Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Escape Room Final

For the last few years, I have had a comprehensive final test in my chemistry class, which was essentially a big retake on all of the targets for everyone. My kids hated it, and quite frankly, I was getting bored. My principal always refers to finals as a time to do some type of "cumulative activity", but I had yet to come up with an activity that covered all of my targets and still allowed for a retake situation.

A couple weeks ago, on a rare Sunday afternoon with nothing to do but ponder life, I had the idea that my final could take on the form of an Escape Room*. I said the words out loud, and my daughter, who happens to be in my chemistry class, was sitting across the room and loved the idea. And so it began. For the next 10 days, every spare minute was devoted to figuring out how to put something like this together. Because I had no idea.

First, I had to see if I could get some supplies. I sent an email out to every staff member in my district asking if anyone had any locks and/or boxes they would be willing to share. I hit the jackpot when the principal at our elementary school replied saying she had four sets from Breakout EDU. I had found that company when I did my initial searching, but time and money were a factor that led to me crossing that off my list almost immediately. Although, in all honesty, I probably wouldn't have been able to pull this off if Heather hadn't have had the kits.

With supplies in hand, I started brainstorming what the whole thing might look like. I knew I wanted kids to do some type of experiment, so I decided on a precipitation reaction where they would need to create an exact amount of precipitate. This was similar to some things that we had done all year, so it wouldn't be a huge stretch for kids to be able to do it on their own. One big challenge was that I had two classes of 24 students during first and second hour. So no time to reset anything, and a lot of kids to put in motion. I decided that I didn't want each group to do the same experiment, mostly so that they wouldn't be able to just copy what the group next to them was doing. Based on the supplies on had, both chemical and physical, I ended up with four different reactions. In the end, I had four reactions with two different paths to each one so I could handle eight groups of kids in each hour. Basically everyone was solving for the same thing, but the clues were different and hidden in different places. I later learned that this is essential. I had one clue for two different groups hidden in the same place, and it became way too easy for one of the clues to get lost in the shuffle. Luckily, I had the foresight to color code each group. I would have gone insane had I not done that. It made everything so much easier to follow and the kids knew they had the right clue when they found the right colored paper.

At first, the end goal was for kids to mix up their own reactants, mix them together, isolate the precipitate, and determine the percent yield. I ended up writing down every step I would have done in setting up a lab and breaking that down into clues. Initially, I wanted kids to mix up both reactants, but in the interest of time, I decided to give them one already mixed. I also gave them the volume of the second reactant to mix up which just left them to figure out the mass to add in order to get the correct concentration.

Now it was "just" a matter of breaking it down into steps. Each step was going to have a clue that would lead to the next step. So I started with the scenario. Our biology teacher is retiring this year, so I decided he was going to go mad and release a virus on the school. One of his favorite projects every year is to incubate chicken eggs, so the virus would turn everyone into baby chicken zombies. Oddly, every one of my students thought this was a totally plausible scenario. Being so close to his room, I, of course, have succumbed to the virus and am of no help to anyone. Luckily, I was able to determine the antidote before becoming a zombie and left clues hidden around the lab room for my amazing chemistry students to find. While kids were for the most part on their own here, I did give them two question cards per group, so if they felt like they were completely stuck, they could get a hint. But only two for the whole thing. Every group hoarded those until the very end and some didn't even use one. But I think it gave them some peace of mind to know they could ask if they needed to.

The first clue was a coded message on the initial handout. It was a series of atomic numbers that told kids to go find something out of place in the lab room. (As a side note, writing sentences using only chemical symbols is HARD!) Around the room are manila envelopes in places that didn't make sense: hanging in the back of the fume hood, in place of a picture on a wall, behind an upside down periodic table.

This turned out to be really difficult to find since they didn't really know what to look for, but once the first group found the envelope, the remaining groups picked up on it fairly quickly.

Inside the envelope was a quiz that had kids balancing chemical equations. One of the rules of the game was that if it's a clue, then it's a quiz. The quizzes were done individually and preserved the retake portion of the final. Once the quiz was graded, then they were allowed to work as a group. For the second clue, the coefficient of the first reactant in each equation was the same for each quiz. This was the combination for the lock on a box sitting on their lab table. The problem was that I only had four locks with number combinations. The other four had letters. So I rearranged the equations so that the first letter of each reactant was the same. Technically, they wouldn't have had to balance the equations correctly to get the combination, but they didn't know that so it all worked out.

Once they opened the box, there was another clue and a key. The clue (quiz) was to determine the number of protons, neutrons, or electrons in a given isotope. When put together, the numbers formed another coded message. This was a simple 123=ABC code, but nearly everyone tried the chemical symbols again. Upon decoding, a riddle was revealed as to what the key unlocked.

Unlocking the location, revealed an envelope and a locked bag. The envelope was some mass to mole conversions where the answer revealed the combination to the bag. Inside the bag was a paper torn into pieces. When put together, the pieces gave the final equation to produce the antidote. A couple of the pieces were missing, including the molarity of the second reactant.

From here, there is an optional fourth clue that solves the combination for a bag that contains a much more detailed procedure. Actually, at any point, kids could have started the experiment depending on how comfortable they were with doing so. I had a couple groups think about it, but no one wanted to take that chance.

By the time I thought of it and put it all together, the entire thing was allowed four days. I really had no idea when I started if kids would fly through the clues or if they would get stuck on the first one. If I were to do this exact one again, I would definitely give them at least five days because we ended up being really rushed at the end.

