Sunday, November 30, 2003

Cattle & Racecars

I ordered some supplies for my science classes a few weeks ago, a long list of stuff from a midwestern supply company. Bringing the cost up to several thousand dollars were a few head of cattle and two racecars! Now that it is almost time for delivery, it occured to me that we don't have anywhere to keep the cows, not even a field behind the school. I don't think anyone in my school is going to support me in this current project. So, I called the company and spoke to Barb, a middle-aged, somewhat heavyset woman wearing pink sweatpants. She has dark hair in big curls. She sat at her computer and went through my list with me, cancelling various parts of my order. When we got to the cattle and racecars, however, she said they'd already been shipped! My head began to spin as I imagined the scene at school when the truck pulled up and started dropping off very large cows. My head spun even faster when I remembered I'd gone into credit card debt to buy these things, and now I was sure I would not get reimbursed. I couldn't even remember what I thought I was going to do with cattle and racecars! I explained all this to Barb. She was sympathetic, but they'd already been shipped. She gave me the name of a racecar driver, Dale Savage, who might be interested in buying the two cars from me.

And then I woke up.

Monday, November 24, 2003

A walk was just the thing...

and all is right with the world once again. The crucial thing is to walk in just the right direction at just the right time of day...

Well, maybe not all is right. Thing is, I'm having a mid-life crisis, or as the title of a book I saw in B&N recently put it, a "quarter-life crisis." I have been working hard since high school! Very hard! Without a break! And of all my friends in their mid-twenties, I am nearly the only one who has lived in the same city, held basically the same job, and dated the same person for over three years... so I'm feeling a bit settled. I don't have an overly romanticized idea of what youth should be like, and I'm not unhappy with job or city, and certainly not boyfriend!
Still, I'm definitely feeling confused about what I want and need at this point in my life.

Sometimes I think teaching is not the profession for me... I am way too perfectionist, and not positive-spirited enough. The perfectionism is a problem because there is always more work to do as a teacher, and I just work and work and work, and worry when I take it easy. The positive-spirited thing is a problem because when kids fail to meet my expectations, I have trouble remembering to praise the ones who are doing well rather than sniping at those who screwed up.

I've been having a lot of these thoughts lately, probably because I'm feeling a little insecure teaching physical science. It's not my passion. I love earth science, I love life science. And I know a good deal about those topics, and have a lot of perspective on how all the little pieces of knowledge fit together to form The Big Picture. This is not true for physical science. I know almost enough to teach it well, I don't particularly like it, and I do not have the perspective to organize the information really well and help the students see why it matters. So, basically, when my school hires another science teacher, I need to make absolutely sure that person's strengths compliment my own, and they can take over physical science and do an awesome job with it and help the kids get excited about it. Then I can go back to a subject that I love.

Today, it was easier for me to be positive, naturally, because I was in a much, much better mood. I hate re-teaching, but I think I did it with grace, kindness, humor, and a useful structure, and I think the students will go back and study the things they missed and do much better on Wednesday's make-up quiz. I need to find a fun, science-related activity to keep the kids who got 90's or higher happy, since they don't have to retake the quiz.

Sometimes a walk is just the thing.

Sunday, November 23, 2003

Looks like the coming week...

will be spent re-teaching atomic theory, due to dismal grades on what I thought was an easy quiz. Re-teaching is easier to stomach given that we have this weird short week anyway.

One week.

Is it wrong of me to write about my personal emotional/relationship stuff here? Almost no one I actually know reads this blog... and it's anonymous, very anonymous. And I think I'm careful to write only vaguely about things that involve other people, more about my own reaction than actual events. Sometimes I write just to clarify what I think about something... should I not post those thoughts? Hmmm.

I need a long November walk.

Friday, November 21, 2003

The Yin & Yang of Parents

A cosmic balance exists between parents who are not involved enough, and parents who are way too involved. Today, I received an email from a parent who was concerned that her son's report card averages were each off by 1 point. She wanted the grades changed, and if we had sent the report cards to the District (Region), those records changed as well. Now, being picky is every parent's right. If I had noticed the same thing on my own report card in high school, I probably would have asked the teacher about it. But as a teacher, with hundreds of pieces of paper in my bag, and plenty of kids who are actually failing, I am just a little irritated to be justifying a 93% versus a 94%. The truth is, she was both right & wrong. If you calculated the average based on the grades I wrote for each category (homework, quizzes, projects), it DID come out a 94 rather than a 93. But the thing is, FIRST I calculated the average for each section to two decimal places, then computed the precise final grade to two decimal places, THEN rounded each number off when I recorded it on his report card. I mean, for heaven's sake, who cares whether he received a 93.275 or just a 93%? Wouldn't you rather see an 89% rather than an 88.8% for homework? So, I explained all of this in a very polite email (she has never been rude about it) and included all the exact numbers and explained the discrepancy.

Meanwhile, there are parents I almost never see, whose kids are failing, who come in and argue (really argue) between themselves during conferences, rather than trying to find out why their child is doing so poorly.

I found out today that one parent lied to me during my conference with her! Her son's behavior has been pretty bad... he is constantly bothering people around him, during class, in line, you name it. Constantly. All. The. Time. She spent a solid ten minutes telling me that she didn't know what had happened, she'd never had any problems with him before he came to our school... heavy insinuation that it was somehow our fault that he started misbehaving, disguised in placating statements about making sure it stops. Anyway, another student who was in the same fifth grade class as he was informed us today that he was suspended five times and was always in trouble at that school. One suspension was for throwing the class terrarium out the window when he was not allowed to feed whatever inhabited it! Compared to THAT, he's downright well-behaved at our school!

