Archive for the ‘Teaching Chemistry’ Category


     Class periods at my school are either 44 minutes long on a regular day or 38 minutes on a short day – every Wednesday.    I feel so time crunched!   7th-grade students can barely settle down in 4-minutes to do a bellwork assignment.   I want the learning to be as hands-on as possible but to accomplish an activity involving equipment, they need to process it, set-up, explore, and clean-up in approximately 34 minutes with time allowed for closure.   In addition to the short time we spend together daily, we started the curriculum in one of my classes two months late and the other classes were a month behind their pacing chart.  

     Students pick up on a teacher’s mood, actions, habits, etc. almost immediately.   I need to find a way to be more relaxed about the time pressure so that I can better help them to relax and enjoy science.   

     Next semester, we will start new new units, new topics, and even new science concentration areas.   Have I mentioned that I will be happy to move on from Biology to the more familiar terrain of Earth Science, Chemistry, and Physics?   In the words of one of my colleagues, “Biology is the coolest use of Chemistry on the planet.”   On the other hand, a few chemistry-heavy topics – such as protein synthesis, energy conversion,  and macromolecules such as the porphyrins in hemoglobin and chlorophyll – intrigue me;  the rest of it, not so much.   I am definitely squeamish about the blood and guts part of it – give me my fire and clean glassware anyday.



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Fireworks - iStock_000000155954XSmall

© Christian Weber Photography (Zong-istockphoto.com)

     Late this afternoon, I received a phone call and was offered a job teaching middle school science at the urban high school where I did my student teaching last spring.    I really loved being at the school and am very excited about this position.   Finally, the goal that I have been pursuing for years is within my grasp.    I can’t wait to get started and that will happen Monday!

     Stay tuned.

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     So much about teaching is knowing just how far to go.  How far can students be pushed before they start to get discouraged?  How can learning be paced so that there is time to both wonder and meet goals – right, wrong, or indifferent?   So much of teaching is involved in knowing these limits that it often feels like an elaborate dance in which a teacher pushes (?) until the students are pushing back – but just enough.    I struggled with the proper verb for this action and decided that push was better than lead, and enable or encourage don’t imply pacing – I was left with push.

     This week, I have taught 7th grade Chemistry for 3.5 days in the same classroom.   It has been wonderful to be subbing in my content area and on consecutive days.   I’ve spent more time subbing for biology or math with occasional forays into art, business, and health/phys ed.    When you teach science to Middle School students especially in an area where you have a great deal of knowledge and experience, you also have to know when to stop.   Often I’ll get a question that could be answered at an advanced college level, however I know that doing so might cause heads to explode and a student to get the wrong answer on exams for years.   

     On Thursday, we were discussing matter and its properties which led to a discussion of matter being everything.   This led to questions about space, dark matter, and anti-matter but what stopped me cold was a student that asked about light.   Was light matter?    My brain leaped way ahead to wave-particle duality and then I stopped, thankfully before engaging my mouth, and said, “Light is a wave – it is not matter.  For now, we are going to leave it at that.”     Part of me feels a bit guilty but most of me knows that a discussion at that level might have bogged us down for the rest of the week, possibly longer, and probably would have ended with me telling them to “trust me”;   on the other hand, would it have engaged their curiosity?

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     I have been substitute teaching a lot – three different schools, many different subjects, a wide range of grades – 5/5 days last week.  It’s been interesting.  

     I have been in class rooms where there have been no plans and nothing to work with.  I have been been in others that were super-organized with rosters, seating charts, lesson plans including contingency plans if the students finish early.    One teacher requested that I do a great deal of collating and finished her instructions with “Please wash the windows before you leave” – seriously, I could find no indication that this was a joke.  I have taught in schools where I am not treated as a professional and in schools where I have been thanked and treated well.   I never know what will happen when the phone rings in the morning.   I’m learning to juggle and to dance while I’m doing it with a smile.

      The experience has been valuable for gaining perspective.   I like middle school students more than I expected.   I prefer more advanced Chemistry and science BUT middle school kids aren’t afraid to laugh at a joke or be amazed about something cool.  They do have more energy than they need for school – sometimes that leaks out in unacceptable ways – but they aren’t locked into a personality or affect.   If middle-school students don’t understand a teacher’s joke, they will work on it for a bit and laugh later;  high school students just decide that you’re obtuse in some way and they don’t care or aren’t interested enough to puzzle it out.   Interesting change in my perspective.   I have no control over what level I will end up teaching but I am more open to either level.

      I also gain perspective when teaching other subjects.    I am certified to teach Chemistry but was recently teaching Biology in which the textbook (and the students) asserted that there were four classes of “Organic Compounds” – proteins, nucleic acids, fats & lipids, or carbohydrates.   Uh – no;   in Chemistry, even on the NYS Regents Chemistry Reference Table, there are many more classes of organic compounds including aldehydes, ketones, ethers, carboxylic acids, phenolic compounds, etc.   I texted a friend who teaches Biology and he made the same assertion.   Another obstacle to my dream of an interdisciplinary curriculum.

