Wednesday, January 27, 2016

A New (to Me) Way to Assign Student Groups

I have sort of lucked into a great group of math coaches in the Greater Cleveland area. They meet once a month to tackle math pedagogy. I have only attended two meetings, but I have left both meetings with new ideas and feeling invigorating for implementing a version of them in my classroom. Last week's meeting introduced me to a new way to organize students into teams or groups.

Students in my classes sit with their groups at tables every day in class. I change the groups after every two units, every 6-7 weeks or so. I use a pretty elaborate process to organize who works with whom, but sometimes random groups are faster and feel more fair to students. This allows for random grouping, based on content taught in a course.

For groups of four, find four related concepts that pertain to your content. The math example was the equation of a line, the graph of that line, the T-chart of some x and y values for the line, and a situation that the line could describe. Create as many of those corresponding examples as you want groups. For chemistry, I used a chemical formula for a compound, the molar mass of that compound, the percent composition of the compound, and a picture that represented it. Here is a screenshot of the one I created today:

Cut the above into horizontal strips and then each strip represents a group. Then cut the strip into 4 segments. As students enter the room, ask each student to choose a segment from a basket. Then they have to find the other members of their groups by applying what they have learned in class. If you want to use my version, you can access it here.

There could be many variations of this for other disciplines. I like a vocabulary option where you have a word, its definition, a picture to represent it, and a synonym or antonym. That would be a great way to revisit and practice key vocabulary words throughout a year. The possibilities are endless! Don't like the idea of random groups? You could write student names on each segment and then they still have the experience of finding their group members and practice the content but end up in a group you chose. I am looking forward to trying this the next time I change groups!

Saturday, January 23, 2016

My Favorite Way to Differentiate

This is the first post I am writing in response to a blogging initiative launched by the MathTwitterBlogoSphere (#MTBoS). I am a week late in getting started, but I hope there aren't tardy detentions. This week we are supposed to blog about something we would call "my favorite." For me, this is one of my favorite ways to differentiate instruction.

When I think about differentiating in my high school classroom, I have two main worries. First, how will I manage different problems or activities? Second, how will I encourage all my students to work on their problems or activities without being mad that they did or didn't get the same problems as their neighbor. To solve both of those problems, I use a Google Form to differentiate.

The trick is to create separate pages within the Google form. Instead of adding questions, I add page breaks. Then I create questions and check the box (next to the multiple choice answers) that says "Go to page based on answer." If the student gets the answer correct, she gets a harder question. If she gets the question incorrect, she goes to a page that provides a hint or tip and then redirects here to the original question to try again.

When I use this in my classroom, the students are aware that they may be solving different questions than their neighbor, but they don't seem to draw conclusions about the level of difficulty in the questions or even ask why they have different questions. It's almost as if they approach it as if they were assigned random questions from a bank of questions. It works pretty well and creates a seamless way to remediate and enrich.

Here is a video I made about the process:

People often ask if I have a template for this process. I don't. It's a little hard to share a form as a template because what someone needs in the form is different each time. I usually start by drawing the whole thing out on paper so I know exactly how many pages I need and what the sequence of pages will be. If you have questions about this, please feel free to contact me!

Wednesday, January 20, 2016


We wanted to kids to make a video. We wanted it to be easy and fast. We wanted the focus to be on chemistry and not on learning a tool. And we wanted the video to include a video of a chemical demonstration. We considered Explain Everything, but it's complicated. Too easy to get bogged down and miss the point of our lesson. Enter the [FREE] iOS IPEVO Whiteboard app.

I use this app a lot for giving notes and doing guided practice. I have described it several times as having just the right number of bells and whistles. I felt like after about 15 minutes of play, I was confident to use it in class. Tap the question mark in the corner and you get a quick tip screen of what every tool will do:

Just want to mirror you iPad and show your class how to do something? It does that beautifully. Want to import a document or image and write on top? It's got you covered. Need to make a screencast of what you did in class for kids who were absent? That's easy. Want to take a picture and write on top of the picture? Yep, you can do all that from inside the app. And here's where we got really excited about our video lesson: You can turn on the camera and start filming a video and then write on top of the video while you film. And it's easy!