Thursday, November 20, 2003

Freddy Adu

Soccer star, mature & gracious kid, caring mother with her priorities straight... I wish this boy all the best and hope that he continues to be able to handle the pressures placed upon him. Just as remarkable as his soccer talent is the fact that he'll finish high school at age 15, but no one else seems to comment on that.

I tried to get a better link to this article via the New York Times Link Generator, which is supposed to provide links that don't succumb to "link rot" as time goes by, but it kept refusing my entry. Hmmmm.

At home

I stayed home sick today. I woke up, felt awful, convinced myself that getting up and ready would make me feel better, got up & ready, still felt awful, called in. Today is the best possible day to miss this week, since parent conferences are over, and tomorrow my principal is at a meeting all day at the Regional Office and Fridays are the one day we have no sub for our (new-mama) colleague. So here I am. I slept until an hour ago, then got up and made some tea and oatmeal. I think I will grade some papers, take a walk, and then I'm supposed to meet a friend for dinner, but I need to give her the option of avoiding my germy breath. *sigh* I'm getting a little sad, because if we were together, and he knew I was home sick, he'd call every few hours to make sure I'm okay. Today I'm pretty much on my own. *poor me*

Maybe I should rename this blog "Ms. Frizzle Feels Sorry for Herself."

Or "The Magic School Bus Inside the Amygdala."

Wednesday, November 19, 2003


More parent conferences. I got a long string of parents whose kids were messing up, which meant long conferences, which meant a huge line of parents poking their heads in the door and looking impatient.

I got to talk to party girl's mom. I wouldn't be so hard on this girl if I didn't have the highest hopes for her - she wants to be a model & an engineer, and I think she could do either, or both. So I want her to keep it together in school and go on to a great high school & college. Anyway, her mom and I see eye-to-eye, so it was a nice chat. Unfortunately, I woke up today with a full-fledged head cold & sore throat (mind-body connection, anyone?), and talking for two hours straight didn't help.

My colleague had her baby this evening (induced labor, epidural, the whole nine yards) - a healthy girl, little over 7 pounds. No name yet. We are all so excited for them! Awwww....

I don't want to write tonight, I want to watch my Atoms & Molecules Video, then go to bed. Oh yeah, I guess eat dinner. So I will leave you with a poem I found today, by Rumi (Sufi mystic poet of the 13th century):

My worst habit is I get so tired of winter
I become a torture to those I'm with.

If you're not here, nothing grows.
I lack clarity. My words
tangle and knot up.

How to cure bad water? Send it back to the river.
How to cure bad habits? Send me back to you.

When water gets caught in habitual whirlpools,
dig a way out through the bottom
to the ocean. There is a secret medicine
given only to those who hurt so hard
they can't hope.

The hopers would feel slighted if they knew.

Look as long as you can at the friend you love,
no matter whether that friend is moving away from you
or coming back toward you.

-Rumi (translated by Coleman Barks)

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

This is not a post about teaching...

I've stopped crying all the time... now I just do it in little spurts, when I sit down and am not doing anything else, and only at home, not on the street outside the dry cleaners or on the bus or the train. Sleeping is better, thanks to SimplySleep - I'll try it on my own again tonight. But concentration? No, concentration is still shot to hell. Eating is not so good, either. I know it's important, so I make an effort. But I don't really want to eat and when other things get in the way - like parents arriving early while I was still eating lunch - I'm not really hungry. Concentration is a problem. I think about what I should be doing, and how easy it would be to just start doing it, and how much easier today was, in general, and then I think, maybe too easy, shouldn't I be more upset, and then I start thinking about whether I am sad or not, and then I wonder if he's sad, and I think about smoking. I hope he's not smoking too much. I could smell it in his apartment when I went to pick up the clothes I'd left there over the past 3 years. He'd collected all my things and put them in two bags on the couch. I saw the note and started crying, with my head against the wall, and later against the fridge, and two tears dripped down onto the side of the fridge, and I thought that maybe this would be the last time I ever came here. I know, I know: it's not over, it's just a break, to sort out our feelings. So then I remember that I was starting to think about beginning to work. Like I said, concentration is a problem. Before I left with my things, I cried at his kitchen table, because the apartment was so clean - please don't clean too much, I've never seen it this way before. I cried in the bathroom, getting my jewelry and noticing that the bracelet he gave me was broken. I cried in the living room, trying to figure out how to carry it all in one trip so I wouldn't have to come back and do all this again. The bed was the only thing still messy, and I wondered if he slept, or if he'd stayed up all night, like I had, until his eyes hurt.

I never have felt the right things at the right time. So I worry that I'm doing it wrong again, that maybe I'm too upset or not upset enough, or that I don't really know how to love someone and I was fooling myself all along. What if I started feeling better tomorrow, and that was it? Would everything be erased? I am so afraid. I don't want to stop missing you, ever.

I just want to know what you're doing. You're probably at work, or the gym, keeping busy, not sitting around over cold vegetarian chicken soup trying to get started working but not quite being able to start. It would be so easy to just call you, call off the break, make things go back to how they were before.

It hurts so much, it really does.

