Spectral Workbench

I recently had the good fortune to discover for myself Public Laboratory (www.publiclaboratory.org) and one of their magnificent projects, Spectral Workbench (www.spectralworkbench.org). I was on a spin bike at the gym and read an article in the science column of Popular Mechanics in which the writer touted the resources and the do-it-yourself plans for building a homemade spectrometer.

The science department at my school ordered a few of the kits to build the spectrometers, since they were only $40. Now that I’ve built one, I see how easy it would be to truly build your own. During construction, it is necessary to adjust the focus on the web cam to 9 inches, which proved to be the most challenging piece ( had to install some web cam software on my work laptop ).  Once you’ve built the device, it is time to join Public Laboratory so that you can save results and participate in their message boards.

With the device built and plugged into the laptop, I logged onto Spectral Workbench and chose “Capture Spectra”. Chrome browser alerts you that the website wants to use a camera on your computer. From there I needed only to be able follow the well documented (though nearly intuitive) procedures for capturing sample spectra. From a seated position at my desk, I was able to point the spectrometer toward the ceiling fluorescent fixture and get a quite good first spectrum. However, the result lacked a wavelength correlation. So, I followed the directions to calibrate the device against the mercury spectrum of a compact fluorescent bulb.SpectralWorkbench2

Once you have completed the calibration, all spectra that you collect will be scaled to the initial calibration. Though the spectra are only in the visible range, it would be possible to obtain near infra-red if you successfully remove the IR filter from the web camera. However, the directions that come with the kit are insufficient to successfully remove the filter. I took a webcam completely apart in order to figure out how to safely get the filter out, but ruined that camera in the process. My next goal is to set up the next kit with no IR filter.

There are so many uses for such a device in the chemistry and biology classroom and lab. We will certainly be using these next year when doing flame tests for cations. I encourage you to try it out and add your discoveries to the growing community at Public Laboratory.

Ben Marafino

“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 will discuss in the following series of posts will be my own teachers. Others will be colleagues who supported and influenced me during these years as a teacher.

BenMarafinoBen Marafino was my math teacher in the seventh and eighth grade at Crocker Middle School in Hillsborough, California. I decided to write this today because I’ve just watched my high school homeroom class taking the California Standards tests for mathematics, and it was a painful sight. Many of them HATE math. Most of them see no real use for it. None of them had the benefit of learning Algebra from Mr. Marafino.

The person I most often quote in the daily instruction of Chemistry is Mr. Marafino. I joke with my students that when the time comes that I am parked in the sun room of a convalescent home and no longer recognize my wife and daughter, I will still recall that “Division is defined to be multiplication by the reciprocal of the denominator.” From Ben Marafino I learned the mechanics of mathematics that would pay dividends all the way through college and beyond. He fully expected that he would be able to stop any one of us in the hallway at any time and request that we recite the general solution to the quadratic equation. I am stunned by how much my own students have forgotten from math they learned only in the past several years, when I am able to call on the well taught lessons of forty years past.

Mr. Marafino also taught science at Crocker. In science, he always emphasized the “hands on” approach. On a fishing trip one time, I caught a shark. Mr. Marafino was delighted to have it for a dissection. We reacted acid with oyster shells, producing carbon dioxide and a horrible stench.  It was in the lab room at Crocker that I first thought I might want to “be a scientist.” I remember once that he explained to us that the school had been buying acids already diluted with water. He explained that it really wasn’t very difficult to instead buy concentrated acids and prepare the correct concentrations from them, and that it was much cheaper to do so. I thought it was so cool that Mr. Marafino knew how to do that.

All these years later I can still picture him walking down the hallway toward our class, with a smile on his face and a bundle of “pop quizzes” in his hand. His smile was never larger than when he was about to surprise us with an unannounced quiz. Unfortunately for generations of students, he didn’t make his career in the classroom.

