Sunday, January 30, 2011

Treating Medical Students Like Children...

Can sometimes create awesomeness. This comes to me via BoingBoing, which is where I learn of many nifty things, and it's a slideshow talking about MRSA in the style of a child's bedtime story. The little Staphylcoccus Aureus is far too cute, and it's a perfect summary of the evolutionary arms race between antibiotics-makers and bacteria.

Day 3 - Thrusday, January 20

It snowed in the night before this day, which wasn’t a problem around The City, but around here there’s a lot of roads and not a lot of budget for snow removal. This means the highway exit I take to go to Midwest High turns into a death trap if there’s any significant amount of snow.

The today I spent the two prep periods having a long conversation with Mr. CT about his experience living and working in a rural area. It was really interesting to hear about his and his wife’s efforts to get a country house where his farmgirl wife could raise animals of her own.

I also made a key for the homework that was to be made into a transparency, and we talked about some unevenness in the assignment and we talked about the use of multiple choice format to ask substantial questions. We had some last minute moments of fixing calculators for use in a lab later.

Midwest High has a single secretary through which a lot of the business of the school must go. She, in response, carries an intensity around her that is a little terrifying. Mr. CT let on that some of this is an act, deliberately cultured as a way to exert control over her situation. As a result, any request a teacher makes of her will receive a completely unpredictable response; she might make it out like you asked her to sail the Pacific in a bathtub, or she might grant the request immediately with no fuss. Often times she displays both responses to the same request in the same day. We can call her Queen Secretary to reflect her place in the school. I mention her because we had to seek her audience to see if we could:

1. Get transparencies

2. Get my ID and parking pass so that I can be in the school legitimately

We ended up getting both the transparencies with a minimum of fuss, but it could easily have gone the other way. EDIT: I just looked over my notes, and I don't get my ID and parking pass until the next day.

AP Chemistry was talking about molecular geometries, first with the deviations from ideal bond angles due to the presence of lone pairs and then into classifying the geometries of expanded octet molecules. I’ve always liked the visual aspect of this part of chemistry, when you have to start thinking about the shape of things on the molecular level and how that creates the observable behavior of the material. I can understand the frustration that sometimes crops up, since the nerdy types that go for AP Chem tend to be more symbol-types than picture-types.

We decided that I would go over some homework for the whole class in Chem 1 before we did the lab for that day. I did some setup for the lab during lunch period. The devices we were using at first appeared not to work, but they were fixed by just being very slow at each stage of boot up. I don’t understand how TI gets away with charging as much as they do for essentially the same calculators that they offered when I was in high school.

The going over of the homework was nice for me, as I got to call on people and start to learn their names. I also got to work on my skills with a projector, that old workhorse of education. I most likely went far slower than the classes would prefer, which sucks but I’ll get better. The second half of each class was spent in the lab with gas pressure sensors and syringes; I took the role of lab TA. No one had any problem with the data collection aspect of the lab, but when it came time to do something with the data a lot of students seem to go off the rails. I was surprised by the number of students that were confused by filling a data column with a label of 1/V when they already had a column of data they took that was labeled V. I think it was Martha who interpreted the 1 as a lowercase L, which I kind of understand.

Graphing data is problematic, with inconsistent axes and playing connect-the-dots with the data points running rampant. Oftentimes different oddities would be displayed by different members of the same lab groups, which was quite odd with all the talking about what should be on the lab handouts that I heard.

Chem 2 was more orientation style stuff, making sure everyone knows what is necessary to do well in the course. I may have remarked on this before, but I’m not sure I’ll have that much to talk about with Chem 2 for the rest of my time. It’s not even like Mr. CT is protective of it or something, it’s that the entire curriculum is already made and given to us to go through. There isn’t much room for even Mr. CT to make more than minor changes to reflect the fact that the class isn’t being taught at a community college with a college-style laboratory to work in. I don’t even know if I’m allowed to take his place or whether that would invalidate whatever contract resulted in the dual-credit nature of the class.

