Motivating My Teaching Through Asking Questions

Why do sparklers produce sparks?

How can we make a sparkler produce more sparks?

What is the purpose of the match?

Asking questions motivates inquiry – we are naturally curious when we cannot readily explain a phenomenon. We may know that something happens (e.g. that a sparkler produces sparks), but we may not understand why that happens on a deeper level. This kind of “not knowing” is naturally motivating, as there is power in learning something that was once a mystery to us. And that is how I intend to construct knowledge in my science classroom.

Asking Questions

Why ask questions at all? I don’t need to be the one to tell you that questions have different purposes. We ask questions when we don’t understand. We ask questions to elicit a response from others. We ask questions when we want to learn more. We even ask questions when we don’t believe others’ perspectives, opinions, or claims. But all questions stem from the same basic ideal – a desire to understand. To know.

Michael “Vsauce” Stevens puts together an amazing TEDx talk on Why do we ask questions. He is a master at framing interesting and engaging questions. At 3:20, he highlights the core of his video:

“The point is to bring people in with a great question, make them curious, and then once they’re there, accidentally teach them a whole bunch of things about the universe.”

A bit later on, he asks a question that many educators struggle with in their classrooms:

“How do I get people to care about these questions? Especially people who think that learning is boring?” (4:47)

Perhaps my favorite quotation comes from his description of the joys of teaching:

“to see the expression on someone’s face when they suddenly understand and are fascinated by something in the same way that you are is a phenomenal feeling. I’ve learned two things from this. First of all, people love a good explanation. They hunt them down. Even people who say they hate learning and hate books, and all that stuff, pfft, they love explanations. Second of all, if you look closely enough and you take the time, anything can be interesting to anyone because everything is related in some way to something they care about” (6:56).

Seriously, take the time to watch this video. I promise you it’ll be worth it.

What Kinds of Questions Should We Ask in a Science Classroom?

Science has an incredible amount of explanatory power. STEM fields in general do. As the STEM fields are led by observable phenomena, it is incredibly easy to find footholds in the physical world that students can grasp on to. Every time I reflect on this, I am reminded of the reason I fell in love with chemistry – physical and chemical properties offer immense explanatory power for the world around us. In finding and fostering connections between different phenomena guided by the basic physical and/or observable principles, we are better equipped to understand, observe, predict, explain, and question the world around us.

The amazing thing about the header to this section is: I can’t answer that question. There is no way I can claim something is a “good” or “bad” question. We can critique the form of questions (such as one-word answer questions vs. open-ended questions), but there is inherent value in every single question that someone might ask.

If you disagree with my latter point, I offer a charge. The next time a student, a friend, a parent, anyone asks you a question, ask yourself (or them, when appropriate) why. For what purpose? What are they trying to accomplish with their question? Stepping back to reflect on the questions we receive is a powerful experience – the role of “answerer” positions us as the keepers of knowledge, of action, of experience. Taking the time to think about the rationale behind others’ questions as well as taking the time to ask engaging, meaningful, and relatable questions of our students offers a powerfully motivating experience for them and for us.

An Added Bonus

As an added bonus from this week, my friend Emily and I attempted the steel wool fire wire reaction demo. It. Was. AWESOME! This brings me to an important caveat of asking questions – let students experience the answer for themselves. (Obviously we can’t accomplish that in a classroom with this demo, but when possible, give students the tools to find out for themselves.) People remember what they have accomplished from firsthand experience, not the secondhand explanations of the instructor.

(And, because I’m me, I had to overlay a completely relevant song over our video.)

*DISCLAIMER: DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME!

Ambitious Science Teaching: Creating a “Gotta Have” Checklist

For this post, my “Gotta Have” checklist is as follows:

  • How a “Gotta Have” checklist ties key concepts of a unit together.
  • The role of a student in constructing a “Gotta Have” checklist.
  • How a “Gotta Have” checklist can drive a unit (with example).

What is a “Gotta Have” Checklist?

A “Gotta Have” checklist is a tool that informs students what key ideas/concepts they believe are important in explaining a phenomenon. The concept of a checklist seems counterintuitive to the kinds of teaching and learning that the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) preaches – after all, the way we use checklists in our daily lives seems very prescriptive. To-do lists, agendas, shopping lists, all seem to inspire direct action and tick off boxes without much thought.

So how are “Gotta Have” checklists any different?

Well, first, these kinds of checklists involve much deeper thought than remembering to “buy milk at the grocery store”. “Gotta Have” checklists may start as these direct actions, but they should never end as these statements. Why might these checklists start as “direct action” in the first place? Mostly because they should be predominantly student directed. We as teachers should facilitate a discussion of the kinds of ideas/concepts that students should include in their explanations, which more often than not include observations and vocabulary that readily come to mind. Students’ ideas of “we should talk about energy” are a great place to start – but, as an example, simply including the word energy in their explanation does no good to explain how or why energy is important to the phenomenon in question. We must push our students to consider how the energy changes in a phenomenon or why energy is important to consider. In emphasizing these deeper level understandings, students can more readily use their ideas of energy rather than spit out a definition they memorized a few days ago.

