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.

Year 3- reflections

Tuesday was the last day of classes, so I’ve been spending the past two days just kind of recovering mentally, physically, and emotionally from this past year. It’s been a long and kind of exhausting year, but in looking back I can still say it’s been a good year, and I’m thankful to be able to say that still.

I started this year with a list of things I was going to try in my classroom and I was able to implement most things, though I’m already thinking of how to change things for next year.

Here’s how some of the structures I implemented this year in my classroom went:

  • Group roles were mostly successful first semester but definitely fell by the wayside by second semester. One student asked me the last few weeks of school why they didn’t have group roles anymore, and my reply was “because you don’t need them.” They acknowledged that, but one student also said “the only thing group roles did was let ___ boss us around”. So there’s that. It was the “Team Captain” role that students (mis)used to boss each other around… I’d like to keep with group roles, particularly for the start of the year, but it’s challenging when my groups have 4-5 students and I only have about 3 roles that I really find useful (facilitator, resource manager, and recorder/reporter). So I’m going to have to rethink this for next year.
  • Pseudo standards-based grading and spiraling quizzes were… honestly a lot of work. And I don’t know that their grades were that much different than if I had just averaged all of their quiz grades together because of all of the ups and downs. But, I did give each student an end-of-year printout with each standard listed and their quiz score on each standard. Most of them groaned when I passed this out, but I did hear some of them talking about how “ok, I need to focus on 5.4 and 4.1 for the final…” I think I’d like to bring them back to their quiz grades more often during the year (maybe before every unit exam? Although there was a brief discussion of not having unit exams at all next year if we continue to spiral quizzes). I did get my coworkers to spiral quizzes as well, and we agree that it’s nice to “force” students to revisit the content. (Some students disagreed and vocalized that on an end-of-year feedback form.) I will probably continue to grade quizzes by standard if possible next year, because it gives the opportunity for students to better assess their understanding of specific topics (if they’re given the opportunity/space to really look at their scores and interpret them).
  • Interactive(-ish) notebooks – need to structure this better. I think the end of class reflections I had students do was not useful because it was so rushed. I’m thinking of perhaps having them look at the list of learning objectives and figure out which one we’re one (which shouldn’t be hard because I go in order). I also need to rethink how to give students better access to work that is posted online but done in their notebooks, because I found some students didn’t ever do homework that had an online component.
  • Google Classroom Again, I found several students didn’t ever do their online homework, and the lack of turning in labs severely penalized them (not to mention that they also then didn’t get practice or feedback on their understanding, which led to low quiz/test scores as well). So I’m rethinking this. I’m thinking about having labs done in the notebooks only, but having students submit written lab application/extension questions in paragraph form. I got this idea from another colleague (join us in our Twitter/google doc conversation on chemistry stuff!). But Google Classroom integrates pretty seamlessly with Goobric and Doctopus and makes grading written work way faster, so I would like to keep this while still being mindful of making sure students have access (and not penalizing or embarrassing them in front of peers because they don’t).
  • POGILs– my colleagues and I worked to put a hands-on component to several POGIL activities (and I realize that whenever students have a hands-on portion, they think they’re doing a lab- are they wrong?), which lays a good foundation for next year and further modifications. I love POGIL but my students don’t, mostly because they struggle sometimes with seeing this as learning (I’m still getting the “please lecture more” and “please actually teach us” feedback at the end of the year…)
  • Whiteboards and class discussions- I still want to figure out better ways to run whiteboard discussions (and class discussions in general). I’m attending a conference by the Right Question Institute this summer so I’m hoping to come back with some good ideas of how to get students to generate the questions and lead the discussions.

There’s a lot of room for improvement for next year. And I was frustrated a lot this year- by my students, by my colleagues, by myself. It was exhausting working with the chemistry team to overhaul what I did last year to make it work better and for all of our different teaching styles. And it was strange to find myself in a leadership role among our co-planning team as a 3rd year teacher (our veteran chem teachers did not join us- one was only teaching AP chem so it didn’t apply and the other was focused on a new forensics course so didn’t have the time to co-plan, so I had the most years of experience among our group). I also started a 3 min observation club among my department, and we’re thinking of how to expand it to other departments (maybe math and engineering to start?), and it was again strange to be in a leadership/organizing role among more veteran teachers. I wanted to teach my students how to be self-competent, and I could have done a better job of this, both implicitly and explicitly this year. But a lot happened this year, and I believe despite the struggles, the frustrations, the venting sessions I had with friends to keep me sane, it was a good year. I want to keep all of these things in mind as I recharge this summer, so that I can start next year ready to change things up again to continue to improve.