Last side note to end the entry: I find bold colors work really well on me, so while all the other teachers are kind of drab, preferring sweaters and khakis and the like, this day I was wearing a teal button-down shirt with black dress pants. I got two compliments on the shirt, from Flora and Annette.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Day 2 - Wednesday, January 19

This day was a shortened day (that’s right, four-day week with a shortened day for the students). The order becomes very weird, since fourth hour has to be lunch and lunch can’t be shortened. Our prep time was spent putting together molecular models for the AP class with Coordination Numbers of 4, 5, and 6 (new stuff for them!)

AP-Passed out the molecular models, letting the students trade amongst themselves. Mr. CT had to explain why something with six bits connected to it would have a geometry called octahedral. The other thing that stood out was showing how water had a tetrahedral electron geometry that resulted in its bent shape.

Chem 1, Class 2 (told you it was weird) – Mr. CT stamped their worksheets from yesterday and new sheets were handed out. We had a little online animation that we showed off to try to give kids a visual sense of KMT, and used it to try to guide the thinking in some of the sections. They were to work on their own and were given no introduction. It seems that lethargy may just be an endemic quality to this class, thought they were working on what was given to them.

Chem 1, Class 3 – Same thing, but this time Mr. CT gives an introduction to the worksheet to the entire group. this class is definitely more feisty than the other Chem 1 classes.

Lunch and Chem 1, Class 1 (unshortened!) – So there’s this thing that Midwest High does called Channel One. The deal is that televisions have been provided, free of charge, to all the classrooms in exchange for ten minutes of the student’s day with their edutainment on. It seems very strange to me, especially since the channel is supported by commercials. I just can’t see a real benefit for anyone but Channel One on this deal, but that’s beside the point, since the school decided to use the televisions for their own purposes today.

During the appropriate Channel One time (first 10 minutes of the fourth hour class) the school decided to show a video on Internet safety, produced by the students. The whole thing made me kind of uncomfortable. I know I should make allowances for the faults that will inevitably be present in student work, that’s why it’s student work rather than master work, but I feel that if the school is going to show something to the entire school with the reasoning that the presentation will increase student safety, they should make a reasonable effort to make sure that the presentation actually does what is asked. I couldn’t see the video presented preventing more harm than it would cause if students took it seriously. Luckily (?), many kids ignored the video entirely like they do every Channel One program, so it was mostly a waste of time.

If they did take the video seriously, they would find that the entire thing was geared towards telling the kids to protect themselves from creepy strangers that masquerade as teens. There was a little bit about keeping privacy, but again still in relation to keeping away information away from these boogeymen. The video wasn’t even good at its focus, warning of the dangers without providing a method of safely meeting new people online, which means it runs aground on the same rocks that sink abstinence-only education, warning away people from a very desirable, common and potentially very safe activity without providing a way to make it as safe as it can be. To me, though, the biggest flaw of the video was that it ignored completely the two most relevant dangers of the Internet to its audience: identity theft and online harassment/bullying/stalking. Neither of these activities is done by the type of people that are caricatured in the video; identity theft is carried out by hacked computers owned by the Russian Mob, and harassment is done by people you know.

So, to sum up: The video totally omits the biggest threats on the internet and insults the intelligence of the viewers with its treatment of the one danger of the internet it chooses to profile.

Also: every aspect of To Catch A Predator is creepy, from Chris Hansen on down.

After the early dismissal, all the teachers went through an evacuation preparedness session, which ended up being quite the waste of time and resources

Apparently the rest of these days are designed to work on inter subject collaboration. I managed to make myself useful in identifying a weirdness in the presentation, which we then cut out to smooth out the curriculum. We also had a good discussion, but my brain had to break at the end of the day and I put my foot in my mouth over a thermodynamics unit convention. Of course.

