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AP Chem Reflections

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After my first year of teaching, I’ve been pretty good at letting school go during the summer unless I’m at a workshop. This summer that was not the case. Last year was my sixth year of teaching AP Chem and my first year of teaching it at my current school. I teach at a good old-fashioned public high school in a fairly rural area of VA, and for most (if not all) of my students, taking AP Chemistry is a huge jump for them. They are interested in pursuing careers in science-related fields, including medicine, pharmacy, physical therapy, and engineering. They enjoyed their first chemistry class and wanted to be better prepared for college.┬áIt was the largest group I’ve taught in AP (19) and by far my most challenging. I tried a variety of strategies throughout the year, but I never found the right mix of techniques with this group. The students who took the AP exam did fine, and their results on the test were above average on the multiple choice and all free response questions. However, my students have the option to earn dual enrollment credit, so only a small percentage actually took the exam.

This summer, I spent a lot of time reflecting on what went well, what didn’t, and what I wanted to change. I kept in mind what my goals are for this class. I want my students to learn chemistry, to not completely despise it when the course is over, to develop/enhance study and problem-solving skills, and to be prepared for collegiate studies. With this in mind, here are a few of my thoughts.

1. I want to involve students more in problem solving – I plan to have students more actively involved in discussing homework problems this year through desk whiteboarding, SMARTboarding, or class whiteboarding. I also want them to take the lead in going through free-response questions.

2. I know there will be times when I have to provide direct instruction (i.e. lecture), but I want to minimize this as much as possible. I want my students actively engaged, and at my school, lecture turns them off very quickly. One of my goals for this year is to minimize my ramblings to 15 to 20 minutes, and hopefully less. My students need to hear from me less and to be practicing more with scaffolding. I’ve never been a big talker, but I know I need to be as economical as possible.

3. I want to start using free-response problems throughout the chapter (albeit smaller pieces) rather than just at the end. I will still use them at the end, but hopefully at the point students will be better equipped to work through them.

4. I want to incorporate demos/simulations at the beginning of each class as much as possible with the KISS idea in mind (keep it simple stupid) to help students see practical connections. I also do labs outside of class, so this will help mix things up somewhat.

5. I REALLY want to make labs more effective. Part of the problem with labs last year was not enough equipment for 20 students, but another major issue involved the calculations students had to perform. These were not always the most clear, so I am planning on guiding students more through the complex calculations.

6. I want to include descriptive chemistry in class discussions at least weekly. I tried this last year, got busy, got behind, and it “disappeared”. I have to be more focused and utilize every minute of every class from day 1.

7. I want to get everything covered and not feel insanely rushed trying to get this done. I’ve spent quite a lot of time mapping out the year, and I’ve done the most mapping I’ve every done in my 13 years of teaching. Here’s hoping this helps.

8. I want my students to want to work together in class on problems and to give them 15 to 20 minutes or so to do this daily. I know how insane their lives are, and if they are having trouble solving problems during class time immediately after we’ve covered content, how am I ever going to expect them to work through them independently 24-36 hours after class? (Note: Class meets for 90 minutes every other day.)

9.I try not to overwhelm students, but I know at times I do with packets that are intended to be helpful. Economy of words will be key here as well as providing clear explanations as to why they are getting them.

10. I plan to quiz and test less. This is going to be very difficult for me, as I like students to have those checks in place. I know students aren’t quizzed often in college – it’s the teacher in me wanting them to have that feedback. I still plan to give them that feedback, but I have to work on doing that more via homework and other in-class practice.

Okay – stopping here. Please feel free to share any comments or suggestions ­čÖé

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Chemistry Teacher Meetings – Part 2

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My state revises our testing standards periodically. We went through this a couple of years ago, and because of this added a standard focusing on organic and biochemistry. The periodic table we have used since the beginning of testing was revised to omit oxidation states and noble gas electron configurations. To make the exam more rigorous, technology-enhanced items (drag and drop, open-ended, graphing, hot spot) are being added, and it has been predicted that more multi-step multiple choice questions will be included.

After watching math teachers (a year ahead of us in this process) go through this transition, I received a few emails from teachers in the spring asking if I had any more information about our changes. I reached out to our state science coordinator, and he graciously gave me materials he had used to overview the changes and answered my many questions. I also discussed what I planned to do with my county science coordinator to get some additional feedback.

