Instructional Acceleration

Acceleration is the rate of change in the rate of change. This entire school year has been a year for embracing change. Anyone in this profession for the long-haul had better get used to change, and to an ever increasing rate of change in the rate of change. Prepare for instructional acceleration.

During this school year, we transitioned a lot of student work to Google Classroom. We had students do many of their lab reports in Classroom, as well as Close Reads, some modeling, and other assorted course work. We have pledged to make as much of the class paperless as possible next year. Students will “join” our Classrooms on day 1 next year, and there they will find digital versions of all of the important documents for the class. This move to paperless has allowed me to give away a four-drawer file cabinet, leaving behind its two-drawer room mate. More importantly, students are becoming proficient at working in a paperless world – sharing data and blending media sources.

“First Fives”, which were prompts posted on this website to start class each day, have gone away and are being replaced by a Learning Journal kept in Classroom.

Last year we began grading digital assignments in Classroom, but this year we extended that with the use of Doctopus and Goobric. It was a real paradigm shift to have no papers to hand back in class, and to have students submit corrections electronically. While it required some adjustments on my part, most students were happy for the changes.

If I had a wish for Classroom right now, it would be that I would be able to deliver summative assessments there as well. Most of the paper remaining in that two-drawer file cabinet are quizzes and tests that are still given on paper. I will be working over the summer to set up some assessments in TCExam on this server, to see if it is a viable tool for delivering paperless assessment in my Chromebook-equipped classroom.

I think that I have anywhere from one to three years left in my teaching career. I’m committed to enjoying the remaining time with my students, and to continue to change with the rapidly changing state of the profession.

 

First, Do No Harm

Another school year already brings us another notable classroom chemistry accident. Once again, “the Rainbow Experiment” has claimed victims, this time at a high school in Virginia. After 30 years of teaching science, including 28 years of teaching chemistry, I am done “playing nice” on the subject of safety. Let me start by saying that the “Rainbow Experiment” is not an experiment. It is a demonstration. Demonstrations are not experiments.

Now, the real venting begins…

Our college science degree programs do not teach the information and practices necessary to equip a teacher with the knowledge and skills necessary to perform safe demonstrations and organize safe laboratory work. Likewise, teaching credential programs altogether omit chemical hygiene as a topic of instruction. As a result, schools are hiring legions of science teachers with widely varying degrees of expertise or ignorance on the most crucial topic of ANY school – how to keep students safe. Thats right, administrators – the most important role of a school is to keep students safe, or as doctors would say, “First, do no harm.” True, parents want their students to learn Chemistry, Biology, English, and History. But first, and most importantly, they want them to return home at the end of the day alive, and without injury and disfigurement.

Every science teacher needs to understand the fundamentals of chemical storage and inventory. They need to be competent at planning laboratory activity that minimizes the risk of injury and exposure to toxins, mutagens and carcinogens. They also need to understand the laws relating to disposal of chemicals in order to keep the community safe and reduce the exposure of the school to financial penalties.

Given that not all science majors will become teachers, it seems unreasonable to lay the responsibility for training teachers at the feet of our university degree programs for science majors. I’m not letting universities off the hook all together. All science majors need to be exposed to a rigorous set of expectations regarding safe practices, and it is clear that many universities only put these practices in place in response to accidents, when they are compelled to do so by legal action.

Clearly, credential programs bear a responsibility to train future science teachers in the maintenance of safe science classrooms. Unfortunately, I have never spoken to a teacher who received any such formal, sanctioned training while obtaining their credential. Credential programs seem to be completely focused on the latest trends in teaching. Teachers are inundated with educational theories that will be toppled and replaced three or more times during a long career. Some proto-teachers may benefit from a master teacher who shares safety tips – a completely random and unreliable approach to keeping students safe. Student teachers are more fearful of the observations and evaluations that measure their “buy-in”  to the latest educational fancy than they are of the risk of a student being injured.

Teachers in my district are not supposed to show movies to students without the prior approval of an administrator. Violations of the rule can result in disciplinary action. Clearly, we don’t want to run the risk that a student goes home and tells Mom and Dad that they heard a bad word in class, or saw an uncovered body part in an unsanctioned movie clip. Yet, I could go to work on Monday and pull out the methanol from the flammables cabinet and perform the SAME rainbow disaster, and there is nothing to stop me. Do I want administrators two feet up my colon? No. Very few are qualified to serve as trainers or gatekeepers for what is risky in the science classroom. I think that this training is best provided by people with actual experience – qualified fellow teachers. In some cases, that is a grizzled veteran. In others, as in another high school in my district, it is the brilliant young gun with the right degree, training, and attitude.

