Thursday, January 18, 2018

Snow Days and Rest

As I write this, it appears that we will have a one day week actually at school, which is almost silly considering how little snow we actually got. (Not a complaint, I understand that we have to be extra careful on the back roads, especially with buses and student drivers).

I can very safely say that it has been a true blessing for me. This semester started with some family illness that required me to be in the hospital a lot, after not really being able to get any work done on the time off, or for a month or so before. So while I had a great first week back, I was tired, as I saw one of my twitter friends tweet out...teacher tired.

A scheduled long weekend was going a long way to allowing me to regain the sleep, despite more trips to sit with a sick relative, but I wasn't getting caught up per se. Honestly I'm still not, but getting several straight days of 8 hours of sleep is so beneficial. I took some time to read, to spend some time with friends and family, to cook and eat (slowly, which I can't overstate doesn't always happen), to decompress and really think about a lot of things.

Could go on about new ideas and plans, and I may do that in a future post, but after reading about twitter friends either leaving the classroom or having near breakdowns, and feeling myself really getting burnt out, I am just really thankful for the break.

For those of you, like my friends, who mostly work in IT, who have snarky comments like "hope you are enjoying your 6 day weekend", no worries, I still put in a solid 10 hours of work yesterday and am in the midst of doing so again today. But again, working a lot doesn't make you a better teacher if you are burned out...teachers, as much or more than a lot of professions, need space and time to reflect, to reconsider what they are doing, to plan, to learn and to remember why they do what they do. Glad to have had that chance and am using it to the fullest.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

A new term, a solid start!

I teach at a school that is on year long schedule, so even though today was my first day of classes for this year, I didn't have new students today, but just a good reunion with the ones I've had all year (and a few I've had for 3 years).

To be honest, I had a pretty rough break, with the exception of Christmas itself. It was one of those breaks that I'm sure my teacher friends can relate to, 4 dentist appointments for myself and the kids, doctor visits, a 6 hour doctor trip for my mom, and then when we came back from a trip to the in-laws, several days in the hospital with my very ill grandmother.

Coming back made me a little nervous frankly because I had great plans for planning and making videos and such over the break, but instead, barely got my grading done, and that only with the help of some icy roads on Monday. But as it often turns out, sometimes it is just a joy to be in the room with young folks:

1st Block (Chemistry I)- We reviewed a few things from last semester in small groups, then I gave my usual anti-recruitment speech for AP Chem. Don't get me wrong, I want kids to take AP Chemistry, I enjoy that class a lot, but I want to make sure the kids know what they are getting into (pain, tears, and good problem solving skills). And it is not that I am trying to only get the best kids in AP Chem, I want the ones that want to be there, who aren't going to go to guidance and try to bail after the first test.

It went really well, I had a ton of questions from a lot of kids, some of whom I didn't think would be interested in crying that much, and I suspect I'll get quite a few from that group in the next couple of years, which is really encouraging after a down year this year (which I knew about).

Then we covered oxidation numbers, which can be dry, and which I lectured through briefly due to the aforementioned lack of new video production. Again, went really well, near full class participation and interest throughout, felt as though they really got it.

2nd Block (Organic/Biochemistry)- This class is my baby as I designed it myself years ago to hopefully keep a few kids from being cut down by the scythe of college Organic Chemistry. But it has never gone as I've hoped in the previous 3 iterations I've taught it. I usually have 12 students, 4 or whom might be interested, 4 who took it to take another class with me and 4 who got shuffled in there against their will. That makes it hard to really go deep as the material is not a cake walk and really requires some real thinking about how chemistry works, maybe even more than AP.

This year though I have 24 students, and while I have the same general groupings of students, the ratio is far in favor of the interested category and even better, every single kid in there is a solid science student. That being the case, I threw out almost everything from the previous years and have built it from scratch focusing on electron movements and really understanding the underlying dynamics rather than memorization of forms that played a bigger role in my classes in previous years.

