Monday, January 6, 2014

The Halfway Point

Side note: I mistyped the title as the Halfway Pint the first time through, that probably says something...

As I sit down to write this post, I realized that I haven't posted anything to my blog since before school actually started when my intent this year was to do so weekly.  I had a couple of draft posts in September, but never went back to them, which is probably all for the best.  But as with many others, I think that this is a good point to decompress and re-evaluate as I head into next semester.

A quick comment about partially explaining why I haven't been blogging, or even tweeting as much as I did last year. I think the more I'm trying to innovate, the more I'm looking to bounce ideas off of folks, the more I feel the desire to tweet, to blog, to get my ideas out there, not only as an outlet for me, but to get some feedback from people I trust (and some that I don't...).  But the year has been rough, I'm teaching 7 blocks instead of the usual 6, I'm trying to develop an Organic/Biochem class from scratch and teaching AP Chem after a year off with some new standards.  All of that plus a house that literally tried to fall down on us this year has led to some days where it was all I could do to stay two days behind, much less to really blog or interact.

Enough martyr talk, on to the real stuff, the classroom and the kids.  First off, my IOB (organic/biochem) class has been a great bunch of kids who didn't know what they were getting into.  We've definitely struggled in there, to no small degree because I'm developing stuff as we go.  My AP Chem class is the best I've had in 5 years of teaching AP, I expect some really great things out of them, even as they have probably felt like the material kicked them in the teeth everyday.

The real heart of my concerns is my 4 sections of Honors Chem I.  Chem I is my jam so to speak, I feel like you could drop me in a Chem I class just about anywhere and I could just teach if need be.  This would be my 3rd full year teaching Chem I under the flipped classroom model, so I really thought with some minor tweaks that this would roll easily so I could put a lot more effort into the other newer classes to me.  That of course was at the beginning of the year when I had 3 sections of HChem.  Due to some difficulties with a teacher leaving us the week before kids came back, I decided to pick up another section as I didn't want those 34 kids to have a long term sub and be behind.  I mean, it was the same prep, so no worries right.... (pause for laughter).

Oh, I didn't mention that these classes were full of our experiment to put our advanced freshmen straight into Honors Chemistry 9th grade....Since I haven't really taught freshmen since my first year of teaching 14 years ago, that was going to be a change.  I decided that I'd slow stuff down for a while from my normal pace, which was okay as I wanted to integrate some of the Common Core stuff I'd learned over the past year as well.

Actually, the freshmen for the most part have been fine...I'm still not sure if this is the best plan overall for them, but they can hang and thrive, no real issue.

Once we had things firmly established (so I thought) I implemented the new part of Chem I this year, which was a full on self-paced classroom.  I had everything set up for the students, had suggested timelines and they had the freedom to learn at their own pace in the classroom.  From a lot of students, they found it incredibly freeing and really wanted to jump up and sing its praises to the frequent visitors in the classroom.  Another block of students were fine with it, but they would have been fine if we all went at one pace (as far as their preferences went).

The last block of students though...I would estimate 10% or so of my students just could not handle it.  They would chat while working on 2 problems for a 90 minute block...they would work on an English assignment.  And while I did have a good time photobombing their occasional snapchat forays, I was really pretty ticked. I discussed it with them on a near daily basis, so they would start to work, then fell off.  Another 10% of my students just blew me away with the incredibly slow pace of their work.  They were for the most part working the whole time, but at such a slow pace that they were essentially a unit behind by midterm time (out of two self paced units).

In analyzing the situation as it went on and now with 2 weeks of peaceful distance from it, here are my takeways (yes, some of which I knew beforehand):

  • A certain block of students is unwilling at this point to self-motivate.  What kills me is that it wasn't really my freshmen as you might expect, but my sophomores, most of whom have been at our weird, quirky school for a year already.
  • I had too high an expectation of what students could accomplish each day.
  • Students do a terrible job of picking their own groups/seating partners.
  • A 1:1 environment should be perfect for self pacing, but even after a year and more of having the iPads, a lot of kids can't self-regulate their use.  Granted, the freshmen boys were probably the biggest culprits here, but a lot of the sophomores have serious issues with constructively using their devices and their time.
  • As much as I want to do things a certain way in the class, I'm going to have to flex and change a few things this term to get my students to learn.  
That last one is vital to me.  I have worried a lot this year about not being as innovative or forward thinking as I was the last two years.  As of this break, I decided that while I believe in all of the innovation and my reasons for it, ultimately, I have to bend a little to accommodate the needs of my students.  That was my original reason for the changes and I don't want to be caught in trying to prove a model or way of thinking at the expense of my students.  

I don't think I've actually done that at all over the past 3 years, but as part of my over-analyzing myself as I do, I'm going to make sure it doesn't happen.

More on the concrete changes in the next post...which will hopefully be in a week and not in a semester :)

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