At the end of my senior in high school I stopped by Crocker while running an errand on the San Francisco peninsula for my father’s business. I saw Mr. Marafino, and he informed me that he was leaving teaching and going to, I believe, Pharmacy school. Looking back after so many years, it was apparent the students at our school had been the benefactors of some very fine teaching, but at a cost. The San Francisco Bay Area was even then an expensive place to live. It must have been doubly so on a teacher’s salary. For someone as bright as Ben Marafino, the intellectual challenges and financial rewards of career advancement probably necessitated the move.

A few years ago, I looked him up on Google, with the intention of sharing my gratitude with him. I put it off, for many poor reasons. Now, a quick Google search turned up Mr. Marafino’s obituary. He died unexpectedly, and far too young, on New Year’s Eve of 2011. No where in his obituary does it mention the six years that he spent teaching at Crocker Middle School. It is my hope that he knew that those years in the classroom were not wasted babysitting a bunch of spoiled rich kids. I regret that I threw away the chance to make certain that he knew his efforts were not wasted.

Though his teaching career was not long, it did have an impact. And it continues to have an impact every time I tell students struggling to divide with fractions “As Mr. Marafino taught me, division is defined to be….”

It turns out that he also greatly enjoyed singing, and was quite good. Take the time to enjoy this YouTube clip:

Anthony Novak

“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 will discuss in the following series of posts will be my own teachers. Others will be colleagues who supported and influenced me during these years as a teacher.

Anthony (Tony) Novak was my sixth grade teacher. My sixth grade year marked his second year of teaching, and he was forty-eight years old at the time. The prior year, I had a new fifth grade teacher, all of twenty-six years old. She transferred after only one year (it wasn’t because of me, I swear) and so the prospect of another “new” teacher was not initially popular in my house. My twin brother had “the veteran” fifth grade teacher, and there was no doubt that he had learned more than had I. Now he was once again to have an experienced teacher while I got the newbie, and a forty-eight year old newbie at that.

Any thought of a lack of structure or discipline with my new teacher evaporated in the first few minutes of sixth grade. There stood Mr. Novak, a jaw carved out of rock and a neck that his impeccable shirt and tie strained to contain. It seems that “teacher” was not Mr. Novak’s first career. In fact, he had recently retired as a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Marine Corps. Even the miscreants in my sixth grade class were no match for a man who had served as a platoon commander at Iwo Jima.

Other than my own father, I can think of no man for whom I had so much admiration. I certainly did not suffer academically for having had the new teacher that year. But it was not the ABC’s and the long division that set Mr. Novak apart. He was a remarkable role model. He was incredibly fit, kind, encouraging, and every bit a gentleman and a gentle man.

What did Mr. Novak teach that was not in any sixth grade textbook? He explained to us that leadership begins with the ability to follow directions and commands. He taught a group of us to raise and lower the American flag with great respect each day – noting that it made no sense to have a custodian do the job when something could be taught to students by giving us the privilege and responsibility. Rather than depend on volunteer adults to serve as crossing guards, he trained a group of us to take on that job as well. What I now know is that it was his way to of teaching us to become leaders by serving others.

Most forty-eight year old teachers would have been hard pressed to keep up with me in sports. That was not the case with Mr. Novak. He doubled as our PE teacher, led us in calisthenics, and took us on “distance runs”. Many years later I returned to the school and realized that those tremendous distance runs around the school grounds just seemed long. It is amazing how big an elementary school campus seems when one is young. None-the-less, Mr. Novak and I usually ran side-by-side. It was easy for me to outrun my classmates. I could never have outrun my teacher, but I also never had to find out by what margin he might have been able to beat me. It was sufficient for Mr. Novak to run with me and encourage me to go a bit farther and a bit faster each time. All these years later I can still picture him in those impeccable shirts and ties, pressed slacks, with dress shoes, running effortlessly and never seeming to break a sweat.

I was in the sixth grade during the years 1970 – 1971. Those were turbulent times in this country, and Mr. Novak was a walking lesson in civics and the political geography of the world. I remember one day when a student asked him if he hoped that we kids might some day “get” to fight in a war. Mr. Novak took the time to explain that each generation that fights in a war does so with the hope that their own children will never have to do the same. He made it abundantly clear to us that war really was hell.