Just for Fun

The Elements Song, by Tom Lehrer, complete with Flash animation.

Parent Conferences

I don't mind parent conferences. Some teachers hate them, or at least dislike them. They used to make me very, very nervous - after all, most of the parents are older than I am, and I was a new teacher, and I look so young, and I'm not of the same cultural background as they are, which can be an issue as far as trust is concerned - but nothing dreadful ever happened, so now they only make me slightly nervous, and it passes quickly. I keep good records, I am pleasant and polite (but firm), and most parents know their own children, or are getting the same story from teacher after teacher. Plus, I know my administration will back me up if I am ever in a serious dispute about a student.

In my current school, most of the children get good grades, and so most of the conferences are pleasant, and most of the parents are involved and have generally positive relationships with teachers. We do have a few tough cookies, however.

One parent has two sons at our school. This father can be our biggest supporter, but he's also very demanding as far as evidence for his sons' grades. He wants to know the date & name of every missed homework assignment, and he tends to go a bit berserk over homework. Luckily, the boys are good students, but this dad does not accept even one missed homework! He also wants accounting for any differences between the two boys' performance, and is only slowly accepting that one boy always does better than the other, though they are both doing fine.

The students had important projects due on Monday in my class - timelines showing historical models of the atom - but most of them did a lousy job! Not very good timing on the kids' part, since I'm seeing their parents today and tomorrow! One seventh grader threw a roller skating party this weekend - and managed to make sure that everyone knew that only popular kids were invited, not to mention each child's precise popularity ratings - and her timeline was the absolute worst turned in - just a scrap of paper with a paragraph and a few dates. I didn't see her mother today. The girl knows that when her mom speaks to me, I am going to show her the timeline and the assignment sheet. D'oh! She's probably got her mom locked in the closet or something, to keep her from coming to school. Anyway, I hold that party responsible not only for the hostess's crappy project, but for the crappy projects of many other members of her class..... but I can't say that to her mother. I think it will be enough when she sees her daughter's work. *evil teacher grin*


Now I have to find some way to keep busy and not think too much tonight. *sigh*

Monday, November 17, 2003

Now it is my turn...

to have a broken heart.

Sunday, November 16, 2003

Chess Tournament

I spent yesterday afternoon with a few of our girls at the Chess-in-the-Schools Girls' Chess Tournament. Our kids get two hours of chess class every week for half the year, one hour taught by a Chess-in-the-Schools instructor, the other hour by one of our teachers. About 15 kids also participate in afterschool Chess with the CitS instructor, and we send a group to tournaments a couple times each month.

The girls' tournaments happen twice a year and are designed to bring more girls actively into the program. Although I have never been to a regular tournament, from my understanding the girls are a minority at the tournaments, and the girls' tournaments are much smaller than the regular tournaments.

Each student plays four games during a tournament, and they earn points for wins, draws, and stalemates. They all start out unranked, but if they win 3 out of 4 games in one tournament, they become Novice players. I know the basic rules of chess, but I've learned not to play the kids once they make Novice, or I lose to strategies like the "four move checkmate!"

Our girls did pretty well - a couple made novice, one 6th grader won all four of her games and with that, won the unranked first place trophy. Since this is only our second year in the program, we're still just starting to build a program. Hopefully, we can develop a fun and competitive team! The kids are already excited about earning enough Grand Prix points to get a trip to Arizona for the National tournament. That would be such an opportunity for them!

Friday, November 14, 2003

Maternity Leave

I haven't mentioned it before, but the day has come: one of my colleagues is leaving to have a baby! This is really exciting... and is not going to be easy for us. We gave her a fairly light schedule this year, to minimize the impact of her absence, but she's still teaching 7th grade Communication Arts. We have to find someone good to cover her classes, not just a warm body - for sooooo many reasons. The region assured us that there are many excessed teachers out there waiting for "permanent substitute" (oxymoron of the year) positions. But they informed us last week that the principals who have these teachers are finding tricky ways to hide their identities, so they can stay and do various jobs for those schools. *sigh* If I were a principal, I'd probably do the same thing, but it's not really the right spirit, is it?! We set up a schedule to cover her classes on Monday, making use of a new part-time teacher that we finally got the money to hire, but people are giving up preps and the kids will lose consistency. I spent an hour calling folks on the per diem sub list to see if we could find someone, with no luck. I think the region will eventually find a permanent sub, because it's cheaper than paying per diem subs, but until then it'll be rough going. And even when we find a permanent sub, who knows who that person will be? Subject area? Level of experience? Willingness to really teach, not just supervise, the kids? The rumor going around among the kids is that when their teacher is out, no CA homework. She disabused them of that notion by assigning all the homework through February today! Still, if no one keeps up with it, they will quickly stop doing it...

Anyway, the most important thing is that she have a healthy baby and not worry during her time off.

On Grading

Calculating final grades always brings up lots of philosophical-mathematical controversies. NY state tests use a 1-4 rubric, where 4 is "far above the standard," 3 is "above the standard," 2 is "below the standard," and 1 is "far below the standard." This has some advantages. First of all, for so many assignments, the difference between an 88 and a 92 is not great and doesn't communicate much about the work. Using a 1-4 rubric encourages teachers to explain to students what is expected in order to meet or exceed a standard, and why certain assignments do not meet a standard. This is more useful than simply assigning a number grade. In most lines of work, adults do not get a score, they get feedback or judgment on the overall quality of the projects they complete. Also, using a rubric discourages cut-throat competition among students, without eliminating it altogether. It shifts the focus to producing high-quality work, not just getting the highest number.

