Thoughts for Back to School Night

I will, unfortunately, not be able to meet you tomorrow evening. Here’s what I would have said:

I’d like to tell you a little bit about myself and the about Honors Chemistry class.

This is my 24th year of teaching, 22 of them at Lower Merion High School. I graduated from Cornell University with a degree in Chemistry and got a Masters degree in education from SUNY Cortland.

I believe that I have the best job in the world – teaching chemistry to young minds. To help you understand why I love this job, let me break it into several pieces. I love chemistry and I love teaching chemistry and I love teaching sophomores and the occasional freshman.

The vast majority of students who walk through my door for a first year Honors chemistry class have gotten away with being smart. They have gotten good grades by listening in class and reading through their notes the night before the test. They have excelled by writing everything they could remember the teacher saying on test questions. I understand this; I was one of them a very long time ago.

Chemistry, however, doesn’t work that way. Rather than regurgitating what the teacher has said in class, students have to recognize patterns and apply ideas to new and novel situations. As a result, reading over notes is not an appropriate plan for success. In addition, chemistry class is usually the first place in which students are confronted with math outside of math class. Suddenly, math has a purpose other than satisfying a math teacher, and to make matters worse, EVERYTHING is a word problem.

As a teacher, I have the opportunity to help students develop the study skills and learning strategies that will carry through high school and college. I get to help them understand the difference between being able to recite a rule and being able to apply it. I get to help them find the bigger patterns in sample problems, so that they can deal with the new and novel situations they will face on my tests and beyond.

In addition, I get to teach things like quantum theory. For those of you not familiar with quantum theory, it is the basis for our current understanding of how electrons behave in atoms. Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize winning physicist, once told an audience that they shouldn’t feel bad about not understanding the theory since he didn’t really understand the theory himself. That means, of course, that high school sophomores can’t be expected to grasp it. But, it doesn’t mean that they can’t begin to think about the theory and can’t make the effort to wrap their heads around a deep and often counter-intuitive set of ideas, and I love having the opportunity to push young inquisitive minds further than they knew they could be pushed.

I love chemistry. Richard Feynman (I mention him a lot…he’s my science hero…brilliant, irreverent, funny) told a story about an artist he knew. The artist complained that scientists couldn’t see the beauty of a flower because they just took it apart to see how it worked inside. Feynman countered that the truth was the scientists got twice as much beauty out of a flower. They could appreciate the outer beauty of the blossom and could appreciate the beauty of the remarkably complex inner workings. I hope to develop that dual appreciation in your children. I want them to see a sunset and appreciate the fabulous colors and, at the same time, contemplate the diffraction of light by the suspended particles in the air. I want them to be frustrated by ice that needs to be scraped from a windshield at the same time that they are thinking about evaporative cooling.

In short, I want to push your children. I want them to be uncomfortable and to learn. I want them to reach beyond what they have always done and discover how far they can go, and I believe that chemistry is one of the best ways to accomplish that task.

A few notes on the workings of the class:

I am working this year to be as “paperless” as I can. Students are doing labs and worksheets digitally. I am distributing digital copies of materials through Edmodo, and Google docs and communicating through Edmodo and e-mail. Please encourage your children to regularly check their LMHS e-mail account and Edmodo for announcements and assignments.

Grades are weighted into two categories: Excellence Extensions (worth 10%) and Regular Assessments (90%). Regular assessments include tests (which will be roughly 50-60%) , labs (some juts data and calculations, some lab write-ups), and homework quizzes.

Because I believe that learning the material is more important than WHEN you learn it. I will be offering (limited) opportunities for students to “re-take” questions from tests. (See the previous post for more details)

If you don’t know what the Excellence Extensions are, please check the post from 9/11/13 on Excellence in Chemistry and then ask your child about density (the current topic).

As always, if you have questions or concerns, please don’t hesitate to contact me. I’m happy to speak on the phone or to meet face to face, but e-mail is generally the fastest way to make initial contact (even if its just to set up a meeting). My e-mail address is

Thank you for letting me borrow your children

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Mastery, Grades and Test Corrections

I hope, as I’m sure all teachers do, that all of my students master the material presented in class. To that end, I do my best to make the material compelling and engaging and the work challenging but possible. In an ideal world, all students would respond to that in perfectly predictable ways and would fully engage every moment of the day and would absorb the material presented and take possession of that knowledge for themselves.

Although I am fortunate to teach in a wonderful high school, things are not ideal. Students come into class tired from the weekend, mentally exhausted from a long paper or a brutal math problem set the night before, and emotionally wound up (for good or bad) by the people they encounter in the hallway.

As a result, I cannot assume that all of my kids learn everything that I want them to, when I want them to and to the depth I want them to and so,  I have to find ways to assess what they have picked up and what they have missed. Much of this is done on the fly – questions asked in class, sample problems done while i walk around, etc, but some of it comes at the ends of units (and semesters) as tests and exams.

Tests, by their nature, have a sense of finality to them, and it is not uncommon for students to think that after the test they can discard that knowledge and begin to work on the next set of information for the next test. Chemistry demands a different approach. Chemistry is an incredibly cumulative body of knowledge, with the ideas of September acting as the foundation for the understandings of October and beyond.

