Wisdom from Oregon Educators – Part II

Portland sign

I passed through Portland on my way to my next stop, visiting Luann, a chemistry teacher at NHS about 45 minutes away.  One of the things that impressed me about Luann is that despite being a highly experienced teacher, she embraces both new technology and new ideas in teaching high school science.  Many veteran teachers have become set in their ways and resistant to chance (I count myself in this pool, if I qualify as a veteran after only 15 years of teaching).  I originally met Luann through Twitter (she’s @stardiverr), a communication tool I have been spending a little time getting to know this year during my sabbatical.  I have to say that initially I was highly skeptical about Twitter as a useful tool for educators.  What can you say in 140 characters?  Don’t meaningful interactions with other people require personal contact (face-to-face or on the phone) or at least the expanded form of a letter, article, or email?  Don’t people on Twitter just talk about what they had for breakfast, or how many people are ahead of them in the Starbucks line?  Even if there were some interesting conversations out there, how could you even find the signal amidst the vast sea of noise?

It turns out that finding interesting people and intriguing tweets is easier than you might think, especially if you know the appropriate hashtags (thank you, #edchat and #scichat).  And although 140 characters go by in a blink, it’s easy to link to longer articles and blog posts, upload photos directly to Twitter, and have genuine back-and-forth conversations – especially with very large groups of people.  The real utility of Twitter is that all of this information is amazingly accessible, sortable, and searchable.  I had only been using Twitter for a couple weeks when I found an amazingly active and thoughtful community of high school chemistry teachers using tweets to share new ideas, ask questions, brainstorm solutions to problems, and sympathize over the common trials and tribulations of high school teaching.

So it was a treat to visit Luann after following her thoughts and ideas online.  The school that she teaches at is an interesting one.  It is a relatively large school that received a Gates Foundation grant to pursue a “small schools” model.  The small schools movement tries to capitalize on research which indicates that students in smaller schools often feel a greater sense of community and connection to their school, which can lead to a greater investment of time and effort yielding stronger academic returns.  NHS was split into four “small schools,” each with its own principal and faculty.  All four schools co-existing within the larger NHS campus.  The schools are not specialized by theme or discipline; they are designed primarily to give students and adults a closer-knit learning community.  While the small schools model has its benefits and drawbacks, Luann seems to think on the whole it is a good model for her school.

Watching her classes, I appreciated how naturally Luann and her students incorporated technology into the lessons.  The pH probes and laptops helped the students track the progress of their acid/base titrations.  Luann used a data projector and document camera to help the students visualize the process of balancing equations, and YouTube videos of interesting science demos to entertain her advisees.  In some schools I’ve visited, there seemed to be an emphasis on using of technology simply for the sake of using technology.  In Luann’s classes, technology is used in the service of learning.

A “cool idea I’m going to steal” is something I saw in her general chem class, and it involves students designing their own chemical reactions lab.  They have been studying types of chemical reactions, and as a capstone experience Luann is asking them to plan their own personal lab demonstrating seven different types of reactions (e.g. precipitation reactions, gas-forming reactions, single replacement, etc.).  Students may use any of several dozen authorized chemicals from the chem lab for their experiment.

List of chemicals

They must decide which chemicals to react with each other to make each reaction, and then submit a written plan to Luann for review along with the corresponding balanced chemical equations.  If she approves their plan, they then obtain small amounts of the correct chemicals and perform the reactions.  I love the fact that this experiment empowers students to really take responsibility for their own learning, and forces them to think critically and use deductive reasoning to figure out which combinations of chemicals will be safe and effective.

I left Oregon with lots of things to ponder, and a few concrete ideas to try with my own students next year.

* A note on privacy: Readers may have noticed that sometimes I identify people and their institutions with full names (e.g. Dr. David Reingold from Juniata College, Dr. Mike McBride from Yale), and other times I only use first names and/or initials (e.g. Luann at NHS, Bill at SHS).  In order to protect the privacy of teachers who are currently teaching middle or high school, I have chosen not to identify them by their full names.  These teachers did not ask me to visit their classrooms, but graciously agreed to host me and answer my many questions.  They may or may not want accounts of their classes and pictures of their classrooms plastered around the internet.  I have included full identifying information for retired teachers and current college or university professors.  This is a somewhat arbitrary decision, but one with which I feel comfortable.  If you would like contact information for any of the teachers not fully-identified, please email me.

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