Now, in the present

It will be way too long for my recaps to reach this point, so I had to say it now. We just made explosives for AP Chem as a demo.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Day 1 - Tuesday January 18

Since we have the two prep periods to start the day, today started with just some conversation about how things were going to go today, today paired with some making of copies and segueing into conversations about personal life and teaching and anything. It doesn’t usually happen that I would take notes of any of this, so I’ll leave the prep period out of my descriptions in the future unless something particularly unusual happens. Since today was my first official day, I would get a proper introduction in front of the class. I thought, with brevity the soul of wit and all, a very short introduction of myself, my name and what school I’m working out of, followed by a short question and answer session. I thought opening up myself to any question would help me get to know each class by what they ask while they get to know a little about me.

AP Chemistry – Only got a few questions here. One was if I was going to be teaching the class. I was diplomatic in telling them that I did not know the answer to this, since AP seems to be the crown jewel of Mr. CT’s chemistry classes and his goal is to build AP Chem into the juggernaut that AP Bio is at this school. The other question I was asked was where I went to high school, and I explained I went to a high school in a town north of The City. Mr. CT asked whether the south side was the bad side, and I had to explain that the south side has its positives, especially since Furious J comes from the south side. The class itself wasn’t super exciting, going over the answers from the quest (that would be the portmanteau of quiz and test, not an epic journey) given at the end of last semester and then a lecture with accompanying Power Point on the VSEPR model of bond geometry.

Mr. CT didn’t have to do anything in advisory period this whole week, so this time was spent creating new seating charts for the other classes that suddenly had different rosters and showing me how the attendance software worked so that I could get another running start to knowing who the students are.

I ate lunch with Mr. CT in the teacher’s lounge. I don’t tend to remember general goings on if I’m not taking notes, and I’m not going to take notes about lunch time, so this section is going to be pretty bare today and probably in the future unless something extraordinary happens.

The schedule I posted earlier shows that the next three sections are all Chem 1, which will be my bread and butter as the semester goes on. The activity we were doing in all of them was a group activity worksheet about Kinetic Molecular Theory. There was no accompanying Power Point, students were just supposed to work through the questions and fill out answers using the information they brought to the class and their reasoning skills. But first, new seats had to be assigned! So for each class at the beginning, Mr. CT announced that there would be a new seating chart and so, while the class stood around, he would move to each desk, look over to me, and I would announce the name of the student sitting at that desk from reading off the seating chart previously prepared by Mr. CT. This helped me a lot with getting at least a few names in my head.

Class 1 – This class didn’t ask many questions about me, though one student ended up walloping me with, “what is your favorite childhood memory?” Other than that oddity, the introduction ended up very short. When the class was given the packets and let loose, they self-organized largely around the lab benches when told they could work together. This means they largely formed groups of 4, talking around the lab tables. This method made the room a little on the loud side, but with them up I was easily able to walk up and see what they were doing, and they frequently asked questions as me and Mr. CT came around. There was one question in particular that many groups got a little stuck on, having to do with a container that can freely expand (not a common thing to encounter, even balloons tend to be under pressure from the stretching).

Mr. CT and I had a talk after this first class to see how things went. I think we had a difference of opinion on the quality of learning from the class. I, used to teaching dance classes where noise and self-direction are the norm, thought the students were doing well based on the frequency with which they asked questions of us and the speed that the groups were finishing their packets. He was concerned with the amount of socialization that he observed and was concerned with knowing whether students were learning from each other or copying off each other. We thought we would make an impromptu experiment of it, and set the rules for doing the worksheet differently for each class and see how the process goes.

Class 2 – This class I volunteered some information for the class, but I could tell their hearts weren’t in the introduction much. This time Mr. CT specified to stay in their area and work with the people around their desks and to stay quiet. He also made a point of going over the first page of the packet thoroughly as a class after they had worked on it for a while. This class never had questions for us, which I found particularly strange given the sheer quantity of questions that the last class had for us. I even came up with a list of guesses for why that might be so:

They don’t know questions can be asked

They already know the answers

They don’t really care enough to address problems

They want to do it themselves, regardless of difficulty

They ask a neighbor first, then they figure it out.