Private high schools and other selective programs are still interested in regular percentage-based grades, though. An advantage of percentage grades is that parents, many students, and institutions understand them. They also provide for fine gradations in judging work; for example, getting an 88 may push a student to look for ways to improve in order to get into the 90s. A score of 3 on a 1-4 rubric doesn't give much information about whether the work solidly achieved the standard, or just barely squeaked by, or was close to being superlative, 4-level work. Also, percentage grades are more useful for grading traditional quizzes and tests, which are still an important facet of assessment.

Taking all this into consideration, we decided to give BOTH kinds of grades on our report cards this year. This posed several problems:

For my Communication Arts colleagues, who score all classroom assignments using the rubric, the question was how to make a broad category into a fair and meaningful percent? If two kids get a 3, that doesn't mean it's fair to give both kids an 85% (or some other number) and leave it at that, since one child may be achieving close to a 4, while the other is barely above a 2. So, they created a conversion chart. If the average of a child's homework grades came out to a 3.6, that translated directly to a percent. To my mind, there's no point to that, since it's the same number on a different scale; in what way does that broaden or deepen the information provided to the child, parent, or high school about the child's performance? I guess the only purpose is to make the number more familiar to people used to the percent scale.

For me, the problem was the meaning of a percent grade. I use a mix of systems in my grading; homework is done using the rubric, because homework is graded on many things, including neatness, completeness, and correct answers; quizzes and projects are graded using the percentage scale. Our school claims that our minimum passing grade is a 75%, below which you are put on academic probation and get weekly progress reports. So, I interpret a 75% as the floor of the 3 category - that's our standard, and if you get 75% or higher, you met the standard. I interpret anything from 90-100% as a 4 - you're doing some seriously high-quality work. And a 2 is anything between a 65%-74%, since most schools use a 65% as the minimum passing grade, so that seems like a good place to start the "almost meeting the standard" category. Below 65% is a 1, of course. As you can see, the rubric does not translate mathematically to the percent grade, but it communicates additional information about how I think the child is doing and what I consider acceptable work. Other teachers in my school thought that 100% should equal a 4 and 75% should equal a 2.5, and everything else be calculated mathematically from there.

Anyway, it gets even more complicated. When my computer grading program calculates a student's average homework grade, it makes a 4 into a 100%, 3 into 75%, 2 into 50%, and 1 into 25%. So, although I say that to me a 3 is a 75%-89%, it really isn't! This method brings down the grades, compared to their meanings in my mind.

The bottom line is that when I calculate my grades, I feel comfortable with the results. I drop the lowest homework grade every marking period, to leave room for one mistake or bad day. It's enough to make a difference for a few kids, even though I have more than 25 homeworks per student. This marking period, I also dropped the lowest quiz grade, to allow for adjustment to the format and requirements of the quizzes. The grades I give line up really well with what I would estimate each kid deserves based on how much science they seem to have learned and my impressions of their general work quality. So I feel fine about putting these grades on the report card, and matching them up with the rubric according to my idea of what the rubric means. All these philosophical-mathematical questions just give me the opportunity to fine tune my grading for the future, and to really think about what my grading is communicating to kids and saying about my expectations.

In the end, that's what I did. My colleagues used their own rubric-percent conversion chart. Does this help parents or high schools make sense of our report cards? Nope. But they'll just have to deal with that until we all sit down and hash out a final, FINAL system.

As for my own grading, I've decided that I need a new homework system. This fall, I used the 1-4 rubric because it allowed for very fast grading, and took into account multiple factors (as described above). I get about 100 sheets of paper almost every day, so even if each gets just 2 minutes of attention, that's more than 3 hours of grading! Woe is me! The solution to this might be to collect & grade homework less frequently, and spend a little more time on each assignment. I could develop a meaningful percentage grading system if I only graded 200 papers per week; the other days I could just check off whether or not the child did the assignment and go over it in class. Problem with that is that reading homework is a way for me to get information about the kids' misconceptions, and reading it only twice per week would limit the information I get. Another option would be to collect every day but grade only a selection of the questions... but I don't think that would really save me much time compared to collecting every day and grading all questions.


Wednesday, November 12, 2003

Everyone wants something...

from the schools.

Patriotism. Sex ed. Financial ed. Fitness. Anti-drug ed. Higher test scores. More creativity. Tolerance/diversity training. I could keep going....


is a rough month for teacher-bloggers, it seems. We lost one - Eric of "I am a teacher" - and many have been light on posts. I feel rather swamped, myself. But, as you know, I am addicted to my sitemeter and the little graphs it produces for me, and I fear that if I post less often, the bars will get shorter and shorter...

Seriously, though, I am feeling as though my head is weighed down by all the hats I wear. The real, multi-colored knit hat, the full-time science teacher hat, the afterschool teacher hat, the helping-run-a-school hat, the tech coordinator hat, and, as of today, the grantwriter hat. I got sent out of the classroom today to the Foundation Center's Grantwriting Workshop. It was a good workshop; I learned a lot about what foundations are looking for in a grant proposal, and how the proposal fits into the process of fundraising. I think I could actually be pretty good at writing grants and raising money - but we don't really need any money, and I don't need anything else to do!

