fact, I added this just to make it to five things.
I grew up in the 90s in a time when you got ridiculed for standing out from the crowd. When I went to HS, you were either a jock or a geek and I was both. I hid my true self from everyone but my closest friends to not draw attention to myself.  Today's world is one of the best times to grow up because you can flaunt your obsessions, your inner geekiness, and no one really cares because they are doing it too.

So, if you're a freak like me, raise your flag. Wave that geek flag high in the air and be proud. Being a geek means you are passionate about something and there is nothing wrong with that.

07 August 2014

The Google Teacher Academy and Me

Last week I had the unbelievable opportunity of attending the Google Teacher Academy at the Googleplex in Mountain View, CA.  It took a week for me to fully process everything that happened into something that I could put into a simple blog post.

Let's start with the Googleplex:
Everything you have heard about Google is absolutely true. I couldn't take many pictures as most of the buildings are considering confidential areas and I signed a NDA, so below are what I could take. One of the  coolest things were the micro-kitchens in each office area that was stocked with snack bars, cereal, water (flavored and unflavored), soda (holy crap was there a lot of soda), fruit, coffee makers, and chips. What I loved most was there were almost no name-brand products anywhere. Soda machines said "Cola" and all of the snacks were focused on organic or natural ingredient companies. There wasn't a Lays or Herrs to be found. Red Bull was there, but that's probably because the all natural energy drinks are terrible.  All of this was completely free and we were encouraged to snack as much as we wanted to keep our energy up.
Me on a Google Bike
where you park your Google bike

the Google car
me in Jelly Donut

statues of all the Android OS
the Disney store for adult nerds

one of the Alien creatures from Alien
I don't know why there is a dinosaur skeleton

This was a random guacamole and salsa table setup under some trees. There was also fresh made strawberry lemonade. This was setup for anyone who wanted it. Just one of the many little touches Google supplies its employees and guests.
The second thing was the way Google treated its employees.  There were exercise areas, volleyball courts, pool tables, and community gardens so employees could enjoy their outdoor environment whenever they wanted. They were encouraged to go outside to have meetings or just simply to get away from their desk for a little while.  Employees have no sick days. If you are too sick to come to work, stay home. If you do decide to come to work, there are doctors on campus to take care of you just in case. But the coolest story
came from one of our lead learners who told us that one day when she came to work very sick and none of the doctors were available to see her, a Google employee drove her to an emergent-care in San Francisco (over 30 min away and close to her apartment).

The GTA:
The best part about the GTA is gathering educators, who are considered the crazy ones in their district, into one room and letting them loose on redesigning their classrooms. It was invigorating and inspiring and overwhelming and so many other positive words that I don't feel like looking up in a thesaurus. There were only a handful of attendees that I had met in person prior to the GTA, but it felt like we were long lost friends. I had basically strangers driving me from the airport, taking me along for dinner, and dropping me off in random places in San Francisco.  And none of it felt awkward. We are now a weird, Google nerd family and it feels fantastic.
There were 5 sessions run by our lead learners spread over the 2 days. They were hands-on exercises that not only showed us creative ways to use Google tools, but gave us concrete examples of activities that we can take back to our classrooms immediately.  My favorite ones were the scavenger hunt activity we did using our Nexus 7 tablets and NFC tags/QR code and using hyperdocs.

In the scavenger hunt, we were given a link to a Google map with the exact location of each of our targets. We needed to walk around with the map open to guide us to the location.  When we arrived, we found a tag that linked us to a quote.  We then needed to take a picture with our tablet that creatively addressed the quote and share it to a Google+ community created for this event.  What I loved about this was that it wasn't about simply finding an answer and then moving on.  We really needed to think differently about our environment, the features of the camera app, and finding a picture we were willing to share to a community of learners who were going to judge our submissions. Some of the locations included piles of chalk and play-doh, chairs and rocks, or just hidden near a tree. The best part was the submission to a digital community. I found I was much more critical of my work and put more effort into using the features in the app before just posting a picture because I wanted to impress my peers who would be deciding on the best submission later.

HyperDocs are basically a Google Doc that has links to videos, forms, slides and other Google docs embedded in them. I see them as a great way to transition from traditional note taking to something more interactive. It doesn't require the teacher to recreate everything he/she is doing, but simply put it into a different form. HyperDocs allow the motivated student to move faster than the rest of the class, for the teacher to collect reflections on the assignment, and for the entire class to gather information on a topic throughout the unit into one location. This is great for students who are absent, who are falling behind or for those who are having trouble organizing their work. HyperDocs might also be an alternative instructional method for flipped classrooms. Rather than using the videos to drive instruction, the major information can be written into the Google Doc with the videos linked as additional resources. There can also be short quizzes or reflection forms included to check for understanding.

