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...

Summer Reflections pt 2- Results and philosophy

While I'm not personally ashamed (maybe a little) of this years scores, I don't want to post my overall results for fear that students will figure out what their peers made who might not want to share them.

I'll say this though...they were disappointing in many ways.  While I had the exact same percentage of students "pass" as I did last year, the numbers of 4s and 5s were almost non-existent.  To be clear, I teach at a STEM school, one might think that these were students really into AP Chemistry (another discussion!), and my expectation going forth is that every student should get a 3 or above as a minimum, and I'd like to shoot for at least 50% of them getting 4s and 5s.

Before the rockstars of AP chemistry teaching jump in and say how low these expectations are, let's stipulate that I probably don't approach the class philosophically the same way you do, nor am I looking for the same outcomes you are.  I don't tell students they can't take my class and I don't hard recruit any either.  I'd say out of this years graduating class of around 120 or so (I don't have the actual numbers), that only 6 or so took AP Chemistry, Out of the top 12 students, only 2 took AP Chemistry, even though many are going into science related fields.

There could be many reasons for this, first and foremost might be that I'm a little abrasive and sarcastic.  I don't really think that is it as I connect with most students really well despite (or because of) this, but I recognize that I might be part of that.

The biggest thing in my mind is that students hear their peers say how hard it is and how bad their test scores are on exams and those students who have been raised (and are still hearing everyday) that GPA matters more than anything avoid the class.  The irony is that most of my students make As and Bs despite the crazy rep, but there are always students that are going to major in Chemical Engineering or Biosystems or something that don't take AP Chemistry because it might hurt their GPA.

So be it, I never try to talk a kid into taking it, because it is hard, stressful, a lot of work,etc. and I want them to make that decision on their own (or well, with their parents).  In fact, I anti-recruit every year, just to make sure that students take it because they need it or really want it, not because they'd like to take a class with me or because a friend is taking it, it won't be worth it then, I'm not that amusing...

Back to my evolving philosophy, I've always held that I wasn't going to worry much about the exam results.  I've always considered my job teaching AP Chemistry not to replace their college class, though I try to teach it at that level, but rather to make sure that when they get to college, they rock out that A and don't get weeded out by college Chemistry I and II, which plenty of students do.  The scores were always sort of incidental to me.

But here's the thing that hit me hard this year...just because that is my philosophy doesn't mean that is what all of my students expect.  Many of them want to opt out of college chem, they are taking AP classes for three reasons- it looks good on transcript, can boost GPA, and it might save them money in college.

And I'm letting those kids down, with my philosophy and style of teaching...

Summer Reflections pt1-Background

As I indicated on Twitter this week, I was disappointed in my class AP scores this year.  We haven't gotten our state test scores back yet, but I fear there may be a somewhat similar let down there as well.

For any teacher worth their salt, when there is a drop off in performance of students, they sit down and try to analyze things, which I have done a lot since Tuesday, a lot of thinking time and a couple of hours of sitting down and actually writing down thoughts.  But since this will be a darn long, rambling (knowing me) serious of thoughts, I figured I ought to give some background since I haven't blogged in 10 months.

This coming school year will be my 17th, my 16th teaching Chemistry.  I've taught in schools of 4600, and in schools of 70, public and private, urban and suburban.  Now I teach at an amazing magnet high school of 600 or so students 9-12. While I have numerous things I'd like changed about my school (who doesn't?!?), it is a truly outstanding place, one that I hope I can spend the next 20 years at to be honest.

Prior to coming here 4 years ago, I taught at an urban high school that I also loved for very different reasons because it was a very different school.  After teaching there my first year, I realized that I really needed to adapt my teaching style from the sort of stand up, lecture, work problems, do labs, rinse and repeat style.  A big part of that is that my students there had a really hard time doing much real work outside of school, largely because of their home situations and other distractions.

This made me dive full bore into more "progressive" styles of teaching, and in the 6 or 7 years since then I've read dozens of books and hundreds of articles on new ways to do things in the classroom.  I've been presenting PD in my district for several years on flipped and student centered classrooms. For my Chemistry I classes for the past 5 years, I've been all in, full-flip, standards based grade, inquiry labs, retakes, everyday grouping, etc.  Last year our school had the highest achievement scores in the district, so that must indicate that something worked right about it.

Even though I'm at a really innovative school, I've always felt a bit like an outlier because of this.  The bulk of the teachers at my school are hard deadlines, lots of out of class work, no retakes, zeroes for missing work.  What this functionally meant for me is that students (who I think like me a lot, I'm the favorite for a few) often leave my work til last because they know I'll be flexible where others won't.  I still hold really high standards for knowledge and problem solving, but I care a lot about stress loads on my kids, I've almost always been willing to move a test date for their projects in other classes, or other tests, etc.

For a year or so I've been having the feeling that my methods might not be right for this school and the students that I serve here, and so the rather poor performance on the AP Chemistry exam this year was just more fuel for that fire.  I'll speak more on that in the next post, but I want to be very clear that I'm not blaming students for the poor scores...these are kids that rocked out other AP classes, I'm taking the bulk of the blame on me.

part 2 to come shortly!