The PLC movement has swept through schools as fast as a methanol fire. Science PLC’s should be taking time to share the activities that we have planned for the near future, and to discuss safety, risks, precautions and alternatives. There have to be “gatekeepers” who have the authority to say “No” to  risky activities. Several years ago, I saw a new teacher from a nearby high school a few days before he was about to begin his first year as a teacher. A biology major, he was working hard to prepare to teach chemistry and AP Chemistry. We had worked together over the summer, and we ran into each other at a big district training on the work of PLC’s. He informed me that he was planning to blow up sodium in water on the first day of class to “get the kids excited about chemistry.” So, what is more important than the data-driven work of the PLC? What is more important than improving student learning outcomes? Simple – keeping students safe is more important. I directed him to PeriodicVideos.com and told him that he was better off showing the video, as well as leaving the reactivity of sodium to a place in the curriculum where it would be more than a magic show.

I have no doubt that Woodson High School in Virginia will soon have a comprehensive chemical hygiene plan with extensive, classroom focused safety training. The injuries to students and a teacher are a terribly high price to pay for a program that should be in place at every school. Throw in the cost of the ensuing lawsuits, and it is hard to see how schools can continue to turn a blind eye to the potential disaster lurking in so many science classrooms. Unfortunately, we are in an era when classroom visits are directed toward examining the posted lesson objectives and academic vocabulary. So, in the interest of being obedient to the latest trend, here is a lesson objective:

  • Students will be kept alive and unharmed while in my classroom

 

What is it with kids these days?

Graffiti - El Diamante Style
Graffiti – El Diamante Style

“Kids these days!” I imagine that since earliest human history, there has been a tendency for older generations to see the younger generations as their unworthy heirs. You can almost hear the complaints from just outside the cave – “Kids these days are spoiled, lazy and act as if mammoth steak grows on trees. If they ever have to hunt for themselves, they’ll probably starve. Why, when I was their age…”

In the 1930’s, the veterans of WWI bemoaned the condition of “kids these days”. In their view, the kids of the 30’s were soft, and would never be able to serve their country in the manner that the Doughboys had done in “their” great war. Those unworthy youth of the 1930’s are often now referred to as America’s Greatest Generation.

I have been teaching for thirty years. I have had the opportunity over the years to speak with many former students, and have often enough heard the ancient phrase from them. “Kids these days,” they will begin, followed by observations supporting their opinion that the youth of today fail to live up to the lofty standards that they, themselves, established in their youth. Frequently I find myself having to bite my tongue as I recall the truth about the individual standing before me.

This week we lost a student at my school to suicide. To compound the tragedy, the social networking “athletes” tossed around rumors, jumped to conclusions, ran their mouths when they didn’t have the facts, and kicked the students, faculty and coaching staff of my school when we were down. Of course, a number of these self-appointed pontificators came through with the accusatory phrase, “Kids these days!”

So, let me pitch in my two-cents about kids these days.

Kids these days are more compassionate, tolerant and inclusive than any with whom I have ever had contact, including my own generation in our youth. As I began writing this tonight, the students of my school were holding a candlelight memorial for the young man who took his own life. This is a memorial that THEY organized. The students at my school are advocates for the environment, shelter animals, and the developmentally disabled. The cynical would suggest that they do these things to pad their college applications, but I would respond by telling you that most of these young people will not be applying directly to four-year colleges. And those who do aspire to a four-year college face a far more competitive process than what I faced.

Whether it is the national news, or the local news, I am endlessly impressed with “kids these days.” At a high school in Tulare, instructor Michaelpaul Mendoza has a club called “Harvesting Hope” which does the hard work of gleaning unused produce in Tulare County and making it available to feed the hungry. Ask him about “kids these days.”

Perhaps it is a natural progression in life to embellish upon the quality of one’s own youth. Like fish stories, our memories recall smarter, harder working, more athletic, and better behaved selves than the truth could support. I don’t expect that to change, as I think it is a natural response to aging and our own mortality. If you are dealing with the stresses of adult life, and want to tell a few white lies about your gpa, IQ or batting average, then be my guest. But please don’t do it at the expense of “kids these days.”