Now, wait just a minute. When I say, "we don't really need any money" please don't go quoting me as evidence that schools are funded well-enough. The thing is, we spent our budget carefully, so we're in decent shape on the basic stuff, textbooks, science materials, furniture, etc. And, since we only opened our doors last year, we got start-up money to buy new furniture, new equipment, and so forth - in ten years, if it has never been replaced, we will desperately need new stuff, but for right now, we're fine. There are plenty of things we could do with more money, but nothing so urgent that I want to commit hours of my life to writing a grant and doing all the grant follow-up.

What we are short on are PEOPLE and TIME, and those are largely out of my control. There are formulas about how many kids in each class, how many periods a day are spent teaching (as opposed to planning, collaborating, grading, professional development, helping to run the school, etc.). We get the money the state decides we deserve based on the number of students who attend. As far as I know, I can't write a grant and get a foundation to pay for another teacher for my school so that we could break up our classes into smaller groups or have an extra teacher helping with labs or more periods off for working on special programs, planning lessons, or working together with other teachers.

The other things we could use but I can't get a grant for are bigger classrooms, better building maintenance, or an elevator or air conditioning in our (ancient) building.

I did have a couple of ideas. First, next year we are supposed to begin implementing two special programs, a community-service program for the eighth graders, and a partnership that would place eighth grade students with working scientists to help them with more advanced projects. Getting these two things started and running smoothly is going to take a huge amount of work! I am thinking of writing a grant to pay someone half-time to start these programs and implement them, to take the burden off of myself and my colleagues. It might also be possible to make this a full-time position and have the person do high school counselling, as well. Basically, eighth grade brings a lot of new projects for our school, which are going to exhaust us if we have to do them on top of everything else... maybe we could find money to hire someone to help?

Second, we always seem to run out of time for real professional development. The time the Dept. of Ed. and the union agreed on for professional development - 50 minutes afterschool on Mondays - gets used up by the week-to-week business of running a school. In theory, we are all committed to go beyond the minimum to create a great school, but in practice, none of us is eager to stay for even more hours each week for professional development. Money isn't the only issue, but I was thinking that perhaps some sort of stipend & materials grant would encourage people to make the time - maybe even on Saturdays once a month. I need to think about this one more and discuss it with my colleagues.

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Report Cards

I started filling in grades on the sixth graders' report cards. They are pretty much finished, except for a few who turned in late assignments that I still need to grade. I am pleased, but not thrilled, by the grades. In each class, a handful of students achieved 90 or better, and a handful failed (below 75% in our school). That means my results approximate a bell curve, which is not a specific aim in my grading, but makes me feel like the grades are reasonable. I would actually be perfectly happy if a larger number of students received 90 or above and fewer failed, as long as I felt that they had all done good work on challenging assignments.

Thank goodness for having today off and catching up on some work!

Monday, November 10, 2003

Dear Ms. Frizzle,

Ms. Frizzle, I know you will try your best to put us in a group right for us, but (even though you have repeated this many times) please, please, please can I work by myself for the Science Expo? The reason for this is that I don't really want to work with the people that are left. I don't know any of them much and I wouldn't feel comfortable working with them. And I could promise you that I could do equally or better than a group by me working solitarity. I'm only asking. But please consider.

Evelyn Velazquez*

P.S. To be fair if Maria comes for the Science Expo, I will be her partner.

Submitted on Winnie-the-Pooh stationery, in beautiful script. Easily the most eloquent such letter I have ever received. I feel her pain, but I'm still making her work with a partner (for this project).

*pseudonym, of course

Saturday, November 08, 2003

Which Biological Molecule are YOU?

You are glucose. People feed off of you. You are
sweet, caring, and a source of energy for
everyone around you. You can inspire others
with your creativity and depth, and you can
keep people alive when in times of famine.
People love you...or at least the way you

Which Biological Molecule Are You?
brought to you by Quizilla


Yesterday, I activated my students' prior knowledge, to use an education buzz-phrase. I think this is a good idea: before starting a unit or lesson, elicit from the kids their prior knowledge (including misconceptions). This will help them form a bridge from what they know to the new information, and will help the teacher plan better. One oft-recommended way of activating their prior knowledge is the K-W-L chart. This is a three-column chart. Before the unit, they fill in what they Know about the topic and what they Want To Know (or what they Wonder), and later, after the unit, they fill in what they Learned. I haven't had much success with the K-W-L chart, because some of the topics are so new to the students that they have trouble even coming up with questions to ask about it. I have had more success making connections to prior knowledge during class discussions, but I'm still looking for a good way to find out what they know and help them formulate questions at the start of a unit.

So, yesterday I tried an activity called a "carousel." I put six pieces of chart paper on the walls in different parts of the room. On each chart paper, I wrote a topic (Atoms; Molecules; Solids, Liquids, and Gases; What is everything made of?; Chemical & Physical Changes; Elements) and two sentence leads, "We know..." and "We wonder..." Each of the six groups in the class got one marker and started at a different piece of chart paper. They had two minutes to discuss as a group and come up with one thing they could agree that they knew about that topic, and one question they had about it, and record those. Then we rotated. The first group to get to a topic had it pretty easy, but since you could not repeat anything that was already written down, the later groups had to wrack their brains.

The carousel was very successful! The kids liked it because they got to get up and move around. I feel like the facts and questions they came up with were much more helpful to me than traditional K-W-L charts have ever been. I got a sense of the colletive knowledge in the room, and the types of things the kids want to know.

