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!