Friday, June 29, 2012

Wading into ePorfolios

I hate giving tests. I'm not good at writing them, so they don't measure what my kids know. Said kids try to cheat as much as they can in order to show me what their neighbor knows. I never know what to do while giving a test, so I kind of wander around in my squeaky shoes. Even if I use the same test I did last time, I can never find my key. Did I mention that I don't think it's a good way to measure what they know?

A couple years ago, in the interest of finding a way to alternately assess, we started blogging in a couple of my classes. At first it was mostly just a place to answer questions instead of writing on paper. That was okay, but I wanted it to expand into something more more. We did a lot, but not as much as I would have liked. I have mentioned my inability to write driving questions, but my main issue is the availability of computers at any given time. We are not a 1:1 school, but we have three computer labs available to schedule. The problem comes when I have them scheduled for Tuesday, and we end up needing them on Monday. That lag time has kind of done me in, so our blogging experience has been shaky at best.

This year, we kind of accidentally moved away from blogging by setting up websites. My plan was to have kids summarize each learning target on their sites and then link back to their blogs and other pieces of amazingness that they may have created. The kids I had this year struggled so much with the technology* that we dropped the blogs and focused on the sites. Each kid created a site and I had them create a page for each unit.

I loved the way this got set up. There was a place for everything and I didn't have to keep track of paper. I can't tell you how refreshing that is, although I will admit I did miss the practice of actually writing out comments. A little weird, I know. I ended up using pearltrees to keep all my sites in one place because I did a lot of my grading at home on my own computer. The only problem I had was where to put the comments so my kids could access them easily. We use PowerSchool and it has a comment section, but I'm not sure how much I like that. I am definitely trying out BlueHarvest this fall.

Of course, I had grand visions of kids creating their own spaces, but up until the very last week of school I had kids convinced that I wanted them to create a dictionary. A copied and pasted dictionary. It was so frustrating. I couldn't get them out of that comfort zone of regurgitating everything they could find on wikipedia. I finally got a touch of the amazingness I was looking for on their final projects when they had to correlate local rock formations and tie it all in to every unit. There was some true critical thinking going on. Again, driving questions anyone???

If I had been paying attention, I would have noticed how Terie and Chris have their classes set up and applied it to mine. There are some parallels, but I have a sneaking suspicion that their sites will come in very handy this summer when I sit down to polish up my own.

I really like this idea, especially with my earth science classes. Chemistry, I'm not so sure about, simply because I feel like they need to have that lab notebook experience. I can't decide if it would be worth the time to recreate it on the web. I think this next year, I will focus on my other classes and become more comfortable with the process before I have all my classes switch over**.

*Yes, I have kids who struggle with Google. Some days I have a hard time comprehending this.

**You have no idea how hard it was for me to write that sentence! I have never been one to ease into anything.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Oh Yeah, I Have a Job

I have not had a school thought since May 25.

Haven't even missed it.

My plan this summer was to spend a little bit of time every day and get ready for school in the fall*. I have so many things I want to do differently that I simply can't wait until August to start fixing them unless I want to ed up in a straight-jacket somewhere.

So it's been a little bit of a struggle getting back into chemistry mode today. I am back at a short Modeling Workshop this week looking at the new chemistry units 4, 5 and 6 that were revamped last year. The old sequence just kind of skimmed over quite a bit of crucial information but still expected kids to figure it all out. The new units go back and add in a little bit of filler to help bridge the gap from macroscopic observations to more microscopic.

Unit Four discusses the difference between mixtures and compounds. The Modeling still skims over those in a series of demonstrations/notes that didn't do it for my kids. I added in a mixture identification/separation lab last year to help kids visualize and practice those techniques. Plus they needed the practice. My kids come to me with horrible lab skills and this is an easy one for them to practice with. There was also a general consensus about kids not being able to recognize a mixture, pure substance, element or compound in a particle diagram. I had a hard time trying to figure out how in the world I messed up this section so badly that they couldn't do that, but apparently it wasn't just me, so I am not sure where this confusion comes from or how to clarify it. To me, it seems so simple, but apparently to teenagers, I might as well be teaching string theory.

Then we get into the law of definite proportions and the law of multiple proportions. The transition from relative mass to the mole is much smoother and I think it flows a little better for kids. They still have a hard time with using the relative masses to show the laws, but that is something I can help them through fairly easily. I have an idea for a lab, but it is not fleshing out as completely as I'd hoped. I'll come back to that.