The prior knowledge - especially among the sixth graders - was a tad scary:

*There are five elements, earth, wind, fire, and water, and all combined. This came up consistently in all classes, and from some of the kids' comments, I thought it was a Pokemon thing, but a little Googling of Pokemon shows otherwise. So, maybe it's the influence of the ancient Greeks?

*Molecule is a word that begins with "m". This came about when the first group to get to the Molecules chart paper quickly filled in, What are molecules? under "We wonder..." but couldn't think of a single thing they knew about molecules. I suggested that if they really, really didn't know anything about molecules, they just write some silly fact. The next group followed up on this with Molecules has the word "mole" in it and ends in S.

The seventh graders knew quite a bit more, particularly about things that I had mentioned in Science class last year, which was gratifying. It's a good thing I have the sixth graders one more period per week than the seventh graders.

I really have to stop blogging and start planning the unit.


Left-Wing Libertarian?

I hopped on the blogger bandwagon and took the Political Compass test, which asks you 6 pages-worth of questions and then positions you on 2 scales, the economic left/right and the libertarian/authoritarian. I came out near the middle of the left-libertarian quadrant. My exact numbers? -5.88 on the economic scale, -5.13 on the social scale. I added myself to this chart of bloggers' political compasses.

Some interesting questions and my thoughts on them:

One question asks whether I think faith-based schools have a positive role to play in our system of education. I do, but that doesn't mean I'm going to go out there and lobby for more faith-based schools, or for public funding for faith-based schools. I think it's a perfectly reasonable and positive choice to send your child to a Catholic parochial school or any other faith-based private school, but don't ask me to help pay for it or to include it in a voucher system...

Another question asks whether I agree or disagree with the statement, "No one chooses their country of birth, so it's foolish to be proud of it." I disagree, and this is exactly where my gripe with the current with-us-or-against-us brand of patriotism begins. I am proud to be from the United States, and that leads me to want to work hard to improve it! That's what makes me exercise my right to be critical and demanding of U.S. leadership, to hold my country to the highest of expectations. It's not unlike teaching, I suppose: I care about you, and that's why I'm being so tough on you!

Thursday, November 06, 2003

Why I am doing this.

"Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can."

-Arthur Ashe

Today's Warm-up

Choose one of the ten questions that you brainstormed as possible Science Expo project questions. Write a paragraph describing how you would use an experiment to find the answer to your question.

I knew this warm-up (a change from our usual vocabulary warm-ups) would throw the kids for a loop, so I went over it with them and did a couple of examples out loud.

Ms. Frizzle: "Who wants to share a question they have that they think is really good?"

Jesus: "I have one! Why is a polar bear's fur clear?"

Ms. Frizzle: "Jesus... Where do polar bears live?"

Jesus: "Really, really, really cold places!!!"

Ms. Frizzle: "Do any polar bears live in New York City?"

Another Student: "No."

Ms. Frizzle: "So, do you think a student at our school could do an experiment to answer Jesus's fascinating question about polar bears?"

Jesus: (suddenly grinning) "I guess not... but, did you know that a polar bear's fur really is clear!"

Ms. Frizzle: "Yes, it is a great fact and a great question, but not one that a sixth grader can answer by an experiment!"

Jesus: (practically jumping out of seat) "Yes, yes, polar bears DO live in New York!! There are polar bears in the zoo!"

Ms. Frizzle: "Okay, okay, you're right. But I'm pretty sure the zoo is not going to let you do experiments on their polar bears..."

Wednesday, November 05, 2003

Thought-Provoking Quote

"So often we try to alter circumstances to suit ourselves, instead of letting them alter us, which is what they are meant to do."

--Mother Maribel

Starting the Science Expo

Today, I launched the Science Expo. No, folks, this school's Science Expo is not a one-day event, it's a year-long process. The first step for the children is to choose a partner, topic, and specific question, not necessarily in that order. We started the period by brainstorming and discussing characteristics of a good partner - someone trustworthy, responsible, smart, resourceful, cooperative, with whom you work well. I added that it should be someone you can meet up with easily after school and on weekends, not someone who lives far across the Bronx from you. Also, since you have to do this project for a year, you should work with someone who shares your interests so that when you choose a project, one person is not miserable for the whole year!

From there, I handed out a sheet listing some tips for coming up with a good question, plus a list of example questions that I found on DiscoverySchool. We went over the tips and I listed general topic areas (chemistry, weather, force & motion, engineering, water, insects, plants, etc.) on the board and tossed out a few examples for each. Next, I went around the room and asked each child to say which topic areas interested them most, as a way of seeing whether someone else in the room might be a good partner based on shared interests. Finally, I gave them a few minutes to mill about and talk to other kids in order to find a partner. Their homework is to bring in a list of ten or more possible questions. I find that they have a really, really hard time developing a testable question that fits within the scope of a one-year, low-budget, middle school science expo project. The more questions they brainstorm, the greater chance they've got a few leads on their lists. Students who did not find a partner today will find one tomorrow, by comparing lists with the others who do not have partners (and a little social engineering on my part).