I said before that “Gotta Have” checklists incorporate and connect ideas – predominantly the ones that are covered throughout the series of lessons in an educator’s unit. Ideas push for an understanding rather than memorization, which is the primary reason why I believe educators should emphasize this kind of thinking. While I dislike feeling “preachy”, it is essential for my professional identity as an educator to push my students toward critical thinking and analysis rather than passively accepting the information I share with them. Science is about critical thinking. Science is about analysis. When our lessons value these skills, we not only teach our students about the pillars of science, we teach our students how to do science.

Goal: Weaving ideas into a coherent story of science rather than as isolated facts is essential to the “Gotta Have” checklist. Writing our “gotta haves” as ideas (“how” statements) helps us to accomplish this goal.

How a “Gotta Have” checklist ties key concepts of a unit together? Check.

The role of a student in constructing a “Gotta Have” checklist? Check.

A “Gotta Have” Checklist for an Intro Unit on Chemical Changes

Again, “Gotta Have” checklists emphasize ideas that help us explain how and why phenomena occur, not simply that they do. This helps to drive a unit because it explains the phenomena in specific steps over the course of the unit. If a chemical reaction is the focal point of your unit, then showing students that phenomena and developing that vocabulary and those ideas over time emphasizes the story of the chemical reaction! Plus, this kind of thinking is inherently motivating for students, as it employs the knowledge to explain a greater event rather than simply knowing it.

An Example “Gotta Have” Checklist for steel wool fire wire (or, as I like to call it, a sparkler on steroids):

  • How the iron (Fe) and oxygen (O2) change their outer electron shells to form a new compound (Fe2O3).
  • How spreading the steel wool out and spinning the system affect the rate of reaction.
  • How sparks can tell us about the change in overall energy of the system from the reactants to the products.
  • How the reactants and products we use/form tell us something about the change in overall entropy (or “randomness”) of the system.

How a “Gotta Have” checklist can drive a unit (with example)? Check.

Extrapolating the Explanation

There are a few models I use to extract good explanations from my students. The two major ones I use indicate the same basic information at their core, but in different ways. Exposing students to both provides two models for powerful scientific explanations, and it helps them understand why the models incorporate the scaffolds they do – because scientific explanations value specific implementations of knowledge, supported by evidence, to make appropriate claims.

  1. The What-How-Why Model (Thompson et al., 2009) emphasizes explanations that define the phenomenon in terms of the “why”, as it gets at the point of a full causal story. However, I find value in making all three explicit to students, as it provides a scaffold for their explanations beyond simply stating “explain why”. First, students explain the what, or the specific action they wish to describe (i.e. the phenomenon). Second, students discuss how something happens, i.e. through addressing how that phenomenon is accomplished in terms of observable or measurable. E.g. An explanation for the second item in my “Gotta Have” checklist might look like this: The reaction rate increased (what). This happened because the steel wool was spread out, which gives it more contact with oxygen in the air (how). This action increases the surface area of the reactants, which allows for more particle collisions in a given amount of time; according to Kinetic Molecular Theory, this increases the chances that particles will hit each other with the correct orientation and amount of energy to create a chemical reaction (why).
  2. Claim-Evidence-Reasoning (NSTA) more explicitly emphasizes a three-step process toward explaining phenomena. A scientific claim is the ultimate point students are trying to make about the phenomenon. Evidence is the specific event (or events) that occur in the phenomenon that substantiate why students think the way they do. Reasoning is the explicit statement that highlights why the phenomenon occurs. E.g. An explanation for the second item in my “Gotta Have” checklist might look like this: Claim: Spinning the steel wool makes the reaction go faster. Evidence: The steel wool burned slowly when left on its own, but spinning it made the reaction spark more often and stronger. Reasoning: Spinning the steel wool increases the concentration of oxygen in the sample because it increases the amount of oxygen molecules that come into contact with the steel. According to Kinetic Molecular Theory, this increases the chances that particles will hit each other with the correct orientation and amount of energy to create a chemical reaction.

Additional Thoughts

Of course, there might be some additional topics you cover that you would like students to gain from your unit. In my case, I would also like my students to identify the type of reaction (a redox synthesis reaction) and balance the chemical reaction (4 Fe + 3 O2 –> 2 Fe2O3). However, not everything you discuss in your unit needs to make it into the “Gotta Have” checklist, especially if it tests memorization/vocabulary rather than a concept/idea.

For the sake of being explicit, I will say scientific vocabulary is important, of course – but not all memorized words have to make it into the checklist.

 

References

Thompson, J., Braaten, M., Windschitl, M., Sjoberg, B., Jones, M., & Martinez, K. (2009). Collaborative Inquiry into Students’ Evidence-based Explanations: How Groups of Science Teachers Can Improve Teaching and Learning. The Science Teacher, November, 48-52.