Are You (really) An AP Chemistry Student?

Each year when registration time rolls around for the following year’s classes, I get students asking me questions about AP Chemistry. Some students want to take the class because they see a future in sciences. Others enjoyed General Chemistry and think AP Chemistry might be “fun”. Some students are trying to pack in as many AP courses on the transcript as possible.

However, before you register for the course, I want the expectations to be clear. It is unrealistic to expect Learning Directors to understand the expectations of each class. They have large numbers of students to schedule, and will sometimes place a student in an AP course for which they are unprepared. I have taught this course since 1998, and I have no confusion about what qualities predict success in AP Chemistry.

You might be an AP Chemistry student if:

  1. You got an “A” in Chemistry by giving your best effort the FIRST time
  2. You have strong math skills
  3. You do the reading BEFORE doing the assigned homework problems
  4. You complete assignments on time
  5. You are willing to ask questions and take advantage of office hours
  6. You have a substantial amount of time to commit DAILY to the course work
  7. You can handle the pressure of frequent, TIMED tests and quizzes

You might NOT be an AP Chemistry student if:

  1. You needed “retakes” to do well in Chemistry
  2. You find math to be puzzling, difficult, or boring
  3. You bypass assigned reading and go straight to the assigned problems
  4. You are frequently absent
  5. You expect other students to ask the questions for you
  6. You wait until weekends or vacations to try to catch up
  7. You suffer from test anxiety

It is important for students to understand that there is NO WAY to slow down in order to re-teach material. The curriculum is determined by the College Board. A college Chemistry course has three hours of lecture per week, a one-hour discussion section, and a lab section of at least three hours. That is seven hours per week. I get less than five hours per week to provide the equivalent experience. Take away time lost to rallies, special schedules, school holidays, and the four weeks we lose because the test is given in early May, and that time actually works out to about 4 hours per week. It should be apparent that we cannot slow down. Ever.

Students who do well in AP Chemistry are tenacious. They work hard, and when the material gets difficult, they work harder. If you are taking the course in order to have an AP class on your transcript, or because someone else (friend, parent, Learning Director) has convinced you to “try” it, then let me convince you to reconsider. The only graded assignments in the class are labs, quizzes and tests. There are no retakes of ANYTHING. There will be three major unit tests each semester, and they are weighted more heavily than any test you took in Chemistry.

Perhaps my favorite “quote” is a Latin proverb that says

If the wind will not serve, take to the oars.

Many bright students are unsuccessful in AP Chemistry. Look at that quote again. If you continue to challenge yourself academically, you will eventually reach a point where your natural ability is not sufficient. For many students, AP Chemistry is that point. Those who roll up their sleeves and do the hard work will succeed. Those who look for shortcuts, or someone else to blame, will fail.

Einstein Never Said That, Either

"Albert Einstein Head Cleaned N Cropped" by Photograph by Oren Jack Turner, Princeton, N.J.Original image cleaned/leveled and cropped by User:Jaakobou. - This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3b46036.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information.العربية | čeština | Deutsch | English | español | فارسی | suomi | français | magyar | italiano | македонски | മലയാളം | Nederlands | polski | português | русский | slovenčina | slovenščina | Türkçe | 中文 | 中文(简体)‎ | 中文(繁體)‎ | +/−. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Albert_Einstein_Head_Cleaned_N_Cropped.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Albert_Einstein_Head_Cleaned_N_Cropped.jpg
“Albert Einstein Head Cleaned N Cropped” by Photograph by Oren Jack Turner, Princeton, N.J. This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3b46036.

I recently posted about a quote that has mistakenly been  attributed to Einstein. While researching that mistaken attribution, I came across another that I felt compelled to address. This one has been shared in staff development at my school, and was also mistakenly attributed to Albert Einstein. This one has always rubbed me the wrong way, and the fact that it in NOT from Einstein brings me a twisted sense of satisfaction.

So, if you have ever suffered this one, you can now correct the author/speaker who lays this at the feet of Einstein:

Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.

