Friday, January 27, 2017

The MTBoS, Week 4: My Biggest Failure (Days 89-90)

This post fulfills Week 4 of the 2017 Blogging Initiative. This topic for this week's Initiative post is "We All Fall Down":

You are going to write a blogpost about one mistake/error/failure you made, and proudly and publicly share that with the world. OR… and this is more ambitious but wow would reading this keep us glued to the screen… keep a log of teaching failures for a day, a few days, or even the entire week… and then publish it!

Well, I can only wish that biggest teaching failure lasted only a day, a few days, or a week. Instead, my biggest failure spans the entire school year.

My biggest teaching failure is science -- as in, I failed to teach science the entire school year.

At this point, you may point out that this is the MTBoS, or Math Twitter Blogosphere. As math teachers, we're not supposed to teach science any more than we should teach English or history. Well, the truth is -- actually, let me start at the beginning.

I was hired to my first teaching position back in April -- in fact, I announced it right here on this blog in my final post that month. I was to work at a charter middle school here in Los Angeles, where I would teach math to all three middle school grades. The director (principal) handed me a copy of the Illinois State text, a project-based math curriculum, and told me to make myself familiar with some of the projects.

I still remember my first day of work, a PD day about two weeks before the first day of school. The director showed us teachers the middle school building -- first the history classroom, then the English room, and finally my room. At that point, I asked the teacher where the science room is, and her reply would doom me towards an entire year of failures -- "There is no science teacher."

Our charter school didn't always lack a science teacher. In fact, just last year there were separate teachers for math and science, but both of those teachers left. You may have heard of the "teacher shortage" here in California, where there aren't enough teachers to fill all available positions -- especially science positions.

Indeed, I would've liked to have all of last summer to prepare for teaching science instead of having it sprung upon me on my first day. But of course, the school was still holding out hope that either the science teacher would return, or that a true science teacher would be hired.

Back when I was earning my credential in math, I had the opportunity to add what California calls a "foundational level" science credential to teach middle school science, but I turned down the offer -- I'd figured that it would add unnecessary work when it was already tough trying to complete my main math credential. Of course, if I could have known that my first teaching job would require me to cover science, I'd have taken the foundational science credential in a heartbeat. (Notice that if this had been a public school, I'd be required to have that credential to teach science in the first place, but a charter school has a little more leeway in what credentials are required.)

So how should I teach science? In a science class, we expect there to be a mix of lecture and lab -- but how often, for example, should a teacher give a science projects? I knew, for example, that it takes about three weeks to cover a chapter of a traditional math text --  but I only knew that because that's how often I gave tests as a student teacher of math. Since I never student taught science, I didn't know how such a class would be organized.

I think back to my own days as a science student -- which contain many highs and lows. As a high school freshman, my general science teacher saw some promise in me and wanted to promote me to an Applied Bio/Chem class, but I moved to another school before the end of the first quarter. Two years later, my Integrated Science III teacher at that new school similarly thought I was gifted and not only recommended me for Chemistry, but convinced the magnet at our school to accept me! As a senior I passed AP Physics C with flying colors and earned A- in my first physics course at UCLA.

But in another physics course, I earned my lowest grade ever at UCLA, a C-. Furthermore, I also earned some mediocre grades in my middle school science classes. Life science was always my weakest science subject, and so my grade dropped from B to C in my seventh grade class, which focused on life science. That C grade meant that I wasn't eligible for the advanced eighth grade science class and had to settle for the regular science class. My grades that year dropped from C to C-, and to this day I believe it was because I was distracted by the troublemakers in the class -- students I wouldn't have interacted with had I qualified for the advanced class. It's disheartening to note that I earned a C- in the exact class -- Science 8 -- that I'm supposed to teach!

My official title is "STEM teacher" -- Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math -- and this is how it appears on the students' schedule. There was no specification as to how I should divvy the class between math and science.

Our school uses an 80-minute block schedule. It seems reasonable to divide the block into two periods of 40 minutes each, one for math and one for science. But this would amount to having six preps -- Math 6, Math 7, Math 8, Science 6, Science 7, Science 8. I'd like any MTBoS teacher reading this to imagine having not just six classes, but six preps, with three of those preps in a different subject.

Of course, I knew that of the three grades, eighth is the most important grade for science. Here in California, the three tested grades for science are fifth, eighth, and tenth. So if I mainly taught science to eighth grade, I'd have only four preps -- still a lot, but not nearly as daunting as six.

On most days of the week, I teach four blocks -- one for each grade of "STEM," followed by a block for use of the IXL software. But on Wednesdays we had a different schedule:

1. STEM 6
2. Study Island 8
3. STEM 8
4, STEM 7
5, Advisory

Now "Study Island" is another online educational program -- and unlike IXL, Study Island actually provides middle school science lessons. (IXL is now in the process of adding MS science.) And so I decided to convert the Study Island period into a makeshift science class for my eighth graders who needed to prepare for the California Science Test.