This is not a great video, but it shows what it looks like when you watch the video and see the annotating happen in real time. It only lasts a minute, so give it a quick watch and look for my red markings. Can you see what I was trying to show?

Tomorrow my students will use this app in class to make videos about chemical demonstrations they will conduct. I hope to post the best ones to my blog later this week to share their great work!

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Experimenting with Stoichiometry

I loved my high school chemistry teacher. That's an important place to begin. I was mesmerized by every lesson, every concept. Chemistry seemed like magic. But not phony don't-look-too-close magic. Real actual magic. The ideas captivated me, but the math slowed me down. My teacher often posed a problem, gave us time to work on it, and then logic-ed his way to the answer. He talked about mathematical relationships with a fluency that I didn't develop into well into college and I found myself floundering, often, as I tried to apply what I learned.

When I student taught, my cooperating teacher had a very discrete way everything would be done. I stood in front of the class, but he had very much scripted what I was supposed to say. So it was with teaching stoichiometry, the mathematical relationships between substances in a chemical equation. He required me to teach it in a specific way, using the dimensional analysis or factor-label system of canceling units. The way I am describing this, it sounds like I felt bound or bullied, but it was quite the opposite. When he showed me what he wanted me to do, I had an a-ha moment. It was so easy and made so much sense. I wished I could go back to high school chemistry and do it all again with this tool. For my entire 25-year career I have taught stoichiometry as my cooperating teacher showed me because when he showed me, it helped.

Fast forward to this past December and my 25th pass at stoichiometry. I don't know what happened. I had been to a couple of math in-services where teachers are doing less direct instruction, more collaborative group work and more "let students figure it out." For years, my colleagues in a ChemEd google group have argued whether the method I use is a savior or a crutch. I didn't start with my typical stoichiometry lessons; I let students figure it out.

There were bumps in the road. After two days of practice and a lab, we took a quiz. The results were not quite what I wanted, so I offered a re-take. Not that many students took me up on it, but, after they had, my average was just about where it is every other year. Those quizzes were more difficult to grade. When you only give students one way to solve a problem, they are easy to grade. By quiz day, I had helped them with at least three different ways - that really are just variations of the same way - and all three were being used. Reviewing the homework was also more challenging. When a student asked for me to work one out on the board, I had to ask what method they wanted me to use. Even as I type this, I realize that I should have had them work them out on the board instead. I don't do enough of that.

When we returned in January, we revisited stoichiometry because we hadn't tackled the concept of limiting reactants (when one ingredient runs out, the product can no longer be produced - think "dead battery"). I considered "hitting the reset button." Maybe the winter vacation amnesia would erase all those methods and I could re-teach the concept in my old-fashioned way and put my train back on the comfort tracks. That, though, would defeat the purpose of what I did in December, so I stayed the course.

We started the semester with some conceptual treatments of limiting reactants. We did an experiment where balloons were inflated to different levels and used model kits to build molecules until we ran out of something. On limiting reactant math day, I sorted the students by how they had done on the quiz I mentioned above. I provided some videos of the problems they would face and gave them the option of watching the video, going at it without the video, or combining the two as they needed. I moved around the room and gave help as they asked for it.

Again, bumps in the road. Students who had scored lowest on the quiz often neglected their homework. They chose not practice what they had learned - or struggled to learn - in class. This is my greatest worry: What if trying this "figure it out" is detrimental to the students who need the most assistance? It's also an interesting aside: Do students often not do their homework because they know they may not get it right? The quiz scores were even lower than the previous quiz, 2 or 3 points lower than my typical average. Thinking back to my own high school chemistry experience, when I didn't understand the math, I assumed the breakdown was mine. The tide in education has turned now and it feels to me like struggling students blame the teacher first, or at least that's what they verbalize. Plus, some don't seem to believe that if they try and try and try, they will eventually get it. And that not mastering everything right away isn't a death sentence.