Another time, a student made reference to  the trial of Angela Davis, and the student commented that the woman should go to jail “if they prove she’s a communist.” Mr. Novak took the time to explain why communism was destined to fail. But he also explained that it is not against the law to disagree with your own government, and that in fact preserving the freedom to do so was ultimately why he had fought in WW II, Korea, and Viet Nam.

Mr. Novak passed away over a decade ago. During his teaching career he influenced many hundreds of students at West Hillsborough Elementary School and later at Crocker Middle School. He was not just a teacher. He was one truly fine human being, a genuine hero, and one of the reasons that I chose teaching as my career.

Periodic Videos

Seen me lately?
Seen me lately?

When I was growing up, “Video in the Classroom” meant one of two things – a filmstrip or an educational film on the film projector. Anyone near my age remembers being put in charge of the filmstrip projector and advancing it on the “beep”. Every room in elementary school had students trained as “AV Monitors” who helped technologically challenged teachers with tasks such as threading the film into the film projector.

The end of each week, or days with substitutes (or both) seemed to be particularly popular days for the “plan in a can” – a lesson based on films. Often, the film’s subject was at best tangential to the subject(s) being studied. I still remember the titles – classics such as “I Am Joe’s Stomach” and “Our Mr. Sun” often found their way into the curriculum at multiple class levels.

When my teaching career began in 1986, many of the video tools from my own years in public school were still central to the classroom. In fact, some of those same titles from my childhood were still finding their way into the classroom. When the school lost it’s film contract with the County Library, a number of teachers were nearly lost wondering what they would do in class on a Friday. Some of those old classics found their way to video tape, but many (thankfully) entered obsolescence.

My school district pays for a contract with an online video streaming service. I’ve never used it in class. There is a much better source of educational video for the classroom. We call it YouTube. Now, the caveat is that you should never show a video that you have not previewed completely prior to showing it in class (voice of experience!)

My favorite resource for Chemistry videos is without doubt PeriodicVideos.com. A videographer and faculty at the University of Nottingham have produced videos for ALL of the elements on the periodic table. The videos are generally no more than six or seven minutes, very well done, and often contain chemical reactions or demonstrations that cannot be done in the classroom for reasons of expense, safety, or both. Gone are the days of having to show a thirty minute movie to a class in order to have them see the three or four minutes you actually cared to have them see. We now have professional quality instructional video at the click of a mouse. Yes – the videos are streamed through YouTube, so you may need permission to bypass your school’s filters if they block YouTube in your district.

These videos are high interest, and introduce students to the fun and reasoning of chemistry. Take a look and see if you don’t agree. If you still want to show your students the 1956 classic “Our Mr. Sun”, you will find that on YouTube as well (and you won’t have to worry about the film breaking while your showing it, either).

Educational Jargon

Every profession develops its own vocabulary, and new teachers quickly come to realize that education is no exception. I can remember even during my education classes at UCSB that there were several student teachers who delighted in this educational jargon. One student teacher in particular seemed incapable of completing a thought without trying to impress us with his favorite word – metacognition. At first I considered this professional vocabulary to be humorous and harmless. Over the years I have continued to be humored by the many additions to the lexicon of educationally impressive phrases, buy I no longer consider the jargon completely harmless.

What harm can there be in the use of educational jargon? Well, anyone who has ever received a medical diagnosis from a doctor who insists on presenting simple concepts in complex verbiage knows that the way in which information is presented can be powerful. As educators, it is important to remember that our partners are parents and students. Jargon tells our partners that “You are not one of us.”

It has been my observation that the farther one moves away from direct contact with students within an educational organization, the more likely it becomes that you will find those professionals most steeped in the current jargon. Put another way, I rarely hear the “latest” jargon from my teaching peers at my high school. I don’t often hear it from administrators at my school site. On those many occasions when I have attended staff development at the district office, I often add to my collection of jargon. At times it seems that those folks who no longer work directly with students and parents have acquired an entirely new language.