Going in today, I wasn't sure if it was succeeding as I've had to do some really weird things to get them the lab experiences that I think they have to experience in Organic since I only have one fume hood (think 6 different groups of students rotating daily). Additionally, I haven't been able to really devote a ton of new time in the past month, so I had to fall back on some of my old material, much to my shame.

But then as I was asking questions today about the underlying systems and why a certain mechanism might be favored in different scenarios, they really got it...Not in the "memorized a chart of substitution and elimination reactions" sort of way, but in the, we get why a weak nucleophile would lead to this being favored, or why a polar solvent would matter. I'm not saying it was every student, I'm sure it wasn't, but so many of them really displayed a higher level knowledge of what was going on in a really complex topic that I was very heartened.

3rd Block- AP Chemistry- As I said, this is a down year in student numbers (10 compared to 43 last year), but it is a really fun and interesting bunch of kids. Handed back their Kinetics tests from before the break and then we dove into the beginning of the big gorilla for the year, Equilibrium. And they really got it, no problem with the (albeit simple) math, the concepts seemed to sink in, and for one of the few times this year, they seemed confident and unafraid. I love that, especially since they are often (most of them) very quiet.

So even though my feet feel like some hammered the bottom of them, even though I'm dead tired and drained knowing that I have another hospital shift tomorrow evening, I am encouraged. I went into the day a little defeated, doubting myself, and chastising myself for not getting 10 videos done over the break and revamping everything. Instead, I had a stand up, lecture/conversational day with the students and It...Was...Great!

Thursday, November 17, 2016

My Inspiration- Teacher Appreciation Week

I've written briefly about this in the past, but in light of getting some nice notes, emails, gifts and shout-outs on Twitter from several students and parents, I thought I'd share a little something about a teacher I appreciated, who quite literally altered the course of my life for the better, and probably as much as anyone in my life, made me into the person and teacher that I am today.

Some backstory first...I grew up pretty poor...not homeless poor, but moved every 6 months poor... Went to 5 different elementary schools poor. My mom loved me and thought I was the smartest thing ever, but that's about all I had going for me, I was fairly smart and I was tough, willing to take or give a punch as needed.

By the time I got to high school, I wasn't really sure what I intended to do with my life. I worked pretty hard during summers, and starting the second I turned 16, I worked 30-40 hours a week at Publix (which I loved and still love). I had done some building plans for my uncle, who was a contractor, so I thought, maybe I could be an architect. And of course, the one constant my whole life has been books...I read even more than that I do now, thousands of pages a week generally.

As high school started to wrap up, I had good grades, I had good test scores, but guidance depts then aren't what they are now, and as a kid from the wrong side of the tracks with no real advocates, college was sort of a pipe dream. I delayed enlisted in the Navy, but had a medical condition that stopped that from happening. So there I was, 18 years old, 2nd in my class of 283 and no real plans in April of my senior year.

Being that rank in my class, there was an automatic scholarship at the local community college. Because really, most kids 2nd in their class aren't going to community college, they are rocking it out at a university at the least, at some nice private school perhaps. At least, the middle and upper class kids around me were. That wasn't really in the cards for me, for both financial and family reasons. So off to Lake Sumter Community College, or as we called it, Lake-Dumpster or Harvard by the Highway. My declared majors were Architecture and Creative Writing.

In my first semester there (I think), I took Introduction to General Chemistry, also known as Baby Chem. It was in that course that I was taking with a few high school acquaintances of mine, that I first met Edmund Cameron.

Ed Cameron was almost out of place there...he wore a white dress shirt and a tie every day. He sort of looked like Bernie Sanders does now. And he was brutal, I still repeat his line from the first day of class "You are responsible for everything I discuss in class, anything in the book, and anything else I can think of". He was ruthlessly sarcastic in the way only a college prof can really get away with. Somewhere in the 2nd week or so of class I had my (at the time) trademark Anthrax hat on. He said to me " you know what the heck anthrax is?" My response was "they rock" with devil horns thrown up.  He never called me anything but Anthrax from that point forward...he referred to me to his co-workers as Anthrax. The only reason that I know he knew my name is that my grades got posted.

