The Process Pt. III

Ok, so here’s what’s up – I’ve regrouped my thoughts and laid out all of the “standards” that we cover for the year. I then grouped them into topics, and now I am working on flushing out the specific learning goals for each topic. The first one I started with is “water purification,” where we take a look at water contaminants, laboratory purification methods, and then large-scale purification methods (municipal and natural). So far, here’s the tracking sheet that I’ve come up with:

Water Purification Tracking Sheet

Any feedback you have would be greatly appreciated! I am particularly curious about the overall topic scale (1-4, first page) and the tracking of each specific learning goal. As it is now, I only have a tracking graph for the topic as a whole, but I’m wondering if it may be beneficial to have a graph for each learning goal – especially with the circular curriculum. In this particular case, the book talks about the lab purification methods first and then contaminants and last is the large-scale treatments (with a bunch of other topics sprinkled in between), so can I give them score on the topic as a whole when there is so much time in between learning goals? Perhaps I need to modify the scale, with 1.0 as knowing the lab methods, 2.0 as methods + contaminants, and 3.0 as all 3? Does that make sense? Sorry, I’m rambling a bit. I’ll just leave it to the comments to continue the discussion.






The Process Pt. II

I think I’m beginning to realize why I’m having so much trouble writing standards (even with some great suggestions from commentors!). When I first started, I grabbed the textbook for my lower-level chem class (Chemistry in the Community, aka Chem Comm… not a “traditional” chemistry book) and made a rough outline of topics that we cover within the 1st unit. After spending a few hours on that, I thought I was being too specific to one course and that I should try to make my standards more general so that I could apply them to the general (more traditional) chemistry class that I will also be teaching.

So I went to my state standards, which more directly parallel the traditional course outline (though they are still lacking). I started with them, and attempted to break them down into more student friendly “learning goals” (standards?) for each one. Whoof! Because they were awkwardly worded and incomplete, I found this to be even more difficult (which led to my first post of this process) than my original method.

After banging my head against the lab table for a while, I grabbed some of the documents I had created while in a grad class back in June that mapped out a traditional chemistry course (with learning objectives!), and we had come up with 9 topics that I chose to work from to develop the standards. After reading some tips over at the other Jason’s blog, I thought I was all set to start writing standards. But I soon realized (after, once again, some banging-of-the-head) it did not serve as an easy transition to use them as standards for Chem Comm.

Here’s what’s tricky:
The Chem Comm curriculum covers all of the same topics (but uses a different presentation method) that a “traditional” chemistry class does, so you would think the standards should overlap. What that means is the topics in Chem Comm are circular whereas a traditional method is more linear in how it progresses1. This is one of the things that I rather like about Chem Comm, but right now it sucks.

So where does that leave me? Back at square one – topic lists for each unit to come up with standards/learning goals for the year2. What will be tricky is differentiating the standard from one unit to the next; i.e. when a standard reappears later, I shouldn’t expect students to achieve mastery the first time around, right? So even if they only get to the 2.o level, when assigning grades I need to factor that in as “meeting” the standard for the time being. I think that will have to be a challenge that I tackle as it comes, there’s really no way around that.

On a lighter note: the easy part of this process was integrating the IB criteria with content standards – it’s just a matter of placing the content standards as sub-headings of the “Scientific Knowledge and Understanding” criterion. At least that’s one thing done! 🙂

1 Traditional Chemistry Units (roughly):
Properties of Matter, Atomic structure, Periodic trends/table, Bonding, Reactions, Stoichiometry, Solutions, Acids/Bases, Gases
Chem Comm Unit 1 ONLY:
Water explorations (solutions, properties, acids/bases, ionics, basic atomic structure, reactions)

2 This is more analogous to what Mylene had suggested on my last post about starting with assessments – I’ve been using the test review as a checkpoint, to make sure I’m covering everything and to make sure the assessment is where I want it to be. Thanks for the tip, Mylene!

The Process Pt. I

Writing standards is hard. Writing out clear, well-defined, broad-enough-but-not-too-broad standards that will describe an entire year of chemistry in one concise list is hard. The MN science standards for chemistry are not much help. They are definitely broad, but (in my opinion) most are neither clear nor well-defined. Not only that, but I’m trying to mesh them with the IB’s science criteria1.

I think the most difficult part is that at the moment I am trying to formulate all of these standards on my own. Having input from colleagues would make the process much less painful, but as of now I’m the only one that’s been at school working (workshop isn’t until next week, so I can’t blame them). I would love to have district-wide chemistry standards in place; last spring our district science curriculum specialist had asked for volunteers to work on it (which I gladly said I would), but it hasn’t happened yet and the word around the department is that it won’t happen until sometime during the coming year – not exactly great timing for my current preparations!

The perfectionist in me wants to have perfect standards – which I realize is not realistic. I knew this would not be an easy transition, so I just need to be optimistic and keep working at it! I think just working with what I have for the time being will allow me to get more of my daily instruction planned out, and I can adjust as I go – right? Right! (At least that’s what I’ll keep telling myself).

1 Even though I don’t teach IB-specific classes, all of the classes at our school are supposed to be “IB affiliated”. The criteria are the same ones used in biology in 10th grade, so students are already familiar with them.


