AACT Member Spotlight: Nora Walsh
By AACT on August 4, 2021
Every month AACT spotlights a passionate member who is dedicated to enhancing chemistry inside and outside the classroom. This month, we spotlight Nora Walsh. She teaches Chemistry, Honors, and AP Chemistry at FJ Reitz High School in Evansville, Indiana .
Tell us about yourself.
I was born and raised in a small rural community of Middle Tennessee called Milton (outside of Murfreesboro). I went to Emory University where I earned my B.S. and M.S. in Chemistry. I then moved to Chattanooga and taught at Lookout Valley High School for two years, and I earned my M.Ed. in Secondary Science Education. In 2006 I married my husband Ken Walsh, and we moved to Evansville, IN. I have been teaching at FJ Reitz High School since then. We have three children: Liam (12), Maeve (9), and Aisling (4). Ken is the chair of the chemistry department at the University of Southern Indiana. Ken is from Ireland, and as a family, we travel to Ireland regularly to see his family (although COVID has gotten in the way of that). In my (limited) free time, I love to read and crochet and serve the community, particularly with Teacher Locker, a free teacher supply store for which I was a founding board member.
Why did you become a teacher? Did you always want to teach?
Teaching was always in the back of my mind, but I originally was pre-med in college. I majored in chemistry because my chem classes were my favorite classes. I went on to get a master's degree then started a Ph.D. in chemistry. During my Ph.D. work, I realized that I didn't want to do chemistry research, but I LOVED the teaching. I left my Ph.D. program, began teaching in a public high school on an alternative license, and got my license by doing an M.Ed. while teaching.
What fuels your passion for science and teaching?
I love working with high school students. When I start to get bogged down in everyday mundane details, I look at emails and cards I have gotten from students that tell me that I helped them. They boost me back up.
How do you monitor the progress of your students? How do you ensure underperformers excel?
I do a lot of formative assessments, and when possible, I choose practice work that provides students a way to self-evaluate. I try to foster a sense of self-advocacy and lead them to keep up with their own comprehension and to ask me questions when they have them. That being said, when I do formative assessments, I will identify areas of weakness and do mini-review sessions in class. I "invite" certain students (not optional for them) but also have it open to any other students who want to listen. While these are going on, the rest of the class is working on another activity. Students can move in and out of these mini-review sessions as they wish—they are very helpful.
What is your approach to building a meaningful relationship with your students and their parents?
I have been trying to improve my parent communication this year across the board. Since parents never were allowed in the school due to COVID protocol, I sent them photos of students working in class. I got a great response from that! My goal was to email them each unit and attach pictures to each email. I didn't do it every unit, but I will continue this in future years. With my students, I try to be very human and approachable. I talk to them about me and who I am and what I like and I listen when they tell me the same things. I get their respect by also giving them mine. I work hard to create a welcoming and open classroom culture with lots of discussion, laughter, and interaction.
What topic do you find hardest for students? How do you teach it?
Stoichiometry for my on-level students, bonding and IMFS for my honors students, and acids and bases for my AP students. This year I turned stoich into a self-paced, fully online unit using BCA tables with integrated just-in-time feedback. I broke stoich into what I called "levels" and they had to master each level by achieving a certain score on several items before they could move on to the next level. It went better than it ever has, in large part because the feedback allowed them to be more independent and help each other. Bonding and IMFs are hard for honors because it's a large unit that I teach in great conceptual depth. They do several labs and have notes and Google slides drag-and-drops, manipulative activities...there's a lot! It's the first time many of them have had to explain the reasoning behind scientific facts. Acids and bases just require a lot of lab work and many, many, MANY practice problems! This year I also integrated more group activities using sets of data and representing different scenarios using particle view diagrams. That worked really well, and I will do more of that next year.
What do you do to remain current and bring the latest science into the classroom?
Social media is a big help! I follow ACS and several of its journals on Twitter, as well as RSC, Nature, and several other science outlets. I do my best to scan the C&EN weekly email to see what's new. Also, I'm married to a Ph.D. chemist—he keeps me informed! Finally, I love it when my students bring me a question! Early in the year, I like to present several new science ideas. This fosters an interest, and throughout the year I usually have a small handful of students that will ask me questions about current science events.
Why did you become involved with AACT? What are the benefits of being involved?
I joined the very first year. I had been long hoping for an organization for high school chem teachers! It was a dream come true. I love all of the vetted resources and the webinars. For me personally, I also really love presenting webinars. I enjoy presenting PD and developing the content for the webinars I have led has made me a better teacher.
In three words, what would your students say they learned from you?
Studying, science appreciation
If you could pass on one word of wisdom to other chemists what would it be?
If you are passionate about what you do—and show your passion to others—they may not join you in the passion, but they will appreciate yours.