I'm cautiously optimistic about the direction the kids are going, so far. The seventh graders have done this before, and had been bugging me about when we would get started this year, so I'm hopeful that they will take their projects to the next level. I learned a lot from doing it last year, and I think that will make it easier for me to anticipate their difficulties and provide more support for the new sixth graders, as they learn the process of inquiry. For example, last year I had them pick general topics, research those topics, then brainstorm questions. This year, I am saving all research for later, as it is fairly difficult and needs to be taught. After they do a research paper or two, we will start doing background research for the Science Expo. This year I gave them lots of sample questions in the hopes that it will make the process of thinking of a question easier. Last year I was hoping they would come up with more original questions if I didn't give them too many ideas; this year I've decided that coming up with a good question is hard, and it's okay if they use one from the list of ideas, and it may help them get started on thinking of their own questions on diverse topics.

I already have a few groups who know what they want to do. Two boys want to test the effect of playing video games on grades. Another boy wants to test the relationship between space and time. He's a pretty cool kid, but we're obviously going to have to chat about project scope!

One girl confidently declared her interest in chemistry experiments. After class, she came up to me and asked, "What are some projects I could do for chemistry? 'Cause, I don't really know what it is!"

And, of course, we had The Volcano Talk. No, you may not do a volcano model. It's not good science! Real volcanoes do not contain vinegar & baking soda, and it's not even a good metaphor for how & why volcanoes erupt. *disappointed muttering among student-body* Naturally, if a student came up with a really creative way of modifying the volcano model to make it an informative project, I would give him or her two thumbs up, but it hasn't happened yet!

And, we had The Animal Talk. No, you may not torture animals (including people). If you want to do an experiment on animals, we need to discuss it and think it through carefully. For one thing, if you get a pet to use in your project, the pet is yours for its entire natural life, and pets entail a good deal of Time and Responsibility (and can live surprisingly long). Don't think I'm going to take your hamsters home when you get tired of them! Also, you need your parents' permission. Not every Mom or Dad is thrilled to host an ant farm or a cricket cage. Also, you generally need more than one of the same type of animal to do a good experiment. I do mention a few successful animal projects - Do hamsters prefer light or darkness? How far can a lizard smell? The Talk really makes a difference, too: by the time the kids share the topics that interest them, they all want to do animals. "I'm interested in the solar system, the human body, and hamsters." "Hamsters or chemistry." "Lizards... or hamsters."


Thanks for the shout-out from the ExploreLearning Blog... ExploreLearning is a company selling web-based content for science and math educators. This is not your ordinary content; it's "gizmos" (a.k.a. animated simulations) depicting various concepts in math and science. I haven't had time to fully explore the site, but I may take advantage of their free trial subscription and see if the gizmos would work in my classroom.

Tuesday, November 04, 2003

"The neurons that fire together... wire together."

Attended a regional science conference today. It surpassed my expectations and left me personally re-energized about teaching science, and feeling good about the prospects for science ed. in our region. The keynote speaker, John Cafarella, gave a really interesting presentation on learning, memory, and the brain, which contained many bits of information that made me think about my teaching. I figured I might as well share them here. (He gave us some sources but did not say which info came from which source).

We have 5 memory lanes (ways that we remember things):

*Procedural - learning through practicing how to do something.

*Episodic - learning through association with a place or event. He pointed out that if you set up a bulletin board with information about a topic, then teach that subject while refering to the bulletin board, then even if you take the information off the bulletin board, during an assessment kids can look up at where it used to be and remember the information better. This has some real implications for the classroom! Also, it's important to give tests in the same place you taught the material. Unfortunately, too many Regents exams and other such tests are given in very different locations from where the learning took place.

*Automatic - Learning something "by heart," so you just know it. A limited amount of drill is necessary for things that should be committed to automatic memory, such as basic math facts, sight words, etc.

*Semantic - Learning by reading or hearing information, through symbols, words, language. The weakest of the 5 memory lanes.

*Emotional - Learning associated with an emotion, either positive or negative - a double-edged sword. Children learn well when the material is associated with positive emotions and they feel safe. Children can get "emotionally hijacked" when they are trying to learn but experiencing strong negative emotions, such as anxiety or fear. Don't be a bully in your classroom, or some kids will "freeze up" out of fear! The strongest of the 5 memory lanes.

Primacy Recency - The brain learns best what it learned first and last.

*Children remember the most material from the first 14 and last 17 minutes of a 40 minute period. - How does this affect the structure of a lesson? What am I doing during the first part of my class? How am I wrapping up my lesson?

Avoid "Open Eye Coma." Most children can focus for a number of minutes equal to their age +2 minutes, but it tops out at about 15-20 minutes of true attention, even for adults. You can "reset" students' attention by changing the type of activity every 10-15 minutes, or by briefly interrupting an activity for 1-2 minutes, letting them think about something different, then returning to the activity.

Anyway, there was much more than this, but these were the most interesting & relevant ideas as far as my own teaching is concerned. I think I will summarize the presentation for my staff, and try to start a discussion of how we can best make use of this material.

Monday, November 03, 2003

The Language of Science

Ms. Fielding posted a question about how teachers teach vocabulary, especially in Science, over at From Behind the Teacher's Desk. Here's what I do, which I'm actually quite proud of:

1. My school has a routine called a "warm-up" at the start of every period, intended as a quiet transition to the class and a time for administrative stuff, like passing back papers, copying down homework assignments, etc. I use the warm-up for vocabulary. On Monday, I write three words for the week on the board, along with their definitions. The students have packages of index cards (in ziploc baggies) which they use to make flashcards. The word goes on one side, the definition on the other. On Tuesday, I give them "Sample Sentences" using the same three words. They copy these onto the index cards, beneath the definitions. On Wednesday, they do a short & pathetically easy fill-in-the-blanks exercise with the three words, in their notebooks. On Thursday, they write their own sentences, and on Friday, we have a quiz. Actually, this year, we have a quiz every other week instead of every Friday.