“A Teacher Shouldn’t Smile [In Their Classroom] Until Christmas”

“A teacher shouldn’t smile [in their classroom] until Christmas.”

I recently heard that quotation in a conversation with a teacher. This teacher was referencing a popular ideology in the world of education – that teachers should be strict at the beginning of the year so students do not “walk all over” their teachers. They claim that being strict sets boundaries, that a lack of emotion in the classroom conveys an air of anonymity that renders the teacher’s personality an enigma.

How I interpret this quotation

To me, this quotation says that teachers, especially new/pre-service teachers, should be strict at the beginning of their careers until they have successfully “managed” the behavior of their students. Starting off strict draws clear expectations for a “no-nonsense” kind of classroom. The problem with that, however, is that we (both our students and we teachers) are not “no-nonsense” kinds of people. (Well, personally, I am not. I love fooling around in my teaching placement.)

Teachers are fun, lively, and engaging. We value the personalities our students bring into the classroom, and our teacher personality is just as important. Showing only our strict side robs our students of who we are as people and who we can be as teachers.

Playing Devil’s Advocate

I think there is obvious value in modeling respectful, “timely serious” behaviors. For example, when students are working in groups, they are interacting directly with their peers; therefore, the dynamics of their interactions can and should be different than when they are listening to the teacher. When the teacher is speaking, as the person in charge, students should understand that their side conversations cease and their attention should be on the teacher.

Having a serious disposition demonstrates that you deserve respect. Teachers need a serious side that conveys to students when and under what conditions it is necessary for them to stop goofing around and listen to the teacher.

Ultimately…

We are not devoid of personality. That’s just the nature of our profession. Having a “teacher voice” that encapsulates a more serious attention is necessary, but it should not be our dominant personality. We must negotiate the line between when we want our students to be funny and lively (hopefully the majority of the time) and when our instruction necessitates our students to be quiet and put on their “listening ears”.

This video by Kyle Thain has some insightful points about the value in smiling, especially for our students’ and our own sanity:

Incorporating Scientific Misconceptions Through YouTube Videos

In Regents Chemistry, we are currently learning about the difference between heat versus temperature. (In case you need a refresher: heat is the total amount of energy in a system, whereas temperature is the average kinetic energy (or energy of particle motion) in a system.)

Why Address “Mis” Conceptions in Science At All?

Our students come into science class with varying degrees of background knowledge. Some students have thought about why the steam in their morning shower rises to the ceiling in their bathrooms. Some students can explain that dispersion in a warm liquid occurs faster than dispersion in a cold liquid because the particles have a higher kinetic energy (are moving faster) in the warmer liquid. Some students have never heard of the Kelvin unit of measuring temperature. And each of those amounts of prior knowledge is 100% okay!

Along with prior knowledge comes misconceptions, or knowledge that students believe to be true that are actually incorrect based on current scientific conventions. One misconception that I have encountered in this unit is the statement that “heat rises”. This statement is untrue; heat increases the motion of particles and makes them less dense. Less dense particles rise above particles that have a greater density – this explains why warmer air rises above cooler air. But to say that “heat” itself rises is incorrect.

Addressing these kinds of misconceptions helps students to gain a deeper understanding of content in uniquely engaging ways. Starting with students’ prior knowledge pulls them into the lesson, as their thoughts are guiding the class discussions (which can be an engaging and empowering experience for a student). Specifically in addressing a misconception, students lead the lesson discussion while students and we [teachers] deconstruct the misconception to correct any incomplete or misinformation it might contain.

If you are interested in learning about general misconceptions about temperature and heat flow, there are two videos posted below by the YouTube channel Veritasium.

When To Use These Videos in Science Classrooms

These videos serve an excellent resource for students to feel validated in their opinions, misconceptions, and prior knowledge. There is camaraderie in knowing that their misinformation is a widely dispersed way of thinking about these topics, and as novice scientists, this can provide a validating means of engagement for students to learn about how to correct their misconceptions. Plus, it’s good practice to show videos in class because it provides multimodal access into the lesson content beyond simply lecturing about heat and temperature.