As the beginning of the school year draws ever closer, I realize it’s time to put aside my summer books and start getting serious about school. I have been doing a lot of thinking about what I would like to do/change with my classes. I’ve got a lot of new ideas I’ve heard and practices I would like to try, so I wanted to sit down and set some goals for myself and my classes – partially so I know what I still need to do in the next couple of weeks to be ready for school to start, and partially to hold myself accountable by checking in on them as the year goes by. Here they are:

1) Alignment with new district standards of grading and reporting.
At the end of last year, my school district finalized its plan to begin implementing new standards for grading and reporting. There are 5 standards that, over the next 3 years, the district will be expecting teachers to begin implementing and switching from current practices. As a young teacher that isn’t too ingrained and invested in my practices, I feel it will be the easiest for me to jump in as quickly as possible to adjust to these new(ish) policies. It also helps that I know I am not satisfied with my current grading and reporting practices, so these will give me some guidance for constructive changes to make.

The standards are (summarized) as follows:

  • Grades will communicate student achievement based on academic achievement
    So… standards based grading!  I’ve already been looking at the MN state standards for chemistry as well as the MYP science criteria (International Baccalaureate Program standards) and how my classes align with them. I still need to develop some sort of rubric for grading said standards to translate their learning into a grade. The toughest part of this will be working with our current gradebook to easily communicate grades and learning. I know the district is working with the developers (TIES) to make some changes, but I spent a couple of hours yesterday creating a back-up plan spreadsheet in case I need it.
  • Non-academic behaviors will not factor into academic grades
    Easy enough. You can still assess them on “non-academic” behaviors, but it must be reflected separately – just like an elementary school report card. The standard also says grades should be also based on individual assessment and not a group grade. The big dispute that caused a bit of hubbub among teachers was cheating – the standard says that if a student cheats, they still have to do the work “or a reasonable alternative.” A lot of teachers claimed this was punishing them for their student’s indiscretions, but I don’t buy it. Cheating falls under the “non-academic” behavior, and students should still have the opportunity to prove what they’ve learned for a grade regardless of whether it means more work for you, the teacher. Suck it up, it’s your job! (Note: I didn’t actually say that last bit to anyone. Just thought it in my head.)
  • Quality assessments and recorded evidence are used to determine grades
    The toughest part of this is the “quality assessments” part. For me, it means I won’t rely on previously created multiple choice/problem set tests. There are a number of issues at work here, and a lot of what I want to change comes from Dan Meyer’s “problem solving” ideas and development. I also have a lot of work to do in designing assessments that align with and analyze learning of the standards. As I said before, I still need to develop rubrics to use as guides for measuring students’ learning.
  • Grades accurately represent attainment of standards and promote learning
    Biggest change here is grading scale and grade weighting – equal-interval grading scales (a la Doug Reeves), and at least 80% of the grade should be weighted on summative assessments, no more than 20% formative. I will (hopefully) be at 100% summative and have already begun using an equal-interval (4-point) grading scale. Oh, and no extra-credit (I say: duh!).
  • Students are involved in the grading and assessment process
    The first part is that they should know how they will be graded (Once again: duh!). But the other part of it I think has to do with involving students in tracking their progress over time. I realize there is more to it than that, but this is what I want to work on this year.

2) Learning objectives (goals…? targets…?)
This has been the most time consuming thing that I have been working on recently. When I took my first grad class back in June, we focused a lot on developing a course as a whole; part of that being writing out “intended learning objectives” for an entire course. I also attended the Minnetonka Summer Institute, and went to a breakout session about using “learning targets” to promote learning, with many uses of formative assessment and feedback from students to teacher as well as teacher to student. This got me energized and excited to work on writing out my own objectives/goals/targets to use for guiding learning.

Any thoughts on what to call them? I think “objectives” is a decent word, and I think my high school students (should) clearly understand what an objective means. Would students benefit from the use of more “symbolic” terms, like goals or targets (things that you can aim for, or achieve, more concrete?) Still not sure about that yet. The idea is the same for all; maybe I’m over-thinking.

3) Feedback!
This, I believe, will be the most important change that I make. When I was at the Summer Institute, we heard about how students received feedback in the form of constructive comments vs. scores (I think it was Doug Reeves again, but might have been Bob Marzano). Their research showed that the students that had the best attitude/outlook and improved their learning most after an assessment were students that received ONLY feedback (the study also looked at giving only scores, and a score and feedback). I think it really speaks to the power our feedback has to motivate and guide student learning. I really want to put an emphasis on giving students constructive feedback that is aligned with the standards so they have the ability to move forward in the best possible way. Whether they actually do or not, well… I guess we’ll just have to wait and see!

Book Review: The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean

The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements

Now, if you’re as big of a chemistry nerd as I am, the title alone is enough to get you to throw off your lab coat and goggles to sit down with the book. But even if you’re not, the book is full of compelling, interesting, and even funny stories that just so happen to be center around the elements on the periodic table. There were many great things in this book – I just want to highlight a few.

The thing that I loved most about this book is that it does a lot of name dropping. I don’t mean name dropping the traditional sense of self-importance, but rather giving a more diverse and colorful depiction of the players involved in the development of chemistry as a science. As and undergraduate physics and chemistry major, I remember hearing the names of countless “fathers” of science because of some major breakthrough they made or some formula that carries their name: Fermi, Lewis, Rutherford, Bose, Crookes, Meitner, Pauling, et al. What I loved in the book was getting a more humanistic view of the “fathers” through the stories of their interactions, confrontations, struggles, and of course, discoveries. I am fascinated with the history of chemistry* and find it extremely compelling to learn more about these names with which I am so familiar.

The other thing that I absolutely loved about the book was that it presented the difficult subject matter (theoretical chemistry and physics) and explained it in a way that was intelligent without being textbook-ish, and described the science in the stories to a level that someone with a basic knowledge of chemistry would have no problem understanding – without being overly simple.

I will definitely be doing all that I can to use these stories in my own chemistry class, and hope that my students find them as exciting and interesting as I have!