What Makes Me a Great Teacher?

Ok, so the title is a little self-indulgent, but don’t judge me just yet.

I was thinking back about student teaching earlier this week and how my cooperating teacher made me reflect on everything and how I got so tired of it by the end of student teaching. She was constantly pushing me to reflect in writing on every single lesson I taught, which was significant in and of itself. What made this really special to me was the fact that she always made me take the time to identify strengths before weaknesses.

It seems like a little thing, but how often do we sit down after a lesson and immediately think of the things that went well? If you’re like me, probably not very often. I’m usually thinking about what didn’t go well before the lesson is even over. I don’t usually take the time to think and reflect about what made a lesson or unit succeed. Hence, the title.

I know teachers can be afraid to affirm too much for fear of a “feel-good” class where students don’t need to face reality. That’s not the point of this. The whole idea is to take some time and identify what things you are doing on a daily basis that probably go unnoticed, but really impact your teaching and your drive to become a better professional. These are my top three:

  1. I talk to every student every day.
  2. I take time to reflect and make notes on each unit I teach.
  3. I ask other people for help when I know I’m in a jam or when I could do something better.

It isn’t vain or conceited to say these things make me a great teacher.  I am not saying I’ve reached my pinnacle…these are things I did well this year and things I hope to continue to do well.

I suggest you take some time to think about things you do that make you a great teacher.  I’d love to see some thoughts in the comments.

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Heidi Anderson is a teacher at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Lexington, KY and was one of the most influential people in my teacher training. Thank you, Heidi, for your hard work with me and for all the lessons I learned when you handed me your classes.

The Flipped…High School

Greg Green, Principal

As I was browsing the internet this morning, I noticed a new discussion has been posted on the Vodcasting and Flipped Class Network. It was a forum post by Greg Green, principal of Clintondale High School in the metro-Detroit area. With all of the work I’ve done with building a flipped class, this quickly stood out to me and I immediately began reading in earnest.

Some background: Greg’s school is 72% free and reduced lunch and has a minority base of 65% African American and 35% Caucasian in the school. He didn’t provide many details about the project in his original post, so I wrote him an e mail.  I mentioned that I had done some presenting on the flipped class and that I was curious to hear about the decision making process that was involved in deciding to flip the entire school in one go.  Here’s what Greg had to say in his response:

We actually developed a pilot class in Government/Economics with our most at-risk students. This class flipped and we kept a less at-risk class more traditional.  At the end of the pilot we found the at-risk class outperformed the regular class. We used the same teacher and the same assessments.  Every student did every assignment!!  Next we decided to flip our most at-risk group of students…9th grade.  Within our 9th grade we have reduced our failure rate in ELA by 33%, Math 31% Science 22% and SS 19%.

This is evidence of the flipped classroom at its best.  Greg has given the support to teachers to make an effective change in a difficult situation.  He went on to say:

With our flip, I have found that the flip classroom aligns our school resources with our students needs.  In a traditional school, we ask students to process, inquire and develop their skills outside of class.  However, with an at-risk student how do they do that[?] So it was pretty clear that we had to flip our classrooms to meet the needs of our students.

This is a man I want to meet.  Greg understands that the entire purpose of education is to meet the needs of the students, not to have comfortable, routine-driven teachers.

One of my biggest questions had to do with the enormous undertaking of recording the entire curriculum for the next school year.  Greg explained that the school (as a whole, cooperative unit) was “…creating screen captures as departments and automating the delivery of those captures out to our students.”  Cooperation in this task is essential for effective implementation and I want to commend the entire staff for setting a great example of a functional, cohesive school working together for student growth.

For those crying out “standardization is bad!” here is some food for thought:

This keeps teachers from varying from the curriculum and allows us to effectively evaluate our learning within the classroom because our delivery of our message has not varied.

Standardization of content helps students make long-lasting connections that will lead to higher order thinking.  This is a great example of standardization at its best.  Teachers still have the autonomy to make their own decisions about the class, but now, the entire faculty knows what to expect from every student at the completion of every year.