No real evidence for any of these, just hypotheses for an unusual phenomenon.

Class 3 – This class is quite the feisty class, most of which is carried by one student, Flora (remember, not her real name). This class asked many, many questions in the Q & A session, including a grilling by Flora of what I knew about Furious J, to test me I suppose. Mr. CT actually had to cut the questions off so that we could get to the actual business of the class.

This time Mr. CT specified that they had to work by themselves. This class is much more prone to asking questions than class 2, creating a third hypothesis: Class 2 is in a food coma from lunch, class 3 finally has energy. Mr. CT again had a catch to go over the first page to make sure everyone was in agreement on the first page.

Chem 2 – Today was an orientation day for this class, since it was the first day of the semester, due to the dual-credit nature. The only thing I really remarked here was the class featured 11 people, only one of them male.

After classes ended we headed over to Ms. Bio’s room to talk about things. We divided up work for the next few weeks, and it turns out that the creation of handouts and lectures for the next few days fell to them.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Last Preface

I'll be starting the stories of my time in the classroom off with my first official day, which was Tuesday of last week. I spent two days in the class before then, but they were mostly observation days, one of them resulted in the description of the classroom. I didn't include a schedule since, at the time of those observations the schedule was different, with a Chem 1 class that was going to be dissolved into all the other Chem 1 sections and replaced by a Dual Credit Chem 2 course. It was unclear until the current semester schedules were published how the students from the course were going to be distributed and I had not seen any of the new faces.

The one thing I did know is that the lab space is designed for a maximum of 24 students per class section, and all the Chem 1 classes were at or near that capacity before they had to fit a mostly-full class into them. It was a forgone conclusion, then, that all the classes I would be working with would be over capacity for the laboratory area. Luckily, it appears no class got dumped with an unreasonable amount of students, but every class has three or four extra.

The schedule I have is fairly unusual, so I’ll give a brief rundown. The day starts at 8:20, classes are 46 minutes long and there’s a four minute passing period between each class period, with some unusual features in the middle of the day that I’ll get into. Mr. CT’s day, and thus mine, starts with two prep periods, so I have a lot of time to get any demos or labs set up before having to worry about any students. Third period is AP, and my role in that class will probably be little more than observer and assistant for a long time. AP is followed by a weird half-period known as the Advisory period. This is kind of a school-wide study hall, with Juniors getting ACT prep in this time. This time apparently ends up as prime time to make up missed labs, so I imagine I’ll do that if anything during this time. Fourth period is split up into three sections, one of which is a lunch period. In my case, that happens to be the first of the three sections, so I will end up having a lot of the time at the beginning of the day to prepare for the lessons of the day. The second two sections of the of the fourth period constitute the first of the three Chem 1 classes, but it is unusual in that it must be prefaced by ten minutes of Channel One, a weird quasi-educational cable channel that the school is contractually required to show to the students. The fourth period is followed by two other Chem 1 classes in quick succession, making a nice, compact block of teaching. The day is ended, with the seventh period, with the dual credit Chem 2 class. I’m not sure how I will really fit in with this class, so far I’ve been a pretty good lab assistant, but it seems like the interaction with the community college could provide complications.

I really will be posting some stories of what has happened in these classes, but time has been my enemy this last week.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Programming Notes

A few things before the stories of my time in the chemistry mines can get put on the web for everyone to see.

I went ahead and took the rosters of the three classes I'll be working with the most, put all their names into a spreadsheet and then matched all their names with fake names taken from a random name generator. This means that I can use consistent names that refer to specific people, which will save a lot of time in telling any stories about what goes on in the classroom, without worrying about loss of anonymity for the people I want to talk about. Since these were taken at random, this has the unfortunate effect of making the classes seem like they have random octogenarians sprinkled in the high school, so when I start talking about Norman, Constance or Marylou, remember that those are nowhere close to their real names. Genders have been kept constant, though, since randomizing those would muddy the waters too much when talking about high school students. Also, the appearance of a Rodrigo or a Latoya should not be taken as indicators of class make up, if you know what I mean (when thinking about the school, think pale).