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Nobel Controversy

Photocredit - niznoz from flickr.com (used with permission)

     No, I’m not writing about the recent controversy and subsequent media fanfare about the Nobel Peace Prize although I was pleased with the White House response that the President was “surprised and humbled” by the award – perfect pitch as usual.  I’m more interested in the discussion about this year’s Chemistry prize.  

     There was a bit of a skirmish – noted here on The Skeptical Chymist blog –  over whether the work rewarded was more Biology than Chemistry.  This year, three scientists are cited for using x-ray crystallography to prove the structure of ribosomes, an essential cell component where proteins are produced based on information encoded in DNA.     There is no prize for Biology;  Nobel Prizes are awarded for Physics, Chemistry, Economics, Literature, Medicine, and Peace.   In my mind, atomic structure is all Chemistry – even for really big molecules essential to biological functions.    My senior research project for my Chemistry degree involved bonding of oxygen and carbon monoxide at various stages of hemoglobin saturation;  another big molecule that is important in biology.

     I’m intrigued by changes in how scientific disciplines are distinguished.  In the 18th and 19th centuries, scientists were scientists and explored a broad range of natural phenomenon.  The 20th century saw the disciplines divided into specific fields – physics, chemistry, biology, geology, etc.;  school departments and teaching were similarly split and scientists dug deeper into each of those areas.   In the 21st century, the sciences are converging to reflect the reality that it’s one system.    

     When I teach Chemistry, I frequently use examples from Biology and Earth Science.     How else to make something as abstract as Chemistry real and relevant to students?   The sciences are interrelated and college catalogs now advertise majors such as biomedical engineering, biochemistry, geochemistry, biophysics, etc.    How long will it take until high school schools recognize this and change the curriculum to allow students to use the sciences together to solve problems in classes that are interdisciplinary?

      Now about the fact that only four women have won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry…

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     This weekend, I am reading this book in preparation for a conference that I will attend on Tuesday.  It’s not a new book – it was written more than 10 years ago –  but to me it is fascinating.   It chronicles a study in which videotapes from classrooms in the United States, Germany, and Japan were studied to determine how teaching was different in these countries.  The impetus for the study was the poor performance of students from the US on an international assessment of math and science – the TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study).

     The focus of the book is on math teaching and learning.   Apparently, both Japanese and German instruction is at a higher level than that in the US.   The Japanese instruction also includes a higher level of student problem solving including having students develop their own problems, work through their confusion, and a teacher role as mediator between the students and mathematics rather than controlling focus or imparting knowledge in the way seen in US and German classrooms, respectively.

     The fun for me is in thinking about applying the knowledge gained from this study to teaching Chemistry.  It isn’t so easy to provide chemicals to students and just say “Go ahead.  Investigate.   Make Mistakes.   It’s OK.”    Yikes!   However, my big takeaway is that the students need to get frustrated and try to figure things out for themselves.  There are lots of ways to do this that aren’t dangerous.   One concept that really stays with me is that Japanese teachers have a higher tolerance for student frustration and allow the students to work things out on their own, whereas teachers in the US tend to see confusion and frustration as evidence of bad teaching on their part and step in too quickly.

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     Recently, at a meeting designed to support new science teachers, we were asked to describe our high school experience.   A simple question:  “Where did you go to high school?”    People are asked this all the time and for most it is an easy question but not for me.   In five years, I went to four different schools in three different states.

     In 8th grade, I was in my last year at a parochial school that I attended since 2nd grade.   In 9th grade, I was in a segregated public school in a basically suburban town.   In 10th and 11th grade, my family lived in the projects in a medium sized city in New England while my dad finished grad school;  this school had a very diverse population and a big gang problem.   In 12th grade, I lived in a very small, rural town in upper Appalachia.   Diverse doesn’t even begin to describe it.

     The current emphasis in science teacher education seems to be all about “not teaching how you were taught.”     I really want to teach science as I was taught because at the largish, urban high school with a tracking system including seven levels, I had the most amazing science education that you could imagine.   I think the National Science Education Standards (NSES) (NRC, 1996), which emphasize inquiry, were based on the teaching of my Chemistry teacher, Miss Maguire, and my Physics teacher, Mr. Sterns.   Either they did hands-on, inquiry-based activities all the time or that is all that I remember and I’ve blocked out the worksheets.

     Mr. Sterns could build anything.    He had eight wave tables available for us to explore; all manner of ramps, pullies, and falling objects; when he taught momentum, he came in on a skateboard, writing on the board as he glided past.   Miss Maguire taught us about the chemistry of photographic film and Mr. Sterns extended it by having us expose film using a strobe while dropping a light and then develop and use it to determine the acceleration of gravity.   Miss Maguire also did a wide variety of labs with us including titrations and generation of hydrogen and oxygen from water in addition to the aforementioned candle observation lab.    I don’t remember either of them lecturing but I suppose that they might have.

     I really hope that I can teach half as well as I was taught!

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