Finally, if you’re thinking, “This would be great if I were in a 1:1 school, too,” this is Greg’s closing thought:

We do not have a 1:1 student to technology ratio. Technology and presentation tools have been purchased for the classrooms instead of textbooks to stay well within budget.

The money is there.  The technology resources are available.  All it takes is a vision for something bigger and better than what has done in the past to make significant changes in kid’s lives.

Congratulations Greg and staff of Clintondale High School.  You are modeling effective education and I hope, someday, to be able to set as good an example as you.

If you’re interested in finding out more about Greg and Clintondale [Flipped] High School, you can follow their journey here.

 

The Problem With Writing

I recently had a discussion with other science teachers about the role of writing in our classrooms.  The discussion that ultimately emerged revolved around the idea that science shouldn’t be teaching students the writing process…that is the English teacher’s job.

I highly respect the opinions and views of my colleagues, but this belief blew my mind.  Perhaps I’m naïve (second year teacher) or an idealist, but I don’t see how we can “teach” writing without teaching (or at least reinforcing) the process as we go.  To me, this is the same as saying “Meet me at my house, but I want you to get directions from someone else.”

The problem with writing (or rather learning how to write) is that it is quarantined to the English classes.

I do agree that the bulk of writing is learned and practiced in the English class. But, if we’re trying to teach the whole student, why are we ignoring their other learning? Schools are always pushing teachers to make cross-content connections with kids and writing should be one of the easiest ways to do so. There are a multitude of tools teachers (not just English/Language Arts) can use to help students become better writers.

One in particular I like is the 6 +1 Traits of Writing, written by Ruth Culham. I had a college professor use this book in a class called “Reading and Writing Across Curriculum” and I instantly fell in love with the model.

Ms. Culham’s premise is that writing is not a static process and that all writing can be broken down into 6 [+1] traits that are easily taught, improved, and assessed. The traits cover “Ideas” to “Sentence Fluency” to “Voice,” and the teacher has students focus on one trait at a time until students have developed that writing skill and they are ready to add another layer. The book includes rubrics that help us assess their writing in quick, effective manner and students can get meaningful feedback on their work. Do note, that this is not a summative process…this is formative and should be used to build their writing skills.

In science, we like to “focus on the content” rather than the actual writing and I am challenged by teachers to show how I effectively teach writing without sacrificing content.  Well, I use 6 +1 in AP Chemistry all the time because readers want clear, concise answers to questions and this is an easy way to improve student word choice, organization, and ideas while still communicating the content.  In General Chemistry, I can tell students to focus on the idea of the paper (how chemistry has changed over time) or the voice (passive voice of a lab report vs active voice of a persuasive essay).  Again, the content is there and at the same time (with minimal “extra” work) I can require them to improve their writing in an applicable and meaningful way.

We can teach students to use good writing habits while assessing the content. If we are teaching students to make connections between content, we should be modeling that with our teaching and our assignments.

Lists

I’m fairly new to the education blogging realm. I haven’t even been posting consistently for a year now, but I’m getting better at it and I’m refining my ideas and my voice as I continue to post.

I’m even newer to Twitter, having just signed up for an account in March. Again, I’m finding my voice as I explore opportunities and ways to build a PLN.

I do have one pet-peeve, however. I hate “X number of ways to use awesome-internet-tool-Y.”

I feel like many times I have my twitter feed open, that’s 90% of what comes through.  Don’t get me wrong, there are some great posts out there with resources for classrooms.  But, how do I know which ones are the “good ones” and which ones will I open only to close again in 3 seconds.

To me, the “good ones” are pages or blog posts that give A) fewer than 10 resources and B) actual uses in the classroom.