Nearly every activity we did was on a timer. It was frustrating, and nerve-racking, and totally awesome. When we give students projects, we give them lengthy timelines so that they can accommodate other class' projects. But students just start shoving as much information as they could fit and teachers start putting rules in place to limit how much they can do. Instead, we can give them 10 minutes in class, very specific guidelines for the information they need to include, and 1 Google slide to do it in. Time is spent not on perfection, but on focusing on the most important information and creatively presenting it. It takes me 10 minutes just to explain what I want from the project. I am actually thinking about using this in the first days of school for the students to introduce themselves to both me and their classmates. I am going to create a title slide explaining what they need to do, make every student create a slide in the same document, and then give them only 10 minutes to work. At the end, it doesn't matter what they have, they are done because I am going to change the sharing settings so they can't tweak it after class is over (which is what the perfectionists will want to do).

While there is always a "sit and get" portion to every PD, the practical application time was the most valuable. We were not being instructed on how to use a particular tool or what the different options were, but rather we were simply thrust into a situation and told to figure it out. That is what we need more of in schools, less hand-holding and more go figure it out situations. There were several times we were required to use a tool I had zero experience with. I immediately looked for someone who knew what to do and got a 30 second explanation before jumping in. Kids today know how to figure things out. My 7 year old had never typed before, but within 30 minutes of using Typing Club he figured out how to cheat the system and get himself higher scores. He is not a genius, just an example of how quickly kids are to play and learn.

Looking back, two days was not nearly enough time to learn as much as I wanted, but I don't think my brain could have handled any more. I have so many ideas swimming in my head that it is difficult to figure out where to even begin. I could go on and on about so much more, but I guess I should close with a succinct list of my takeaways:
  1. We need to stop wasting time in the classroom with procedures and get out of the way of the students as they are demonstrating their learning, in whatever manner they deem fit to demonstrate it.
  2. Today's world is about adapting our SKILLS to novel situations and being able to work in any work environment.
  3. The world is our learning space. We need to get out of those four walls and start using it more.
  4. There are educators all over the world who are crazy awesome and we need to connect ourselves to them wherever/whenever we can.
  5. Using Google tools is so much more than going paperless or using free tools.  They are about creating a new environment for learning and instruction to happen.
When I applied to the Google Teacher Academy, I never thought I stood a chance of getting in. This has been an unbelievable experience from start to finish and I encourage everyone to take the leap and apply. Even if you don't get in, you learn so much about yourself and your teaching you end up growing as an educator.

27 July 2014

What question do you wish we had asked?

When we sit down with a potential candidates, we ask a lot of questions about their past and present.

Why are you the best candidate for this job?

Describe how you have overcome adversity.

What made you want to become a teacher and how your experiences have shaped who you are today?

How can you tell that a lesson is successful?

What words would your students use to describe your classroom and teaching style?

How do you handle students varied learning needs?

These are all great questions and will certainly tell you about the personality and teaching style of the potential candidate.  But we are living in a constantly changing world where one of the most important activities a teacher should be engaged in is reflection.

At an interview, the last question that I was asked was "What question do you wish we had asked you?"  I was totally thrown by this as this was the first time any interviewer had asked me this question.  I sat for a second and realized that in every interview I have been on, I have been asked about what I have done in the past or what I would do in hypothetical situations.  Never have I been asked about I am going to do in the future or what my professional growth goals are for next year.  So I described my professional goal for 2014-2015 of creating Google Certified Student teams ( I will talk more about this goal after the GTA this week).  

Why don't we ask about a teacher's professional growth goals or for their blog/Twitter handle/Google+ page?  Wouldn't these tell us more about a teacher than some of the typical questions?

What question would you want to be asked in an interview?

17 July 2014

What I meant to say

I had an interview this week for an Assistant Principal position. The first one went really well, but I was less than stellar the 2nd time around in front of the committee. To be completely truthful, I got out to my car and slapped my hand to my forehead as hard as possible in an attempt to see if I still had a brain in there. What threw me was one question, in particular:

What do you see as the difference between a MS and HS classroom? Specifically.

