Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Nominate an Outstanding STEM Teacher for the PAEMST

The Presidential Awards for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching (PAEMST) are sometimes referred to as the Nobel Prize of STEM teaching. The nomination window is open until April 1, 2018. With just 11 days left, consider nominating an outstanding STEM teacher for this prestigious honor.

If you are a regular reader of my blog, you probably know that I won the PAEMST for Ohio Science in 2015. I was first nominated, though, in 2013 by an assistant superintendent in my school district. My first reaction was surprise (Who knew she thought I was doing a great job?), followed by fear and dread (This looks really hard. I'm not sure I can do it). I never would have applied without her vote of confidence; I am incredibly grateful that she believed in me so much that she nominated me.

It wasn't that hard!

The application process includes some application paperwork, letters of recommendation, a 30 minute video of a lesson, and a narrative reflection on the lesson and your teaching practice. If you have achieved your National Certification, you will know how to attack this. Step 1: Read through the narrative questions. You will reflect on why the content is appropriate, why you chose the strategies you used in the video, how assessments guide your practice, how you reflect on your success and challenges, and how you lead outside your classroom.
Step 2: Decide on a lesson where you can showcase the skills you want to write about in the narrative questions. Look for something where you facilitate great thinking, deep learning. Capture 30 minutes that will show some variety - small group and large group or lecture and lab or discussion and experimentation. 
Step 3: Make arrangements for videotaping. It doesn't have to be professional (my mom followed me around with a Flip camera to make my video), but if you have an expert, use one! Allow for mishaps. I had my whole plan in place and then learned there was a scheduled tornado drill! Give yourself plenty of time to write the narrative, collect the letters of recommendation. Applications are due on May 1.

Why bother?

Teachers receive so little recognition, and so much criticism, that any opportunity to celebrate educators is one worth taking. I will never forget where I was when I opened the email that told me I was a finalist for Ohio. Or when I opened the email that indicated I had won the award. All of the winners traveled to Washington, DC in September 2016 for our awards trip. Meeting so many talented, passionate STEM teachers was an incredible experience. I continue to follow many of these teachers on Twitter for inspiration. We were treated to professional development, networking opportunities, a beautiful awards ceremony, and a tour of the White House. You can read more about my PAEMST trip hereAgain, if you have achieved your National Certification, you probably don't need to be convinced. You would do this for the same reason you went after that. The video and narrative offer a chance for deep reflection into your teaching practice. It is so validating to have a group of your peers evaluate your work and find it to be noteworthy.
Ohio's Math and Science PAEMST winners, 2014 & 2015

Like with the National Board Certification, winning the PAEMST put me into a select group of STEM teachers who will be offered opportunities to contribute to the field. I have been invited to serve on selection committees at the state and national level and contribute to various PAEMST efforts to spotlight great teaching. I would love to be able to help shape educational policy and winning the award makes that more likely. I am facilitating a science specialists network to inspire continuous improvement and innovation while honing my own teaching.

In 2018 the PAEMST winners will be K-6 STEM teachers. There is a probably a terrific K-6 teacher in your life. Maybe it's you. Take a quick minute to nominate. For me, the nomination was the nudge I needed toward my own Nobel Prize in teaching.

Monday, March 12, 2018

$1 Merge Cubes: Easy and Cheap Handheld AR/VR

I went to Walmart yesterday, looking for Merge Cubes. A friend had mentioned them to me as a cube that triggers virtual reality games and I was anxious to see one and try it out. According to Google tonight, Merge Cubes sell for between $5 (eBay) and $15 (Target), so imagine my delight when I found them at Walmart for $1! I scooped up four of them and headed home to try them out.

I was immediately impressed by the product. The Cube is made of material a little tougher than a stress ball, so it can be dropped and tossed and will not break or break things. Each side of the black and silver cube is covered with designs that will trigger holograms in the apps that will Merge with the Cube. It comes packed in a little plastic case; it's not fancy but will store the cube nicely.

If you haven't tried out augmented or virtual reality, here is how the Merge Cube works. You get an app and launch it on your mobile device. Then, inside the app, point the mobile device at the Merge Cube. The designs on the cube trigger augmented and virtual reality experiences - games, activities, and more. The Merge Cube apps work with a mobile device or by pairing a mobile device and a VR headset. 