Image by naughty architecht (Flickr CC)

Think about it…if you’re looking for a hotel when planning a trip, obviously you need to do some searching through the haystack to find your needle.  But, if you have a friend or an acquaintance that recommends a hotel and why they like it, 9 times out of 10, I’m staying at the friend’s hotel.

The internet is the same way.  I did a Google search for “word cloud software” and got 130 million hits.  Talk about a haystack.  I don’t have time to go through them all.  I want to know which ones work and which ones do other people like.

I love collaboration and I love finding new tools.  But teachers, let’s face it, we don’t have the most free time in the world to sift through dozens and dozens of web tools in these types of posts.

Let’s share the best of what we’ve found and let’s stop filling web space with empty lists.

Fear of the Cell Phone

I have to be honest…I almost posted this yesterday, about an hour after I posted about the fishbowl discussion.  But, I decided to bite my tongue and think through everything that was flying through my head.

Not many things increase my blood pressure, but when I read this article from the Boston Globe website, I probably should have taken an aspirin to lower it a little bit (it isn’t long…I suggest you take a look at it).

Abacus

Essentially, the Rhode Island legislature is reviewing a bill that would “prohibit students from using cellphones during the school day.”

Seriously?

We need to stop making cellphones the scapegoat and start engaging students when they’re in the classroom!

The problem isn’t the phone, which is what the legislators and teachers are focusing on.  The problem is that teachers aren’t challenging students with relevant, meaningful instruction and students are bored with school.

The article concludes with the following:

“They can live without distractions for a few hours every day,” she said. “We grew up without them.”

If this is the prevailing attitude, we’re never going to reach a reform in education.  As teachers, it is our job to convince parents, administrators, colleagues, and even the government that we don’t need more oversight…we need more freedom of technology use.  Students today are growing up in the 21st century…and like it or not, that includes cell phones, smart phones, ipods/pads, and a thousand other tools.  Instead of fearing the change, we should push the change and teach these kids how to effectively use the power of information availability.

Don’t jam 21st century learners into a 20th century learning model because that’s what “we” had to do.  Let’s continue to dialogue and set the example so we can push education forward, and not backward.

The Fishbowl – Not Your Normal Discussion

As a science teacher, we don’t get many opportunities to discuss difficult topics. Sure, content discussion happen, but I envy the english and philosophy teachers who get to discuss the deep thinking questions. True debate is hard to come by with some of the other more “empirical” contents.

My AP Chemistry class was debating a particular concept (what is the pH of water) in class and I decided to see what we could do with it. I knew the “answer,” but a lot of students were struggling with the idea that water’s pH could be lower than 7 (neutral) at different temperatures. I decided we would fishbowl this question to try and come up with an answer.

In a fishbowl, there are two groups…the outside observers and the fish

Fried fish swimming

inside the bowl. The inside group is having a “traditional” discussion…oral debate and conversation. The outside group, on the other hand, is in a chat room (or public document) and they are having their own discussion about the inside group. Many times, these lead to two completely different discussions.

Some tips if you’re interested in trying out a fishbowl discussion:

  1. Your questions has to be open ended.  Discussions are no fun if everyone agrees.  Try having an open-ended discussion in which there is no one “right” answer.  I also have found that controversial questions lead to good discussion.  Some I’ve heard of: “Was Kierkegaard really an existentialist?,” “What is the most significant development of the 20th century?,” “How did the end of WWII change European and Asian history?”
  2. Be okay with arguments and disagreements. Students don’t always need to agree to find meaning in discussion.  Obviously, keep it civil, but if minds aren’t made up, that’s fine.
  3. Pre-assign groups (if necessary). This is not a come-in-and-start sort of discussion.  There needs to be some preparation by students.  Some teachers have half the students students blog the information and the other half reads the blogs and then becomes the inner discussion group.  This works well with particular concepts, but might not always be necessary.
  4. Have follow-up questions ready. Not all discussion will reach an adequate depth when they start.  Be ready to have some probing follow-up questions to push students to deeper levels.  Be willing to play devil’s advocate to get them thinking about topics form a different perspective.  Questions or statements that catch them off guard are always good, too.
  5. Pick an outside discussion medium before starting.  In other words, make sure the chat room works.  One good one is Chatzy.  Totally free, instant chat rooms.  One problem is that if you have a large group on a school network, Chatzy will filter the chat because the same IP address is sending information and it is marked as spam.  The way around this is to have students log in with their Facebook accounts…the IP marking is overridden then because it recognizes individual users instead of “guests.”  Another good option is TypeWithMe.  Not a huge fan because it isn’t as quick as Chatzy, but there are no IP limitations.  You can export chats from both to distribute to students after the discussion.
  6. Consider recording the chat.  With free recording software readily available, it isn’t hard to record a discussion for later reference.  Audacity is probably the most popular freeware for recording audio.

