Saturday, August 30, 2008

The first three weeks

Before I begin writing about the last few weeks, I wanted to let you all know about a project I am getting funded through a site called, While I have a LCD projector, I would like to hook up a document camera to it. My project is almost funded--Pfizer helped out a great deal. If you would like to help fund it or know someone who could help, here is the link:

The first three weeks have been great. Everything seems much easier this year. My students seem to be enjoying class so far and are mostly willing to do what is asked of them. Fewer students than last year challenge my authority and class just seems to go well. One breakthrough this year was when I taught independent, dependent, and controlled variables. It's not the easiest concept to grasp and it's much more abstract than genetics or types of galaxies in space. I used some examples I found on a worksheet that featured various cartoon characters carrying out various experiments and the students seemed to be excited about the examples (or at least more interested than usual). I'm going to keep the cartoon/notable person examples going throughout the year. We also tested variations to paper airplanes as a way to study the different types of variables--students built similar airplanes and then changed just one feature while predicting what that change would affect.

I've also taken a page from the book "Mechanically Inclined." Although the book focuses on writing, its method of making things visual seems to be applicable to any type of class. The method is where the teacher sets up a large sheet of butcher paper with the technique or grammatical structure to be learned on the top (usually in a formula). Underneath, examples that the students create or find in a book or their own writing are placed. The result is a visual diagram with student created examples. Throughout class that day and all others, the students are able to use the wall chart as a reference--it can act as a scaffold to students who might be having a tough time getting the concept the first time around or remembering it. These are taken down for tests, but the author noticed that students were still looking in the same places as a memory aid cue. I started this with the types of variables last week and I'll be adding in different components of experimental design this week.

Things should go well this week as we are finishing up our Nature of Science Unit. Next, we are going to do genetics, followed by natural selection.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Winding Down (or gearing up?)

I cannot remember school going by this quickly when I was a student. It seems that each day just flies by as does each week and each month. Part of it has to do with 2nd period being my prep period; the rest of the day is a sprint to the finish.

The kids put a great deal of effort into their state tests. Just by walking around I could see pages being filled on the open-response essays. Kids were asking for extra sheets (of course we couldn't give them any). You could tell that they were putting forth tons of effort--even with the last sections of each day. I'll be surprised if we don't meet our school's goal.

We are on an exciting weather unit right now that the kids find fun. Most of the resources are from DSM kit that I received from our science resource coordinator. We collect daily weather data, put it in a chart, and make predictions on the weather. It's a concrete and relevant way of understanding the scientific method. Of course, it also allows the students to get a little bit of time outside, which is very helpful with testing over and warm weather.

I've found many grants to get resources for the classroom. I just applied for a minigrant that almost every teacher who applies gets it. I have another in the work for a laptop, projector, and interactive remote system. That last thing is where students have remote controls (essentially) and they are asked a set of questions. The students use their remote controls to send their answer to the computer. As a result, the teacher is able to see the exact response from each student. The results are not displayed directly on the screen for all students, but you can have survey results displayed (eg polling the audience in "who wants to be a millionaire). It seems as though the questions are stored on the computer but can be given in paper form. As a result, giving tests where a section is multiple choice would allow those sections to be instantly graded.

What's great about these systems is that you can get daily feedback on where each student is and the effectiveness of your lesson. It makes differentiation and frequent assessment feasible. It's a task for any teacher to give daily assessments that are then tracked by individual standards and students (on top of lesson planning and grading). The system will work well as a behavior management system as students will be a bit more engaged with using technology instead of simply writing out answers. Of course, the remotes can be taken away if students act poorly (they would do their work on paper). I'm excited and I hope the grant goes through.

I'm also excited about the materials I've found for next year. I wish I had known the amount of stuff I would've needed to do good labs during this past year. I've been able to find a hands-on resource for almost every standard I teach in the large science catalogs that I've looked through. Now it's a matter of writing the grants, but I hope to have a completely inquiry-based science classroom next year (and for any teacher who comes after me). Pedagogically it makes sense as students need to have a concrete experience before going to higher abstract levels of knowledge. I have many students who prefer activity in the classroom and need something to manipulate or see.