And by grades, I mean a lot of grades...I took 6 total classes with him, because he wasn't just a chemistry teacher, he also taught Western Civ classes. I took 4 Chem classes with him, both Western Civs, and then I worked as his lab assistant for a year while I took the Physics and such necessary to switch my major to Chemistry before I transferred to university. Ed Cameron was an old school, hardline teacher that believe in you knowing the content backwards, forwards and on the z-axis as well. I made Bs in General Chem I and II and he still let me believe I was the best.  He was never buddy-buddy with me, though we were both "adults" (yeah right), but he gave rip, which was more than I could say for most of the males in my life up to that point. When he posted a headline from the newspaper that said "Anthrax spotted in North Dakota", I got the message, I mattered to him, and that mattered more than I can say. Heck, I'm tearing up a bit right now as I type this...

Folks that know me understand that Chemistry isn't my only passion, if I could say it was really a passion at all. I love History too, but I can't say it is my passion. Outside of God and Family, my passion is teaching, my passion is being someone important in a young person's life, of being that person that they can just sit in the room and talk about nothing, but knowing that they ARE WANTED THERE, that they aren't a burden, but they are the whole reason for me teaching.

Ed Cameron, I'm sorry my life took me away and you never knew I became a teacher...a teacher of Chemistry, maybe one day of History as well. I don't want to be you, but I could sure do worse than that...I want to reflect well on you, and to be half of what you were to me to a few kids.  Thanks...

Thursday, September 1, 2016

To my AP Chemistry students

So we are almost 4 weeks into the year, a year in which I have a larger AP Chemistry class than I've ever had by a factor of over 2. Over half of every day for me is spent in my those two sections.

Judging by the first tests and quizzes, it will be a great year. Definitely had higher scores on the first test than I'm used to, and that makes me very happy. When I graded the tests though, there was a sharp disparity between some groups in my class, one of those being by gender. There are a lot of reasons that I might posit for that, but I analyzed the data over and over, by class, by grade level, by gender, by who had me before for Chem I and who didn't.

So let me say this to all of my students, but particularly for those who I know are feeling overwhelmed, unsure if they should be in the class, unsure if they can take the pressure or the day to day grind. Some of you aren't sure if you can do this along with the rest of your course load, or if it is worth the time. You are not here by accident!

Unlike most AP teachers, I don't recruit...I anti-recruit...I tell kids at the end of Chemistry I how awful AP Chem can be. I have former students come in and tell them how rough it is (along with how it can be worth it). I don't want someone in the class that doesn't want to be. That being the case, some of you might feel like you "just got in", or that I just wanted numbers.

Nothing could be further from the were chosen, you were fought for, and I believe in you. I saw the list of names back in May and made sure that those who didn't have a chance would be talked to (by me). I knew who you were months ago in most cases. Hopefully this doesn't offend any of you, but I started praying for you then, and will continue to do so.

Back in March/April, when we saw the numbers for this class, the initial, and understandable reaction of the administration was that we needed to cut the numbers. That would have been the easy path...I could have cut all the sophomores, or cut those of you that didn't make high As in Chem I, or just those of you that I thought maybe lacked some work ethic. It would have been the easy path for me as well. I essentially dropped a self-created class for you...I'm eating a class I've never taught before for you, I (and many of you) am doing a zero block class, putting me over the allowed number of sections for a teacher for you.  I made a complete and total nuisance of myself for months to ensure that you all could get in, administration still probably hesitates to open an email from me, thinking it is me pleading, cajoling, whatever I had to do/say to keep all of you.

I don't do any of it because I expect anything in return. In fact, my end of year AP scores may suffer, I have to grade a ridiculous amount of FRQs and Lab Reports this year. I gave up many other things to make this happen. None of this is to lay down guilt, but rather to establish are worthy, you are wanted.

When you are crying, as I occasionally do about school as well, remember aren't doing it just for the grade, the GPA, the AP score, the college credit, the preparation for college. Do it because you are worth it, your education, your thinking processes, the struggle itself has intrinsic value no matter what. It has value whether you ever take a chemistry course again.