Discussion can lead to some of the most meaningful learning.  Consider taking a day to step away from cramming in content to give students an opportunity to find true meaning through debate.  Enjoy the struggle of learning first-hand.

Opportunity to Succeed

I presented the flipped class and mastery learning models of instruction at the EARCOS Teacher’s Conference in Malaysia this past March. This is my first year using these methods, and honestly, I’ve been making a lot of it up as I go along. It’s worked out pretty well so far and students are engaged and learning every day.

The most questions I got at the conference had to do with documentation and grading, which makes sense. As I field more questions and have more opportunities to share these methods with other teachers, I’ve been missing subjectivity from my discussions, especially with exams and accommodating students with learning needs.

I am a firm believer that every student has the capacity to do great things…but that doesn’t always show on tests.

An observation I’ve made throughout this year is that many students who do poorly on written exams can often sit and have a discussion with me about the content. They know what they’re talking about, they just have a hard time connecting the writing on a test to what they know. So, I began to give oral exams to those students. Their grades instantly jumped from way below failing to right around the class average.

Because I knew my students, it was petty subjective. If they got one prompt from me, minus one point. Two prompts, two points, etc. I pulled the content from my chapter objectives they use to learn the content.

In an attempt to become more objective, I began to shift through volumes of rubrics on the internet…but I found most of them were for presentations or group projects and not for summative assessments. So, I sat down with our special ed coordinator and talked about oral exam rubrics and how to design an effective tool for summative assessment.

You can see the final product here. If you’re using the flipped model or if you are interested in differentiating assessment, feel free to use the template.

Let’s step up and not accept failure when simple accommodations can give every student an opportunity to succeed.

*More information on flipping the class and mastery learning can be found here.

Virtual vs Tangible Labs

At this moment, the AP Chemistry exam is in 19 days. I have about 1.5 chapters to cover with class only 3 times per week.

I was at this same point last year, but the exam was a week later, so the situation wasn’t as stressful as it is this year. But, that’s the nature of the exam and I have to work with it.

Currently, we’re discussing applications of aqueous equilibrium…specifically, titrations. This is one of the great topics for labs, but how does a time-strapped teacher work an entire titration into one class period? I feel like a lot of teachers at this point would just skip it and do what they could to get all of the content in.

Because there are so many people on the internet much smarter than me, I was able to find two fantastic titration simulations. You can see them here and here.

The first is a good introduction. I had students use it for a strong acid – strong base titration to get the idea down.  Students can select the type of reaction, which to titrate (acid or base) and what chemicals to use.  They then run the titration and calculate the molarity of the chemical in the buret and check to see if their answer is correct.  The mechanics of the simulation are the same as an actual titration and they can get instant feedback from me as I wander the room and from the web when they check their answer.

The second simulation is more in depth (designed by a college Ph.D) and is more skill-based than the initial titration they ran. There are more variables and require the student to really understand what is happening in the chemical reaction.  I really like the real-time pH curve that is displayed for the students and the instant feedback the simulation gives.  This particular site also has 3 different experiments students can choose from…acetic acid titration, unknown weak acid titration, and determining pKa of an unknown solution.