While it may be some comfort to folks to believe that each of us is a genius in our own right, the notion is patently absurd. Perhaps this piece of tripe rose out of the mis-directed “Self-Esteem” movement that gained a lot of traction during the 1980’s. If you want to see hundreds of instances of this misquote, look it up in Google Images. You will see nearly countless “inspirational” images featuring this quote, and almost always attributed to Einstein.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that schools often do a poor job of identifying and nurturing the genuine talents and interests of many of our students. However, the notion that each of us is an unrecognized genius is not laughable, it is actually counter-productive.

I, for one, am NOT a genius. The things that I have accomplished were not so much the result of the way in which my neural networks aligned, but rather they were the product of curiosity and tenacity. If you want to share a genuinely inspiring (and GENUINE) Einstein quote in the context of education, I contend that the choice ought to be:

It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.

Lets teach students the value of tenacity. Want to be good at math? Work at it. Want to perform brilliantly on a musical instrument? Be prepared to spend hours practicing, and be willing to work at your deficits. Want to get to Medical School? Be prepared to outwork an army of similarly talented young persons, almost none of whom are geniuses.

No doubt there are geniuses. I believe that I have encountered several in my years as a teacher. We should take comfort in their relative rarity – it means that we have a greater role to play in the lives of young people. We are not simply traffic cops directing our myriad genius students to their pre-destined appointments with greatness. We have our subjects to teach, but as important is teaching them “to stay with problems longer.”

Einstein Never Said That

Well, it is the start of the school year. If I weren’t certain of that fact, today’s “Convocation” cleared up any doubt. Now that the recession is over, the district can once again afford to motivate us by bringing in someone to give us a kick start. Today’s speaker was very good. Set aside that fact that most research shows very little residual benefit from motivational speakers; it certainly does no harm to have someone remind us of the importance of the work that we do.

"Einstein1921 by F Schmutzer 2" by Ferdinand Schmutzer - http://www.bhm.ch/de/news_04a.cfm?bid=4&jahr=2006. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Einstein1921 by F Schmutzer 2” by Ferdinand Schmutzerhttp://www.bhm.ch/de/news_04a.cfm?bid=4&jahr=2006. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

There was, however, one thing with which I took exception. The speaker presented that quote so often attributed to Einstein. You know the one – “As Einstein said, ‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.’ ” I have heard this same line delivered authoritatively by principals, superintendents, guest speakers and consultants. The problem is, of course, that Einstein never said it. Also, that is not the definition of insanity. It might be a good definition of futility.

Now, if you insist that Einstein IS the source of this quote, then take some time to search for the truth yourself. You might start with this Gizmodo page titled “9 Albert Einstein Quotes That Are Totally Fake“.

So what is the harm in a misattribution? First, when you don’t have one of your facts straight, it makes people question ALL of your facts. Topics such as “Educational Research” are dubious enough without injecting additional suspicion. Also, we run the risk of “group think” when a quote offered up by one authority is then used over-and-over by others without any fact checking.

How about another example? I taught at Mt. Whitney High School for seventeen years. During the last four or five of those years, I would sometimes get emails from people asking for “the complete transcript of the speech that Bill Gates gave at Mt. Whitney High School.” You see, there is a list of  “11 Golden Rules Your Kid Will Never Learn in School” that has been incorrectly attributed to Bill Gates. Some how, the story evolved that it was part of a speech given by Bill Gates at Mt. Whitney High School. I would inform the inquiring party that the source of the list was NOT Bill Gates, and that I could authoritatively state that Bill Gates had NEVER given a speech at my high school.

As you can imagine, some people accepted the truth, while others wanted to argue and present their “evidence” that I was wrong. The “evidence” was always a web page with the list and the contention that the source was Bill Gates, in a speech at Mt. Whitney High School. The “list” persists even today. If you don’t believe me, do a quick search for “Bill Gates Speech Mt. Whitney High School”.

Ultimately, I am bothered by the false Einstein quote for the same reasons that I am irritated that the fake Bill Gates list has continued to find a home on the Internet. People take something that “sounds right” and add the authority of Albert Einstein or Bill Gates to give it extra weight. The falsehood is then off and running, with the gravitas of a cultural icon to carry it along. The REAL truth is available to people who want to know the truth. Let’s teach students to question even those sources that sound authoritative. And let’s question those things ourselves as well.

Safety First

I recently stumbled across a Google+ feed from a law firm handling a lawsuit for a young man injured in an accident in a New York classroom. A teacher was demonstrating the visible colors produced when various metal cations are excited by heating. In the case cited, the teacher was using methanol ignited in Petri dishes. When the teacher attempted to repeat the demonstration, the methanol in the stock container from which she was pouring ignited, shooting flames across the room, and burning two students.