I tried out two apps as soon as I got home - Mr Body (FREE) and Galactic Explorer (FREE). My Body is pretty cool. You are greeted by a stick figure guy whose organs you can see. Tap the organs and you see that one close up. Tap the buttons on the organs and you can read some information about it. Flip the cube and you can see Mr Body (and his organs) from different angles. The graphics (seen below) might look cartoon-ish but the information is pretty sophisticated.

Galactic Explorer is an exploration of the solar system. I tapped the record button inside that app and made a quick video you can watch to see how this one works. In the video you can see my hand as I flip the cube and turn the solar system. I am tapping and untapping planets to zoom in and read information about them.

Here are some descriptions of a few of the other educational apps that are available:

57˚ North: A choose your own adventure app where two cousins are shipwrecked and decisions must be made in order to survive ($2.99).

Anatomy AR Plus: Hold the brain, heart, and lung in your hands and explore them in incredible detail ($0.99).

Cube Paint AR: Choose from several animals, paint them any way you want, and watch them move with their custom paint job (FREE).

Dig: Mine and build holographic worlds that you can hold in your hand and share with others (FREE).

Dino Digger:  Dig for dinosaurs with famous paleontologist Jack Horner. Uncover fossils and learn interesting dino facts ($1.99).

My ARquarium: Choose from among 55 types of fish to fill your virtual aquarium.

There are lots of games apps too.

If you have wanted to explore virtual or augmented reality, this is a durable and easy-to-use product that is available at Walmart for $1. It's definitely worth the price!

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Supporting Parents Supporting Students: Start with a Calendar

In my last post, what started as an endorsement of The Incredibles2, and their recent sneak peek trailer, ended as a declaration that parents need help supporting their children with school work at home. Think about how frameworks have changed over the last ten years (but certainly since parents were in school). When parents were in school, there might have been weekly newsletters or emails indicating what happened in school this week and how parents could support students at home. Then teachers developed websites where parents could check assignments and look at support resources. In the last few years, learning management systems came onto the scene and replaced websites. Teachers can now, with a few easy clicks, easily store everything they want to in a digital classroom for students to access. Unfortunately, parents often can't access this resource. Even when Google Classroom added parent email capability, it only sort of helped. 

A most basic example of this is with tracking assignments. Parents probably start the homework routine with the question "do you have any homework?" Some kids probably know/remember/recorded what they have to do and get right to it. For those of us not blessed with professional students, the answer is often "I don't know," followed by a groan (and sometimes it's the student)! An easy solution to this is to use a calendar program and share the link with parents. In my classroom, this is Google Calendar (which I couldn't get by without), but other calendar programs probably work the same way. 

Here's my system:

1. Create a free Google Calendar with the name of my class.

2. Add my assignments to the Google Calendar. I like the "Schedule" view for an assignment calendar because it looks like a list rather than a calendar, but you can choose among several different views. If you want to provide an agenda for each day, consider starting your "assignments" with numbers, like "1 Review Homework" followed by "2 Forces and Motion Lab" so they will stack up in numerical/chronological order.

3. Go into the calendar settings and make the calendar PUBLIC. This will allow anyone, whether or not they use Google calendar, to instantly see your assignments. Share the URL with parents (and students!).

You can also share the calendar with individual email addresses. Or embed the calendar on a website. This way, parents can add your calendar to their digital calendar. Then the assignments come to them without having to do anything special. If you're trying to support student learning at home, what could be easier for parents than just seeing what the assignments are inside an existing calendar? Of course, parents might need to be shown how to do this. That is a great task for Open House, right?

If you want to learn more about Google Calendar, check out this post I wrote about it earlier this year.

The system you have in place might look great to you. Take a minute and think about it, though, from a parent's perspective. Can they access the information? Without an account and a password? How many clicks does it take to get to the vital information for all the classes their children take? Is the system convenient for parents (whose help you probably need) or is it convenient for you? Have you taken steps to teach parents how to make this system work efficiently?