And I will say (again) that the thing I love most about teaching is that it’s never the same. The students are certainly not the same, but I am also not the same teacher this year as I was last year, because I’m (hopefully) using these experiences to adjust my practice and grow. And growing (literally or figuratively) is a sometimes painful process, but so so worth it. So the exhaustion, the frustration is worth it (though I’m still trying to figure out how to balance my life so that maybe I’m just a little less tired and stressed during the school year…) I’ll just have to remember this post when I’m drowning in a sea of grading next fall…

New Unit, New Groups

I’ve already talked about how it takes me forever to put together groups for my classes. And this time, it’s particularly hard, because I think I’ve found reasonably functional groups for most students for this past unit (there are, of course, the one or two groups in every class that are desperately ready for a change). How do I switch the groups up so that they are equally or more functional than before? How do I scaffold student interactions to help them rather than stifle them?

It’s interesting because NYTimes Magazine recently published an article about what Google found about productive teams. And long story short, it seems to come down to two things: 1) team members speak in roughly the same proportions (either everyone speaking on all tasks, or leadership shifting from task to task) and 2) team members have good “social sensitivity” where they can tell how others are feeling based on nonverbal cues.

My 3-min observation club also had a discussion around this. One of our members admitted that, when grouping students, she doesn’t consider academic ability as much as she considers how well personalities will work together. Her goal is to make her students feel comfortable working in their groups (and she wonders if it’s something she emphasizes too much- is she emphasizing social comfort to the point where it is detrimental to learning?) and ends up with mostly heterogenous ability groups. Another member said he found groups with similar abilities worked better, because the high academic status students were able to push each other more and the lower academic students were comfortable asking questions of one another (and he could spend more time working with those groups). In either case, I think the end result is the same- groups where students feel comfortable talking to one another.

This weekend, I’m at Spring Meeting with the 2012 Cohort of Teaching Fellows with KSTF. And I love this community because they push me in my thinking. One of the things that came up was the idea of lecture vs. groupwork. So many of us believe in groupwork, in student-led classrooms and student-led discussions. But one person asked- why? Why do we believe so strongly in these ideas, even if our groups and student-centered activities seem to fail? I still believe that generally, active learning/groupwork/student-centered learning is more effective than lecture (and I’m pretty sure that there’s research to back this up). But is a well-designed lecture more effective than a poorly designed/dysfunctional group? And that leads me back to what started this post- what makes a group functional?

I’m starting to think more about the social/emotional aspects of my groups more explicitly. It’s always been an implicit consideration- these two students are friends, does that mean they’ll work together well or distract each other? This student is quiet but has good ideas, will seating her with this other student draw her out or shut her down? Another student is great at drawing out the others that she’s seated with- how can I leverage that?

I wonder also if I can leverage some of the ideas from the NYTimes Mag article in my classes. Should I be explicit that groups can be more functional when everyone talks equally, and institute structures that facilitate that? (Does ‘forced’ equal air-time also work?) How can I teach my students to be more aware of non-verbal cues, when they’re 15-16 years old and often more concerned about how others view them than how others might be feeling in that moment?

I have a pile of tests to grade and new seating charts to make on Sunday afternoon, so it’s going to be a long weekend still. But I’m still thankful for a weekend to think more deeply about teaching and learning, and hopefully the end result is a better learning experience for my students.

introverts in schools, or why my seating charts take me so long to put together

Two posts in two days! (Pretty sure all my grading is done for the end of the quarter, haha. And if I missed something, well, quarter grades aren’t part of their GPA or transcript, so it’ll be ok.) Anyway- this is something that’s been on my mind for a while now.

