group-worthiness

It’s (the end of) winter break, and I find myself feeling vaguely dissatisfied with my teaching this year. There’s nothing major, just- particularly in my chemistry classes- things aren’t quite right. Mostly, I’ve noticed issues with student participation that make me feel disgruntled- and make me feel like I’m not doing enough to promote equity and collaboration in my classroom. I could (and have) come up with all kinds of excuses- my chem classes are 1st period and 7th period; 1st period, they aren’t quite awake yet so they don’t always talk to each other. 7th period is so close to the end of the day that they’re either super distracted or just want to get the work done. But I still feel like I could and should be doing something more to facilitate student collaboration.

How do you help students see the value in working together? In mulling this over this recently, I think part of the problem is I haven’t been giving students enough conversation-worthy or group-worthy tasks in my chem classes. If a student can mostly complete a POGIL-style activity on their own, why wouldn’t they? It’s faster and easier. And if a group is at completely different points in the POGIL, should I not answer student A’s question about #10 while student B is still working on #7?

I struggle with inquiry in teaching chemistry more than I do in teaching physics. I’m pretty sure I’ve said it before, but it often feels like my chemistry curriculum map is a mile wide and an inch deep. My students have complained about frequent quizzing. On principal I actually agree with frequent quizzes (frequent quizzes are shown to improve student learning), but I understand the frustration on constantly being quizzed on new material. And then, with the sheer amount of content that I’m supposed to cover in the school year, it’s difficult to come up with inquiry-based activities that aren’t just a variation on a POGIL. Don’t get me wrong, I love POGILs and I think they’re way better than lecturing at my students. But recently, I’ve been wondering if I’m relying too much on these paper-based activities instead of changing things up. And are these POGIL-style activities actually giving students a reason to talk to each other?

The answer, at least right now, seems to be no. And I think there were some subtle changes I made this year that actually negatively impacted some of the group dynamics in my classroom. I stepped away from introducing group roles at the start of the year, because I’ve always dropped them by the end of the year (or more realistically, by the end of the first quarter). But now I wonder if having those artificial-feeling roles was a good way to train students to work together more, even if they only lasted a few weeks at the start of the year. (I also struggled with finding authentic roles where each student actually had a specific role to contribute to the group. So maybe I need to look into this more/again.) I also think I’ve let issues of status slide this year, so right now my high status students take over in a group while the lower status student(s) sit back, if they work together at all. How can I be more conscious about developing status of my students? I’ve been less conscientious about this, and I’m seeing the effects in the classroom.

And then there’s grouping. How do I group students to best facilitate their interactions? One of my classes this year is full of students who are already friends (about 1/2 the class, actually), and if I sit them with some students not in their friend group, I often end up with two mini-groups at one table. Where do I find the time to have students reflect on the effect of such interactions on their peers and even on their own learning? (Side note: I need to collate and organize the peer feedback that students have been submitting for the past semester.)

I’ve had this blog post by Ben Orlin in the back of my mind for a few weeks: The three barriers to deep thinking in schools. Do my assessments actually assess students on deep thinking, or just rote memorization? I feel like in chemistry, it’s particularly easy to fall into rote memorization, especially in a first year course. I would like students to think more deeply, and I love the questions that they can come up with in class. But sometimes (often) we have to move on. And I struggle with this on a pedagogical level as well as on a personal, I love chemistry and want them to understand how awesome it is level.

It’s basically the end of winter break; classes start again on Monday. A part of me feels like I should have taken more time to reflect on these issues, worked more on revamping the upcoming content so that I have more group-worthy and conversation-worthy pieces in my chem classes. I really want to incorporate goal-less problems in my physics classes (and it seems quite doable for both me and my students), and I would love to figure out a way to do this in chem as well. I want to revamp the escape room I tried last year for a semester final review. I want to incorporate some of the ideas I gleaned from reading “How We Learn: The surprising truth about when, where, and why it happens” by Benedict Carey. I want to better challenge my higher level students, and foster a deeper understanding of content in all of my students. There are so many goals, and so little time.