By the way, I was inspired by the example of one of the most famous MTBoS bloggers, Sarah Carter, a math teacher who also suddenly finds herself teaching science this year:

There obviously are no other math or science teachers at my school, and so my math and science department is the MTBoS. And so I ended up adopting Carter's lessons. For the second Wednesday of school, I gave my eighth graders the Survival in the Desert activity.

Now this was Benchmark Testing week, and so I wanted to give my eighth graders a Benchmark Test for science. Since this is officially Study Island time, I had the students go to Study Island and complete the eighth grade pre-test as a Benchmark. This led to the students complaining -- there were so many questions to which they didn't know the answer. I ended up dropping the pre-test completely.

In September, I continued with Carter's lesson plans. Her first unit of the year was the Mathematics of Science, and so she gave the students a lesson on scientific notation.

But this leads to another disaster. You can see that Carter spent an entire week on scientific notation while I tried to squeeze it into one day's lesson. I started with the cards that you scan find at the Carter link, and my class struggles just as hers does. But Carter then follows it up with a foldable for note taking, whereas my class went straight to STEM, where we worked on something different. At the very least, if I was going to do this lesson, I should have waited until October, when an actual lesson on scientific notation would begin in my STEM class.

Around this time, the Wednesday schedule changed, (We often joked that at our school, we never followed the same schedule two Wednesdays in a row!) Music class would take over, and both the Study Island 8 and STEM 7 blocks turned into music instead. With the loss of the Study Island period, science went by the wayside -- except when we went on a field trip to the LA County Fair, when I told the students to look for and identify the various farm animals as a science lesson.

In October, there was a Wednesday when there was no school -- for Yom Kippur. I once wrote on this blog that I might use a lunisolar holiday like Easter or Yom Kippur to introduce students to the motions of the earth, moon, and sun. (Speaking of lunisolar calendars, tomorrow is Chinese New Year, perhaps the most celebrated lunar holiday.) I printed out some worksheets from Study Island and gave them to students in all three grades. I gave the students a quiz, and some students did well, but there were many low scores as well. For the sixth and seventh graders, this would be the only real science lesson I'd given them all year.

November marked the end of the first trimester. I knew that I wanted to do a better job teaching science to the eighth graders. But there's yet another issue I need to discuss here -- the Next Generation Science Standards and their implementation in California.

According to the old standards, sixth grade focuses on Earth Science, seventh grade on Life Science, and eighth grade on Physical Science. But with the new standards, California will be switching to the new model, with all three types of science to be taught all three years.

On my blog, I've written about the Common Core Standards. Like them or hate them, one problem with any new set of standards is the transition. It's ironic that the federal government encourages states to adopt the standards, yet during the transition, the states are required to use the old standards on the state tests! Here's a link to the most recent status regarding the tests:

California attempted to appeal the decision by the feds that the old tests be given, but lost. But it appears that the state may defiantly give tests based on the new standards anyway. Still, this fight between the state and the feds leads to uncertainty for science teachers like me.

I still wanted the Study Island software to be the basis for my science class -- and as of now, Study Island uses the new standards. And so I'd have to give lessons on all three types of science -- including my weakest subject, life science.

Several times a week, I receive a visit from a college student from UCLA. This program, called Bruin Corps, allows college students to work with middle school students and help the adolescents to the point that they can aspire to attend UCLA themselves. One of my Bruin Corps members is a molecular bio major, and so I asked him to help out with a Study Island lesson on genes and DNA.

That very same day, I met with a lady from the LA Department of Water and Power. She was the leader of the Green Team -- an initiative to teach the students about conservation. This fit right into science, as there was also a Study Island unit on Human Interactions (with the environment). The students will be working on science projects when the Green Team starts in earnest in February.

So in December, I decided to introduce my students to the Green Team by having them complete the Study Island quiz on Human Interactions as a pre-test. This quiz would not count except for students who had zeros on previous quizzes to make up. This led to more complaints about why science was used to make up grades when I never taught science.

That takes us to this month -- and in this month, I've had several heated arguments with my students about science:

-- On the 13th, I decide to print the students a Study Island worksheet on Human Interactions. The idea is that this lesson would bridge the gap to the Green Team next month. But then partway through the lesson, the students complained that it was too boring and refused to work on it. One girl who had transferred in from another school told me that her old school had a real science teacher who gave interesting projects, such as an Edible Cell Model. I agree to try something similar in my class.

-- On the 17th (after the three-day weekend) I introduce an Edible Molecule Project to be completed at home, just like the Edible Cell Model from last year. But the students reject this as well, telling me that they can't do it since they haven't learned anything about molecules yet. This includes the new girl, who probably never wanted to do the project in the first place. She only brought it up in order to tell me how her old teacher was a much better science teacher than I am (which is true, since she was a genuine science teacher and I'm not).

-- On the 19th (the 18th was a field trip day), I continue to pursue the atom/molecules lesson by introducing Foldable notes (similar to those mentioned in Carter's posts). This seems to work a little better than the previous lessons. Many students enjoy decorating the outside of the Foldables -- this is why I think Foldable notes are a great idea! The real problem is that the 17th and 19th were supposed to be math days, not science. I fall behind on the math lessons due to all the days spent either doing science or arguing about it.