When we make decisions about the way we will support students outside the classroom, we need to think about the classroom that happens at their homes. A fellow Ohio technology enthusiast, Mike Daugherty, addresses this with his website on a page called Help @ Home. Mike is a K-12 Director of Technology and an endless supplier of tips and strategies. He was selected as a Google Certified Innovator in part due to a project that aims to help parents understand and navigate technology advancements that we discretely teach to our students. Of course, this thinking fills the gap that I have now described in two posts. If you are feeling that gap, subscribe to his email updates on his website. And, of course, follow my blog for continued conversations about this topic.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

"Math is Math!" An Incredible(s) Reaction

It was a crummy week to be a teacher. Maybe that's why I found special happiness on Thursday to walk into my house after work to the sound of my children's laughter. They were crowded around a chromebook giggling, with my husband hovering nearby. "What's so funny?" I asked. "An Incredibles 2 trailer has been released," all three of them said at once. "You have to see it." I plopped down on the couch to watch and soon I was laughing too. If you haven't seen it, here it is:

Just at the point where Bob explodes into a full-blown dad-rant that ends with "Math is math," my son exclaims, "It turns out our family is the Incredibles." That made us laugh even harder. But it turns out that everyone isn't laughing about "math is math." In fact, some teachers are irritated that Pixar seemingly took a shot at the Common Core State Standards

I'd like to offer a different perspective. Almost every school night for the last two years, I sit down at the dining room table to help my son with his middle school math homework. Most of the time, he doesn't need help, just encouragement. This year there have been more times when he needs help with math and also science. One night last week I had to text three physics teachers to get help with something he was assigned. About once a week I ask "what do the kids without a science teaching mom do when they need help?"

When teachers are absent, we leave lesson plans for our substitute teachers to follow. When kids go home with their school assignments, they sit down at dining room tables to complete the work and their parents, who function essentially as de facto substitute teachers, try to help and support them. Without lesson plans. Without extra information or professional development or degrees in education, parents won't necessarily understand what an assignment is trying to accomplish. Or how a skill is foundational. Or why we would try to solve a problem three or four different ways. They just want to help their kids. And we could probably do a better job at helping them do just that.

For two years, my son has been solving diamond problems in math. I didn't know why. And neither did he. He just did them. This month he started factoring quadratics and one night at the table, he told me, "Mom, this is why we've been doing all those diamond problems. They make the thinking we have to do now easier." That was a cool moment, but it took us two years and a lot of diamonds to get there.

Maybe Pixar meant to take a shot at the Common Core. Maybe, as others have pointed out, because the story is set in the 1960s when the phrase "New Math" was born, the shot they took is at that. Or maybe Pixar capitalized on the timeless, common experience that all parents have shared - that feeling when you look at the work your child does, work that looks different from what you did, and you don't know how to help. The "math is math" rant makes us laugh, not because it's about math, but because we have all been there about something.

For my part, I think the trailer makes the movie look great. I can't wait to see it. Between now and then (June 15!), I am going to give some thought to how I can do a better job at helping parents support their kids while they learn chemistry.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Word Choice: Use Ctrl+F when Proofreading Writing

This week a few of my students have asked me to proofread their research papers for English. The papers have been a fun read; I have learned about several interesting topics. One thing that struck me, though, has been stale word choices. In one paper I found the word however four times in one paragraph. In the paper pictured above, the use of huge was, well, huge.

After I read "huge" for the third time in seven lines, I decided to investigate how often huge was used. I clicked Command+F (on Mac; Ctrl+F on PC). When you access the "Find" command with this keyboard shortcut, a small pop-up window appears in the upper right and shows how many times a word was found. In this case, huge was used fourteen times. Next to the usage window are two arrow buttons. Click on these and each use of the word will show on the screen.

This would be a great shortcut to show kids before they turn in the final version of their essays. During editing, Command/Ctrl +F could be used to check for commonly overused words. Once they are located, the arrow keys can be used to toggle between uses so that a different word can be substituted.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

The Choice is Yours: Differentiating the Math of Chemistry

Unlike many chemistry teachers, I don't teach stoichiometry (the math of chemical reactions) all in one unit. I introduce the mole early in the year with atomic structure and cycle back to the mole concept in every unit I teach. Today I took my second pass at reaction math, incorporating what the students have learned about gas laws in our current unit. Some teachers will tell you that if you don't show students how to solve these problems, they won't be able to. I disagree with that and have a couple of years of differentiated lessons to back me up.