Surprisingly, I only had one major screw up and that was with the color coding. I ended up writing pink group's equation on blue paper and vice versa, which really confused them when the final products didn't match up with their initial antidote. But we got that straightened out once someone finally got up the nerve to give me one of their question cards. I also misjudged how much product would be made. I didn't really think that through since I was rushed for time. Next round, I am definitely cutting down on the amount of antidote they have to make.

All in all, this was a great project and the kids (and I) had a lot of fun. It's definitely something I will try again.

If you need a place to start, you are welcome to steal and edit and do what you will...


*For those not familiar, an escape room is just what it sounds like. You are locked in a room with a few of your friends and have an hour to put the clues together and get out.

Friday, February 24, 2017

The Great Grading Dilemma

For the last 10-ish years, I have used Standards Based Grading in my classroom. What this looks like has evolved over time, but overall, the same basic principle was at work. My classes are broken down into overarching ideas that span the entire grading period. Those ideas are each marked separately and repeatedly. Students are able to see the ideas in which they perform strongly and which ideas they need work on. The targets I have written for my classes are ones that we circle back to over and over throughout the trimester. We don't stop talking about conservation of mass because we had a test over that unit. We come back to it and apply it to new situations and explain why it is such a big deal. I have tweaked and perfected over the years, and I love how this system lays out my curriculum and my classroom.

But I'm tired. I am still the only teacher in my 7-12 building that uses this type of system. I have gotten an impressive amount of push back from a lot of people. Interestingly, that has only come about in the last few years since I have been teaching chemistry and now physics. It comes mostly from parents of "A" students who don't want to understand the differences. And those are only the parents I hear from. I know my principal (bless him) acts as a firewall for me and I do not hear most of what is said.*

He does a good job of communicating the concerns with me. The biggest criticism has been that a grade at any point in time before the end of the semester does not reflect the student's understanding of the material. In other words, if a particular target is going to be reassessed and that grade might change down the line, then why should their grade be so low right now? Why can't little Susie just have an A all trimester if I think she will end up with one at the end.** This has been tweaked so that there is less variation in the grading than I had before, but grades are typically still lower than what most parents find acceptable.

My grading philosophy has not changed. I still believe that a student's grade in my class should only reflect what they know. I'm not bending on that point. I won't grade homework and I won't give participation grades. I hate how a percentage averages out so it's okay to not fully understand some topics. I have, however, given a bit on that one this year in a tweak I made to how scores factor into the final grade.

The irony*** here is that I have had so many students and parents place the blame for lower than desired scores on the system. This is not the reason. The reason is that I expect my kids to have a high level of understanding of the subject. But, of course, it is easier to put the blame on something they can't control. This argument is the main reason I am thinking about going back to a traditional system. Of course then I would just have to deal with all the complaining about the class being too difficult.

Today, my chemistry class had their first quiz of the trimester. So today or tomorrow, I am going to have to decide which grading road I am going to travel down. I know which one will make my life easier.

*This in itself is especially frustrating. Parents are always welcome to visit with me directly, but a few of the most outspoken won't and instead seem to want to apply pressure indirectly.

**Actual question from a parent...

***In other news, today in chemistry, we were discussing average atomic mass and how it was figured based on weighted averages. We do this by comparing it to weighted grades that some teachers use. Not a single one of my students knew how to figure their final grade using weighted averages. Some of them couldn't even explain a straight average. I just wanted to ask if you don't understand the traditional system, what difference does it make if I'm not using it???

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

A Change in the Wind

The last year or so have brought about a lot of changes for me. But the biggest one is coming up next year.

Next year we are using the retirement of our other science teacher to completely restructure our science department. Our new motto is "all standards for all students". There are arguments for and against that philosophy, but we decided at this point it is the direction we wanted to go. In order to align more easily with NGSS standards, we are moving towards a Physics First sequence.

Freshmen coming in will take physics. Sophomores will follow with chemistry and biology will be a junior level class. There are other elective science courses that will be offered, including an advanced physics, engineering, anatomy and physiology, and a rotation of individual earth sciences. (Yes, all of this with just two teachers!)

I'm nervous. This is a big deal. The more I am put in front of people to talk about it, the more I realize how big of a deal it really is. You see, I sort of live in my isolated little bubble. When I leave my bubble, it tends to be when I go out to meet and learn with other science teachers. And the ones I hang out with tend to have the same philosophy that I do about rigor. To an awful lot of people "rigorous" when referring to a science class simply means "higher level math." While to some extent that is true, I do believe kids can learn and understand physics concepts without having had trig. (Or maybe I'm delusional and this is all going to go down in flames.)

I am also under no illusions that the success of this endeavor is all on me. Don't get me wrong, I have a lot of support in place. I know my administration has my back and will do everything they can to act as a firewall so I can do my thing, but I know that this will be watched very closely by a lot of people, some of whom who will look for any little chink in the armor to find a way to bring it down for no other reason than because it is different.

But I'm ready for it. And I am excited for it. And I truly think it's going to be a great thing for our kids.

I Haven't Got It Right Yet...

My boy is a fourth grader who hates school. He's good at it, but at this point in time, he wants to "be a youtuber" when he grows up, so he doesn't really see how long division fits into his plans.

In yet another conference with his teacher, she was scolding him about how if he doesn't show his work she can't know whether or not he understands the concepts. She ended with a question,

"How am I supposed to know if you understand it or not?"

He looked at her, blinked, and said,

"Well, I haven't gotten it right yet."

As a teacher, this hit me hard. I have students in my class right now that I KNOW aren't getting it. Sometimes I forget that part of my job is to make sure they are getting it right.

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