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Looking for an Audience for Chemistry Student Blogs

I’m a few months into the school year at my new school (ISB) and things are going well. I’m really enjoying the year so far.

My IB Chemistry students have done a little blogging. What I’ve noticed is that it’s difficult to find a good audience for so many blogs, as I currently have about 60 students in three classes. That’s a lot of blogs to follow!

I’ve created a page to “collate” the first blog post here. To advertise, I’ve sent out some tweets using #Comments4Kids along with a few other hashtags. I’ve also tried to find some larger names in the Twitter world to get some RT Power. It’s starting to work, but there are still quite a few blog posts in need of an audience.

So if you have the time, please follow the link to the chemistry student blogs. Ideally, in that perfect world, you’ll also find time to make a comment or two. And in an even more perfect world – if such a place exists! – you’ll find blogs that don’t have comments yet. Please.

Thank you in advance if you find time to comment. And I’m happy to read a few of your own student blogs to pay it back. Just leave me a blog URL in the comments and I’ll drop in for a visit.



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Benefit #5 of Using Twitter with Students: Students Sharing Resources

I’m at a new school now, and will be working to integrate Twitter and blogging into my classes. It’s early in the process, and I’ll be sharing more as I move forward. But even with only a very short discussion of my use of Twitter, one student has already found a way to use Twitter to help the class.

For context, I ask my students to memorize 42 of the most common elements (name and symbol only) as the IB only provides symbols, atomic number and relative atomic mass. The periodic table used for Paper 1 does not provide names. Their first quizzes are relatively easy and cover these 42 elements. One of the students created a Quizzlet to help his studying. I’ve never used Quizzlet, but this application of Quizzlet seemed perfect. He shared the Quizzlet with me and I then asked if he could share it with his classmates using our class hashtag (#ISB212ChemHL).

Needless to say, I think students sharing resources with each other in this fashion is a great benefit of using Twitter in a classroom setting. It extends our interactions beyond the 85 minutes we spend together every other school day and provides a nice forum for the sharing of resources, both by me and by the students.

And  to add some detail, below is the Twitter conversation (with permission from the student to share).

Until next time, keep it #MintyFresh.










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CEESA 2014, and my presentation

I’m attending the regional CEESA Conference in Vienna this weekend. The first day keynote was Dylan Wiliams. He was quite thought-provoking, showing statistics and engaging us with information about job statistics and the changing nature of our world and the world our students will be entering – and leading.

I attended three sessions, all focusing on technology. Two were related to using the iPad as a creation tool, and the third was on Google Presentation as a collaborative tool. I’m hoping to post more on that later.

I’m giving a presentation on Saturday about my work with Learning Catalytics and Whiteboarding as a means of engaging students in their learning and gathering formative assessment. I’ve created a simple Google Site as a resource for my presentation:

Time for some sleep!


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My Twitter Experiment, Benefit 3

I’ve been working on using Twitter in my classroom this year, and one spontaneous benefit was helping to build a sense of community. One of our students had been gone for a while, while two other students were absent. One of my students said something about missing the absent students, so we decided to use the class hashtag (#MT4P) and let them know we missed them.

Below are some of the tweets (shared with student permission). I definitely like the vibe of inclusion present here. And it happened again today, with a few students gone. We sent them “missing you” tweets.

And one of the absent students responded with some thanks for the inclusion.

Do you use Twitter in your classroom? If so, what strategies do you implement to build community?

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Using a closure activity for formative assessment (alternative title: Let’s try that again.)

If you are one of the seven people that regularly read my blog, you know that I’ve started using a closure activity most days in my classes. (I referenced these closure activities in this blog post.) I’d like to share a few anecdotes about closure activities, then share some evidence with you that make the case for continuing this as a learning and teaching practice.

My seniors are a fantastic group of students and human beings. I love teaching them. Many of them I’ve known since 9th grade. The plus side is that I have strong relationships with them. The negative of this is we can get a bit too comfortable and apathetic to pushing ourselves beyond the norm. (That’s more about me pushing them to get better and far less about them pushing themselves. They all work extremely hard as IB Diploma students.) Last week I wrapped up class with a closure activity and one of the seniors said, “Mr. Thomson, I’m actually enjoying these closure activities.” I just about danced a jig right there. YES!