There's another thing that makes this student teaching experience a little unusual, in that Mr. CT (my Cooperating Teacher, if I haven't made that clear before) has, historically, worked in close collaboration with the other teacher of Chem 1 at Midwest High, whom I shall call Ms. Bio. Not only that, but Ms. Bio has her own student teacher this semester, whom I shall call Ms. ST. So, rather than the class being me and Mr. CT or me alone, it's looking like it's going to be mostly a four-person collaboration, at least for the immediate future. Which is a good opportunity for me to learn more of the trade, but it means a great deal more time at the school than I really anticipated getting into this.

On to stories!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Classroom

The walls are cinder block with a pale blue coat of paint, probably chosen as a combination of inoffensive, durable and cheap. Standard drop ceiling with fluorescent lighting, though there are windows to the outside for some natural lighting as well. The room has two doors leading into it from the hallway, both situated on the same wall but on opposite ends. In between the doors are the safety shower and eye wash station, the fume hood for the classroom and a black, chemical-resistant countertop with a bookshelf that held a row of old textbooks.

The next wall clockwise from the entrances was set up as the front of the room. This wall had the blackboard, a small one with two movable sections over a third, and the projector screen. On the side of this wall nearest to the entrances was a door to a small office, while on the other end of the wall was a door to the chemical supply closet. This wall also features the fire extinguisher for the room, of the ABC type (so, no protection from a metal fire, but the teacher would have to do some work for that to be even possible) right next to the door to the office. In front of this wall is a demo bench for the instructor, a wide counter with a sink, faucet and gas hookups to one side. There is a separate desk that has been pushed next to the demo bench to provide the teacher with more space, this is also where the hookup for the projector happens to be. In the corner farthest from the entrance are an old television, a computer station that the instructor uses to take attendance, and the old overhead projector.

The two other walls are dedicated to lab spaces, with six peninsular counters, three to a wall, meant to accommodate four students each. Each lab counter has a sink in the middle with two faucets and four gas hookups for each faucet. The faucets are set up to be able to run suction filtration if desired. Below the counter top are six drawers on a side where basic lab supplies (large flasks, graduated cylinders, test tube brushes and the like) are kept, along with the students’ goggles. Along the wall in between the peninsulas is more counter space, under which is where students keep communal lab aprons. There is a corner space defined by the counters and the walls where the carts containing the materials for whatever lab the class is working on tend to hang out, and the countertop along the wall of this area is where the drying oven, the sharps box and the ring stands with buret clamps live.

The whole room is decorated with a collection of posters, mostly Flinn Safety posters with cartoon animals illustrating proper and improper laboratory procedure but with several large periodic tables of the elements and some science-oriented cartoons with the required corny jokes.

The office connected to the classroom has bookshelves piled high with old textbooks and solutions manuals, AP prep stuff, PSAE and ACT prep stuff, and handouts and other materials from previous years. There’s a counter with a small fridge on top, where Mr. CT keeps lunch and bottles of 30% hydrogen peroxide solution, a separated file cabinet containing exclusively Mr. CT’s materials from Chem 1 and AP Chem classes that he has taught previously, and a small desk, which has been given for my use. There’s also a door to the chemical supply room. The chemical supply room is long and thin, with the walls lined with low counter top cabinets and wooden chemical storage shelves. One side is dedicated to reagents and the other used for mixed solutions and material for labs. In addition to standard reagent bottles and containers are many baby food jars for the distribution of small amounts of chemicals for labs. The reagent side is organized along the Flinn safety storage guide, with appropriate areas of the shelves labeled. There is a separate small acid cabinet and flammables cabinet. Rounding out the collection are various glassware in areas separated from the chemicals.