So: what did I do? I started the meeting by overviewing what was happening and making sure teachers had printed copies of all current state resources. I then had the teachers break out into smaller groups to work on issues specific to the content standards. Teachers were asked (where relevant) to identify any adjustments that would be needed with the new periodic table, to identify ways to incorporate the new organic/biochemistry standard (this is a state-mandated direction) into the current standards, and to develop (where possible) examples of multi-step multiple choice questions and technology-enhanced items. Prior to this meeting, there were less than 10 released technology-enhanced items, and several of these covered similar concepts. The last thing teachers worked on was identifying equations and other facts that would be beneficial for students to have on a formula sheet we planned to propose to the state.

I created several questions prior to the meeting of both the technology-enhanced items and the multi-step multiple choice questions as examples. I also provided a sample equation sheet I give to my students prior the state test as a review. Each group was given a printed copy of questions to get them started, and groups were limited to 4 people to promote conversations. Teachers were given electronic files the could put their work in (they were asked to bring laptops) as well as notepads so they could work in whatever format the preferred.

During these work sessions, I checked in with each group several times to answer specific questions and to see what kinds of discussions were taking place. I had 100% of my RSVPs attend, and I had a few extras show up (some on time, some during the work sessions), so I also worked on getting them placed. I had brought some small refreshments (water, individual bags of cookies/crackers, and of course – Hershey’s kisses, minatures, and Reese’s baby cups) for people to munch on as they wished.

After the work sessions, everyone got back together and we discussed as a group anything they wished that came out of their conversations. I then shared future plans, including additional meetings, sharing this process at the state science teacher conference, and taking the resources developed and placing them online so additional work could be done. Teachers filled out brief evaluation forms and were given the opportunity to provide me with a mailing address so I could send them chemistry crayon labels as thanks for their efforts.

I am still in the process of organizing the information gathered, but all in all I felt things went very well, and my initial review of the evaluation forms supported this. There were times when preparing everything was overwhelming, but it makes it all worthwhile when teachers thank you for doing it!

Chemistry Teacher Meetings

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I agreed to be the chemistry chair for my state science teacher organization at a fairly crazy time in my life, but I felt it was really important to be an advocate for chemistry teachers throughout the state and to get pertinent information out to those teachers in a timely manner. I’ve tried to do this in many ways, but one is by having free meetings for chemistry teachers throughout the state. This gives teachers a chance to exchange ideas and build connections, which I feel is really important in smaller schools that only have one chemistry teacher or when teachers are teaching out of their content area.

So, how do I do this? Initially I sent out a survey using our organization’s data base to individuals with an interest in chemistry. I wanted to find out what they needed first before I planned anything specific. As a result of this survey, we started having the teacher meetings and set up a website for teacher resources in the state. Once I got a database of ┬áinterested teachers, I emailed them when I had information they should know and when I was having meetings. Right now I have an email list of 300+.┬áGmail has been the easiest to send out mass emails with wherever I’m at, and I know all about bcc emails now. My school account works fine on campus but not so great at home.┬á I am also fortunate to have participated in various state curriculum projects, and the state science coordinator has been willing to pass along my emails to district coordinators throughout the state. These meetings have been open first to science teacher organization members, but teachers throughout the state are welcome to come.

Almost left this one out: location. Parking is key – even on weekends, this is not always the case at colleges. I have learned to check. Proximity to a major road is also key. Having lab space is awesome for hands-on activities, and being close to reasonably-priced restaurants is also important. Although colleges are often more well-known, it is always worth checking out high schools. Permission is needed, but parking is free (!) and if the location is a good one, it works. I like having at least a couple of different rooms to work in so breakout sessions can be used.

The fun really begins with planning. I am too much of a perfectionist for my own good, so I try to think through all the possible items I will need at a meeting knowing something will come up that will force my teacher hat on to deal with the situation. I HATE wasting people’s time, so I want to make sure whatever I’m planning has practical connections to the classroom and will provide them with at least one thing they can use immediately. I’m definitely not perfect, and I learn a lot from each one I do, but so far, the meetings have been received very favorably.