When the bell rang, I asked all my students to stand up and come to one side of my classroom. Once they were there, I briefly explained the kind of problems we would solve. Then I described three approaches they could choose from: 

  1. Sit at a table with other people and talk about ways to solve the problems (or ignore everyone and forge ahead without conversation). 
  2. Sit at a table with an iPad loaded with a presentation that will model each type of problem and solve a subsequent one without the model. 
  3. Sit at a table with some manipulatives I made to help get from the start to the finish of the problems.

Then I gave them the opportunity to self-select. Most students ended up where I would have placed them! About half the students sat at the tables with the iPads. About a fourth of the students sat at a table with no resources except each other. The last fourth sat with the manipulatives. The conversations at all the tables were outstanding. At each center, students were having great conversations about why and how they should proceed to an answer. All these conversations would have been lost if I had been the only one modeling.

The manipulatives were just pieces of cardstock with conversion factors on them for each of the problems. They included conversions that students needed and conversions that they didn't need so they had to choose correct relationships to get from the start to the finish. As a new problem solver, it's challenging to look at a blank space and figure out which relationship will help solve the problem. The manipulatives took a little guess work out, but still required students to think through the problem and select the right ones. The cards were color-coded for three types of chemistry problems we attacked today. They seemed to genuinely help students see why they sometimes need molar mass but other times they don't. One student even asked if the manipulatives would be available next week on the quiz.

Two takeaways really stick with me tonight: 

  1. Given a chance and the support to think and talk through problems, my students will successfully do this. The way they help and question each other is awesome. 
  2. When high school teachers say it's impossible to differentiate, I wonder how often they have tried it.

Today in my class, more students got what they needed. And I did, too, because I was able to wonder around and listen to their terrific progress and touch base and observe students who might struggle. I think all of us - my students and I - learned more today than on many other days this year.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

What are chemistry students prone to when learning stoichiometry?

A blog I am reading every week is Math Equals Love. Sarah Carter, math and chemistry teacher in Oklahoma, writes in exquisite detail about the things she is trying in her classroom. Every time I read it, I wish she had been one of my math teachers. Sarah loves, and often features, puzzle she is using in her classroom. I, too, love puzzles and that's probably one of the reasons I love her blog. One of the things I loved best about middle school math were those cheesy, punny puzzles when solving a math problem led to a letter that led to an answer to a question involving math. I recently had to miss three days in my classroom, right as my students needed to take a big quiz over stoichiometry (the math of chemical reactions, for non-chemistry teachers), so, inspired by Sarah and middle school math, I created a puzzle for them to do in my absence.

The puzzle consists of 24 paper tiles that have a letter in the center. All the tiles also have an answer at the top of the tile. Some of the tiles have a stoichiometry problem at the bottom of the tile. Students, working in groups of 4, solve the problems and then look for the answer on the letter tiles. Finding the correct answer shows the letter that comes next in the sequence. Solving the whole puzzle correctly answers the question "What are chemistry students prone to when learning stoichiometry?" Answer: Overreactions.

The puzzle is pictured below and you can make a copy of the file here if you'd like to use it. Please attribute it to me if you share it with others.

The reason I love a puzzle is because the kids can figure out the word(s) and that helps them check if they are solving the problems correctly. The puzzle provides the feedback that they need, especially when I am absent and cannot. I am particularly proud of THIS puzzle because I built in some ways that make it challenging. The four chemical reactions in the puzzle all involve lithium and water in one way or another. Finding the limiting reactant, then, is not as simple as just looking at what is in a particular reaction and finding that tile. The extra tiles (answers but no questions) are spoilers, common mistakes that students might make when solving these types of questions. One of my students emailed me right after class to ask about a problem that her group struggled with, so I made this video to try to help.

Are you using puzzles in your classroom? I hope you'll share them and inspire others.