Most importantly, however, is that videos should be used only when the science is TOO DANGEROUS or TOO COSTLY (time, resources, materials management, etc.) to feasibly have your students do as a class. Particularly in the case of the “Misconceptions About Temperature” video, the content of this video can be easily demonstrated and discussed in the classroom setting. An example procedure for this is as follows:

  1. Students feel the surface of their desks. They “feel” relatively room temperature.
  2. Students feel the metal of their chairs. They “feel” much colder.
  3. Have a discussion – which one do students think is colder? Tally responses for “chair is warmer”, “desk is warmer”, and “they are the same temperature”.
  4. Students take the temperature of the backs of “school chairs” (the ones with metal bars holding the chair together) as well as the surfaces of wooden desks. This can be accomplished using an infrared thermometer.
  5. Students compare their temperatures – they should be equal, if not relatively the same, from sitting in the same classroom temperature for a while.
  6. Have a discussion that addresses the misconceptions of students who thought the metal was colder – why did it feel colder? Have students provide possible explanations.
  7. The teacher should explain the difference between “heat” and “temperature” – metal is a conductor of heat, which means it absorbs heat from the body at a much faster rate than the desk. We perceive this faster rate of heat loss from our hands as a “colder surface” even though they are the same temperature.
  8. (Optional): Have students consider why they use a bath mat when they step out of the shower. Why do the tiles “feel” colder, even though they have been sitting in the same bathroom temperature as everything else (including the bath mat)?

Videos:

https://www.youtube.com/user/1veritasium

But Wait…There’s More!

The creator of this YouTube channel (Derek Muller) has some insightful points about the “how to”s of teaching science; if you are curious, check this video out!

The Wikipedia Wiki Game: A Model for NGSS Disciplinary Core Ideas

As a high school student, my friends would play a game known as the Wikipedia Wiki Game. This game came up in a conversation I had recently, and in the lenses I have adapted at the Warner School, I now view this game in a completely different light. If unpacked, this game represents the fundamentals of the Disciplinary Core Ideas that the Next Generation Science Standards identifies in their three main theoretical frameworks for science learning.

What is the Wikipedia Wiki Game?

This game challenges players to get from an initial Wikipedia page, called the “Start Article”, to the same final page, known as the “Win Article”. The charge is different for different types of games; for example, the challenge is often to complete this investigation in “the fewest amount of clicks” or “the shortest amount of time”.

Pictured to the right is an example of the challenge. In this image, the challenge is to get from the Wikipedia page on the “Giant Panda” to the Wikipedia page on “Thailand” in the fewest amount of clicks. Players must click on the hyperlinks embedded in the Wikipedia page to get from the Start Article to the Win Article. In this example, players must start with the article on the Giant Panda and, through clicking on the linked pages, must ultimately arrive at the Thailand Wikipedia page, aka the Win Article.

I completed this challenge by starting on the Giant Panda page, then clicking on the hyperlink embedded in the national symbol text, then to the list of national symbols, then to the list of national flags, and finally clicking on the hyperlink under the flag of Thailand.

How Does The Wiki Game Connect to NGSS?

Playing games that invite students to draw connections between ideas is important because it highlights the interconnectedness of knowledge. It demonstrates that there are central themes, “core ideas”, that serve as the fundamentals on which more specific ideas build their foundation.

In terms of the Wiki Game, players benefit from “zooming out” in terms of the specificity of the articles they select. This is because, in zooming out the scope of one’s ideas, players find less specific, “umbrella” ideas that can relate the start and win articles. For example, I chose to select “national symbol” from the giant panda page because it provided a more encompassing concept/idea of both the start and win articles (as the giant panda is an internationally recognized national symbol of China, and Thailand is itself a nation).

In NGSS, a similar idea takes effect. DCIs, also known as disciplinary core ideas, are defined as “the key ideas in science that have broad importance within or across multiple science or engineering disciplines. These core ideas build on each other as students progress through grade levels” (NGSS, 2017). According to this framework, science educators should emphasize these central themes of science explicitly to students – this will help students draw connections between prior knowledge and incoming knowledge through the practices of assimilation (new ideas into existing schemes) as well as accommodation (revamping schemes to incorporate incoming information). These practices elicit constructivist pedagogy in ways that bolster student-centered learning, as students are the ones charged with drawing out the connections between individual lessons through utilizing these core ideas.

Why Might We Play The Wiki Game in a Classroom?

The Wiki Game offers a direct model for NGSS core ideas through drawing the “arrows”, the connections, between seemingly unrelated ideas/concepts.

In explicitly discussing the process that students use to reach the win article, they state things like, “It helps to pick a broad topic” or “I started by clicking a link that both pages had in common”. This gets students talking about drawing connections between specific ideas through common ground (i.e. core themes) between the two. In exploring these connections, students utilize broad connections between concepts as a problem-solving technique that allows them to piece together a “puzzle” of how seemingly unrelated concepts can (and do) connect to each other.

Once establishing these connections as an effective problem-solving practice, educators can highlight that the same should be done for disciplinary content areas. In drawing links between electrons and redox reactions, for example, I would cite PS1 (Matter and Its Interactions) as a disciplinary core idea that relates the two. In explaining redox reactions, students must first understand that electrons are subatomic particles that can rearrange to create ions from atoms. In highlighting this connection, students understand that electrons are the cause for a redox reaction, rather than having the concept of “electrons as subatomic particles” and “redox reactions as a different type of chemical reaction” as two isolated facts. This type of education bolsters learning for understanding rather than learning for memorization, which is ultimately what the NGSS standards strive to achieve.