With more of my time free, I hope to keep you all updated on my ongoing projects.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Opossum and the Mississippi

At recess, my students found a clue to the mystery smell. The kids saw a large opossum exiting the vent outside of my room. A large group gathered and one of my kids even picked up the opossum by its tail. The student hunts and is around animals all the time so it did not scare him. Luckily, another teacher saw him do this, he put it down, and it did not harm him. After lunch, there was then a campus-wide announcement that a opossum was loose on the grounds and we were not to touch or go near it. We haven't seen the opossum recently and the smell is not as strong as it used to be in the room.

While it has not rained much down here, we are seeing the effects of the rain from the north with the Mississippi's waters rising. The level of the water is hitting some pretty high levels, but most residents are staying pretty calm.

I'm starting to look forward to next year and part of that process is finding more resources for the classroom. I'm looking into writing grants for some pretty cool yet costly items, namely FOSS science kits and a document camera/lcd projector. The kits would allow me to do inquiry based science on a regular basis with a curriculum backed up by solid research and endorsements. I would then be able to leave the kits for the next teacher who would only have to get replacement parts for the exhaustible materials. The technology items would just make class easier. The document camera allows any object to be displayed on the wall rather than needing it to be in the form of a transparency. Book pages, photographs, and experiments could be easily seen by all in the class from anywhere in the room. The projector would allow me to not only display websites, movies, and DVDs but to also use the school's SmartBoard. I've found many grants so far and my goal is to work from a basic outline that I will tailor to each one. As a result, I can maximize my chances through applying for many at a time.

Our state tests are coming up and the school is in preparation for them. It's not too crazy as our principal and consultant see us as on track to stay out of school improvement. We'll know the results later this summer. There isn't too much else to report; the year is going by quickly.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

A Mystery Smell

"It smells like a dead rat." This was the most common declaration by a student that entered my classroom a few weeks ago. No student was making this up. I agreed. I had been absent the day before the smell and wondered in the back of my mind if some creature or equally gross thing had been hidden in the room. Other students thought the same; however, no one came forward and there weren't even rumors, so that hypothesis became less supported over the next few weeks.

I moved the class to the library (like I did with our heating problems) and taught there for a few days while we tried to figure out the cause of the smell. I looked in every drawer, shelf, and box that I could find, but I found nothing. The janitors took the screens off the vents and replaced the air filter to my heating and air conditioning unit. They found nothing. I was moved back to the room after a few days as it was getting more difficult to teach and the principal thought the smell had gone down. It had, I didn't mind, but the students definitely cared.

At first, I kept the fan going and door open but the smell stayed. One teacher thought that some ammonia might clear out the smell. We put small amounts in the room during my homeroom (the students were in another classroom) and that didn't do much. The smell wasn't there as much but the smell of ammonia hung in the room, too. I thought maybe that the smell was in the carpets and took to cleaning them. I went to the store and bought some powder carpet cleaner and vacuumed the room the next morning. The result was another combination smell; although the baking soda in the powder seemed to help. The next move was by the principal who had the carpets deep-cleaned and most of the smell left after that. Unfortunately, there's still some of the smell lingering in the room. The smell has decreased this week but it's still a source of amusement for many of the students. I still think that the vents have something to do with the smell as it's at its strongest when the vents are blowing air. Luckily, I have a glade plug-in near the front and it masks the smell quite well.

Tangentially related, an electrocuted rat was found underneath a desk in the computer lab right across the hall from my room. I guess it had burn marks and was missing some fur; I didn't get to see it. Also, while writing this post, a medium sized orange spider crawled across the armrest. It made me jump a bit but I took care of it. Its body wasn't too big, but its legs were quite long.

In other news, I went to Doe's Eat Place in Greenville this last weekend. It's one of the Delta's best known restaurants. It's famous for its steaks and tamales. I had the best steak I've ever had in a restaurant. The funny thing about Doe's is that its prices and cooking don't match its decor. You enter through the kitchen/waiting area where there is a huge grill and oven full of steaks and other food. There's another prep table to your left and a counter up front where waitresses are preparing dishes for customers. Signed pictures of celebrities hang all around while people wait. Once you are in, you go to your table and you have to be careful. The floor is uneven and someone who drank too much wouldn't be able to leave without falling a few times. The tables have elegant plastic table cloths and regular ol' chairs with some of the cushioning coming out. Our table was at slant, as well. While Doe's has beer, it's BYOB. We were provided with wineglasses and their corkscrew had to be shared among the guests. However, once the food arrives, you'll forget about any deficiencies in the decor. The steak came with garlic bread toasted on the grill and steak fries. The meat was a few inches thick; it fell off the bone; it was perfectly tender. It just tasted good.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Overdue update

I wrote my last post in December and got out of the habit of regularly updating this blog. I hope to get back on track for the rest of this year. Here is a quick post of everything that has been happening since the start of the second semester.