This raises several important questions: 1) What is to be done about students who cannot demonstrate mastery of a topic when that skill or knowledge is needed for success later in the year? and 2) What grade should a child earn if they master the material after the test? 3) How do you prevent students from adopting a self-fulling prophesy  of failure if they do poorly on a test?

In my classroom, I am tying the first and last questions together by allowing students to re-take questions on which they failed to demonstrate mastery on the original test. This allows students a second chance to master the skills they need and provides them with an acceptable and safe way to turn a poor grade into an acceptable one.

Many people (including many students who grasp the material the first time) find this approach somewhat offensive. They ask, “why should person X get the same grade as person Y if they needed extra time to learn the material?” Sometimes, the thought is as direct as saying that only people who can get it the first time qualify as “A” students and others shouldn’t have the opportunity to get the same grade.

My response to queries of this type is the second questions from above “What grade should a child earn if they master the material after the test?” or, more importantly, “What grade should a child earn if they master the material?” (deleting the time element from the question) Asked another way, if a student ends the year knowing all the material at an exceptional level, can anyone comfortably say that they don’t deserve a top grade?

In a very real sense, the question is really about what we hope that a grade tells us. I would like to believe that a student who earns an A in my class could face ANY final exam in chemistry (LMHS, HHS, SAT II, etc) and demonstrate excellent skills and mastery. Whether they achieved that mastery in September or May should not, in my opinion, make any difference

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When are physical skills necessary?

I was thinking today about the penmanship of my youth. This was always my worst mark in elementary school. I struggled (and still struggle) with producing clear, legible handwriting, but I can write circles around most of the students who enter my class today. Does it matter? With the ubiquity of the keyboard, does handwriting have a place anymore?

I just got access to a website called EduWeb Labs. This site allows me (as the teacher) to assign students to “do” a digital lab. The labs involve pictures of the equipment including a “working” balance, centrifuge, hood, hot plate and burner. Students are guided through the lab and must take data as they go along. The chemistry is solid and incorrect procedures will fail and require students to go back to the beginning of the lab and start again. It even requires you to “put on” your goggles.

My plan is to use the site as a pre-lab exercise, so that students have “done” the lab and the calculations before they come in to “actually” do that lab. I hope (and expect) that this will mean that students spend less lab time trying to figure out what to do and more time working effectively.

I have a colleague who plans to use the site as a make-up exercise for students who miss the actual lab. Ideally, a student who misses a lab comes in to do the work during a free period or either before or after school. However, when a student misses a more substantial amount of time, it becomes more and more cumbersome for them to make up all of the work  they have missed and labs are one of those things that can’t be done at home. An on-line lab program allows them to “make up” their lab work on their own time.

As I ponder this possibility I have a vague sense of unease. Chemistry has always been a hands-on science. The fun of chemistry is the labs — running reactions, boiling, filtering, spilling, dropping, exploding, releasing smelly, smoky gases, leaving goggle marks on your face before lunch. For many students, the labs are part of the reason to learn all of the other stuff.

But how much of that is really necessary? What is the actual goal of the labs in a chemistry class? If a student knows how to do the lab and (more importantly) what data needs to be taken and what calculations need to be done with that data, does the physical skill mean anything? Certainly, a student who is going to major in a science related field needs the lab skills, but is there a value to the physical manipulation of glassware for the future poet, historian, or restaurant manager?

Are lab skills the new penmanship?

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How laptops change the Chemistry class

I have a number of issues with the 1:1 laptop initiative at LMHS, but there are a few things that I really appreciate.

1. All students have a gmail account through the district which makes it easy for me to contact them. It also provides them with a search-able database of teacher e-mails so that they can easily contact me.

2. All of my students now have access to the same programs (Pasco’s Data Studio, Vernier’s Graphical Analysis, etc) that I like to use with lab data.

3. Student google accounts allow they to use google docs and to share documents with each other and with me. This gets me one step closer to being paperless (probably unachievable in the end, but every little bit helps and makes my desk look a little neater).

4. Lastly, it allows me to use web sites and resources that make running my class easier and more organized. The primary one of these is

Edmodo is “facebook” for education. It allows me to post 1) a calendar of class topics and events (like tests), 2) documents that I need students to have access to (like old test, labs, notes, worksheets, problem sets, etc.), 3) assignments that can be turned in (digitally) to Edmodo, and 4) links to useful on-line resources.

It also allows me to communicate with the class or with individual students as needed. I can 1) post a message for all to see, 2) message a student (or group of students) directly, receive posts from students and respond, or 3) send an “alert” to all students (via text or e-mail – their choice for the best way to get in touch).

One of the important ways that Edmodo differs from Facebook, however, is that all communication goes through me. A student can message me or post something for the entire class, but nothing can be posted anonymously, and no student can message another student directly. Students who act inappropriately can be made “read-only” so that they can no longer cause trouble, and, in addition, I have control of who can join and therefore, students cannot make additional “false” identities.

