Sunday, May 29, 2011

Rube Goldbergs

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For the final two weeks of 6th grade science I decided to ask the students to build Rube Goldberg machines. Most of the project is explained in the video above, but in general the students were put into groups and asked to build devices that threw away a piece of trash and made use of at least 1 pulley and 1 lever. They spent about 7 class days on these projects and the results were encouraging. Even more encouraging were the comments at the end of the final exam that noted the Rube Goldberg machines as the 'favorite activity of the year'. I even heard from other teachers that the 6th graders were discussing the project outside of class, which was nice to hear.

From a teaching perspective, this project might have also been the easiest/best thing I did all year. Prep time was minimal after the initial gathering of supplies and project assignment, and grading was even easier than that because all the groups did such a good job overall.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The End of the Year...

With the end of the year in sight, I offer a few reflections...

1. I wonder if any teacher gets to the end of the year, turns around, looks back on what they've accomplished, and says, "Wow, I did everything I planned on doing!" Instead, what I feel like asking is, "Wow, did I accomplish anything I wanted to?" Overall the year has been as successful as I probably could have hoped for, but that certainly doesn't mean I did everything I hoped to. There are still those students in Algebra that are unprepared for 9th grade and those students in Science that haven't developed a passion for the subject yet. There are still those project ideas that I didn't get to and those activities I never did. There are still people - faculty and students - that I never got to know outside of the classroom or never had a 1-on-1 chat with. I guess that is what next year is for...

2. Finding a job is sort of hard. Last year when I was searching for a job, I stumbled upon Chinquapin and it has worked out wonderfully. I've really enjoyed my year, and while it has been exhausting at times, in retrospect I think I've grown a lot. This year I thought I was going to, once again, serendipitously find a job that I loved and everything would work out swimmingly... Not so fast. After applying to nearly 40 positions, interviewing on the phone with a bunch, interviewing in person with a handful, and constantly having my hopes dashed and revived, I've discovered what most adults probably already know - 'good jobs do not grow on trees'. While 'beggars cannot be choosers' I continue to be overly discerning during my search and remain optimistic that everything will work out. We'll see. If not, Mom and Dad, is my room still available?

3. For all of the college readers out there - the first year of life after college is whatever you make of it. I was afraid of leaving Williams and definitely have gotten nostalgic at times for the Purple Valley, but living on my own in a new city with new people doing something completely new has been... well... really new. What I loved about Williams was that there was a constant stream of stimuli always keeping you socially and intellectually engaged. If you constantly introduce new stimuli into your life after college, I think you'll find your first year to be incredibly rewarding - albeit difficult and tiring, but in the end, rewarding.

Friday, March 18, 2011

NSTA 2011



If I were to summarize my experience at the annual National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) conference in San Francisco in one word it would have to be: Overwhelming.

There were hundreds of presentations every day, thousands and thousands of people there, and somehow or another it still felt incredibly informative and personal. Some of the highlights were:

1. Hearing Jeff Goldstein speak about the 'journey of science' and the role that teachers play in this journey. It was incredibly emotional and definitely reenergized me to become the best science teacher I can be. At times during the grind of the year you forget why you wanted to be a science teacher and sometimes you lose sight of your goal - helping students discover the joy of science and unearth their inner scientists. Jeff Goldstein's talk was just what the doctor ordered, so to speak.

2. Bill Nye 'The Science Guy' also spoke at the conference. Enough said. Also, I got the sense that if I had stood up in the middle of his talk and shouted, "Bill Nye The Science Guy!" The entire crowd would have responded, "Bill! Bill! Bill! Bill!"

3. There was a really fun presentation on 8th grade misconceptions in science. Turns out I had a lot of the same misconceptions too. It was sort of embarrassing until I realized that most of the science teachers in the room had the same misconceptions... There must be some commentary here on the American science education system, but that is a post for another day.

Example: True or False. The yolk of a chicken egg is a really large cell nucleus.