The first weeks back got off to a rough start. In the span of roughly 2 weeks, 2 shootings happened in the neighboring town. Neither occurred at school; however, each affected many of the students' lives directly and indirectly. I saw that those most affected were in the high school but I could also see a marked difference in my middle schoolers on certain days. Just so no one gets worried, I live in a safe area and work in a safe school. Not once have I felt threatened or felt in fear of violence either at home, while tutoring, or at school. Things did get back to normal and school continued.

My room was without heat for about two weeks. A part was missing from the system and had to be ordered and shipped. As a result, I held class in the library. This was difficult. Although I had a whiteboard and all of my supplies, my students did not take class as seriously. Of course this is no excuse and I did not take their excuses/reasons why they chose not to pay attention. I could tell that the attention and focus dropped dramatically while in the library. Luckily, the behavior changed once we got our heat back.

Since the beginning of the year, I did not have any shelves in my room. I was promised some a few weeks into the year but they never arrived. As a result, I had few places to put the 20 or so boxes of new books and their related materials (workbooks, study guides, transparencies, CDs, etc.). Things started to pile up due to lack of organized space. Finally, about 3 weeks ago, the shelves were delivered to my room. They were simple "snap-together" shelves from Walmart. The next week I started to put them together in hopes of getting them all together by the end of the week. My principal did not think this was fast enough so one day during my prep period I inherited a team of student workers. The students have been without a permanent keyboarding/computer teacher and have had a variety of subs in the room; they weren't doing much in that class each day.

Once the students entered the room, I split them all into groups with jobs for each one. One group put together all of the shelving units. Another group organized the materials for the shelves. Another group was my "clean-up" group that I directed in cleaning up the trash and old materials found in the room. The cleaning lasted into 3rd period with the end result being a well-organized and spotless room. I'm happy I got the work crew as the room just looks amazing now.

During 2nd semester I started to help coach the Quiz Bowl team (along with 3 other teachers). Quiz Bowl is a competition where the students answer fact-based questions in the subjects of science, math, literature, art, music, history, geography, and general knowledge. The rounds are set up for students to answer questions through knowing specific facts or groups of facts (such as having 10 questions in a row dealing with units of measurement ending in -gram). The team advanced past the regional competition by placing 3rd (top 4 was needed) and the team competed at State this past weekend. We did not do as well and were eliminated during the first elimination round in the afternoon (the first 3 morning rounds decided placement for the afternoon).

I've also taken weekend trips to both New Orleans and Memphis. Both were fun cities and I would've loved to spend more time in both of them. In New Orleans, I got to see one of the teachers I worked with this summer at Institute. While I did not take a tour of the lower 9th Ward, I did get to see parts of the Recovery District. It's true that there are houses that are still sitting there with their insides gutted out onto their front lawns.

Those were the major events of the 2nd semester so far. Spring break will be in 3 weeks and the year will be officially 3/4 over at that point. While I feel that I am doing pretty well right now, I'll be a much more effective teacher next year. I received more books on teaching and I am slowly making my way through each one. Over the summer I'll be able to plan better according to those books in order to make the 2nd year run smoothly.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

almost finished

These last two weeks have been our home stretch. I let the students teach last week and the strategy seemed to work. Their science teacher last year had them teach each other in front of the class so it was easy to get them to do it for me (many had been wanting to do this for awhile). It allowed them to put their energy into talking to the class rather than each other and many did a pretty good job. I could tell during our recent review days that many had gotten many of the concepts they taught to the class.

The Pluto debate went pretty well, too. Luckily, I found a site that had middle school debate team resources and used many of their ideas to teach students how to support their reasons with facts. We did a few practice arguments on whether we should eat school lunch and wear uniforms. Many got into the debate including one of my newer students who seemed kinda quiet--he got up during the debate and spoke the best out of all the students in the class. He had a good tone, spoke slowly, and was pretty good at repeating key points. I hope to have more of my classes teach and debate during the next semester as the students seemed to like both and stay focused on what we were doing.