Regardless of my rather prickly, sometimes exasperated demeanor at time, you all are a big part of the reason I get up every morning and come to school. You can do are worth it...

Sunday, August 14, 2016

It Begins Again

I sort of made myself a promise this year that I'd try to be a bit more reflective on a regular basis. For a lot of teachers that means blogging everyday, which would be amazing, some year I will aspire to that, but it won't be this year.

My goal is to do so at least once a week though and since the first week of school just finished, I better get to work or I'm already behind.

To start off the year, I knew it was going to be rough at the outset.  I'm teaching 7 instead of the normal 6 classes, and additionally adding on a different AP (Environmental Science) class that I have only a minimal amount of content for from 4 years ago. Things could have potentially gotten a little easier when we decided to cut Organic this year because of lack of students signed up.  

Actually, the real reason turned out to be more the schedule. We are a small high school (>650) that actually has a lot of electives, so inevitably there will be conflicts and Organic fell to AP Biology, which is fine, might be better for those kids to take APBio in any case in the long run and it gives me a full year to make some serious changes to the course.

The real kicker came when it became apparent that I was double booked during one block. That couldn't be resolved in any good way, but the way it was resolved was a big hit to me. I'm picking up an Honor Physical World Concepts class this year (think Conceptual Physics for Freshmen). It has been 12 years since I last taught any sort of physics class, and I honestly didn't enjoy it a ton when I did.  Then, as now, I did it out of necessity.

As an actual professional, I will do my best by these kids. They had nothing to due with the unfortunate way it turned out and deserve the best. It does mean though that I'm down to only one section of Chemistry I, which means that our plans to have heterogeneous classes (Honors and CP together) are only a small part of my year, though I was the initiator and the biggest proponent of that plan. I feel awful, because now my two other Chemistry I teachers, who are either moderately new to teaching or brand new to Chemistry, now have to bear disproportionate amounts of what some might deem a crazy plan to begin with.

To be clear, the 7 courses thing was entirely my idea, but that was when I thought I'd have no brand new preps (though still 5 preps in a way, CP, Honors, AP and Organic Chem, APES), now I've gone to 5 preps with one that I am completely at a loss for and I am spending a silly amount of time trying to get my feet under me in that class.

In other words, even for my school, the year is off to an interesting start. I was mad as all get out for about 5-6 days after I got that bomb dropped on me. I've reached an internal accommodation with it, but still wish things could have worked out differently.

But on the plus side, classes have started, and as I suspected, as soon as I had actual real live students in front of me, a lot of those cares eased.  The work load will still be murderous, I've still spent way too many weekend hours preparing, but in the end, the kids in front of me make it all worthwhile.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Summer Reflections part 4- Scheduling

When I was feeling bad initially about my AP Chemistry scores this year, my assistant principal in charge of our really weird wonky schedule said to me "don't jump right to the schedule".  I didn't, in fact, I didn't think about it for first few hours of my thinking about it.  I'll say at the outset too, that I don't think the schedule is the sole or main reason for my failings this year.

Let me outline the schedule.  We are an alternate day block schedule Tuesday through Friday that means that:

  • On T/R we have "L" day classes
  • On W/F we have N day classes
That means 8 classes in that time frame of those 4 days of the week, meeting twice in that time for about 82 minutes each class session.

What about Mondays?

On Mondays, which we call Mastery Mondays, students might have one of those eight classes at some point, there are a few classes in our school where that is the case, my APES class next year is one of those, which means it will meet 3 days a week instead of 2.  Most of their schedule though is in "Lab" classes which can best be described as supervised study halls.  They might be in a "Science Lab" which means in a classroom with a science teacher, working on their own on whatever projects, HW, studying, etc that they need to do.  For a teacher like me that prefers they don't have a ton of HW, that would be great, since they could get a lot of it done each week on Mondays.

Most students have 2-3 of these "labs" (yes, quotes, because that isn't what labs should be in my science brain!) on a typical Monday, which means they should have 3-4 hours of studying/working time at school, with access to their teachers.