4. Project-Based Learning / Inquiry-Based Learning / Project-Based Inquiry Science. It took me forever to figure out what this was exactly - even though everyone was talking about it at the conference - and eventually I just asked someone outright. He told me the definition was quite convoluted at this point and it was more of a working definition, and while all of the above-mentioned terms were different, they were related. Here's the best definition I could find. On the last day of the conference, I went to a round-table discussion on how successful these teaching methods have been in science classrooms and it was revelatory. It seems to make so much sense, I'm not sure why all schools aren't doing this. It definitely requires a lot of work on the front-end, but pays off incredible dividends on the back-end. I am convinced that this is the direction that science needs to take. Even though I was a science major in college, I didn't enjoy science in high school because it didn't appeal to the joy of exploration and joy of problem-solving that I experienced in Williams science classes. This teaching method is the best way to remedy the problem.

Answer to above question: False. A chicken egg is a really large cell, but the yolk is not the nucleus, it is a rich source of nutrients for the developing embryo. The nucleus is actually much, much smaller and located in the yolk.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

1st Annual Flink Off!


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One of the few things I remember from middle school science is making Flinkers - objects that neither float nor sink in water, but rather stay suspended in between. Since we just finished our unit on density, I decided it was a good idea to have our 1st Annual Flink Off. The 6th graders were put into teams, given corks, styrofoam peanuts, pennies, paper clips of different sizes, and were challenged to make the best Flinker possible. At the end of the second day of designing Flinkers we had a competition to declare a winner. Even I entered a Flinker in the Flink Off, which seemed to raise the stakes as far as the students were concerned.

I've been trying to do these hands-on, problem-solving, group activities on a weekly basis this semester and so far they've been great. We had a lot of good cooperation and clever engineering going on during the last two days, and my hope is that, like me, they will never forget making Flinkers.

Check out the video of the Flink Off Finals. Not the best quality, but hopefully you can get a sense of how much fun we had as a class.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Goal #2: Hands-On Learning

Designing Anemometers

Is this what learning looks like?
Award: Most Functional Design
Award: Most Creative and Unique Design

Slowly but surely I've been trying to make good on my goals for this semester. Unfortunately, I haven't been as prepared for classes as I would like - if anything I've been doing more last-minute planning after taking on a third prep for a couple weeks - but I have been doing more hands-on activities in 6th grade science and I have been 'taking on more', for better or for worse. Here, I want to focus on my science class - in a future post I will discuss the pros and cons of stretching yourself too thin.
About two weeks ago I committed (or re-committed) to making my science class fun and hands-on, which means more experiments, more activities, more projects. It began with a 3 day project where the students were given an array of materials from the science closet and told to build an anemometer - a wind-speed measuring device. I didn't quite know what to expect from the students, I didn't know if this simple engineering project was over their heads or not, or whether they would enjoy it. I went with the 'less is more' approach and gave them minimal guidance, basically just handing them a box of materials and telling them to build something that can compare wind speeds. It turned out to be one of the most fun (hopefully educational?) experiences of the year.

To be honest, the only drawback was watching some students struggle with the problem to the extent that they felt unintelligent. I tried to help them troubleshoot their designs, but some of the students would just give up at the first sniff of adversity. This mostly occurred in the dysfunctional groups where, instead of all three students working together, each student worked individually doing three times the work. Next time I should be more clear about what it means to 'work in groups'.

One other quick note for first-year teachers to keep in mind: Be transparent with your students. One of my concerns for doing  more hands-on experiments and activities with the 6th graders was that they would get rowdy, out of hand, and in some cases be  unsafe. In response, I sat them down, had them elucidate what my concerns might be, and made them a deal: We would do more fun experiments if they promised to focus and listen whenever I spoke. So far, so good, knock on wood. The students were pretty amicable to this negotiation, so I would highly recommend just being honest with your class if you have any concerns.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Online Education Resources / Conversations

Even though my contribution was used to show a counterexample of what I was trying to show, it was still neat to be acknowledged online.