Putting the Wiki Game Into Practice

Try it out for yourself! Start with the Wikipedia page on the Four-leaf clover. Your challenge is to arrive at the Wikipedia page on Bob Marley. (I got there in 2 clicks – can you?)

As you play, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What are common themes between the clover and the singer?
  • How can I elicit those themes through clicking on embedded links?
  • Why might I click on one embedded link over another? What purpose does it serve?

The Value in “Flopping”: Day 1 Jitters, Stumbles, and Learning on the Spot!

Picture this: You’re standing in front of your class. It’s the first time you’re teaching as a student teacher in a real classroom. Students are somewhat paying attention, but they are distracted by other classmates. You’re trying to refocus them on the lesson, but you don’t want to yell at them. You’re getting frustrated, but you don’t want your first day to involve snapping at students. What do you do?

From Rush Henrietta Senior High School, it’s Mr. Kostka reporting this week for GR!S. I wanted to report about the demos upon demos my student teacher has let me conduct in class. I wanted to talk about how brilliant (and fun, of course) my cooperating teacher, Chris Young, is at teaching. I wanted to talk about how much I love the culture of the school at which I have started teaching. And I’m sure I will. But I will never again have the opportunity to talk about something as formative and important as what I experienced this week:

A student teacher’s first day “on the job”.

Within the next few weeks, GR!S is implementing a mini-unit, a series of three to five lessons, embedded within one of the units at our student teaching placements. We’ll be in charge. At the helm. Steering the boat.

These classrooms will be “ours” for the duration of this series of lessons.

We are, in essence, being thrown into the deep end wearing floaties; we are “jumping” right in to the culture, politics, and classroom environment, but we still have the necessary supports in place to ensure we don’t drown. That’s the core of student teaching – showing future teachers how to ditch the floaties and swim on our own!

Chris, my student teacher, has been instrumental in making sure I learn to swim. I taught my very first lesson on Friday, and I will be the first to admit that my first time teaching was a bit of a “belly flop”. I wasn’t confident in myself, I didn’t know how to address class “clowns” that were off task, and I stumbled over my words despite my immense content preparation.

Here are a few of the “Chris”isms that helped me to get over my lack of assurance in myself:

  • Take a deep breath before approaching students who are clowning around. It can be nerve-racking to be a new student teacher; students treat you like the “substitute teacher”. This can be incredibly frustrating; taking a deep breath before engaging with students to get them back on task is immensely helpful so you don’t lose your cool.
  • Asking “why?” without enough information can be intimidating. As science educators, we strive to get our students thinking beyond the scope of the classroom. However, without a solid foundation of the content, we cannot expect our students to think abstractly about the subject material. They can’t think about how potential energy changes as atoms separate if they don’t understand what potential energy is more generally. Providing access into the content before asking these kinds of questions builds the foundational knowledge students need to develop the inquiry practices we strive to include in our lessons.
  • Walking through examples empowers students to solve other problems. Modeling how to solve problems helps build confidence. I have been struggling with this; I have wanted students to understand content and develop the problem-solving strategies themselves. However, without proper modeling of how to solve problems, students can often feel confused. Giving examples and talking through how to solve problems (while inviting student input) develops the sense of empowerment to bridge those strategies into other contexts.
  • It’s okay to give orders! Don’t be afraid to be firm with students. While yelling is not always a good idea, it is important to remain firm with students so they know they have to respect you, especially when you ask them to do something.
  • Find specific opportunities to connect with students. Of course, it is important to develop rapport with students. However, we must find the correct times and places to do this. Talking with students during individual work time can model that off-task conversations are okay, which is the opposite message we want to send. Perfectly on-task engagement is not always necessary; however, we must be cognizant that even unintentional actions can model behaviors for our students, whether that message is positively or negatively in our favor.

Of course, as time progresses, teachers feel more comfortable in the classroom environment. It has been stated colloquially that teachers only feel confident in their teaching abilities after spending 5 years in the field. As student teachers (and as teachers), it is important to be transparent that we are not going to teach perfectly from the start, or even during our third time teaching the exact same lesson the exact same day. As long as we are eager to learn more, to try new things, and to persist with a positive attitude, there is little we cannot accomplish.

The Pre-Service Sponge: Soaking Up Teaching Practices from Multiple Classrooms

Pre-service teachers are sponges. We live, breathe, eat, sleep, and do learning. Teaching is hard-wired into us as a core aspect of our identity. Metacognition is second-nature. We are reflective. We are critical. We are eager to know more about the profession and the world around us.

Learning is in our blood.

As pre-service teachers, we soak up every learning opportunity we can. Rarely again do we have a time in our lives where we have such a plethora of connections. Guided by our CTs, we can ask to observe a multitude of teachers within our school placement to absorb everything we can about teaching styles, teacher voice, classroom management, and demo ideas (this is obviously the most important)! I know I have, and I would like to share how valuable of an experience this was for me.