I'll say right now that even though it seems I'd like this, I have disliked it since it was initially discussed and am still not a big fan.  I will again put out the disclaimer that I don't think this is the big gest problem for me this year. It didn't hurt the other teachers at our school, they all rocked out the AP tests, and according to administration, most everyone outside of my department really likes the Monday schedule.  I can respect that and don't expect things to fit my expectations and wishes.  But here are the rough stats/facts for me:

  • I have 20% less class time with my AP students than I had the year before, each and every week. That was my choice as department chair, because that was what I traded to get our CP (non-honors) Chemistry and Biology I classes 3 days a week.  To make that happen we agreed to do Honors 2 days a week and AP Chem and Bio 4 instead of 5 days.  There have to be tradeoffs... (I don't know the impact on honors yet, we don't have the data back).
  • The class average on AP Chemistry from 2015 to 2016 dropped 12.4% . Again, strict passing was the same, but 4s and 5s were basically wiped out.  (I'll also note that perhaps my strongest student did not take the exam this year, but that student didn't take any of the AP exams)
Again, this is not the sole reason if it is one at all, and I know that even under this 20% drop in time, I still have more time than a lot of teachers across the country.  But I feel it might be a part of the issue, or at least needs to be mentioned as a possibility.

Summer Relfections part 3- The issues

So rather than being my normal rambling wordy self, I'm going to essentially put down bullets of my own self-critique for this year (and in general I suppose).  I talk about implications in part 5, which I may not get to today...

I left the actual paper I'd brainstormed on at school, but here are the high (low) points that I can recall:

  1. I fear I may have been guilty of unconsciously projecting low expectations for some of my students.  (I don't want to explain too much in a bullet list, but basically I mean that since I allow in any kids who meet the prereq classes, I fear that some of them may sense that I know they are struggling and internally I suspect they may not get 3s or above) This is the most damning one to me, so I'll lead with it.  I'm trying to get my my around it with a lot of thought, prayer, and planning.
  2. As mentioned in part 1, I fear my leniency with deadlines led to complacency among my students, turning in labs late, waiting until the last minute to do HW.
  3. Homework, yeah, for the last couple of years, my philosophy has been that none of my university college teachers checked HW, they assigned it, and then let the chips fall where they may.  I did the same, had them check their own work in solutions guide, then gave a cursory glance that they did it, gave them points on the test for it. (more complex, but again, bullet list).  That led to a lot of students waiting til the last minute, on test day, therefore not asking questions when we were on the topics.  
  4. Daily quizzes (actually usually every other day) were short, graded in class, based solely on HW and nightly reading.  They were also almost always universally awful. I didn't use this information quickly to change practices as one should with formative assessments, and I don't think my students took it very seriously, just took an F on it and went on as their point value was low.
  5. Coddling- If you would have told me at any point in my teaching career that I was coddling students, I would have raged. I believe strongly in having high expectations of knowledge and problem solving, but have usually been willing to bend on timelines, etc.  I think I did waaaaaay too much of that this year and think that led to students taking advantage of that, rationally so, and therefore, not doing their best.
  6. Overly Encouraging- I know, that sounds ludicrous...teachers should be encouraging, I believe strongly in building students up.  Actually, what I really believe is what one of the previous year's students said to my prospects for next year, "taking them apart and putting them back together". In other words, making them realize that being smart or working hard like they've always done isn't good enough.  This year, I think I was too encouraging, leading them to believe that it was always ok....sometimes it ain't ok, sometimes a little panic and worry is a good thing.
  7. Labs--I think we did too many/and or spent too much time on them this year.  We did 17, which is one more than the minimum required, but as many have noted, the labs are sort of incidental, students can do well on the test without those labs.  I love the labs, but I think we've definitely been doing them wrong and spent too much time on them.
Those are what I call systemic or philosophical issues.  It's hard for me to fathom, but I think my student-centered approach has backfired and needs revamped substantially.  I have some ideas on that that I may cover in part 5 of this reflection if I get there.  Part 4 is coming with another big possibility that I didn't mention in this list...