Years ago I began “collecting” some of these terms and adding them to my “Educational Jargon Generator.” Sometimes, the only way to maintain your mental health is to maintain a sense of humor. One of my recent favorites is the word “agendize,” which I first heard at my district office. Perhaps it was the widespread reference to terrorists who might “weaponize” anthrax that started this trend. In short, you take a noun, add “-ize” and suddenly you’ve invented a verb!

New teachers – remember that it is your job to take sometimes complex concepts and distill them in such as way as to make them understandable to your students. Too often, we “jargonize” (see how easy that is!) and do the opposite. We take simple concepts and make them seem complex by draping them in the lingo of our profession.

Veteran teachers – if you have some favorites that you have collected in “professional development” and don’t see them within my  Educational Jargon Generator then by all means, please share them with me by email.

Stocking the Supply Cabinet

The Reality

In a perfect world, all teachers would have the budget that is necessary to purchase ALL of the supplies that are needed for the day-to-day function of the classroom. Most teachers quickly realize that budgets only stretch so far, and that some of those supplies come out of pocket. For the record, the Science Department at my school has a good budget from which we are able to purchase hardware, chemicals, glassware and technology. Obviously, there are always things on our “wanted” list, but most of the big-ticket items are taken care of by the principal’s allotment to our department. In addition to those things that we can purchase from science catalogs, we also have an account through Office Depot.

What slowly drains the wallet are the LITTLE things. I know that elementary school teachers are the well-established leaders when it comes to out-of-pocket purchases, and that is probably because a lot of what is needed in the elementary classroom are the little things.

Years ago I started to call my room a “full service classroom.” I want students to be able to focus on learning, and to that end I try to stock up on those little things that keep the gears of the classroom turning smoothly. Some of these are oddball items that are needed only rarely, but when they are needed it is an emergency. Others on my list are things that COULD be ordered from a catalog, but are more easily picked up at the local grocery store or drug store.

The List

So, here is my list of some of things that I keep on hand. I’m sure I’ll forget a few. For new teachers, this might provide a checklist.

  • Band-aids. I stock all sizes, and these frequently allow students to cover a cut or abrasion and avoid a trip to the nurse.
  • Safety pins. Buy some of every size. These are great for temporary fixes to backpacks as well as “wardrobe malfunctions”.
  • Cups. Because I have a refrigerator in my prep room (I bought that, too) I keep cups on hand so that students can get a drink of ice water and not have to leave class for that expensive bottled water.
  • Paper plates and plastic flatware. I don’t throw parties in class, but I frequently have students eating lunch in my room.
  • Tape. Duct tape. Scotch tape. Electrical tape. Label tape. Masking tape. Shipping tape. I love tape. I’m the King of Tape.
  • Poster board. There have been a lot of times that this has saved a student whose family couldn’t afford to buy a pack at the store.
  • Zip-lock bags. Big ones, small ones, medium sized. I need them and so do the students.
  • Hand soap. Hand-sanitizer too, but bars of soap are important to have as well.
  • Batteries. AA, AAA, and 9 volt all come in handy with graphing calculators, classroom response clickers, conductivity testers, etc. School catalogs are notorious for over-pricing batteries, so I keep my eyes open for sales in stores when I shop. I usually pay less than half of the catalog price.
  • Paper towels. These double as napkins at lunch, and for cleaning lab goggles for my germ-a-phobes.
  • Cloth towels. I bring the ones from home that are no longer fit for bathroom use, and we use them to clean up after lab work and student spills.
  • Kleenex. Every year, the school provides ONE box of “tissue”. I buy Kleenex brand tissue and leave a box available in class all of the time. We probably go through 15 – 20 boxes a year.


A very insightful friend of mine once said to me, “Andy, bad teachers never burn out.”

