Saturday, September 29, 2012

Creating the Chemistry Course of My Dreams

Popping popcorn for the first lab.
Everyone knows that a good experiment only has one variable that changes at a time.  How can you possibly know how a change has affected the system if you make more than one variation?  Well... this year, my Honors Chemistry curriculum is definitely not a controlled experiment because I have made three big changes to my teaching this year. 

Using Bunsen burners the first week of class!
The first big change was the decision not to use a text book.  Don, my co-teacher for the Honors course, and I came to the realization that our text book choices over the past several years were not meeting our needs.  And, more importantly, the book felt like a ball and chain dragging us down paths that we didn't want to go.  I felt a certain obligation to make the book part of the class because I asked my students to shell out their own money to buy it (and science text books are not cheap).  Even with our last choice of an on-line/electronic book, I felt frustrated by the resource rather than supported by it.  So we took the leap of faith and decided to scrap the book all together.  So far I haven't missed it at all.  I have plenty of on-line resources that I use along with my own stuff that I give the kids electronically.

Lab is the heart of my new course.
The absence of the book opened the door for us to create the "Chemistry Course of My Dreams".  Don and I spent time over the summer crafting a chemistry course that would fit the needs of our Honors students, draw on the things we liked from previous years, and incorporate some new ideas that we have wanted to try but couldn't figure out how to fit in with the book.  The back-bone of our course, and the starting point for our design, is the lab program.  We decided to create a progression of labs that would lead the students towards an understanding of the composition of matter.  The content needed to support the labs would fill in the "meat" on the bones of our course. 

They are so happy to have un-burnt popcorn!
The next big leap of faith was the decision to use the flipped classroom model to teach the class.  When I found the flipped classroom idea, it all fell into place for me.  It was a natural progression for me because we can use the video resources to teach the content that the students will apply in the lab work.  I feel that the flipped classroom is a perfect blend of lab experiences and content that is delivered when it is needed. 

So here I am, three weeks into the new school year.  I am very happy with the changes we have made to the Honors Chemistry Curriculum.  I'm so relieved not to have the pressure of covering chapters in the book.  That first decision we made to get rid of the book has opened up a whole new set of possibilities for my students.
Chemistry teacher selfy.  Way cool for me, not so much for Jack!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

A Weekend on the Deerfield River

Enjoying a day on the Deerfield River with my students.
One of the great things about my job is that I get to go on really fun trips with school groups.  This weekend I went with the Outdoor Adventure Team to the Deerfield River in western Mass for a great weekend camping and canoeing trip.  All I had to do was drive the bus, and in return I got to spend two days on the river doing eddy turns and running some rapids.  Thanks to Bill for leading a great trip!

We pulled out of Pomfret on Friday at 10:30.  We arrived at our campsite on the river around 1:00.  The dam release didn't start until 2:00 that day, so we took some time to set up our camp, spot the vehicles, and do some safety training.  We got on the river by 3:00 and enjoyed the last day of summer in the bright sunshine.  That night after dinner we journeyed into Shelbourne Falls to play candle pin bowling.  It was so nice to see the boys smiling and laughing as we tossed the balls down the lanes.

Saturday we enjoyed a hot breakfast in camp and some leisurely rounds of frisbee; no rush because the dam release didn't start until noon.  We got on the river by 12:30 amongst a healthy crowd of kayakers, tubers, and canoers.  It was a great day to enjoy the river and some good company along the Deerfield.  When he paddled into camp around 4:30, we all jumped into the river for a swim (JRI) and some jumps into the river from the rocks along the far bank.  For dinner that night, Rob taught us how to make camp pizza, a recipe he took back from his NOLS experience over the summer.  It was SO GOOD to eat hot pizza in camp.

Sunday morning David and I used the extra dough from the pizza to make hot apple turnovers!  Now that's what I call breakfast.  We ended the trip with a hike along the Dunbar Brook Trail to a nice swimming hole.  No swimming today with our two hour bus tip looming, but very nice scenery and an invigorating hike non the less.  We said our goodbyes to the Deerfield River as we drove back down the familiar access road to the paddling launch sites for the last time.  We pulled into Pomfret at about 4:00 with lots pictures and a fresh perspective on the week ahead of us.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

First Week of Flipping

I'm a week into the "Flipped Classroom" experiment.  I love it!  The change is challenging and also very right for my class. 

First Week of Flipping
The basic idea of the flip is to reverse the traditional in-class activities and homework activities.  So the typical in-class learning, such as listening to a lecture and taking class notes, is done at home in an individual learning space.  While the typical homework activities, like homework problems and application-type exercises, are done in class as group learning events.  In science class, the flip concept is very natural because we already do so many group learning activities in the lab.  Instead of assigning work from the book for homework, my students are using homework time to watch instructional videos and take notes.  In class, we are doing group activities, white board practice, and labs to apply the information.  (Okay, it's only been one week, so we didn't do all of that yet, but we'll get there.)

I decided to flip my classroom pretty early in the summer.  I spent some time over the summer reading about what other teachers are doing, researching the impact of the technique on student learning, and having anxiety dreams  about teaching (yes, they started in June this year).  I recommend the book Flip Your Classroom by Jon Bergmann and Aaron Sams if you're thinking of trying the flip. 

Students working on a group activity
At the heart of the flip classroom is the notion that the teacher is not focal point of class.  Students must engage in active learning to fully learn the concepts.  In order for this to work for me, I had to get myself away from the front of the classroom.  To make this happen, I rearranged my classroom so that the desks weren't facing the front of the room.  I knew that if the students were facing the front, then I would end up there on day one.  What a difference the desk arrangement can make for class dynamics.  This week, I found that I was walking around the room more and that the students were using the whole room, not just the desks in the front.  I have let go of my control freak nature of assigning seats because the kids are switching groups and moving around the room throughout the class.

As for the videos, they're getting better.  I've done five so far.  I'm collaborating with two other teachers on the flip.  We all enjoy making the videos together (thanks for the tip, Jon and Sam) and they are much more interesting to watch when we do them together. 

I'm hooked on the Flip.  There's no looking back for me.  I have opened up my teaching to a whole new set of possibilities.  I'm excited to see where this change will take us!

Friday, September 7, 2012

I'm Back in the Lab Coat Again!

The Fun Milk Experiment
I really didn't mean to take the whole summer off from  my chemistry blog.  As I do every year, I leave school in the spring with the best of intentions.  I make big plans to reorganize the lab, clean up the prep room, and this year write in the blog about new demos I'll try in the summer.  Well...

Enough apologizing, I'm back!

The kids are all smiles on Day One.
It feels so good to be back in the classroom with my students.  We started off the year with a fun, new-to-me experiment with milk, food coloring and soap.  I like to get the kids doing interesting lab work right away on the first day.  It's challenging to find something that is interesting, easy, not too laden with advanced content, and manageable in one day.  We found just the thing with this milk experiment.

I started a class blog for each of my chemistry levels this year, I call it GeyerChem.  Their first assignment is to make a post on the blog about what they learned today.  You can check it out here Honors GeyerChem Blog or here GeyerChem Blog.  The blogging addiction grows.