I will not reveal my actual answer because it is embarrassing. I had all of these things I wanted to include during my interview and this would have been the perfect place to use them, but my brain went blank.  I wanted to say:

The difference, as I see it, is simply how you structure the activities that you use at each level.  Students should be sitting in small groups and bean bag chairs while participating in Edcafes in English class. In science, they are completing guided-inquiry activities where they are given the objective, a tray of materials and are developing their procedures and documenting their results in a Google Doc. In math, they are creating small vehicles that propel themselves down the hall, record their results with their cell phones, and analyze the class results that was collected collaboratively in a Google Spreadsheet. In Social Studies, they are responding to the teacher's questions in a back channel while watching a video. In PE, students record each other with their cell phones while completing drills, analyze their form, and share the video with the teacher. 

To the school that I interviewed with:  I am sorry you didn't get to hear the response I wanted to share.  You got the generic me; the one that tries to be like everyone else. I won't make this mistake again.

This has been bothering me all week and I feel a lot better.  Thanks, everyone, for listening.

11 July 2014

Sometimes it's the little things

I saw this pin on Pinterest last year about leaving words of encouragement on pencils for students during exams. I tried it for my Honors class and they really loved them. One student even made a Tweet about it a few months later when she found the pencil in the bottom of her backpack.
I wanted to do this again for all my classes for finals this past year but with 152 students there was no way that was going to happen. So, at the last minute, I decided to just take a whiteboard marker and write the message directly on the desk.  Here are some pictures of what I wrote:

I think my favorite part about the day was when some students came in early, noticed the messages, and went around the room trying to find the one they liked best.  I don't know if it helped improved scores, but it definitely put a smile on their face.

One student told me at the end of the year that she feels so comfortable learning in my classroom.  I think I can call my year a success.

08 July 2014

Who are you?

I am reading through Digital Leadership by Eric Sheninger and just finished the chapter on creating your brand. The concept is pretty simple: when people search the Internet what do you want them to see?  Using your school's website and social media, you can flood the Internet with positive images and stories about your school, keeping a high impression of the school in the public eye.

In my classroom, we use the hashtag #chemisawesome for everything that we do. Pictures/videos of demos, labs, good grades, all appear on this hashtag.  This is my brand.  These positive images are what I want students, parents, community members, random strangers, colleagues, hobos living under a bridge, President Obama to see when they search Google for my classroom.

When we teach students about their digital footprint, we focus fare too much on the bad things that could happen to them.  Instead, we need to constantly model how social media SHOULD be used. Every classroom should have a blog/website/Instagram/Twitter account.  We should be forcing students to use those computers they call cell phones to document the amazing things they do every day and share it with the world.  Think of how easy it would be for colleges in the decision making process when they search for an incoming freshmen and they find hundreds of pictures of them performing community service, winning awards, participating in extracurricular activities, and what they are learning in their classes. Forget the 650 word essays about who you would be having lunch with.  Soon the application will say please insert the link to your blog or Instagram feed that shows how you are having a positive impact on the world.

So my question is:  when I Google you, which version of you am I going to find?

23 June 2014

41 years later

My supervisor is retiring next month after 41 years in education.  He started in this district 2 year before I was born!  He was hired as a MS science teacher originally, then was the first science teacher to teach in the new HS they created later.  Fast forward and he is in the last month of his career in education.  I am finishing my 14th year so I am pretty much finishing the first third of my career (assuming I can't reach my goal of 50 years. Sorry, honey, it's going to happen).  I wanted to take a moment to reflect on some of the most important parts of the past 14 years. (All years are approximate to make this post easier to write)

14 years ago--I met Aashish (just had a kid!), and Martha, and Alexia (got a 9 for the marking period and is now working on her MA in biochemistry!), and Ashley (getting married!), and Ben (is now a 7th grade science teacher). Received the nickname "Evil Seigel" for how much work I gave them in AP Chemistry.

13 years ago--took a group of amazing seniors to Florida when everyone said it couldn't be done. Christina (now a teacher too!) fundraised so much money we actually had to give her some back as spending money.

12 years ago--Had a group of girls tell me something so personal that it changed my life and gave them courage. Started the fencing club. Let Lizzy hangout in my classroom (and then she wouldn't leave!).

11 years ago--Got tenure. Watched Alex and Ana create a unsinkable mousetrap-powered, amphibious vehicle (actually filled it with water and weights and couldn't get it to sink). Kicked Guy out of my class (the first and only student this has happened to).  Apologized to him later for it.  Watched Lucy make a presentation on what would later become the focus of her Ph.D. thesis.