The great paradox of teaching (and other service professions) is that the practitioners will often give so much of themselves that they reach a point where they have nothing left to give. On many occasions, I’ve felt like the personification of one of those tropical drinks – with multiple straws begging people to come and draw from me. When I reach that point,  I know that I have allowed my life to tip out of balance.

This is not new information, but it is critical in teaching to maintain a life that is balanced. Taking time for your own needs does not preclude excellence in the professionPlay is Essential. For the past ten years, my New Year’s resolution has been the same each year – “Improve my balance.” When I am taking time for myself and my family, yet meeting or exceeding the expectations of me at work, the little things seem to take care of themselves.

I’ve always had a need for physical activity. In college, my friends and I were in the weight room at UCSB on a nightly basis. Shortly after I got married, I began doing road biking as well. I took up playing guitar in my early twenties and took up bluegrass banjo in my late forties. Of course, somewhere in there I taught myself how to use a computer and build a website. When I was in college, the rich kids had electric typewriters, so it was no simple thing to become a “techie”. But none of those activities has ever been a burden – they are all among the many ways that I play and maintain my tenuous grip on sanity. My wife would probably add that I read a lot, and spend many hours in our very large garden.

Young teachers need to learn to make time for the lives that they want for themselves. Veteran teachers need to know that miserable, workaholic teachers become miserable, workaholic retirees. The students benefit from having a vibrant, balanced adult in charge of the classroom.

Be especially careful at the beginning of a school year. I’ve learned that I often make work commitments at the beginning of the year that I will later come to regret. I return to school from summer break feeling energized and nearly invincible. It is so easy to say “Yes” to requests for time and assistance. Before agreeing to something that you may later regret, ask yourself, “would I be equally willing to make this commitment in the Spring when I am tired and often short on the time I need for myself?”

I have several “favorite” quotes, but certainly one of them is from Bob Dylan – “He not busy being born is busy dying.” A balance in activities, and a willingness to try new things keeps us young enough in spirit, even if we cannot deny the progression of years. I turn 54 today. I am enjoying life more now than I ever have in the past. I have an amazing wife, and beautiful daughter, and MANY interests. I cannot remember the last time that I said to myself, “I’m bored.” Make the time to have a life outside of school. Your students, friends, family and peers will all benefit from a more balanced you.

Of course, as teachers we need to recognize the need for balance in the lives of our students. Our highest achievers often have lives out of balance as the result of their own drive, or the demands of parents, teachers, and college admissions. But that is a subject for another time.


About four or five years ago, each department at my school was asked to set goals for the new school year. One of the commitments that we were asked to make was to come up with ways that we could make the campus safer and friendlier for students. The commitment that the science department members made was to be out in the hallway during passing time between classes.

Though the commitment was for only one year, I have continued to hang out in the hallway in front of my room during passing periods. It is one of the best changes that I have made in my teaching career. Being in the hallway gives me the chance to greet students as they arrive at class. It gives me the chance to day “Good Morning” to students that I have never had in class. Being visible also decreases opportunities for student misconduct. In the past four years I have not had to break up a fight during passing period, because with an adult highly visible in the area, no fights have broken out.

At a time when schools are increasingly concerned with security, bullying, and improving the climate for students, the highly visible teacher is a free way to improve school that school climate. I will be the first to admit that teachers in the hallway do not address all school security issues, but there is no doubt that schools become safer places for everyone when adults are visible.

The greatest benefit to me has been intangible – I enjoy my job more, and my relationships with students (ALL students) is improved. On my worst days, when I just don’t really feel up to the calling of the job, being out in front of my room often changes my whole day. I’ve found that extending a cheery greeting to students and adults will frequently change my own attitudes.

I challenge you to give it a try for one month. It costs nothing and you may find that it brings you far more benefits than I can list here.