The most tragic part of the case is that this particular demonstration has resulted in serious burn injuries in numerous classrooms in recent years, and there have been constant warnings against doing “The Rainbow Demonstration”.

The teacher in the classroom had a Master’s degree in chemistry, but there is a tremendous difference between the knowledge required to obtain such a degree, and the knowledge required to safely lead demonstrations and lab activities for students. So, what went wrong?

  1. The teacher used methanol instead of ethanol. Methanol is more volatile, has a lower flash point, and should not be ignited in any classroom demonstration. The use of methanol in the “Rainbow” experiment and the “Woosh bottle” demonstration has repeatedly resulted in catastrophic injury.
  2. The teacher filled the Petri dishes from a large stock bottle of methanol. Stock bottles belong in dedicated flammables storage. Only the exact quantity needed should be brought into the classroom.
  3. The teacher, probably in response to the student request to “do it again!” poured the methanol from the stock bottle into Petri dishes that were almost certainly very hot from the previous combustion.
  4. There was no fire blanket in the room.

You can read the actual results of the investigation into the accident HERE.

Please take the time to view this YouTube video featuring a young woman whose life was forever changed when she was injured in a very similar accident. And PLEASE commit to never igniting methanol in a classroom environment.

 

Next Generation Science Standards

Background

For some fifteen years, California has had a science framework built around reasonably well-defined sets of standards. In the case of chemistry, these standards were quite well defined. For many science teachers, it has been a genuine pleasure to teach to these standards. During these past fifteen years I have adopted a number of important changes in my own instruction, perhaps most important of which has been benchmark assessments to track student achievement of our standards-based learning objectives. The expansion of this website was a result of the need to provide as many avenues as possible for students to access, review, and master the targeted content. The fact that use of this site has grown steadily over that time period suggests that I am one of many teachers who have adopted a multitude of strategies and resources to improve student achievement.

The California Science Standards have repeatedly been rated highly by the Fordham Institute, so it is bit frightening to consider this shift to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Part of the original purpose behind our current Framework was to return to sanity after the disaster of “Constructivism” – the notion that kids’ natural curiosity would lead them to discover the important tenets of science. With leadership from Glen Seaborg, our current framework was developed with the notion that there is fundamental information that students must understand in order to be scientifically literate.

Where we Find Ourselves

I admit that I don’t deal well with uncertainty and lack of direction. At this point in California, we find ourselves in the academic doldrums. The California Department of Education has given the go ahead to the Next Generation Science Standards. However, the NGSS is NOT a framework. Over the next two years, groups of science educators and administrators who like meetings and committee work (read: NOT ME) will gather repeatedly and generate a new Science Framework for California. The new Framework is expected in early 2016. There will be no aligned textbooks until the 2017 – 2018 school year.

I am not a bit bothered by the long delay in new textbooks. In fact, I am hoping that the shift to NGSS and the delays in textbook availability will provide the opportunity for electronic texts and online resources to bring about the death of traditional textbooks. The difficulty for me is stasis – remaining invested in the old framework while awaiting the new. I’m not certain how this will all play out in other states, but I imagine that it will play out in a similar manner throughout much of the country.

Shoot, Ready, Aim

I’m opting to move ahead, while keeping an ear to the ground. I read an article recently that described the philosophical differences between Apple and Google. The folks at Apple were described as “Castle Builders” because of their desire to get things perfect before releasing a product. Google, on the other hand, was described as being experimental, where programmers are encouraged to release things in an unpolished state, and then allow input to determine changes and improvements. I once heard this approach described as “Shoot, ready, aim.” I am without a doubt in the “Shoot, ready, aim” camp. I cannot reasonably wait for a new Framework, or even longer for textbook publishers.

Fortunately, I have company. My colleagues at El Diamante are on board, and we are all reviewing our current curriculum and NGSS with an eye toward making necessary changes, while not dispensing with the best things we have learned over the past fifteen years. We will certainly keep the concept of incremental benchmarks, though the content will see some changes. We are hopeful that the new California Science Framework will contain detail that the NGSS lacks. We are going to move ahead with the hope that our new Framework will keep the best of the old, measurable standards, while adopting some of the spirit of NGSS.