In this same class, just Monday, I had a two-hour block that included a lab on redox reactions. The students white-boarded their diagrams (a big plus!) for voltaic cells, then completed a few redox reactions. I thought they lost a bit of focus at the end of class. Who can blame them, really, after a two-hour block. The conversations were drifting to other topics. I wasn’t as focused as I should be in class. But about 8 minutes before class ended, I remembered that I wanted to use another closure activity. I asked them to draw a diagram of a voltaic cell, including all the required parts. For the next 6 minutes 23 seconds, the room was darn near silent as each student was working on their diagrams, processing the day’s work. The shift from restless and unfocused to extremely focused and thoughtful was impressive.

And this leads me to a few thoughts.

I use closure activities to accomplish a few objectives.

  1. I ask for feedback on a teaching and learning activity. As an example, today’s closure activity for these same seniors started with these two questions:

    1.How helpful (on a scale from 1-4) was today’s warm-up in understanding voltaic cells?
    2.Comments/feedback on the warm-up?

    I often use questions of this type to elicit ideas from my students about a teaching method I’m using and to see what worked for them and what suggestions they have. They often come up with ideas I hadn’t thought of and I occasionally end up trying out their ideas. I use a spreadsheet to track the feedback and refer to previous questions to make changes to my teaching. As an example, I used whiteboarding with this group of seniors to practice a Mock Paper 2. It was an unmitigated disaster. Well, maybe that’s a bit harsh, but on the 1-4 rating scale the average score was 2.42. This is the lowest score of any learning activity since I’ve been collecting feedback. The mood in the room that day just wasn’t productive. And as the ‘coach’ of the group, I wanted to make improvements and try again. So I used only one problem today – with a slightly different format – and the results were astounding. The average score on today’s rating was 3.86, the highest rating yet. Ironic that the same activity – wtih some tweaking based on feedback from students – would go from the lowest to the highest rating in this un-scientific poll I use. I guess the bottom line here is that I really value the feedback and I love that I now have a mechanism in place to get feedback frequently, rather than just waiting until the end of the semester.

  2. The second objective with my closure activity I described above. It brings the students back to a ‘learning mode’ at the end of a class when things can get hectic. It allows them to put the finishing touches on the main ideas for the day. The focus I described above wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t utilized this technique – or some alternative that would accomplish the same objective. The value of the closure activity was sealed in my mind on Monday with this group of students.
  3. And the third main objective from my closure activities is to gather some formative assessment data. Most days, I ask some sort of simple question related to the day’s concepts. For the seniors today, it related to voltaic cells again, when I asked the following question: “Draw – on the particle level – what is happening at the anode and cathode of a magnesium/copper voltaic cell.” The answers were really across the spectrum. Some simply drew another voltaic cell. That wasn’t what I was looking for in a good reply. And while I did get a few answers that showed some understanding at the particle level, I see that I have a bit more work to do with them to help them understand the movement of electrons into and out of atoms/ions and what is happening as the oxidation and reduction take place in the voltaic cell. So when I see them next on Tuesday – after a four-day weekend  for Thanksgiving – I’ll be starting the lesson with an animation of the process to help them in this area of understanding.
    For my juniors today, we’re working on stoichiometry. I had them whiteboarding in small groups on the problem solving. And at the end, I gave them a mass-mass stoichiometry probelm. Of the 14 students, 10 got the answer correct, with a few small mistakes and a few large mistakes by the others. One student made the same mistakes on the prompt at the end that were being made earlier during whiteboarding. This shows me I need to be more proactive in correcting these mistakes during the group work. So I’ll be tweaking my method a little more to make it more meaningful and productive.
The title says it all here. I use closure activities for formative assessment and gain valuable data. But it also allows me to try things again after making changes based on feedback from my students – and from the data. I create an opportunity for a do-over where needed, either because I need to change a method or re-teach something that didn’t quite stick.
To say that the closure activities have had a significant impact on my teaching almost seems like an understatement at this point. In the hopes of getting some discussion going in the comments, what closure activities do you use? What works? What suggestions do you have?