One thing I learned early on in my year at Chinquapin is that teaching is too difficult an endeavor to take on in isolation. For all teachers, but especially first year teachers, relying on colleagues in your school and  outside of your school is imperative. Often, the latter is easier because of the vast amount of information available online and the impersonal nature of the internet. Until I started looking for science and math videos, blogs, and projects on the internet, my lesson planning was incredibly difficult. Plus, keeping updated on the education conversations happening online gives me an idea of what types of topics are being discussed in progressive education circles and reminds me that I am not alone in struggling to find effective classroom practices. Reading and researching current discussions in education is the best way for me to challenge and broaden my own teaching practices, and if you are not constantly trying to become the best teacher you can be, then why bother doing it at all?

The other great thing about the internet, that makes it superior to print resources, is that you can participate in the discussions rather than just observe them. Even though I've been teaching math for less than a year, my online presence is just as legitimate as 99% of math teachers in the world. For example, I have been posting and commenting and e-mailing Dan Meyer, a leader in the math education field, for the past few months and I have been amazed at how accessible his blog has been. I was particularly excited to see some of my comments on his posts elicit responses from other readers, and one of my e-mails to him was even posted on his blog (which was a secret goal of mine this year...).

So if you are a new teacher (or a new anything, for that matter) don't be afraid to get your hands dirty and jump into the online conversation with the 'experts,' it's definitely one of the best things that has happened in my brief teaching career so far.
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Saturday, January 8, 2011

Follow Up to "Discipline"

Extra Credit Problem #7 (click on it for a larger version)
Earlier this year I gave my students an extra credit sheet of math problems that they could do in class or on their own time to help their grade. My motive was to give the students something to do when they finished classwork to prevent chit-chat, and also give the students who were doing poorly on homework an opportunity to improve their grade. In the words of one of my 8th graders, this turned out to be an "Epic Fail".

Transparency is important in teaching, and for me that means talking about my failures in addition to my successes. None of the 14 students in my class handed in the extra credit, not even after I told them to hand in what you have and I'll give credit for any correct answers. In other words, more of my friends that read this blog got credit for doing the '9 dots problem' than any of my students...

So to all the future teachers / first year teachers out there, don't be afraid to try something and fail. In fact, many of the things you try probably will fail. It will all be worth it, though, when something you try succeeds. I'm doing a project with the 6th grade science class next week that challenges them to make their own anemometer (wind speed measuring device). We'll see how it goes, cross your fingers...

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Second Semester Goals

After a restful holiday vacation, I have come back to Chinquapin reinvigorated for the upcoming semester. While the first semester was great, and I am happy with how my classes went and my growth as an educator, I know I have a long way to go. The most important quality in a good teacher, is being a good learner, and anyone who wants to be successful in education is going to have to be an excellent student of the profession. To that end, here are my goals for this upcoming semester:

1. Be more prepared. This goal is self explanatory, but there is no better feeling than leaving a classroom and knowing that you actually taught something and hopefully left them with more questions than answers. I can count on one hand the number of great lessons I taught, and maximizing those great lessons is the best way to get better. Being prepared is the best way to maximize great lessons. While the new year is only two days old, so far, so good...

2. Do more labs in science class. Labs are what the students enjoy the most, and science is meant to be a hands-on exploration of the world around us. Last semester I often got caught up in the details of teaching facts, and while facts have a time and place, I think 6th grade science should emphasize building curiosity and a joy of learning. Having an experiment-based science class is the best way to accomplish this.

3. Take on more. I'm not sure what form this goal will take, but I don't want to leave Chinquapin thinking I did an 'okay' job. I'm only here for a year, so there is really no point in 'leaving anything in the tank', so to speak. Perhaps after taking on too many responsibilities I'll reach my breaking point, but how will I know what that point is if I don't push myself to do everything I can to help this community. This goal definitely encompasses the other two, but is more of a general reminder to work my butt off.


The Fellows

This post is literally just a picture of the other Fellows I work with. More exciting thoughts to come when I am less tired...