The Atlantic had an article back in September about how schools are overlooking introverts. The argument is that the emphasis on groupwork and collaborative learning is detrimental for introverted learners, who often need quieter environments to process. And it made me wonder, because I’m a very strong introvert- on every Myers-Brigg personality test I’ve taken, I’m 99-100% introvert. (I wonder about confirmation bias here though- now that I know I’m an introvert, I know how to answer the “introvert/extrovert” questions so I always come up as an “I”.) But despite my introvertedness, I also believe very strongly in collaborative and student-centered learning, where students are talking to each other about the content to generate their own knowledge. (The author of the Atlantic article also acknowledges that overall, cooperative learning is a good thing and that several recent studies indicate that students engaged in cooperative learning tend to outpace students in lecture environments.)

So I’ve been thinking and wondering- am I neglecting my introverted students? I do try to encourage conversation and groupwork, but sometimes I let my students work more or less independently at their tables. I find myself torn about this also- am I doing them a disservice? Am I perpetuating issues of academic status in my classroom? Do students see the value of groupwork in the classroom? Do students see groupwork and the accompanying conversations as integral to the learning process? Students in my quiet groups do usually start talking to each other once they hit something they’re not sure about, and the conversations are often really awesome to overhear. It did take some prodding at the start of the year (“You guys should be talking to each other about this! It’s too quiet in here.”), but now they do it more or less naturally. Even as an introvert myself, I’ve found that groupwork can be really engaging and energizing (mostly) when I’m with people that I can feed ideas off of and who challenge my thinking. (I do still need that downtime at home to process everything, though.) The groups that I struggle with the most are the ones where it’s clear that one student is being left behind in the work and isn’t asking questions (out of fear of looking dumb? low social status? something else?) and other members aren’t making an effort to include them (hence my wonderings about issues of status).

I think the key in all this is who students are seated around. I have one class in particular that’s been hard to seat this year, because there are a lot of high-energy students who are distracting to other students (from what I can tell, these students seem to mostly have high social status as well). I try sometimes to seat these high-energy students with quieter students who might help them calm down and slow down, but sometimes I feel badly for those quieter students who are now sitting next to this human rubber ball. And sometimes the groups work great- students really work together and are drawn in together. And sometimes they’re awful, where one student is either ignored or chooses to be ignored, and the group just isn’t functional. Sometimes I put the high-energy, extroverted students together, and sometimes that works because they realize they all need to focus to get anything done (they can’t rely on the quiet workhorse student because there isn’t one in their group), but sometimes that’s a disaster too because they just continually distract each other.

Some of this is in training students to really work together. And I’m trying with things like group roles and actionable norms. (I think it’s been kind of successful- colleagues who’ve been in my classroom seem to think it’s successful in that students are working, but working doesn’t always equal learning.) And some of it is just knowing student personalities, and grouping students well. It’s not easy, and sometimes a group that I think will be great is terrible, or takes a few days to work functionally. And sometimes a group that I’m hesitant about turns out to be awesome. So it can take me a good two hours to put together a new set of seating charts (~20-30 min per class), and sometimes I wonder if the amount of time I’m putting into it is worth it (at some point, surely, there’s diminishing returns).

Which brings me to the thought- groupwork and collaborative learning are great, but should be carefully implemented and structured. Even my extroverted, quick-thinking students sometimes need to slow down and reflect, and being around introverts in a group can help them with that. I wish I did a better job at helping students really reflect, because it’s not easy to do. But just putting students together in a group is not really collaborative learning. Just doing an activity instead of a lecture is also not collaborative learning. I’m thankful for the work I’ve done with the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation around Complex Instruction and group-worthy tasks (are most of my tasks really group-worthy? Just conversation-worthy? Not really either?), which I would love to learn more about in a science classroom (I understand Complex Instruction started around math tasks, and there’s a lot of overlap, but I would like to think about the differences between math and science tasks as well). There are so many places where I want to improve the scaffolding and structures I have for groupwork, and I want to think about how to gradually take those structures away as the year moves on so that it’s the students who are really leading the conversations and bringing in their peers without having to consciously think about it. And I want my students to really see each other as resources (not just me as the teacher being the arbiter of the knowledge).

Teaching is one of the most intellectually demanding things I’ve ever done. Not only the content, where I really have to make sure I understand what’s going on, but thinking about group dynamics and student-student interactions and how to facilitate these things to really lead to better understandings for all students is challenging, to say the least. But there’s always something new to think about, always a new challenge to solve. It’s like a never-ending puzzle, and I have to say that I love it for that reason.