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.


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).


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


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.


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.

Terminal Velocity

This week, my students are about to finish unit 7, thermochemistry. Looking back one year, I was a little bit further ahead (in terms of content) but this same chapter was chapter 6, not chapter 7.

That’s a very roundabout way of saying this year, using the flipped model, I’ve been able to add an entire unit of study just by flipping the class. This blew me away when I realized how much time I had gained.

Then, I began to think about how I was able to move through the content so quickly. Did I add to student misconception because I was so caught up in wanting this flipped model to be “more” successful because I could cover more material? Right now, after using this model for the past year, I would say no. But, thinking about my motivations as I started this model, I’m afraid to say it probably was a major factor in my decision to switch.

As I’ve learned more about student achievement and how the content isn’t as important as teaching the student, I’ve taken a major step back to think about my motivations. Sure, it would be great if I could move through the material faster, but only if students are performing at a higher level. Have I sacrificed student understanding to reach a specific end? I hope not.

The whole point of this is to say that technology is great and its easy to move through the material quickly because it is available 24/7. But, that does not mean that we should move at the speed of light through the content. Take time for supplemental activities and outside information. Take time for fun activities and keep the students interested in what you’re doing.

Don’t use technology as a means to reach content’s end.

Evidence of Learning, Part 2

A few days ago, I wrote a post about a particular student, “Anne,” coming to grips with a very difficult topic to discuss…evolution.

Even though I was only the substitute teacher for the day, I gave them a homework assignment asking them to reflect on the discussion. You can read their responses if you’re interested.

Back to “Anne.” Her response was actually very short compared to the rest of the class, but again, I think it has profound depth despite its conciseness:

Yesterday, in Biology, I learned to get out of my narrow mind and think about evolution. I began to actually question my beliefs. It was challenging but a good experience. Questioning myself isn’t something I do regularly; I felt like yesterdays discussion was important. Whenever people ask me about my faith, I can never really answer them. I always grew up learning that God created everything. Yesterday, I learned that I will never know unless my faith grows. The discussion helped me a lot. I am still a nonbeliever in evolution.

The depth of her thoughts really stood out as she recognized that questioning her own beliefs aren’t something she does regularly…but who really does?

As teachers, we should be pushing students to think about hard topics.  We need to remind them that the world is not cut-and-dry nor black and white by any means.  How often, though, do we provide those opportunities?  Or even worse, how often do we see those opportunities and move past them in lieu of getting more content in?

Let’s not do our students a disservice by moving past the tough discussion to get more content in.  While it may be especially difficult with state tests and mandated benchmarks for students, it is not something we can afford to drop if we want to provide quality education for all students.