If you’re running out of time, don’t be afraid of virtual labs. My kids have now done 4 different titrations and I didn’t “lose” any class time. This is the Google Doc procedure my students used today if you’d like to use it.

Another great simulation resource is the University of Colorado, Boulder physics department website sims made for chemistry, biology, physics, and math.

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Update 4/2/2012: After receiving some questions about my procedure and the websites, I am sad to report that the second titration simulation from the University of Pasadena is no longer available. Also, I have accidentally lost the Google Document procedure I linked in the original article. If you find other titrations that work well for you, I would love to hear about them in the comments.

Student Nuclear Chemistry

I love being a teacher and I love being a soccer coach. But, those tend to get in the way of one another.

Being an international school, we compete with other international schools from all over Korea. I travel at least once a week, which means I need to miss school more frequently than I would like. It used to be very difficult to keep all of my classes engaged for an 85 minute period if I’m not there. But, because of the availability of great resources on the web, they become opportunities for students to be creative while learning something new.

I recently gave an assignment relating to nuclear power, and specifically, to the events in Japan. There is a lot of confusion about nuclear power and its role in society. There is a great webquest on nuclear energy put together by Ms. R Wadsworth and Ms. M. Shuck at Claremont Secondary School that I used and added to for the assignment.

The first part was a collaborative Q&A document students created and shared. This was simply the information gathering and served as a single location students could go to for information.

Second, they had to create a newsletter that could be given to someone that had zero prior information about nuclear power. They used the information from the GoogleDoc to build the newsletter. You can see some of the best ones in the slideshow below.

Third, I asked them to create an infographic on nuclear power as it related to Japan…not necessarily the tsunami, but in general. Many students had a hard time being creative with this, but some of the better ones are here…feel free to look through them and use them as exemplars if you’re interested in doing something similar. They used this website to begin building the graphics.

You can look at the slideshow or you can go to the album.

Why I Am Skeptical of Sal Khan

I suppose the title of this post says everything: I am skeptical of Sal Khan and I am worried about the influence he is having on education.

Now, if you’ve read this blog before (thank you, if you have), you might be wondering why I’m saying this. I am teaching a flipped chemistry class…his big point is that a flipped class is more effective than traditional classrooms because of 24/7 access, etc, etc.

I agree 100% with those comments.

So, why am I skeptical?

I’m skeptical because I’m afraid the flipped model is becoming a fad in the United States. I’m afraid its a buzzword that teachers (who don’t always understand the true working of the model) are going to start using to stay “current” or to keep administration happy.

I’m all for availability of material, and the volume of material that Mr. Khan has created and catalogued blows my mind (over 2,200 videos and counting). But, I’m concerned that teachers are going to turn these amazing resources into pop-and-play video lessons just to say they use them. I’m afraid that the power of the videos will be lost by just handing out an accompanying worksheet to fill in and get graded. I’m also afraid the availability of most curricula high schools offer will tempt teachers to sit back and stop teaching.

Again, I’m all for availability of resources, but there is also something to be said about learning from your teacher…not just a disembodied voice on YouTube.

So, I guess I should have titled this “How Do We Keep the Flipped Class From Becoming Ineffective?” It’s not what Mr. Khan is saying that worries me…its what the people that are listening to him will ultimately do with this idea. What I would like to see is more everyday teachers getting the focus. There are hundreds of teachers in the US alone using a flipped class…but they don’t get invited to do TED Talks or speak at keynote conventions.

I am convinced the power of flipping a classroom lies in the word-of-mouth transmission. We need teachers using a flipped model to step out and become more vocal about their methods. There are people like Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams (the guys I learned from) in Colorado, working very, very hard to promote the flipped classroom. We need to organize meetings, classroom visits, tutorials, webinars…anything that will help spread the word on how to effectively use podcasting in the classroom.

If you want more information on flipping your class, a good start is to visit The Flipped Class Network.