I am currently placed at Rush Henrietta Senior High school in three Regents chemistry classes as well as one Forensics class. At the high school alone, aside from the classes I directly observe from my CT, I have observed three other science teachers at the school; sat in on a 1:1 with my CT and the assistant principal about his upcoming planned observation; contributed to a shared planning meeting with the principal, assistant principal, teacher representatives from every department within the school, and two representatives from student government; and engaged in an after-school PD where we learned about the ISTE standards as they relate to STEAM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics).

As a preservice teacher, the importance of connections, passion for the discipline (and teaching), and a good first-impression cannot be overstated. My CT pushed me from the start to take opportunities that present themselves to me, and when they do, I have not yet hesitated. I got to ask the assistant principal to do an observation of me during my placement face-to-face. I asked teachers to come observe my teaching to give me pointers and feedback on how to improve. I have saved countless other teachers’ resources on a 32GB flash drive that cost me $5 at Wal-Mart, as well as will be receiving a binder full of chem demos from yet another teacher. I got to visit Burger Middle School for half a day to observe 3 teachers and received a tour of the entire school. I met old students of my CT. I met myriad teachers. I made new friends. I was smiling, laughing, and shaking hands all day long. I felt home.

I could go on for several thousands of words about how amazing, effortful, passionate, dedicated, and motivated my CT and I are about what we do; however, I choose not to. Words are sometimes more effective when stated succinctly. In that regard, I leave you with one charge, one observation, one experience that can lead to multiple propped-open doors:

Never let an opportunity pass. As a student-teacher, you will be thankful for any and every experience to improve. Ask difficult questions. Offer to make stock solutions. Jump at the opportunity to observe other teachers. Speak passionately to administrators about the culture of learning they’ve established at their schools.

Who knows where a conversation or an opportunity will lead? The essential aspect to remember:

You’ll never know unless you take it.

Teacher Technology Resources: Maintaining a 21st Century Classroom

Recently at my student teaching placement at Rush Henrietta Senior High School, a teacher shared some of these resources with me. This prompted me to not only emphatically thank her for the resources, but through my investigations, I found these resources to be immensely helpful for myself as a starting teacher! These links are not only useful tools for teachers to use, but they also open myriad other doors for educators to foster more organized, inclusive, and engaging classrooms.

I hope you find these resources as useful as I have!

EDpuzzle

EDpuzzle is an amazing site that provides teachers a service to access videos and attach comprehension quizzes to them! The site links directly to a Google Classroom for compatibility’s sake.

The linked toolbar image highlights the resources to which this site is linked. Teachers need simply click one of the resources and they can edit the video however they see fit! Teachers can crop a video to shorten the overall time, record their own audio over a video if they dislike what is said in the video, and add comprehension questions at any point during the video to ensure students are actively paying attention.

Since the site links directly to a Google Classroom, grades are stored and can be accessed as the teacher sees fit!

4teachers.org

4teachers.org is a site that offers professional development, online educational game, and video channel resources for teachers. The site is packed with resources for teachers looking to incorporate more technology into their classrooms for purposes of multimodality and inclusivity. The site prides itself on hosting a series of tools geared toward bridging classrooms into modern literacies (e.g. technology).

The primary benefit I see in this site, beyond the organizational and grade-tracker tools, is the diversity of resources the site offers to make school a more inclusive place for all students. The site provides many of its resources in Spanish as well as in English. In addition, the site offers many resources that standardize cooperative group work as well as provides developmentally appropriate tasks that promote skill development in the traditional 3Rs of education.

RubiStar

RubiStar is a site that enables teachers to create their own professional-looking rubrics instead of spending countless hours formatting tables in word processing software to make them look nice. Teachers can create their own text for each category AND there are some categories pre-loaded in the site that you can use for your own rubrics! The image above includes a pre-loaded sample rubric for “Science – Lab Report – Drawings/Diagrams”.

Beyond its utility for teachers, it also serves a useful resources to collaboratively develop professional-looking rubrics WITH STUDENTS! After co-constructing a rubric, you can easily save and print it and have your collaborative rubric look just as fancy as one you would make yourself (if not better)!

Equity

One of my favorite resources that I discovered is the Equity tool in the 4teachers site. This site immediately links you to a breadth of resources in providing more equitable teaching practices within the categories of: Assessment, Assistive Technology, Disabilities, Gender, Grants, Legal Issues, Multicultural, Special Needs*, and Wexford. Within each tab are a range of categories relating to the overarching theme as well as RubiStar, TrackStar, and Web resources.

*I utilize an asterisk here because I disagree with the label of “Special Needs”, especially considering its use in the United States within social insult discourse. In recognizing the power of words and labels, I believe a more appropriate label for this tab would be “Accommodations”.

 

I encourage you to explore these resources and see how you might be able to use them in your future classrooms! I couldn’t have been more grateful for this teacher to show them to me, and I hope to pay that favor forward to all of you!