10 years ago--Won Teacher of the Year for my school. Convinced Irene to go out with Kirk (they are married now!).

9 years ago--Accepted Teacher of the Year from the Class of 2006 from Bea (teaches English in China!).  Had to say goodbye to amazing students and colleagues.

8 years ago--Ran the worst department meeting. Followed it up later in the year with the best department meeting.  Met some amazing friends.  Fired someone.

7 years ago--Kissed a pig. Gave Alyssa an award and took one of my favorite photos ever with her.

6 years ago--Became a fencing coach, officially. Met Sara, Claire, Megan (happy birthday!), and Jae. Forgot who I was supposed to be.

5 years ago--Found myself (turns out I was just hiding for a little while). Got to coach Katherine. Had Barry show me that teenagers are different. Discovered that Jackson was a hacker and wicked smart.

4 years ago--Had my best fencing season as a coach and walked away from the sport.  Said goodbye to some of my favorites.

3 years ago--Presented at my first national conference. Started to figure out who I was supposed to be. Met Christiana, Matt, Xena and Raven (all graduating in 3 days!). Made some new friends.

2 years ago--Met Jordan (always making me proud), Christina and Tara. Dariel inspired me to do something I didn't think was possible.  Was thanked 180 times by Maddie. Presented at my 2nd national conference.  Got to team teach with Melissa for the first time.  Watched Eric almost win on Big Brain Theory.

1 year ago--Got a chance to teach AP Chem for the 9th time. Collaborated with students in Indiana via Google Hangout. Helped write a book! Was featured in several magazine articles.  Got accepted into the Google Teacher Academy.  Talked about life and college with Elias and Bobby. Tried to find the meaning of life with Jess (we failed). Discovered Sarah and Phoebe are unbelievably stubborn. Started a TED Ed Club. Watched John reinvent school. Created something Caitlin was proud to be a part of. Became an Explorer.

Every year I get a yearbook.  My fencing coach in HS did this.  When he retired after 37 years, he swept his hands over 3 shelves of yearbooks and said, 'This is my career.'  Even after 14 years, names and faces are fading, details becoming fuzzy around the edges.  This is by no means a complete list and there are hundreds of students that I have forgotten to mention (please don't assume these are my favorites. ALL of my students are my favorites!).

I have had a really great career so far (with many bumps along the road).  I wonder what the next 28 years will bring.

28 May 2014

Going to the GTA!

One of my unwritten goals for the past year has been to make it into the Google Teacher Academy.  I missed the December deadline for NYC because I chickened out at the last minute over making my one minute video.  When the application opened this spring for Mountain View (Google HQ!) I knew I couldn't wait another year.

To be honest, it was one of the most stressful things I have ever done, probably because I wanted it so badly.  Not only was the application stressful, but the day I knew I would be receiving my email of acceptance (or denial, but I was staying positive) was horrible.  I must checked my email at least 100 times even though my phone would have alerted me to the received message.  Everything stopped in my life whenever my pocket vibrated thinking that this could be it.

  • At about 4pm, the email telling me I was accepted arrived and I literally jumped up and down and started screaming.  Luckily I was alone in the school cafeteria waiting for my Relay For Life meeting to start so it wasn't that embarrassing.  I wanted to share two things I learned from this experience.Make sure you read the directions!!  I was asked to answer 2 questions.  One on hardships that I have faced and how I overcame them.  The other on why I wanted to attend the GTA.  I read the question and noticed that underneath it said 'Maximum 800 words."  I remember thinking 'wow, there are at least 1000 people going to apply and they are going to read all of these essays in a week.  That's impressive!'  So I wrote out this page and half essay and when I was finally ready, pasted the text into the box on the Google form.  That's when the little red error popped up and said "800 characters exceeded."  You read that right:  CHARACTERS not WORDS.  I had to take an essay that was nearly 800 words (779 to be exact) and turn it into 800 characters including spaces!  On the day it was due!  While I was teaching classes!!  Here is my submission as to why I wanted to attend the GTA:

School needs to be transformed; GTA will lead to this. I long to be part of something transformative, something cutting edge, something elite, to be part of a community of educators redesigning education; the concept of GTA excites & energizes me. As a GCT, I will draw on connections to the people most passionate about achieving the best for students while I do the same for mine. I am excited about the opportunity to work closely with like-minded educators innovating, shaking up the system, daring to fail. Every teacher should be fighting for a chance to attend a GTA. I’m geeking out about the opportunity to just apply, that I stand a chance of getting to explore the Google offices & get to talk about the great things other excited educators are doing! Plus, I hear the food is awesome.
  • You need to create a one minute video about how you are innovating education and having an impact in your school.  A couple of students and I had worked on a project for the White House Film festival a few months ago so I tapped their talents to help me again.  We found clips I had recorded from various activities, filmed a short intro, and edited over the course of a couple of hours in the video production lab.  One of the students is very talented with Garage Band so while 2 of us were editing clips (and dealing with my OCD/perfectionist tendencies), he was creating an original score for the piece.  It is not the best video that I have seen submitted, but we were pretty proud of it when we were done.  Below is my video submission.
The students in the video were so embarrassed at first, but then were showing their friends that they made it in the video.  People from all over the world were seeing it and that gave them a sense of pride.  Plus my son loved being there at the end.

I think my biggest takeaway and best advice for anyone thinking of applying is to just go for it.  I panicked at the first one because I felt I wasn't good enough.  But afterwards, and after watching a colleague get in, I realized I was selling myself short.  We all do awesome things in our classrooms.  We need to be positive and promote that.  Sell the the awesome however and wherever we can.  

24 May 2014

Girls (and boys) just want to have fun!

Sometimes you need to stop what you are doing and just have some fun in class.  We are working in solutions so what better time to play with a non-Newtonian fluid!  Basically, you need a kiddie pool, 100lbs of cornstarch, 10 gallons of warm water, a bunch of really enthusiastic students, and you have one helluva day.

19 May 2014


I was at Edcamp Philly this weekend and after making one of my typically crazy ideas I was met with the usual 'well I can't do that in my building.  My principal will never go for it.'
Here's what I know: education is in a weird downward spiral. Those that are controlling the system have forgotten what learning is and what school could be. We are focused on the wrong type of student outcomes. And it is not going to get better.


Unless someone like you cares an awful lot. Cares about kids more than tests. Cares about learning more than grades. Cares more about making a change than the status quo. Cares more about doing what's right for kids than what others think about them.

Nothing is going to change. Nothing is going to get better.


Unless we make it happen ourselves.

--Thank you, Dr. Seuss, for the inspiration!

07 May 2014

Google Prep Classes

Every class that I teach is designed to prepare students for college.  If a student enrolls in this course, does that mean they should be going to college?  But, which college am I preparing them for:  Harvard or Community College?

What if instead of College Prep courses, we designed Google Prep courses?

 I came across this article on Twitter today about the hiring process at Google and I wanted to highlight a couple of key points.
  1. GPA doesn't matter--Google has found that GPA is not an indicator of any success in the company nor does where you went to college or if you even went to college.
  2. Informal leadership is more important than elected positions.  Leaders are people who step up and take the lead when part of a team, but also know how to be part of the team and let others take the lead when necessary.
  3. Expertise will hurt you. They don't want someone who has done a task a hundred times. They want people who will take a novel approach to solve the problem. Even if the solution to the problem is the same as what has always been done, it has been seen with a fresh set of eyes.
Google, one of the most successful companies in the world, cares more about employees who are passionate, are resourceful, and are imaginative in their solutions.  Shouldn't we be teaching these skills to our students instead of simply preparing them for college, especially when the best companies don't even care about having a degree?

Just food for thought.

01 May 2014

It's All About the Benjamins

That's a Cheeto on fire!
I realized on my drive yesterday that I now have the mist dangerous classroom in the school. We have eliminated all shop classes so there are no more saws and drills presses to potentially remove an appendage.  Therefore the chemistry lab is one of the few places left where the students can be seriously injured. We use chemicals that can't be purchased except through special chemical companies.  We have acids, flammable substances, broken glass, hot metals, scalding water, poisonous chemicals and sharp objects.  And, I have labs in which I freely let the students mix these substances in whatever quantities they wish and I call it inquiry

And yet I really don't have discipline or safety problems. I don't have students misbehaving and running a muck in my room. And I have not written up a student for inappropriate behavior in over 10 years.  This doesn't mean my class is perfect, but I take a slightly different perspective on classroom management than a lot of teachers.

You see, my class is all about the Benjamins. And the Christinas. And the Jaimes and the Roberts and the Mohammeds and the Ericas and the Jordans and the Alexs.  Our class is all about the relationships.  Our class is about the mutual respect we have for each other.  Our classroom is where risk taking is rewarded and failure is learning.

Sometimes, as teachers, we get so wrapped up in lesson plans, state tests, and completing our curriculum that we lose sight of what who is most important in our classroom.