Sunday, September 27, 2015

A Blended Approach to Vocabulary

My school is focusing on vocabulary instruction this year with the hope of increasing academic gains in several areas. To that end, I was asked to design an inservice with one of my colleagues for our staff to show how we could use blended learning tools to discretely teach vocabulary this year. Because my standard vocabulary approach had been to merely tell my students the meaning of a word and then keep teaching, I was surprised to be asked to lead this one. Still, I viewed it as a chance to learn something new and dove in. Last week completed the seventh session of this professional development that included an introduction to vocabulary instruction, a station rotation of Marzano strategies, and vocabulary centers.

Our first portion of the inservice introduced the idea of tiered vocabulary. We used Pear Deck to acquaint our peers with Tier 1, 2, and 3 vocabulary words. Tier 1 words are words the students come to us knowing. Tier 3 words are the content-specific words we already teach. Tier 2 words are powerful tweeners, the words that cross curricula, have multiple meanings, and provide a specificity in meaning. Our hope is that teachers will focus more of Tier 2 words this year.

The second segment of our inservice was a station rotation where each participant was assigned a challenging word (pulchritude does not sound like what it means!) and then worked through a set of Marzano strategies to learn that word and many others. On slides, we wrote friendly definitions, chose images, wrote synonyms and antonyms, and had a conversation with these words. Then all the words we presented by participants. We finished with a game. For our game, we used Speed Match by SuperTeacherTools. Want to try your hand at this game or just see what speed match is? Check it out here. It was VERY easy to create!

 Our third portion of the inservice allowed our colleagues a lot of flexibility in path, pace, and place as they explored our vocabulary centers. With ten different vocabulary tools at the centers, everyone had the opportunity to explore many strategies or focus on one in great detail. Overall, our inservice was well-received and our peers reported that they left with many ideas about what and how to teach vocabulary this year. Many people worried, though, that adding vocabulary instruction could take too much time, or at least take time away from something else.

In the category of "practice what you preach," I wanted to raise my vocabulary instruction without sacrificing too much time. Because I had never really done any vocabulary instruction before now, I acknowledge that anything would be better than my status quo. When it was time to review my first unit, I used a quick strategy to highlight some Tier 2 words from introductory chemistry. My students, working in pairs, were assigned a Tier 2 word. They had to write a sentence that showed how the word was used in chemistry, write a sentence that showed how the word might be used outside of chemistry, and then explain a similarity between the two sentences. They did this with dry erase markers on the glass walls in our media center. When they finished, they gallery walked the room and read all the sentences, putting stars next to the ones that they liked the best. Some of my favorites were the sentences and explanations of words like "element," "compound," "composition," and "uniform." The whole activity, from start to finish, took about ten minutes and I will definitely use this one again.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Drawing on Differentiation

Last year I did a lot of writing about asking students to draw models of particles to demonstrate their understanding of chemical concepts. I started this about ten years ago with my PLC and I always gain insight into my students' ideas when I look at their drawings. Drawing has become a regular part of my chemistry class and is incorporated on almost every test.

To that end, last week my students read about the classification of matter (elements, compounds, and mixtures). The next day in class they took an open-note quiz. I provided particle pictures and they had to answer questions about the pictures, like "Which one represents a mixture of two elements?" and so on. I have done something similar in past years as a check of their reading comprehension. What follows has been a guided notes activity and some demonstrations for extra emphasis. This year, instead, I split the students into three groups based on their quiz scores and provided differentiated learning experiences.

Group 1 had scores that were 60% or lower. These students completed the guided notes activity on iPads. Students tapped their way through a Keynote presentation and answered questions about particle pictures as they viewed. When they finished, they had a quick model building exercise where they filled small cups with models to represent samples of matter. When the cups were assembled, I checked the cups visually and corrected misconceptions.

Group 2 played a great game called TriConnect by Scienterrific Games. In this domino-esque game, cards are distributed evenly among players and have to be matched in turn by properties of a sample of matter. The students who played the game scored 70-80% on the quiz, so they were practicing what they knew and extending their knowledge with this game. The conversations as they played were excellent.

Group 3 performed an experiment. These students had demonstrated mastery on the quiz, so their work was an extension of our content. The lab was the chemistry standard of aluminum mixed with copper(II) chloride solution, but students were looking through the lens of a particle model of chemistry.

