Thursday, March 26, 2009


Yesterday I was talking with a friend that made an astute observation. While I talk a lot, mostly about what I think, I very rarely talk about myself. This can make one look shady, apparently. This truly took me by surprise and I've decided to make an honest effort and improving this.

So it begins.

For those of you that don't know, I've relocated back to the "motherland" that is Milwaukee, and am teaching high school science (my Wisconsin pirate tattoo that says "homeward bound" has finally been fulfilled). If you're reading this, chances are you know that my background is not in K-12 education and that I've been tucked away on the island that is private higher ed for about two years. This change may seem drastic, but if you know me, you know my passion for education extends to the far reaches of my life and psyche.

Before I elaborate any further I wanted to make sure that I documented a few of the practices I've been using. There's a definite advantage to not having gone through the "typical" teacher training; I have yet to be indoctrinated into a way of thinking and doing things that follows convention. While trial and error may play a larger role in my teaching than most who have the formal K-12 training, I'd like to believe that this lack of exposure has helped to drive innovation and versatility. The biggest issue, at least that I've noticed, for new teachers fresh out of college, is that they totally lack versatility and flexibility. Urban classrooms demand this, and many teaching programs demand strict rigor and programmatic indoctrination. I'll talk more about this later.

Here are a few successful activities I've used with my science students.

1. Group Testing Scenarios. This isn't a group taking a test, instead, a question or two is used to get the students up, moving around and relying on one another. The overall goal of these activities is to create group cohesion and accountability. If a student knows they have a support system in his or her peers, they're more likely to feel a sense of ownership in that group. Also, if a student knows he or she will be held accountable with peers, they're more likely to prepare ahead of time. These two ideas work beautifully together, and help the class create a genuine sense of community. Also, they allow for peer to peer learning opportunities that wouldn't normally happen.

I usually start this portion with about half the block time left, that way the activity might trigger some memory through priming, and in turn (hopefully), allow them to do better on the exam. This group testing allows the tactile students to get up and move around, and it allows the EBD/LD students to move beyond the typical testing focus and regain some concentration. The is that these ideas will combine the learning style with the testing style.

The Heart: My first try at this was with the human heart. I tapped a four section/square area onto the floor, indicating chambers, and two x's indicating AV nodes. Each student was given a card with a different part of the circulatory that corresponded to what was on the floor (L/R ven, L/R atr, AV nodes, and multiple blood cells). Once each student was given his or her cards, they were first told to place the portions of the heart. After, the blood cells would have to walk through the heart, starting at the lungs and coming back, the way blood flows. Students were allowed to ask each other questions and were given an overall group grade.

This activity went particularly well, and it allowed them to really help one another out. The only downside was the less social/reclusive students felt a little put on the spot. The interesting offset to this was that the more vocal students had to turn to the less vocal students for help, so it really developed the classroom dynamic.

The Periodic Table: People always talk about the achievement gap, and I don't think I really understood it until teaching chemistry. Reading, writing and math were all areas my students struggle with greatly. Interestingly, these struggles are to a certain degree simply a product of low self esteem, and not an inability to do the work. I digress. When teaching valence electrons, I thought it might be cool to test them as a group. On the floor in the science room I made a huge periodic table by simply putting a paper down for groups 1 -6 and periods 1 - 7. Each student was given a number of valance electrons and a number of electron shells. From there, the group had to position themselves on the table according to their numbers. After they were positioned, the group was given a periodic table and asked what element each of them was.

This was successful, but needs some modification. In the future I'd use the life size table to teach the concept first, and then test on it with a little more complexity. It was cool to see the students help position one another on the table and then get really excited when they knew what elements they were without looking. In fact, my favorite part was watching a student say before I even asked..."I'm Potassium!"

2. Environmental Identification

I've spent quite a bit of my time this quarter on chemistry, given the huge deficiency our students seem to be experiencing. With urban students it's imperative to create real world applicability with material that is otherwise considered abstract. My goal is to create a very pragmatic, real world understanding of science and scientific themes. I've experimented with a few activities to foster this understanding. Some of these ideas are "Reggio" in nature given it involves self expression, development of learning through experience and relationship development. Here's a little about Reggio:

A Living Periodic Table: My hope was to connect common elements to the everyday lives of my students, and to make the more "abstract" elements look awesome and mysterious. I had each student put two elements into elemental notation on construction paper (to review elemental notation) and then as a group we walked around the school, exploring places where these elements may exist. I intentionally picked common elements that could be easily identified. Each student was asked where they think that particular element may exist and we discussed it as a class. When we found a place it existed, we posted the elemental card on or near that object. The school was for a time covered in these cool element cards. The other goal was to passively engage the rest of the school in chemistry, so they can hopefully start thinking about these things and identifying them before they take the class.

This was relatively successful, but if I were to do it again (which I will) I'd encourage more creative emphasis on the element cards they created. Also, I'd have each of them do a greater number of the cards, and probably attach it to some kind of project regarding those elements. The goal there would be to created "elemental experts" in class about specific elements. Students have a much easier time identifying these elements now, but I feel like we could have also reached out more with the peer education.

The Periodic Table - A Family Affair: Working into the concept of self authoring the environment, a student in my chemistry class has been charged with coordinating the creation of a massive periodic table to be painted on the wall. My vision is that each student in the school will choose an element and be given a chance to paint that on the table however they'd like (so long as it is in elemental notation, of course!). While I'm still planning this out, my hope is that we create something large, public and scientific to engage the entire school in a discussion of science. Because the art teacher has created a pretty far reaching curriculum we've been forced to adapt to the art instruction. This is both positive and negative. If you know me, you know I'm an academic with not much of a creative side, so the challenge is good. The downside is that you simply can't learn everything in that style of instruction and students need to know that.

I'll let you know how this goes and post pictures.

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