-- On the 23rd, a new schedule is announced, to begin on Wednesday. Here, in fact, is the new Wednesday schedule:

1. SBAC Math Prep 8
2. STEM 6
3. STEM 8
4. SBAC Science Prep 8
5. Advisory

For the first time, the actual word "science" appears on the schedule -- not STEM or math, but honest to goodness "science." I use the first Wednesday science period to complete, finally, the edible molecule project using candy and toothpicks. I'm worried, though, that molecules, an eighth grade topic on the old standards, are now considered a seventh grade topic under NGSS.

I wish that I'd scheduled that first science lesson this month for the 20th, not the 13th, to reduces the time between the first argument about science and its appearance on the schedule. This week marks the midpoint of the second trimester, which I often call the third "hexter," which can mean either "six weeks" or "one-sixth of the year." As three sixths reduces to one half, this also marks the end of the first semester. In the LAUSD, the first semester actually ends before winter break -- but since our middle school doesn't have finals, we end the third hexter closer the mathematical midpoint. We can consider the last day of the first semester to be Tuesday, as that's when the schedule changed. This is actually Day 90 on the LAUSD calendar, but for us it was only Day 86 due to four extra PD days we had that were not observed by the district.

My science failures also cut into my classroom management. If I tell a student to do something and I say that it's the rules, the student complains, "Well, the rule is that we're supposed to learn science," and so they claim that they break rules because I'm breaking rules in not teaching science. This has already occurred in eighth grade, and even a seventh grader used this argument.

Of course, I now know what I should have done about science. I already mentioned how I'm fond of three-week cycles -- well, I should have used the original Study Island period by cycling among Foldable notes, a project, and a quiz on Study Island. The science period should occur every week, even after music tinkered with the schedule. This would have led quite nicely to the current test prep block for science, where I could continue the same three-week cycle. Avoid all pre-tests until the students are confident that I'll actually teach the material.

I also could have included more science for sixth and seventh grades as well. Every three weeks, I schedule a day for a basic multiplication quiz, which I call a "Dren Quiz." I actually don't schedule anything else that day, even though the Dren Quiz doesn't take 80 minutes. (In fact, it really shouldn't even take 80 seconds.) I usually use the rest of the block to catch up on other lessons, but instead I could have used it to provide some science to the sixth and seventh graders.

But what should have I done about the whole state standards/NGSS mess? (Right now, I try to explain NGSS to the students, but they don't listen. Based on my bad lessons, they think that I know nothing about science, so why should I know what NGSS is?) Perhaps I could have taught eighth grade physical science and seventh grade life science, but NGSS for sixth grade, as the transition to NGSS will be complete by the time they reach eighth grade. For life science, I don't feel comfortable with an animal dissection lab, but there are some microscopes in the room, so I could have used these in a lesson.

I shouldn't have been dependent on Bruin Corps or Green Team for science lessons. Indeed, I should have implemented the above plan before I even know what Bruin Corps and Green Team are.

My charter school has a sister school. The crucial difference between that school and ours is that the other school only goes K-7 rather than K-8, Therefore my counterpart teacher uses the four blocks for Math 7, Math 6, Science 6, Science 7 rather than Math 6, Math 7, Math 8, IXL. The Illinois State text also provides materials for science, and my counterpart uses these. She tells me that the science projects are much more enjoyable than the "STEM" projects that appear in the math text. It's easier for her to do because she doesn't teach eighth grade, but she does say that the four preps are tough -- it would be much better if she only taught math. Next year, she's hoping to move back to her natural grade to teach, kindergarten. If even a natural kindergarten teacher can implement the science projects, then so should I.

I'm receiving mixed messages from the administration regarding science. When the science texts were first delivered to our school, they were sent directly to the sister charter since they have a real science block and we don't. But now, of course, with the state science test coming they want me to teach science. (Note that Illinois State texts can be accessed online, so maybe I should have used those books all along.)

Back when I was in eighth grade, science was a one-semester course. So let's see whether I can be successful in making science for one semester -- this newly begun second semester -- at this school.

Here is the Pappas question for today:

The longer side of a right triangle is 45, and one shorter side is 36. What is the other shorter side?

This is an actual Warm-Up question I gave in my eighth grade class today. (The projector broke, and so I couldn't display the online Illinois State question.) It's a Pythagorean Theorem question:

a^2 + b^2 = c^2
a^2 + 36^2 = 45^2
a^2 + 1296 = 2025
a^2 = 729
a = 27

So the other leg is 27 -- and of course today's date is the 27th.

Let's wrap up this (admittedly lengthy, but it was a huge mistake) post with one more story. As I was leaving to go home today, I saw one of my sixth graders in the after school program. And she was working on a science project where students combined several ingredients in a bottle. The resulting liquid was colored, had an artificial fragrance, and scattered light when a flashlight was held up to it. This was an interesting project, but it's a shame that one of my students is learning more science after school than in her actual "science" class.

This concludes the 2017 MTBoS Blogging Initiative. I look forward to seeing you guys in 2018 -- hopefully by then, we'll have a real science teacher and I can focus on teaching only math! This is a two-day post, so my next personal post will be Tuesday.

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