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!