What This All Means at ScienceGeek.net

There are going to be some changes, but they will roll out slowly. The focus initially will be on chemistry, because that is my primary assignment. Old practice activities will be kept around, but new activities will be created. Our units will be restructured. We have decided to change Unit 6, with its focus on solutions, to a unit that focuses on the properties of water, as well as on water as a natural resource. We will get that up and running this Spring. Next school year we will restructure a couple more units, and try to fine tune Unit 6 based on our experiences this Spring. It is our hope that with steady work and some information of the progress of the Framework, that we will stay ahead of the game .

We will never all agree on all aspects of any unified curriculum. I am as alarmed at the complete omission of Gas Laws and Kinetic Molecular Theory in NGSS as I was with the omission of Electrochemistry and Redox from the current California Framework. Gas Laws will remain a part of my curriculum, and I have every hope that it will make it into the new Framework. I will continue to post on our progress, my views on what has happened already and what is coming.

Philosophy of Teaching

Twelve years ago, when I had been in this profession for sixteen years, I was asked to write a statement of my philosophy of teaching for a local teaching award program. I don’t think that I had looked at that document more than once in the time since then. Because this is the start of a new year, and because I have been doing a series on those who influenced me in this profession, I thought that I would share the statement I wrote back then, and then a few comments to bring it all up-to-date.

 

Ed Huston is my “teacher hero.” Ed taught Social Sciences for many years at Mt.Whitney High School. When I began teaching at Mt.Whitney, Ed was the most computer literate teacher around. When the Internet became a desired classroom resource, Ed brought a computer from home and hooked it up to a phone line to provide Internet access to his students (two years before Digital High School brought us school-wide high speed connections). When Ed was within a couple of years of retirement, he took the opportunity to go to Russia to teach for a year. In his last year of teaching, he taught the first AP Civics course at Mt.Whitney High School. Right through the last year that he taught, Ed Huston was always eager to experience something new and to learn something new. He never burned out. He was always upbeat and exuded a love of teaching that was contagious. His peers and students alike became better people in his presence.

When I first began teaching sixteen years ago, I was certain that I was already the best teacher on the planet. I was cocky, brash, and possessed a decided disrespect for my elders in the profession. In the years since, I have been the benefactor of superior role models such as Ed Huston, Art Shahzade, and Mike Neal. I have come to know “what I don’t know.” I now see a career in teaching as a journey of continual self-growth. To be an effective teacher, I must understand what it means to struggle, and to revel in the learning process. When a teacher ceases to be a student himself, it becomes possible to lose touch with both the joys and frustrations of the learning process. I have come to understand that in many things, I am ignorant and my students are the masters. One student produces masterful watercolor paintings, while I struggle with stick figures. Another plays concert piano while I struggle with simple chords on the guitar. At the heart of any great teacher there must be a sense of humility.

A teacher must also have the heart of a servant. I make myself available to my students for an hour before school and at lunch every day. Most days I can be found in my classroom well after the school day ends. My job is to serve my students – to give them every opportunity to shine. Ironically, it is also my job to help them to become the sort of learners who no longer need their teacher. My chemistry program is rich with laboratory activity, and I commit a tremendous amount of time to the maintenance of a safe environment for my students. I have extended my classroom outside of the walls of the school by providing my students with a comprehensive website where they can print notes, check on their grades, review the course calendar, do interactive practice exercises, and  download chemistry programs for the computer and graphing calculator, some of which I have written myself. For the past fourteen years, I have made evening review sessions available to students who have fallen behind or who simply feel that they could benefit from extra help. I work hard to keep parents involved through phone calls, email, and the grade database and calendar resources at my website.

A teacher must be a master of the subject matter that is being taught and intimately familiar with the content standards and state frameworks. I have been deeply involved with Visalia Unified School District’s work at aligning the curriculum with the state content standards. I have found that the challenge exists not so much in developing a curriculum aligned with the standards. Rather, the challenge exists in developing a consensus across all schools in the district so that students’ mastery of the standards can be assessed in the same manner district-wide. This effort has required a degree of cooperation and a spirit of compromise that has strengthened our professional relationships. In addition, it has produced a healthy exchange of ideas that has whittled away at the cloistered atmosphere of our profession.

