Adventure in Getting Organized!

Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.

– John Dewey

It was the night before my second week and I rolled over in bed, semi-peacefully dreaming about the strange place my life is driving through at the moment, when the searing pain began. Five excruciating days later, there is still no news on what exactly is wrong with my shoulder, and my pain management is not the topic of this week’s reflection. I don’t think you want to know about how I can’t put on my own socks without the help of my chiropractor or five year-old niece, sit comfortably, or feel my left fingers. I’m not adding anything to your life by telling you that sleeping on the floor appears to be my only solace. It does add, however, a crucial ingredient as to why this week was so terribly challenging, and how necessary it was to get organized and get ahead. If nothing else for my own well-being.

Shoulder and all, I got organized and caught up. I invented new grading/attendance systems to cut my admin time in half, introduced a mascot for student motivation, interwove upcoming content and literacy strategies in order to start differentiation next week, completed my first Back to School Night with parents, and delegated the many tasks of my classroom to my students who were all too ready to help given my obvious disability. Challenging kids and all, I really have a great group of students.

Resources in order of this SPECTRUM Acrostic

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Atoms. Well, atoms and elements. The basics, right? Ugh. It’s pretty easy to work with students to get them to understand how elements turn into molecules, but I’m disturbed by the notion of explaining the difference between atoms and elements to a sixth grader without getting into pure substances. Through pre- and post-tests, I’m happy to report that they at least get the whole sub-atomic particle vocabulary thing, but judging from the difficulties I had in my own college chemistry career, I’ll never be convinced that they actually get it. Plus there is the fear in the wee hours of the night (whilst on the floor) that I’m inadvertently spreading some strange science misconception if I’m using the word “bond” too soon or “atomic weight” too late in instruction. At least they now know that everything is made of stuff. Check.

My head may be in chemistry, but I want to keep reminding these 12-year olds that science is everything – ecology, wildlife, space, etc. Every day I show live-cams (I fell in love with these) as students are walking in or during quiet periods. To encourage students to start on time after lunch, I started a Wildlife Film Club, inspired from my time as an Education Coordinator for the International Wildlife Film Festival and these awesome video links through Life on Terra.

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The pedagog in me is disgruntled – I want them to experience the phenomenon before truly define it, through the concept of experiential vocabulary. But it’s a bit hard to experience a neutron without shoving it down their throats through vocabulary discussions. They can’t see atoms even if you come at it from multiple angles – models, simulations, reading passages, labeled sketches, videos, and word walls. I now understand that, through daily practice and warm-ups, understanding new terms is through practice. It helps to connect them to their everyday life (like breathing air) as well.

Also, I’ve now seen with my own eyes the importance of using curriculum materials that keep the same voice throughout a unit. Elements were or were not defined by their atom constituents and atoms were often left out of the whole equation from one handout to another (yet still on the quizzes). One SIXTH GRADE quiz had a whole side dedicated to ionic bonding, chemical formulas, and electron dot structures – all obviously omitted in my early-September classes. As a curriculum developer, I’m particularly keen on the notion of cohesion (pardon the pun) in science instruction. The definitions of terms must be consistent from one activity/sheet to the next and scaffold in their complexity over time. I cannot say I’ve observed this in the materials we are using so far, let alone a completely haphazard appearance of most sheets’ inconsistent numbering, labeling, and other instructions. The curriculum developer in me is restless to fix it, and I had to turn this part off in order to get through the week.

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I tried all week to get to this, and we built cup towers at Back to School Night but that hardly counts. I’m committed to showing some solar system videos through NASA this week to emphasize the presence of hydrogen, etc., in the Universe and at least create a tie-in using satellite technology in engineering.

I did share a story with them about how, in order to create 3D models of atoms and molecules, we needed to design them in 2D using a concept of scale. A diagram of an atom is a representation of its size and sheer amount of empty space, but its limitation does not show that scale (we just draw perfect concentric circles, poor kids). To try to emphasize this concept, I shared a story about how my brother, a video game designer, worked with programmers to create a scene where a ship was sitting on top of a building. Everyone needed to adjust the scale of the ship and the building, the building and the ship, to make the scene believable. Otherwise, the ship was wayyyy too large to sit on top of the building. Of course, students recognized the game as soon as I mentioned it (one student in particular nearly freaked out when I named the ship, giving the name of the game away). I tried to model the 2D sketching activity with a list of criteria, and this is my lame explanation of what I did to highlight engineering this week.

