Posts Tagged ‘Teaching Chemistry’


     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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     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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© HeikeKame – istockphoto.com

     This morning when I woke up, I lit a candle for Josh.    In the waning light of this evening, I will relight it.   He was a wonderful young man – too soon gone, a year ago today.   I am thinking of him and his family almost constantly today.

     Today was the first day of school in the urban district where I wanted to teach.    I haven’t completely given up hope but I suppose that will happen soon.  

      I will never forget my first day of High School Chemistry.   My family had moved and I was the new girl, in a new school, in a new town where I knew nobody.   The teacher had us light a candle and asked us to observe carefully.  She told us to write our observations into our notebooks.     Another shy girl (yes – there was a time) was sitting next to me and she agreed to be my lab partner.  We were excited that we got to use matches in school and started to write down observations.   I think we had twenty or so between us;   after all, it was just a candle.   Our homework was to read Appendix A in our brand new Chemistry textbook, which listed 303 individual, completely valid observations.   I was blown away!

      Is it any wonder that I majored in Chemistry?

      Last night, I lit two candles and thought of Josh and his twin brother who were born on September 1.   The chemistry-inspired stained glass from my friend Wayne, who I met through Josh’s mom, is in the background.  I couldn’t resist including this picture too.


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     One of our assignments this semester was to spend 5% of our effort for class doing something of our own choice.   I went to a STANYS (Science Teachers Association of New York State) workshop.

     I attended a presentation by a veteran Chemistry teacher from Greece, NY who uses microchemistry labs in her classroom.   I’m excited about this for many reasons;  the use of less chemicals reduces student exposure, environmental impact, and laboratory expenses.   I had been researching this idea in various journals but most of articles ended with “prepare your NMR tube for analysis” – obviously not for a high school chemistry lab.     This teacher had several lab activities done on acetate sheets in which the students observe precipitation, color changes, etc.   This is even simpler than using spot plates which are harder to clean.   She also handed out her worksheets on some of the core Regents Chemistry topics.

     I fortunate to sit with her at dinner where she outlined her student activity to introduce dimensional analysis.  This is an essential skill because units are manipulated constantly in Regents Chemistry but this topic can be dry and boring to teach.  She has the students use cash register tapes to develop their own unit using the classroom length or width as their primary unit.  They then measure other items based on their scale and report those in their lab report.  This also works as an icebreaker because the students have to split the primary unit into ten sections which requires a coordinated effort and agreement on how to accurately do that without a ruler.

     As another portion of the 5%, I’d like to mention a page attached to this blog titled “Links Worth Saving”.   This is a resource page with links to other blog posts – mostly inside my graduate school cohort, but with a few external references – that contain information that will be useful in my future practice.

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My Classroom and Chemistry
Photo credit - Laura Brophy

     These colors aren’t in rainbow order but they’re just as beautiful.  They are organized from lowest pH to highest pH (left to right) and were made using red cabbage juice indicator, vinegar, and ammonia on my classroom overhead.   It was one of my favorite demos – well right up there with the flaming metal halides that I did for my middle school students!

     It was a good week overall.   I worked with the special education co-teacher for an inclusion class to develop a lesson on the Chemistry of acid rain and its environmental impact – my city is at the epicenter of the most acidic rainfall in the country.  The co-teacher is a Social Studies teacher working in science classrooms so we merged our areas of expertise into learning about both the chemistry of acid rain and geopolitical issues that block efforts to improve the situation.   Monday, we will move onto exploring buffers and pH chemistry through a lab using “model lakes” to investigate the effect of lake bed composition on the relative effect of acid rain.

     One of the major priorities of my current and future practice is making sure students understand that chemistry is everywhere and everything.   Chemistry is not just on the wall of the classroom in the Periodic Table or in the classroom prep area in small bottles with neat labels – all the ingredients used in the above demonstration were bought at the grocery store.  It was a fun week!

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     I’m not feeling very innovative right now but I’m thinking a lot about color.  Tomorrow, I am starting a unit on acids and bases with a demonstration of indicators which should be very cool.   I’m supposed to be doing the final touches on making this unit innovative.    I’m stuck on some of the assessment pieces and the pacing of it.    I think I’ve been moving too fast without enough scaffolding and explicit instruction.

     Have I mentioned that my students didn’t do so well on their last test?   As far as they are concerned, having a student teacher is enough innovation.   If I do anything too unusual, the attendance numbers will probably take another steep nosedive which is why I’m also working on engagement and relevance.

     Two more weeks of student teaching and there is still so much to learn.   I know the learning takes years but I want to do a great job, right now, for these students.

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