Looking back sixteen years to my first year as a science teacher, I find it incomprehensible that I could have considered what I was engaged in as competent teaching, let alone masterful teaching. If any one thing can be considered my greatest strength as a teacher, it is that I now know that sixteen years from now I will look back on many of the things that I do in the classroom today and say, “I cannot believe that I used to do that!” I know that I will continue to grow, try new things, and refine my skills. I shall never be a finished product. Should I ever presume to have become the finest teacher that I can possibly be, I would hope to be dragged from the classroom and asked never to return. The joy is in the journey, in the ceaseless intellectual growth, and in the priceless relationships forged with peers and students along the way.

In the years since writing this statement, a LOT has changed about my classroom and the way that I teach. When I wrote this, I taught from a chair at an overhead projector. Today, there is no overhead projector, and I can teach from anywhere in my classroom, thanks to current technology. Today I am more certain than ever that I have  a LOT to learn about this job, and that even when I am teaching my last year I will be making changes. Lastly, I am more hopeful than I have been in many years for the future of education in this country as I see energetic young people entering the profession and embracing both the modern technology and the age-old truths.

 

Vicki Winterton

“Unthankfulness is theft” – Martin Luther

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the debt that I owe to others in my life. Since I prefer to limit my blogging to my teaching career and the profession of teaching, it occurs to me that, even if no one else reads this, I need to thank the people who have influenced me and contributed to my own career as an educator. Some of the people that I discuss in these posts will be my own teachers. Others will be colleagues who supported and influenced me during these years as a teacher.

Vicki Winterton was the Chemistry teacher at Mt. Whitney High School when I started my teaching career there in 1986. Though I thought that I was being hired to teach Biology and Health science, my initial assignment turned out to be three sections of Health Science and a couple sections of Earth Science. Seniority issues can be a real pain in the rear for a young teacher. I had a degree in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and I was teaching Earth Science (the one class I told them in my interview that I was not qualified to teach).

After a couple of years, there was a need for someone to teach some extra sections of chemistry. Several administrators doubted that I was qualified, but with Vicki’s support I was given a chance to teach those extra sections. That opportunity changed the direction of my teaching career, primarily because it gave me the opportunity to work with Vicki Winterton.

Knowing that I was teaching chemistry the following school year, I went to Vicki before summer break started and asked her for some guidance. She promptly made ALL of her materials available to me – labs, worksheets, quizzes, tests…EVERYTHING. As that first year of chemistry progressed, she was a constant source of information and encouragement. She had been the Visalia Teacher of the Year, and would soon garner the yearbook dedication from our student body. She was the consummate professional, but I learned that her success was as much a product of the respect that she accorded her students as it was her mastery of the subject matter. She would warn them about her “raw German rage,” but students clearly could see that she had a huge heart, and that “rage” was not how she managed a classroom.

To this day it amazes me that colleagues teaching the same subject at the same school will put up barriers to cooperation. When Vicki and I taught together, everyone knew that we were in lockstep with one another. If a student transferred from one of us to the other, the work, policies and place in the curriculum would be consistent. When I transferred to El Diamante High School in 2003, it was because of the desire to bring that atmosphere of collegiality to a new school. Here, our science department is well known for the willingness of the faculty to work together and share. Much of that is due to the years that I spent working with Vicki Winterton at Mt. Whitney.

Indeed, much of the content of the this website had its origins in that Chemistry room at Mt. Whitney. Many of the labs posted here originally came from Vicki, as did a popular organic chemistry tutorial. She might even share with you that she first taught me how to do my grades on a computer spreadsheet – my first experience at using a computer to simplify the work of a teacher.

I frequently get email from fellow teachers thanking me for making the materials at this website available to everyone. Many times, the email is from a brand-new teacher, or someone teaching Chemistry for the first time. Some of them have even offered to reimburse me for some of what they use. What I tell them is that this is my attempt at trying to pay back the debt that I owe to those who supported me when I was a new teacher. No one was a greater source of support to me than Vicki.

At the end of this 2012 – 2013 school year Vicki is going to retire. She and her husband John can spend more well-deserved time at their cabin at Hume Lake. She can also have a break from the endless cycle of “staff development experts” and “education consultants” who could not bring to a classroom even one-tenth of what Vicki brings ever y day. Regardless of the fact that she will not actually be present in the classroom next year, students will continue to be impacted by her for many years to come through those of us who have been blessed to call her a colleague and a friend.