In two weeks I will return again to stoichiometry in the context of the gas laws. I am hoping that with each new treatment of this concept, I pick up a couple more strugglers along the way. But I have to find a way to hook them back in, to get them practicing again, to help students who were like me experience the success I felt when I student-taught. Do you have any ideas to help? I am all ears.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Magic of Osmo

Earlier this month I mentioned that I think teachers are masters at taking something that is made for one purpose or subject or age group and making it work for a totally different one. So it is with Osmo. Santa brought my daughter an Osmo - a small base, a little mirror that sits on top of an iPad camera, and 5 apps that come with accessories for learning and creation. Osmo is designed for kids ages 5 and up, but I immediately wanted to try it out in a high school classroom. 

From the moment the Osmo comes out of the package, you will be impressed. The brightly colored packaging is sleek and magnetic and nests together. The design of the base and camera are simple and elegant. The toys pack up so nice and neatly. There are two ways to buy it. The Starter Kit ($79) contains the base and mirror plus the letter tiles for the Words app and the puzzle pieces for Tangram. The Genius Kit ($99) includes those items and the number tiles for Numbers.

The Osmo app that I think has the broadest high school application is Words. Words is a digital visual hangman game. You see a picture and bubbles for the letters in the words. Osmo comes with little letter tiles. When you see the picture, you place a letter in front of the Osmo and if it's right, it puts it into place. If it's wrong, it puts the letter in the incorrect guesses area. If you wait too long, you get a hint. With two colors of letter tiles, you can play this game against another person (or people) or in a "Zen" way where everyone works together to solve the puzzle. The best part is that you can create your own words and pictures with photographs you take or images you find.

I used a model kit to build 5 standard molecules. I used my iPad to take a picture of each one. I put these pictures into a library in my Osmo account and added the vocabulary word to each picture. Then I used the Osmo to practice these molecular shapes. The whole process took me about 15 minutes.

Playing the Osmo is like magic. It's fast and fun. I love how customizable this is. This would make a great vocabulary station for a student or group of students to practice new terms. I like how visual it is too. Associating the word with a picture will definitely help students remember the meaning of the word. When you get the word correct, it tallies up a score. After you correctly guess all the words, you get a "you win" message.

I am looking forward to using this in my solutions unit because there are so many vocabulary terms in solution chemistry. Tying those terms to a visual should increase understanding. Much of the chemistry my students learn during second semester is a brand new experience, so having an extra push with vocabulary makes sense. Doing it with a toy like Osmo will make it more fun.

I haven't tried out the Numbers app yet (balancing equations, maybe?). I am looking for a meaningful way to incorporate Masterpiece (a very cool drawing app) in my classroom. I'm not sure there is an authentic way for me to use Tangram (exactly what it sounds like) or Newton (a "hit the target" puzzler that is awesome, but not very chemical). And I can't wait to see what Osmo apps develop next!

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

A Great Addition to Classkick!

Classkick is one of my favorite iOS apps for using instant feedback to guide students as they practice a new skill or process. Classkick allows teachers to create assignment slides quickly and, through a code, share them with students. As students complete the assignments, the teacher can watch them work in real time. Teachers and students can provide help and feedback. This week Classkick added a great new feature - the ability to view the assignments from any internet-enabled device.

Classkick Viewer lives on the web. Input the class code for the assignment and the name you used to complete it (or the name of a student who completed it) and you can view all the work on that assignment. 

This could be handy in a variety of ways. The most powerful is that a student can access their work after class. In my classroom, we use a class set of iPads to complete these assignments. When the students leave, their work remains behind, so I always make them write it down in the app and also on paper. Being able to view your work - and use it as a guide for your homework - means you could take notes every day in Classkick and access the work on a device later. Classkick Viewer would also allow teachers to pull up student work on a computer to project it - and discuss how one solution to a problem is similar to, different from, or better than another solution or share on a computer screen the work a student does in class at a parent-teacher conference. And, speaking of parents, if a parent had a Classkick code, he could watch his son or daughter as they complete an assignment in class or examine work after the assignment is complete. That's awesome. As a mom, I would love that kind of access.