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Using the Fish Bowl, along with a Backchannel Discussion

In my MYP Chemistry 10 class, we’re currently in a unit on states of matter and phase changes. Before the unit started, I put some time into making it more rigorous and decided to go down the modeling chemistry pathway. (Blogged about here.) The #modchem discussions we’ve had as a class – in my mind at least – have certainly done just that. But for those of you that teach in the MYP, one thing that must go on are the formal assessments in order to cover all of the criteria adequately. My students are working on a One World project on water purification as a means to solve issues related to water shortages (more on that in a future post, as I’ve got a group working on a service project in Romania too), and we’re preparing for our Criterion C unit test for states of matter and phase changes. In order to afford my students the chance to reach the 5-6 mark band, I need to provide them with opportunities to apply their knowledge in new situations. Additionally, I need to give them a chance to “critically analyse and evaluate information to make judgments supported by scientific understanding.” (From the MYP Guide for Sciences.) As articles of interest come across my Twitter Feed, or my Diigo updates, I tend to save a PDF copy for future use. Well, earlier this fall an article titled “Melting to Keep Cool” showed up in my radar. Perfect!

So I saved the article for the phase changes unit. The plan originally was to just give the students the article and tell them I would give them a 5-6 question from the article on the test. But my school has been working on improving literacy throughout all subject areas, so I worked with our literacy coach to develop some strategies for engaging the students in the article. First, we did a word familiarity chart to help them recognzie words that would show up in the article that have specific meanings – but aren’t necessarily science content. And we did a pre-reading activity to help them prepare for understanding the content. Then they read the article for homework to prepare for a class discussion on Monday.

But the coolest part of it all was a fish bowl! Yesterday in class I started by having students access their prior knowledge on the energy transitions of phase changes, just to get their brains going. Then I gave them about 8 minutes to pre-write the main idea of each section of the article. My hope was that more students would feel comfortable inside the fish bowl if they had spent some time preparing. In order to engage the students outside the fishbowl, I wanted them to participate in a backchannel discussion on TodaysMeet. (Hat Tip to Brian Bennett for that idea to use TodaysMeet for this purpose.) I discussed the idea with my class and shared with them how I use backchanneling at conferences. I also showed them a snippit from this video. (Hat Tip to Tom Whitby for the video.)  I then gave them the groundrules of the fish bowl as follows:


Four people will start inside the fish bowl. Only people in the fish bowl are allowed to talk.

I will offer a guiding question to start, and the conversation can go forward from there. Students in the fish bowl can change the conversation as needed. If necessary, I will ask additional guiding questions.

If you are on the outside, you should be participating in the Backchannel Discussion:

If you want to be in the fish bowl, wait for an appropriate time and tap somebody on the shoulder to switch places.

And my guidelines for the backchannel:

•Please use your actual first name (and last initial if needed).
•You are limited to 140 characters (like a Tweet).
•You are not limited in terms of the number of responses you can make.
•This is a private discussion. Only people with the link will find it, and it will disappear in one week.
•I fully expect your participation to be relevant to the discussion and the article.
•Post responses to the fish bowl, ask questions of each other, and chat about the discussion.
•This is not, however, a personal chat about the weekend, your favorite football team, Urinetown, etc.

So I get ready to start and realize that TodaysMeet is blocked as a ‘chat’ site at my school. Uh. Er. Well. Um. Luckily my students were problem-solvers and suggested a google chat. So they created a chat and started inviting everybody in the class. Problem solved! I’m very appreciative of my resourceful students.

Once the students were settled, I gave them the first question: “Explain whether Phase Change Materials can be a viable option for heating and cooling buildings.” And they’re off! The discussion went in many different directions, including many issues related to a One World project. In fact, one of the students in the backchannel wrote, “#OneWorldProblems” as the fish bowl students were discussing benefits and limitations of the technology. The students were quite engaged with the backchannel. In fact, I think some students got more from that aspect of the discussion compared to the actual fish bowl.