If someone would have told me a year ago that I would be managing three different simultaneous activities, where one was a lab involving chemicals, I would have balked, but the management piece was not as difficult as I imagined. The lab was short, so I had plenty of time to circulate among the three groups to offer help and clarification but also be vigilant as the chemicals were used. In the past, everyone had the guided notes whether they needed them or not. This year, students who showed they understood the content got to have a unique practice opportunity in the lab while students who were on the verge participated in a game to make practice more fun. For students who needed the guided notes, they were still available with the added model activity to check for understanding. The collaborative nature of the activities and groupings facilitated engaged, focused work.

The following day everyone worked in the lab, so every student still practiced these skills in the lab. In fact, the lab was due on the test review day and we had a lively discussion of particle models as we reviewed for the test. A quick look at yesterday's tests leads me to believe that the practice paid off, so I am looking for more ways to incorporate activities like these into my practice this year.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Making Time for Change

This weekend marks the end of my first ten days with students who have MacBook Airs as part of our 1:1 initiative this year. Overall, the first ten days have been good - the students are bringing their devices to class and they are charged and ready to go, for the most part. Some days we have used them a little, some days we haven't used them at all. In a perfect world, technology saves time. What I am struggling with, though, after these first ten days, is the time I am losing to using technology. How do I make time for this change?

On day 4 we do a quick review of the scientific method, followed by our first lab of the year. Because we had the MacBooks at our disposal, I used Pear Deck to gauge their understanding of what they read the night before. Pear Deck is great - kids sign on with their Google info, so it is fast - and can be used as an easy student response system. I wasn't really presenting information, just asking questions and seeing answers through Pear Deck. Where typically I might have just tossed out questions and called on a couple of kids, I could see everyone's responses. It was nice to share the responses I liked the best and highlight a couple of misconceptions, but, by the time they got to the lab, I was wishing they had about 7 extra minutes to complete that portion of class.

Then I missed a couple of days due to inservice. I wanted to make sure I knew what they understood from the days I missed, so I asked everyone to post their answers to a homework assignment to our LMS, Schoology. I also asked them to "like" a post that they knew was correct. Again, where I might have just asked a student or two to share, I could see everyone's answers - and so could the class, raising the ante for homework a little - but it took longer for them to type out their answers and read through some to find one to "like." Again that day I found myself racing through content to finish by the bell.

Last example: On Friday we did one of my favorite activities, determining the density of a bowling ball so we can see if it sinks or floats in water. I used one of my favorite tools, Nearpod, to introduce the activity. Students had to input answers to questions like "do you think the bowling ball will sink or float in water?" or "what measurements will you need to determine if the bowling ball will sink or float?" I used Nearpod's new instant question feature to redirect the students when their answers were incomplete; I would have missed that opportunity if I wasn't using this tool. Once the kids developed a clear idea of what they needed to do, they set off measuring and calculating. But the bell rang before we could test their predictions, so I had to put that off until Monday. Hopefully, the suspense is building.

I knew things might take more time this year, but I was expecting the obvious things: "I don't have my MacBook." "I left my MacBook in my locker." "My MacBook isn't charged." "Watch how slooooooowly I can remove this from my backpack while you try to start class." "I'll be with you as soon as I stop messaging with my friends." There really hasn't been much of that at all. All of the technology slowdowns have been a result of gaining more information while I am teaching, something I know I should be celebrating.

What are my takeaways of these first ten days? 

  • In each of these examples, I used technology because I had it. And I used it to check for understanding of the easiest content of the year. Maybe as the content grows more challenging, the time I spend to see a fuller picture of my students' understanding will feel like more of an investment. 
  • I have planned this unit using my pre-1:1 ideas and planning will need to change as I consider how my students and I will use these devices meaningfully. As I think about my second unit of instruction, I know I need to think about how my pace will change as I change my practice.

On this week's agenda is a reading quiz, delivered through Schoology. Then the students will complete one of three quick differentiated activities, based on their scores on the reading quiz. Without Schoology, it would take much longer to hand grade the quizzes and sort the students based on scores. Still, I am hoping for enough time at the end of class for a few quick demos to reinforce the reading with what feels like actual chemistry. Hoping for enough time. That's going to be a theme this year.