Lastly, Edmodo has a parent feature. Each parent can receive an individual code that allows them to “join” the class in a limited way. Specifically, a parent signed up for the class can see everything that I post for the class and can see any communication that involves their child. However, parents do not have access to the direct communications of other children.

If you are interested in joining our class, I will be happy to send you your individual code. Please let me know by email (, and please be sure (especially if the last name differs) that I know which child is yours and I will be happy to send it to you.

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I had a fascinating conversation with a Physics teacher from Upper Merion last spring about grades and grading systems. He has a radical take on both and his class is unlike any other I’ve run into. Some of his ideas were a little further over the edge than I’m ready to go (no tests, only 10 or 11 grades a quarter, each grade = all or nothing, final letter grade dependent only on the number of completed assignments), but one of his ideas struck a chord.

The Upper Merion School District states publicly that an A should indicate excellence and that all students should strive for excellence every day. His own interpretation of excellence (which I agree with) was that excellence was demonstrated by going above and beyond classroom applications; an excellent student is one who can relate the class material to the larger world around her.

In his physics classroom that means that a student who successfully does all of his assignments has earned a B (good but not excellent). To be excellent, that B student must then do a project that applies the physics being studied to the “real” world. As an example he told me about an runner in his class who had a friend film him sprinting along a fence. He used the fence in the background to calculate his velocity each second and then determined his acceleration and the force he was applying to the ground at a number of different points in the video. Another student was a cliff diver and super-imposed the vector of gravitational force acting on her as she plummeted off the cliff and calculated the velocity and force with which she hit the water.

I have decided to adopt this idea (with some modifications) for my classes this year. The biggest (and I believe most important) change I am making is that the projects will not be something for the “best” students; I expect all of my students to reach beyond the bare minimum. I want them to relate the Big Ideas of Chemistry to the wider world, and I expect that these projects will help students to make better sense of the world around them in that context.  Lastly, I also hope to use these projects as a way to encourage peer editing and constant improvement.

The document that fully describes these projects (which I’m calling Excellence Extensions) is attached, and includes the assessment rubric I’ll be using.

excellence extensions final 2013

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The Big Ideas

I have been working with my colleagues over the last week to create common midterm exams for the year (and then finals). Having these exams written at the beginning of the year provides a yardstick against which I can measure my classes’ progress. Although this may smack of teaching to the test, I would argue that it is not for the simple reason that I don’t limit myself to the material on the final, I only make sure that I include all of those topics.

As the chemistry teachers discuss topic after topic, we end up sorting them into two categories: 1) those topics that matter enough for us to put on a unit test and 2) those topics that are SO important that they deserve space and time on the midterm or final exam. As an example, when we discuss atomic history (really the history of our UNDERSTANDING of the atom) we will discuss at least nine different individuals who contributed to our current picture of the atom and its inner workings. However, this topic is covered in September and none of us expect that, in June, all of those names and their accomplishments will be easy for any first year chem student to recall. By the time of the final, there are 3 or 4 names that should rise to the top as the most important to remember and those names will, therefore, make the cut for the final exam.

However, in the last few months, I’ve found myself thinking of an even smaller category: those items that are so important that students should still recall them 5 months or 5 years or 50 years after finishing a chemistry class. These are the ideas that make chemistry a subject worth studying, the concepts that will guide intelligent thought as the students in front of me become voters and participants in the larger world.

To be of value, these ideas can’t be confined by the material covered in a first year chemistry course; they have to be broad and universal. At the same time these ideas can’t be above and outside the class; they must be present in everything the class does. To that end, I’ve written 5 statements that, I believe, encompass these really important themes that are everywhere in first year chemistry and that reach out beyond the class to make sense of things in the larger, and ever-changing world. (For the nuclear physicists in the audience, I know that statements 3-5 get a little hazy when you ponder nuclear reactions, but I think that, outside of stars, nuclear bombs and nuclear reactors,  these do a pretty good job.)

Here, then, is my attempt at distilling chemistry (and science itself) into five REALLY BIG IDEAS

1) A theory, unsupported by evidence, is just an idea. A theory contradicted by evidence is wrong.

2) Mathematics is the language of science; all scientific ideas can be expressed, at least in part, through laws, formulas, charts and graphs.

3) All behavior at the molecular, atomic and sub-atomic scales is governed, almost exclusively by charge.

4) All changes involve a transfer of energy, from particle to particle, and/or from type to type and are, at least theoretically, reversible.

5) Chemistry is not magic; matter and energy can be rearranged and changed, but not created or destroyed.

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Blowing glass and doing labs

Our first noteworthy lab of the quarter is based on a lab from my high school Chemistry teacher (Don Nelson). We will be creating pichnometers (by blowing glass) and then using them to make measurements and do some investigation.

So that this can be safe and fun two things need to happen. The first is that I need to have, in hand, a signed LMSD safety contract. You also need to have read through the lab ahead of time. Both of those documents are posted below.

My goal this year is to help you appreciate science as a process of investigation. To that end, we will be writing lab reports that focus on posing answering a relevant question, understanding the difference between data and evidence, and the making of and supporting conclusions based on that evidence. I’ll post more detail here with a full outline later.

pichnometer with Sprite LM Safety Contract

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