The reasoning behind this is that it takes many exposures to a new word to make it your own (an English teacher told me at least 7 times hearing or using the word, but I've never been able to confirm this). I choose three really crucial Science words that will help them decode the week's assignments, review concepts related to those words, and better understand HS and college science. I don't make them learn the more obscure words; I really think about the words they need. Some words can be picked up haphazardly, but some words are essential to know.

2. When going over each day's warm-up, I emphasize things like Latin & Greek roots that help them decode the words, remember their meanings, and puzzle out new words. Geo, hydro, -sphere, ecto, endo, etc. That's one way that I learned vocabulary, and I hope to give my students the same tool.

Minds for the molding...

Ok, I loved School of Rock. I have not laughed that hard in... well, possibly in years! Sure, the plot follows the typical underdog-child-performers/athletes formula, where they work really hard, learn more than expected, overcome obstacles as a team, then get shut down, but succeed anyway much to everyone's surprise & delight. (Yeah, yeah, that was a spoiler but you can figure out the basic plotline five minutes into the movie). The good thing was they totally compressed the annoying parts of the formula... the moments when the leader finally loses hope and has to be convinced to go on by the others... the moments when you're just sitting there waiting for them to get up there and strutt their stuff... it's all squished into just a few minutes so you can spend the rest of the movie enjoying the ride! I also have to point out that Dewey Finn spends more time teaching on-screen in this movie than you can catch in a whole season of Boston Public. And he's pretty good: he models his expectations, he praises the kids, he recognizes the unique and important contribution each can make, he throws grades out the window in favor of authentic, performance-based assessment, not bad for a newbie!

This guy's been teaching real kids rock'n'roll after school for years...

Sunday, November 02, 2003

Reflection Time

I'm coming to the end of the electricity unit, thank god! But that means, as I plan the final wrap-up lessons, that I am doing a lot of reflection on the unit. Frankly, I'm disappointed and a little frustrated.

First, I feel like the unit was disorganized. Although I started with a clear set of objectives that I wanted the students to learn, I feel like the students are not going to walk away from the last 6 weeks with an organized picture of electricity. I certainly don't have one based on the activities we did! Part of the reason for the disorganization is that electricity is not one of my favorite topics. In fact, I don't think I'm the ideal person to teach physical science; I'd much rather do earth science and life science and let someone else take care of the physical science. I know that I have relatively little background in the topics I have to teach this year. Unfortunately, the triple-reality of middle school, funding, and our small size resulted in me being the only science teacher at my school this year. It turns out that my enthusiasm and willingness to experiment was not enough this time around. I didn't have the "bird's eye view" necessary to organize a really coherent unit.

How can I improve? Well, I can see ways to organize the unit better the next time I teach it. I don't think I would start the year with electricity; it would help to do atoms & molecules first. I would put in more on static. I would probably start out with the magnetism bit, as it is less abstract (sort-of) and more familiar to the kids, and would help them understand the electricity stuff later. I will also use essential questions to focus the unit. I wanted to use them, but I got stuck in a quagmire of not knowing how best to organize the unit, and never quite decided on essential questions. I like Heidi Jacob's idea of essential questions as "mental velcro" to which every lesson in a unit sticks. I'm afraid my kids collected a lot of lint during this unit...

Second problem: TIME. Time, time, time. The electromagnet inquiry project was great in some ways. The kids designed, carried out, and presented on experiments. Fantastic! Unfortunately, it took way too long, and now it is November, and I wish the unit had been finished two weeks ago, and I still need to do a few more lessons to wrap things up (though I am sorely tempted to just walk in there and start something brand new on Monday). It wasn't just the electromagnet experiment that took too long, either; the lessons on circuits took too long, as well. Having a better idea of how to organize the unit would help me budget time, and I need to anticipate the amount of time spent on presentations so that it doesn't just annoy me.

On the bright side, I think the kids learned some important stuff about how to do an experiment, and they definitely learned a lot about electrical circuits. They learned some basics on magnets and static, and on renewable & nonrenewable sources of energy. That's not nothing!

Social Work Rant & Homeschooling Rant (all in one post!)

Reading this follow-up article on the NJ case where a family was apparently starving their adopted sons reminded me of what a difficult job it is to be a social worker. I am not writing this to excuse the actions of the social workers involved! Nevertheless, social workers are even less appreciated than teachers. They have huge caseloads, they don't get paid much, and the only time they get attention is when something goes really, really wrong, as in the NJ situation. I remember reading (several years ago - sorry, forgot the source) that while most Americans complain about the overall state of teaching & schools, they generally give their local schools, and their kids' teachers, high marks. But many people go through life without ever getting to know any social workers, so we know them mostly through media images. And that's too bad, because I believe they are doing a very difficult, heart-breaking job under rotten conditions for low pay. Please keep in mind, when reading stories about abused kids, that for every social worker who screws up, many others are out there plugging away, doing everything they can for the families in their care.

Another thought in response to the article: with all the emphasis on standards & testing, how is it possible that 23 states let families homeschool their kids with little or no accountability or oversight? Hello?