As the conversation went along, there were times when it drifted too far and I’d reel it back in with more guiding questions. The next question I threw at them was, “In the section ‘Cool as Ice’ energy efficiency is discussed, but not because less energy is used. How can something that uses more energy actually have higher energy efficiency?” The discussion kept meandering. Typical, in my mind, to how most discussions jump from one topic to another. I didn’t interject at all for a while, really, except when I threw another guiding question at them.

To finish, I wanted them to revisit the science. So my last question was, “Forget the economics. Is the science legitimate here? Can melting be used to keep cool?” This got them going a bit as they touched on the ice blocks used in Manhattan and the beeswax used to keep buildings cool.

I then had them reflect on the discussion by giving themselves a participation rating from 1-4.  The average student score was 2.75, with only one student selecting “1” for him/herself. I also had the students summarize the discussion. Then I gave the students the following question: “On a scale of 1-4 (4 being the highest), rate the “Fish Bowl” activity from today as a learning activity.” The average score for this was 3.15, with three scores of 2 and the rest 3 or higher (in a class of 20).

In asking the students to offer what went well about the activity, the most popular answer was the backchannel. I think this type of discussion is a perfect example of technology allowing me to complete an activity that really engages students, with no pen-and-pencil analog on the same scale. I had relatively quiet students piping up with great responses in the backchannel. These are students that would likely never volunteer to sit in the fishbowl, yet they were fully engaged.

Next time I do a fishbowl, I’d like to find ways to keep the discussion inside the fishbowl a bit more focused on the issues – and specifically the science. But given the One World requirements of MYP, I actually didn’t mind the meandering conversation that hit some really valid issues about how the science impacts society.

Coming up, I’m planning on sharing a post about a service learning project we’re working in in that same grade 10 MYP Chemistry class. Until then, keep it minty fresh.

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Simple changes, big impacts

My school had some in-house PD a few weeks ago and it focused on how to make our lessons more deliberately engaging. The scheme we discussed is GANAG, from the work of Jane E. Pollack (See link here for some ideas.) I’m not here to advocate for one version of lesson planning over another. I’ll even say that as a 20-year veteran, my lesson planning is often not as detailed as it was long ago when I was younger. But this was a nice refresher to make sure I am planning deliberate strategies to engage my students in the work of the day. One item that struck me is the “Goal Review” at the end. Lately I’ve done a poor job of wrapping up my classes with any sort of structured closure activity. So this week – now that we’re back to school after a holiday – I’ve focused on using a simple exit pass to gather some quick formative assessment data from my students.

For my grade 10 MYP chemistry class, we did a lab today about phase changes using lauric acid. The students – hopefully – will gain some understanding of the energy transfers involved in phase changes, along with a greater understanding of what is happening at the particle level. (On a quick aside, I’ve been inspired to work more on this particle-level model by the blogging of C. Kilbane – @CentralScience on Twitter, blog here. He shares a brief post each day, often with the work of his students and the diagrams he has them draw to show their understanding on the particle level.) Today I had my students answer the following on a piece of scratch paper as their exit pass, “On the piece of scratch paper provided, complete the following drawings, using water as the substance:   1.Particles in the solid phase.  2.Particles in the liquid phase.  3.Particles in the gas phase.” For most substances, their drawings would have been pretty good. However, for water there was a misconception present in quite a few responses. The response I’ve included below (graciously provided with permission from one of my students) is quite representative of most of the responses. The particles in the solid are quite orderly. In the liquid, the particles are less orderly – and spaced farther apart. Hmmm. In water, is that really true? Given that water is less dense as a solid, this is a misconception. And of course the particles are much farther apart for the gas phase. Given that many students had this misconception, I’m going to address it on Thursday when I see them again with the following opening prompt, “To access your prior knowledge about particles, answer each of the following:  1.create a working definition for density   2.Draw the particles for two substances A and B. Substance A has a higher density than substance B.”

I’m willing to predict that most students will know the relationship between particle arrangement and density – yet they didn’t apply that knowledge to water. So because of my quick adjustment to my lesson planning – being more deliberate with how I close the period – I caught a misconception and I get to address it right away next block. Sometimes it’s the little things.



One student's drawing. I chose this drawing (with the student's permission) as it was fairly representative of the students' responses.

One student’s drawing. I chose this drawing (with the student’s permission) as it was fairly representative of the students’ responses.


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