Classkick was already a great app. I love this new feature and will showcase it with my students later this week. Maybe even without the paper safety net. Bravo, Classkick!

Monday, January 4, 2016

I Need a BUNCH of Bunchems!

I always say that teachers are masters at taking something that was not designed for education and making it work for something in a classroom. For that reason, I wonder if all educators look at the holidays as a special time to discover new things for their classrooms. My children complain when I ask them to pass me a box so I can take look because they know that I want to play with it before they get a chance. So it was this week with Bunchems!

A Bunchem is a small plastic puff that is covered with small hooks, kind of like a spherical velcro ball. 

The little hooks mean you can attach them to other bunchems and build things simply by touching two bunchems together. The possibilities of what you can make seem endless, limited only by what you can imagine and gravity. In addition to the bunchems, the kits also contain some accessories - legs, hats, and so on - that will give your creations extra pizzazz.

My daughter's Mega Pack was open for about 15 seconds before I had my hand in the box and was imagining the molecular possibilities. I use model kits in my classroom all the time, but in some ways these are just as good or better. For modeling the particles in different samples of matter, for showing ionic crystal structures, or for letting individual students model particles, these would be faster, easier, and cheaper.

In a recent post, I showed pictures my students had drawn of a balanced chemical equation. In the picture below, I show the same reaction with Bunchems. 

By using Bunchems, instead of drawing, kids could test whether or not their representation obeys the Conservation of Mass Law by weighing the reactants and products. I like the idea of using Bunchems and something else to demonstrate "like dissolves like" when I get to solution chemistry next month.

If you don't teach chemistry, you could use these for modeling any number of things. Or for filling the sand table. Or as a building toy as they were intended. The Bunchems Mega Pack contains almost 400 Bunchems and a lot of accessories. For around $20, it's a great buy. I am definitely putting these on my wishlist!

Making Christmas Great

Almost twenty years ago my family opted to stop buying traditional Christmas gifts and start making Christmas gifts. The decision to do this came at the junction of two things: my mom had lost her Christmas spirit when her brother died close to the holiday and we had become a family of adults who were fully capable of buying what we wanted all year. It started as a one-year challenge, but we had so much fun that first year, we have been doing it ever since.

Here's what people made this year:

As pretty as the Mason jar candle that my mom made is, I wish you could smell it. I will love to burn it but hate to see it go.

My older sister made hot chocolate mix and homemade marshmallows. Before I saw these, it never even occurred to me that marshmallows could be made at home! She always has the best product packaging too - look at those great labels!

My younger sister made super groovy Christmas ornaments. These beautiful, glittery balls involved Mop-n-Glo as an ingredient!

One of my stepdaughters made a hemp washcloth that is a natural exfoliator. It is a gorgeous plum color and came with homemade soap.

My dad and stepmom made this glass block present light. Red and white Christmas lights inside the block complement the ribbon.

The big win this year was from my aunt. I keep calling it the bread guillotine. Put a loaf of bread on the cutting board inside and let the grooves guide the knife for straight, even slices. I have tried it on pumpkin bread pictured here and also a French baguette - both worked great! Need thicker slices? Skip a groove or two!

Making Christmas gifts has brought some wonder back to the holiday. It is always very exciting to see what everyone has made. It is equally fun to hear the stories of the things we learned along the way. Often we have taken classes or read books or watched videos as we mastered a new craft. Each round of gifts is so fun to open because you never know what will be inside.

I typically focus on things that happen in my classroom when I write for my blog. I love so many elements about our maker Christmas that I know I would like to bring those things to my classroom. Maybe this will be the year!