In getting ready for our end of semester tests we had a review day yesterday where we didn't play a points based game. Instead, I had gone to Walmart and purchased this spongy green sea anemone-like object. Each student who saw me with it wanted to hold it and play with it. Of course, each student had to answer a review question correctly. If the student got the correct answer, I would throw it to them and then ask another question. The anemone would then be tossed around the room to whoever got the question right. It made a huge difference in the review game participation and desire to do the work. I had students volunteering who before would just want to do nothing or sleep during a review game.

My roommate had a similar experience with his students where he combined a crazy object and flashcards. His students were not only involved but their retention increased--test scores jumped from the low 30s to the 70s (not an exaggeration). While this was one testing run and other factors could've been at play, it makes sense that a kinesthetic game would work better for our students than a mostly auditory game. While I don't know how each one of our students learns best, it seems that many prefer active/kinesthetic games and activities over listening. Most of school is aimed at either listening or seeing something (pictures, words, some math concepts); we don't have many "doing" classes or components. Some have suggested that this is why there is a strain of low performers--we aren't teaching to their heavily preferred learning style (I hope I got the argument correct as I don't have a strong education theory background). If you were to take a snapshot, though, of what my kids enjoy you'd see a love of drama, rhythmic beats (my room doubles as a percussion section and beatbox somedays), and a desire to be moving about constantly.

We had our Winter Arts Festival recently where the middle school and high school music programs performed along with the dance team. This was the 2nd year it was being put on and it was really well done. The bands have a very good director similar to the one I had in high school--high expectations and lots of discipline. The result was a really good sound from both the middle and high school bands. The middle school band wasn't at all like mine--the one I heard played songs with a discernible melody that didn't sound choppy or out of tune. The high school band had a great performance where they kept their own beat while the director walked off stage (planned, of course, it was a jazz tune). The choirs were small, but good. They have a fellow TFA teacher leading them and they did a solid job. It was just really cool to see a good deal of my students performing and they liked the attention they got at school as we mostly recognize football and basketball.

Our Christmas party was fantastic this past weekend; we made sure to decorate for the event. Our house has garland on the outside and over the area that separates our kitchen and family room. We have lights on the inside of the house near the windows as we don't have an outside plug. The party went well as many brought great cocktails, appetizers, and desserts. It was a really good way to start off the last week before break.

I'm looking forward to a restful two weeks where I can plan the 2nd semester. I should be getting some good books from using some of my professional development money. They cover a wide range of subjects from differentiation to earth science labs. The two week break will give me the perfect amount of time to get supply lists and lesson plans ready so that I can be completely prepared for when I return.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Things are back to normal with most of my classes (including 7th period). Class has been pretty good this week due to our new unit on space. It's held most of each class' attention and I get bombarded with questions everyday, which I find loads of fun. Part of science education is allowing and encouraging inquiry so I have no problem entertaining the questions the students have about space. Tomorrow we are debating Pluto's status as a planet and the debate fits quite well with a few of my nature of science objectives--formulating inferences from scientific data and understanding the process of peer review, et al. Any time we can get "making inferences" and "drawing conclusions" into our lesson plans the better as these are skills that need strengthening for the reading test in the spring.

More of my classes are buying into my class rewards system. Instead of rewarding efficiency and staying on task with minutes for preferred activity time on Fridays I reward the classes with class money (the minutes were replaced with points). The classes can choose to spend part of their money or save it each week. The money can buy a whole list of rewards such as making me learn a dance they know, dying my hair, shaving my head, dressing like a student, etc. Incentives don't always have to be something that costs money (like candy); instead, they can be crazy things only you would do. The whole point is that the class feels special because you are doing something for them. I am dying my hair red and blue this friday for my first period class but I am washing it out during my prep period as it's only for them. Unfortunately my 3rd and 7th period classes haven't bought into the system so I am not sure what I will do to either take a different route for classroom management or to get them invested in the system.

To explain more on 3rd period, the students are quite active and invade each other's personal space during class. This could be something like kicking the bottoms of desks, stretching their arms and putting their hands into each other's faces, etc. Luckily, I only have 7-10 students in the class so tomorrow I am going to create an area in the room where the disruptive students are spread out at least 8-10 ft from each other. This should cut down on students bothering each other or at least allow me to better target the ones that are starting the trouble. We'll see how this plan goes.

The semester is almost over teaching wise. We have a review on Thursday, test on Friday and then another week of teaching. After that, we have a week of 9 weeks test and then break. Luckily, I know my content well (space) for the last teaching week so it should be smooth in terms of planning and teaching.