We still have a few issues to hammer out tomorrow, namely the idea of how the molar masses of the elements came about. We spent a good amount of time today trying to figure out how to do the calculations on Worksheet 1 in Unit 5 and we still did not come away with a clear understanding of how to explain it. Basically, it compares several elements' mass ratios in their oxides to each other and in turn compares those masses to the mass of hydrogen in water. The problem is that hydrogen does not combine in a 1:1 ratio so it throws all of our calculations off. We can't seem to find a way to explain how the ratio is accounted for in the calculations in a way that doesn't seem to say "just believe me". If I can't get a grasp on it, how am I supposed to expect kids to?

So question for do you explain relative mass? Does anyone out there have an amazing activity that lets the kids manipulate stuff? If you do, please share.

Have any of you done a test run with the new materials? How did it go? Did you do anything amazing to help kids get it? ASU (and I) would really like some feedback about any problems or successes you may have had!

*Looking back, this seems that this is my plan every summer. How is it that I never seem to get this done???

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

I Might Have to Change the Name of My Blog

When I started at my current position, I was, of course, the low man on the totem pole. Originally, I was hired to teach a couple non-traditional classes. Science in Technology was a jumble of eight different modules that the kids rotated around throughout the year. The "Tech Lab" was a really neat set up and I had been working on extending some of those modules into full classes when we did away with it. Principles of Technology was a physics alternate where four freshmen inexplicably made up the entire class.

After awhile, a series of unfortunate events led to both of those classes being dissolved and me being assigned to a wide variety of miscellaneous classes. There were several years in there where they just couldn't decide what to do with me, so they gave me a new class. Every year*. We had two other science teachers in the building who were extremely comfortable in their teaching positions, so biology was taken, chemistry was taken, physics was taken.

So, mostly, I ended up with "those" kids. The ones who couldn't read, couldn't sit still, couldn't focus, couldn't pass. This is where, by trial and error, I learned intervention strategies, inhuman patience, actual differentiation and not to write today's date on the IEP.

To be honest, this is where I truly learned how to teach.

Fast forward to another series of events and I find myself teaching chemistry, geology, ocean science, meteorology and astronomy. Next fall, I am going to be adding in an Engineering Design class.

That doesn't really sound lower level, does it?

P.S. Anyone have any good resources for an engineering class??

*Looking back on that, I am now a little paranoid wondering if they were trying to get rid of me. Hmmm. Guess I didn't get the hint.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Why Teachers Need Tenure

On Wednesday, one of my kids came in to discuss her grade. Her grade from the first trimester. You know, the one that ended in November.

She didn't think it should be a B.

She actually has an argument that, to a lot of people, really makes sense. During their final lab project, she left her partner to go to the bathroom. In her absence, he managed to burn a hole through the sensor cord and earned them a zero for their safety grade. Since her grade was right on the line, it was enough to drop her from an A to a B. I have a lot of issues with her argument, but I won't go into them here.

In the past two days, I have had two tear-filled visits from her, a call from each of my principals and two emails from her dad.

Did I mention her dad is on the school board?

Now, I really do not believe that this will go any further, nor do I feel any major pressure to change the grade. Both of my principals have told me that ultimately, the decision lies with me. Her dad would like a little better explanation, but doesn't seem to be pushing too much.

But do you see how easily this could go the other way? What if her dad was one to decide his little princess was going to get that A no matter what? What if my principal had come in and said change it or else?

Tenure gets a bad rap when it protects teachers who are doing a bad job, but the fact is, it isn't tenure that protects those teachers, it's administrators not doing their jobs during the evaluation process.

What you rarely hear about is how tenure protects teachers who are doing a GOOD job.

Without tenure, I probably would not be pushing the boundaries that I do. In the last few years, I have made changes in my classroom that I knew would cause issues and be challenged. The classroom I have created is the not the traditional teacher and worksheet centered environment in which a good number of kids are way too comfortable. Knowing that I can't be fired on the whim of an angry parent makes it possible for me to push kids out of that comfort zone.

While I acknowledge that there are teachers out there that hide behind that protection and I also know that tenure allows others (me included) to become a better teacher.

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