Popular Science and Our Students: Teaching Antioxidants in a Chemistry Classroom

Antioxidants. Why many superfoods are considered “super”. They’re great…right?

Side Note: The inspiration for this post cam from a podcast I started following called Science VS. The specific podcast is entitled “Chocolate, Coffee and Wine”; I have linked it below for anyone who is interested.

Chocolate, Coffee and Wine

The science of antioxidants

Retrieved from: http://www.studyvilla.com/redox.aspx

Antioxidants are molecules that protect against the oxidation of other molecules. Oxidation, which is the process by which atoms or molecules lose electron(s) to other chemicals, occurs when a reducing agent (the thing being oxidized/that “does the reducing”) donates its electrons to an oxidizing agent (the thing being reduced/that “does the oxidizing”). If you are interested in learning more about redox reactions, please watch this video made by CrashCourse on YouTube!

Retrieved from: http://haleo.co.uk/the-body/antioxidants/

Antioxidants function by preventing this donation of electrons. How do they do this? Antioxidants have a surplus of electrons that they can donate to free radicals. No, these ‘radicals’ don’t chant about political revolutionsFree radicals are extremely unstable molecules that have lone/unpaired electrons. These radicals can steal electrons from regular molecules in the body, causing unnecessary and harmful oxidation of our cells that result in cell death.

Where do these free radical invaders come from, and what do they do? In the laboratory world, radicals are often intermediates of chemical synthetic reactions. They serve as the reactive species that activates an important step in a pathway toward a desired product. In the biology world, some of these harmful free radicals come from alcohol as well as from cigarette smoke. Free radicals in the liver come from the metabolism (breakdown) of alcohol and are thought to be the primary factor in alcohol-related liver damage. Free radicals from cigarette smoke are linked with severe lung damage and are thought to, in part, initiate cancer-inducing reactions.

Are all free radicals bad? Absolutely not! Just because words like “liver damage” and “cancer” are thrown around doesn’t mean these radicals are all bad! In fact, free radicals are the reason our white blood cell macrophages can attack and destroy dangerous bacteria and cancerous cells (oh, the irony)! In addition, without radicals, certain cells wouldn’t be able to use redox reactions to signal to each other. While radicals can wreak havoc on our bodies, they also help us to stay alive.

Wait…What do antioxidants have to do with free radicals again? In summary: antioxidants are reducing agents that help to prevent free radicals from stealing electrons from our cells. Vitamin A, Vitamin C, and Vitamin E are all examples of antioxidants that perform this function. This sounds amazing, right? These vitamins are like the Batman of our bodies, swooping in and stopping baddies from stealing electrons from our body’s cells!

Well…While that may be how antioxidants work, they’re not as amazing as we might think.

Not just about chemistry and biology…

The structure of Resveratrol.

As evidenced in the Science VS podcast, myriad articles publish contradictory evidence supporting the health benefits of antioxidants and the foods from which they are derived. Coffee, chocolate, and wine all contain these super molecules, but research in support of the extent of their immense benefits is leery at best. In one extreme example, the findings from a scientific study at the University of Alberta in Canada were distorted by the media to state, “one glass of red wine [is] equivalent to one hour at the gym“. The researchers never stated that red wine was used in the study, nor did their findings state anything beyond speculation that the compound Resveratrol (which happens to be found in red wine) could improve the benefits that exercise can provide to patients with heart conditions. Resveratrol is thought to act similarly to antioxidants, which has created the media’s hype over this class of chemical compounds. The scientists involved in the study provided their University-issued statement in response to the media’s coverage in an attempt to dismantle the belief that red wine could replace exercise.

This entire situation provides strong evidence for the need to teach critical analysis and the importance of peer review in science! Often, the media gets swept up in bright, shiny, and new scientific evidence and feels the need to paint it in the most interesting and engaging ways to the public. Unfortunately, this brand of “popular science” means compromising the integrity and the evidentiary-supported claims the scientific study makes. You’ve heard me say it, I’ll say it again, and I will continue to say it: we need to teach the nature of science in our classrooms!

Teaching antioxidants in a chemistry classroom

Antioxidants are not only packed with nutritional benefits, but they’re also packed with the nutriments our chemistry students need to succeed – namely, redox reactions and organic chemistry. These are topics that students are expected to learn from a high-school chemistry class and to demonstrate their understanding of on state-wide examinations. This begs a question that has been burning within me from the start of this program:

Why not frame our lessons, our units, and our examinations (classroom and standardized) around contexts that students have heard of and/or that matter to students?

The NYS Regents Exams are full of questions about redox reactions and organic chemistry. The only problem: the questions are all boring! The chemistry of life is so much more interesting than the level to which examinations often distill the chemistry discipline. I understand why NYS has “standards”: creating a standard by which we can evaluate and compare students’ performance gives us insight into how students, teachers, administrators, districts, etc. are “performing”. But that still leaves me with the following burning question:

Why can’t (or, more appropriately, why DON’T) the “standards” of education involve these heavily-contextualized problems that students can investigate and apply to their own lives?