However, my friend and cohort member Alex Steinkamp wrote a piece for the most recent issue of Kaleidoscope, the journal published by the Knowles Teacher Initiative. His piece on Self-Talk and Sustainability is a good reminder that “I must give myself the grace to value the subtle work that I do towards the goals that underpin my work. This is not meant to be a call to complacency. Rather, this is meant to be a reminder that our real moral imperative is that we sustain our practice. Even when we fail to reach our targets, the value we add is from trying.” So, right now, I’m trying and I’m trying to see the value in trying. I’m taking the space to reflect, and hoping that in the next few weeks I can make some adjustments, no matter how small, to promote collaboration, to make the tasks I give my students more group-worthy or at least conversation-worthy. And I’m not going to beat myself up for taking more time during winter break than I have in the past to mentally and physically recharge. So hopefully, at the end of second semester, I won’t be feeling quite so disgruntled.

meetings, meetings everywhere

This school year feels different than previous years. Really, every year is different, because the students are different, I’m a little different, I’m trying different things in the classroom. But this is now my 5th year teaching, and I don’t feel like I’m reinventing the wheel anymore, which is kind of nice. This is also the first time since I started teaching that I haven’t had new colleagues join the teacher teams I work with (even though I’ve been at the same school the whole time). However, I find myself spending a lot of time in meetings.

A few weeks ago, I counted up the meetings that I had that week – it was particularly bad. In that one week, I was in 9 different meetings plus my normal teaching schedule. On Thursday, I had three meetings – before school, during lunch, and after school. In a more “typical” week, I have 3 meetings either before/after school, plus all the informal conversations that we have with colleagues during prep/lunch/before or after school.

I think a hatred of meetings is somewhat universal, no matter what profession you’re involved in. I’m sure everyone has been involved in an ineffectual meeting – whether it was people just complaining, the organizer(s) didn’t have a plan, it was a meeting that could have been an email, or just nothing was accomplished. (Incidentally, when I was watching this TED talk about givers vs. takers, I came across this article about how to get a sense of the culture of an organization when job searching, and at the very end the author suggests asking about meetings – if people enjoy the meetings they’re in, that’s a good sign. Something to keep in mind if I find myself on the job market again.)

Teachers in particular seem to dislike meetings. The culture of schools doesn’t seem to foster collegiality (different from congeniality, as outlined by Robert Evans in the article “Getting to No”). As Evans states,

Ask any classroom veterans why they teach. You’ll never hear, “I love to work with other adults and go to meetings.” Teachers have chosen a career that involves spending their days in the company of children or adolescents. They thrive and feel most confident and fulfilled when doing so. (Would we want our youth taught by people who felt otherwise?) They often see dealings with other adults — whether colleagues, administrators, or parents — as intrusions upon their primary source of work satisfaction.

And it’s true. Going to meetings is definitely not the best part of my day. I would love to have more time for my students. This year in particular, I feel like I am not available for students as I have been in the past. I used to give a blanket statement that students could see me in the mornings, but that’s no longer true because these days I often have morning meetings. And teaching two preps in two buildings, I can’t tell students that I will definitely been in room ____ before school. So now it’s “please email me if you’d like to see me outside of the school day” and I just feel less accessible to my students this year.

And yet I find myself voluntarily involved in more meetings with my colleagues this year than ever before. I’m on two subject teams that basically teach lock-step. I’m the “course team liaison” for the chemistry team. And I find myself stepping up and occasionally helping organize some school-wide PD. All of these things take time and require face-to-face interactions.  Most of these meetings take place outside the “normal” school day because I don’t have the same prep periods as the colleagues I need to meet with.

I engage in all these meetings because I feel like the work that’s being done is important. It’s important to me to work with colleagues to develop curriculum, because it makes it better than whatever I could come up with on my own. (It’s also important to me that students enrolled in the same class get a comparable experience regardless of teacher.) It’s important to me to be involved with my department as we are working through what it means for students to construct scientific arguments (we’re having a lot of good discussions about the “claim, evidence, reasoning” framework – what is evidence, exactly, and how is it different from reasoning?). And I feel like I have ideas and resources to help our school-wide meetings be more productive (particularly after the NSRF Critical Friends training I attended this past summer).

But some days, I feel conflicted. Am I doing my students a disservice by being so busy when I could be available to help them? Or am I doing worthwhile work by being involved in these groups in my school? I don’t think that I am yet doing work with colleagues at the expense of my students, but it’s a tension that I keep in the back of my mind. And then, just the sheer number of meetings is exhausting sometimes. Sometimes I find myself wishing for a Time Turner, although Hermione’s experience might suggest that a Time Turner would not actually help my sanity.

I do wish that the school day was structured differently, where there was more time built into the school day for collaboration with colleagues (although then that begs the question when would I get the grading done?). But we must make the best of what we have, and for right now I guess that means continual meetings. And I guess all I can do is continue to reflect and be honest about when I need to step back so that I can make sure I’m also able to meet the needs of my students (and keep my sanity).