The Gratitude Box

Something very unusual happened to me yesterday. I was teaching chemistry in my second period class when an office aide brought a package into my room and handed it to me. My first response was, “I haven’t ordered anything.” She responded that the package was addressed to me. When I looked at the address, it was indeed my name on the label. I accepted the package, and my curious students asked me what was in it. I held up the box, and in big, bold letters was spelled out “HERSHEY’S“. I opened it to find several cards, and a FIVE POUND Hershey bar. I was the surprise recipient of a “Thank You” gift from a teacher and her students at Hershey High School in Hershey, Pennsylvania. And I was VERY moved. Of course, I also had to defend the chocolate bar in a room full of hungry teenagers.Hershey

Most teachers who have been in the classroom for even a few years have received cards and other mementos of appreciation from students, parents and fellow staff members. What I want new teachers to know is how important it is to keep all of it. Get one of those Tupper-ware boxes, and every time you are the recipient of such a kindness, bring it home and put it in the box. With so much communication done by email these days, consider printing out those special ones and including them as well. I’ve lost a lot of good memories to the “delete” button or crashed hard drives.

Some of the things that I’ve received over the years won’t fit in the box. My home office is in part decorated with items given me by students. On the desk is a flower pot decorated by a student who passed away far too young. Above my desk hangs a framed picture from “The Lunch Bunch” – a group of students who ate lunch in my room most days during their high school years. Added to their pictures are things that I have been known to say in class. It is precious to me.

As for that “gratitude box”, there won’t seem to be much in it at first, and the contents will all be fresh in your memory. As the years pass, you may look through the box less-and-less, but you will need it’s contents more when the time does come to sit down and look through it.

I’m not going to pretend that teaching is the hardest profession one could pick. The hardest job, as I often tell my students, is a job that you don’t like. I’ve had jobs that were physically much tougher than teaching. I’ve done jobs that I genuinely did not like. But the fact that I love my profession does not preclude difficult times. Every teacher has had dark days, and when those times strike me, that is when I know it’s time to take a trip to the closet and pull out the box. Great Memories flood out of the box like a genie escaping a bottle, and the contents provide me with the perspective of years of joy in this profession rather than the distortion of isolated moments of struggle.

Now, I’m not going to put the Hershey bar in the box. My daughter is petitioning me with ideas about how to consume the chocolate. But I will save the cards and the wrapper, and place them in the box. These latest residents of the gratitude box will take their place with 27 years of memories and hopefully, many more to come.


Change is a part of life, but it has not always been central to education. When I began teaching, there were some peers whose lesson plans and notes seemed to have been written on parchment. They hadn’t been changed in many, many years (if ever). And, there was no compelling reason for them to change. Every teacher was free to determine what curriculum to present, how to present it, and how to evaluate student learning. Every two or three years an administrator would schedule a cursory evaluation, the outcome or which was a foregone conclusion.

New teachers are entering a profession that is anything but static. The methodology of teaching has changed, in large part due to technology and the Internet. Curriculum has changed, in large part driven by state standards. For about the past twelve years, my school district has been overhauling instruction to address the California Content Standards. By-and-large, this has been a good thing. As a science teacher, I appreciate the fact that there is an agreed upon curriculum. I also appreciate that the California Science standards are considered thorough and rigorous by the Fordham Institute. Standards have given us an identifiable set of targets. They have allowed (forced?) a much greater level of collaboration in the profession.

Much of the effort that I’ve invested in the last ten years has been in developing tools and methods that allow us to know when our students have mastered content standards. We worked backwards, first writing semester “common course assessments”. Many of us have worked to develop a system of benchmark quizzes, which build toward thematic unit tests. Lastly, we are working harder than ever on multiple, daily checks for understanding so that when know when students are prepared for assessments that impact their grades.

We are now looking at new National Core Standards. Today, the California Department of Education announced that it will be changing the nature of our state assessment tests. I am working on the changes that are occurring in the AP Chemistry curriculum, which has an entirely new framework being put in place next year.

If it is your hope to cobble together some nice lesson plans, write some tests, and then use them for the next 30 years, you had better reconsider this profession. If it is your hope that the latest standards will be the end of change, and that the next state test format will be the final edit, you are destined to be disappointed. Change is now part of this profession, as it must be in a rapidly changing world. Deal with it, or go home.