A final comment

Interestingly enough, a quick Google search of “what causes alcohol-induced liver damage” generates articles that mention nothing about free radicals. I feel this is part of the problem – individuals in our society feel the specific chemical information that explains the world around them is simply outside of their comprehension. But it isn’t! I hope my explanation of oxidation, free radicals, and antioxidants has evidenced that fact. If we are to create community-engaged scientific practices to dismantle the divide between “scientists” and “society”, we cannot afford to leave anyone out of the Discourse of science. Hopefully, in educating the next generation of scientists in my classroom, I can address this issue head-on.

Additional Resources

I have linked some resource pages throughout this article, as well as some resources below that I feel are appropriate to include. They are listed in order of the ease with which I believe they could be implemented into the classroom.

Disclaimer: While I am not suggesting that Wikipedia serves an appropriate source for information in the science classroom, it is nonetheless an excellent resource to gather initial information as well as to provide further articles that students can use to substantiate their claims.

Language Matters! Clarifying (Mis)Conceptions in Science Classrooms and Beyond

Words have power.

Plain and simple. Words color our perceptions of the world. What we say, how we say it, when we say it, how we mean it – these matter!

We have a name for this. Linguistic relativism (aka the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis) discusses how the words we use can actually change the way we look at the world around us. In one of myriad instances, Mayim Bialik addresses the social connection of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis in her discussion of calling women “girls”. Please watch the video below before you continue to read.

Whether you agree or disagree with Bialik’s assertions, she hits upon this point directly – that words fundamentally change how we view the world.

The social implications of linguistic relativism

Notice how Bialik starts the video with the words, “I’m gonna be annoying right now.” We have a tendency in our society to trivialize social issues, such as through the use of dialogue that writes this kind of discussion off as “nitpicky”, rather than something that requires careful, critical analysis and discussion. This trivialization happens particularly often on behalf of those who are privileged, i.e. the people who benefit from the current sociopolitical state of the society.

Consider the point she brings up; that when we call women “girls”, we support the notion that women are inferior to men, that women are like children. While this assertion is obviously offensive and incorrect, Bialik argues that utilizing this discourse bolsters this association.

Naturally, discussions over the importance of such an issue are rampant as well as others’ general perceptions of Bialik’s argument. (Just read the YouTube comments to see for yourself.) This dissent ranges from people commenting that “men are often called boys” to “girl is the female equivalent of guy” to “this issue doesn’t even matter”.

Of course, I have my own opinions on this issue: that calling women “girls” contributes to a system of power that positions men as more powerful than women. Of course, I could dissect every argument involved in this issue. I could state that using the term “boy”, while emasculating in certain cases, lacks the capacity to marginalize men in the same ways that the term “girl” does to women. I could state that terms such as “gal” exist as the opposite of “guy” but are largely unused. I could state that linguistic determinism invalidates the argument that the issue doesn’t matter at all. I could even state that Bialik’s argument does not elaborate on alternate cultural uses and implications of the words “boy” and “girl”; as one example, in the cases of people who identify outside the reinforced gender binary.

Despite all of this, at the end of the day, I am not a woman in Bialik’s shoes! I will never know how it feels to experience the world from Bialik’s biological, social, and cultural perspective. But that doesn’t mean I am excluded from this conversation; my voice, all our voices, matter if we are to fight against systemic issues that denigrate women.

How does linguistic relativism play out in the science classroom?

Of course, as a future science educator, I have to relate linguistic relativism back to the science classroom. While these social issues bleed into our classrooms as well, the issue of linguistic relativism holds particular relevance in the culture of science.

Schwartz (2007) discusses this issue in-depth in her paper “What’s in a Word? How Word Choice Can Develop (Mis) conceptions about the Nature of Science”. When students use words such as “prove” and “truth“, they think of science as stagnant, as something that has an absolute “answer”, rather than as a discipline that is constantly evolving and adapting as new information and technologies diversify the field. In thinking that every new discovery is an absolute “truth” to the discipline, the mindset eliminates students’ participation in science as something upon which they can contribute and construct knowledge.

How do you feel about the debate of “woman” vs. “girl”? About “proof” vs. “evidence” in the science classroom? Is there another set of words, whether scientific or otherwise, with which you find similar issue(s)? Please feel free to comment on this post!

My charge for you: Point out words in everyday conversation that contribute to false beliefs and/or stigmatization, whether that be from your own or another’s perspective. We must be proactive about combating (mis)conceptions about science, about women, about humanity.

Nothing will change if we don’t act to change it.

 

References/Resources

Schwartz, R. (2007). What’s in a Word? How Word Choice Can Develop (Mis) conceptions about the Nature of Science. Science Scope, 31(2), 42-47.

Teaching Tolerance: tolerance.org