Screen Shot 2016-09-04 at 10.13.45 PMI promised I would work on cooperative learning strategies and I did, but not in terms of students learning content. Instead, they learned the roles of lab-safety skills through my new Experiment Squad format (available in a free download below). Borrowing from a recent movie and the actual roles used in the Oil and Gas industry, I created roles and responsibilities for the Hazard Communications Specialist, Logistics Support, Recording Secretary and Maintenance. Since my shoulder did not allow me to set up a simple water lab for each group, I did a group demo and students practiced their roles. I must say I was a bit impressed with that solution.

Now that they get “Squads,” I will create more squad formations for the content-based projects. Next week, I start off with finally using 3D models of molecules before going into density, and again the shoulder will not allow me to set up 45 setups (9 groups, 5 classes). The Design Squads will be broken up into station attendants so as students go through each model station, they each have an organizational AND content role.

img_1878Here’s a picture of the student admin area of my classroom. Necessity creates invention. Did you know that long term subs are not paid for 8 hours a day? Only 7. Opinions aside, I found that surprising, since long term subs are expected to maintain ALL responsibilities of a regular teacher, including morning breakfast duty and professional day meetings. To get around this, I am putting all of my effort into streamlining the work to make my life more efficient. I’m a wee bit proud of setting up my new grading systems to save time and am going to try to delegate all student interface to the students themselves. If they need something (make up work, graded papers, tissues, etc.), they can go here to get it.

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One huge success was that most of my students literally discovered the difference between an atom and a molecule on their own. Because of a misunderstanding. Using a handout to build molecules based on simulations on the board, the students first created labeled diagrams of atoms like hydrogen. The handout was titled “molecules,” not atoms, and I lost sleep (on the floor) worried they would not understand the difference. By the way, the Herculean effort of diagraming an atom (two circles, a nucleus, a proton, neutron, and an electron – all circles) was faced with considerable complaining. I’d forgotten how kids complain… moving on. Once their hydrogen atom was complete, we then started a hydrogen molecule. Immediately, I was assaulted with whines, “We already did that!!!” Ding, ding, ding… “You created a hydrogen atom. Not a hydrogen molecule. What’s the difference?” Hands shoooooooting up in the air… OK, show me.

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Using the same pre- and post- Brainpop quiz, I quizzed them on subatomic vocabulary on Tuesday and again on Friday. I’ve only known these people for eight days. It was fascinating to measure their early-learning process based on what I taught and how I taught it over four days. It was also illuminating to see which ones got it, which ones did not. One of my most talkative students got a perfect score on Friday (up from nearly zero). One of my most attentive students hardly improved, a simple cue for me to spend more time with him/her. To appease the pedagog in me, I’m going to allow every student who missed terms to write complete sentences using the terms and a colorful reference, and then return to me for “full credit.” Maybe they just need more practice. Pre- and post- is the way to go.

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OK, here goes. I hate the seating charts idea. My lab tables create groups of four people facing each other and others throughout the room. I thought it would solve upcoming issues, and it did. But it created other problems, too. Like the time involved with deciding where students go. In a school culture where equitable treatment is emphasized through random selection of names to answer questions in the classroom (we use numbered popsicle sticks) and other management policies, I thought I was creating a solution to be equitable for the whole class. I feel like it unilaterally did the opposite, and students hate walking in because they knew they will be seated differently than before. Undo. Trying to not beat myself up over it, because I’ve just met these people and we are all in this together. I need a different approach, but I don’t think they are ready to have that individual choice, yet. Obviously, I haven’t given them the opportunity to show me they can handle it. Maybe I could focus on creating the groups first and then seating will naturally follow…

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Thank goodness for simulators!!! How did anyone ever teach without them! We used this phet for atoms and this one for molecules. In this case, I’m sorry to see Flash go away because these are still very helpful, but fortunately my technology is archaic and still works for full class demos using my promethean board. Also, I owe Bill Nye cookies or flowers. I’ve never been a big fan, but he came to my rescue with this video on the whole big picture of sixth grade chemistry.

img_1863Oh. Meet Francis, our new mascot. I explained that I wanted to document our adventures together, but teachers don’t typically take pictures of students, so I needed a mascot to build a media project on the side. Halloween seemed like a good goal, and I’ll keep building Francis’ story. They fell for it hook line and sinker, even volunteered to help build my “media project.”

Free Download & Thanks

Here is the basic flyer for the Equipment Squad. Let me know what you think! I would love to add some cool comic bubbles and fonts, I should get on that, ha!

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