Heather’s photo contribution for a school-wide faculty video for students during the pandemic.

Back in September, I wrote to you about a “Fresh Start,” sharing about how I love the cyclic nature of being a teacher. The disruption to that cycle due to the COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented and unsettling. We’ve had to re-think what a school year is, what education looks like, and what to prioritize.

I hope I’m not the first to commend you for doing a fantastic job with these arduous tasks. I am confident that you deserve this praise, even if I don’t know exactly what your situation and solutions have entailed. I give myself a 7/10 for my online teaching, but a 10/10 for cutting myself some slack and focusing first on my students’ well-being instead of curriculum. Please consider doing the same.

The fresh start, the middle…

The school year started well. I love watching students gain more confidence as they get comfortable with the routines and content. When I start hearing student comments like, “that test was easier than past ones,” I always smile. Students rarely recognize that the difficulty level stays the same. Their new-found success comes from better preparation and connections among concepts.

The Governing Board and AACT staff moved forward with the newly-implemented Strategic Plan. The mission is to support the success of educators by providing quality resources, professional development, and networking opportunities. Specific strategies were developed to fulfill this mission. For example, a K-8 writing team created resources to fill in curricular gaps. Also, virtual meet-ups to encourage networking are being piloted. Jesse Bernstein, our President-Elect, did a fabulous job leading the regional representatives to present at local, regional, or state events. (Although, the timeline on those presentations must now shift.)

In February, I attended an ACS Safety Summit on communication as a representative for AACT. It was interesting to work with college professors and industry professionals on how to promote safe practices in chemistry labs. In my own classroom lab, I am relentless about students properly wearing their safety glasses and following instructions. As K-12 teachers of chemistry, it is essential to incorporate these practices and critical thinking about safety before students get to college.

Meanwhile, the Nominations & Awards committee has vetted candidates for the ongoing Governing Board election. Please make sure to vote for your grade-band ambassador and President-Elect — you can learn more about each of the candidates, and vote from the comfort of your home!

The interruption

March 12th was a Thursday. We got notification that our school district would be shutting down early due to a parent’s exposure to SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus. Almost instantly, that news created other, very specific challenges for educators throughout our district.

For me, one of my most immediate needs was to respond to the concerns of my student teacher, an amazing young woman I've been lucky to have helping me with my classes. I have no doubt that she will one day become a contributing member to the chemistry teaching community — but in the short term, she needed my help. That Thursday, she looked at me and asked, “What do we do?” I replied: “I don’t know.” She: “But what are we going to do?” I averted my eyes. I’ve replayed that conversation in my head countless times. I felt helpless to lead her, to do the job I’d been entrusted with.

And then I taught two abbreviated classes where I did something I rarely do. I lied — or at least offered my students a level of reassurance I didn’t believe myself. I said we’d get through this. You’ll still learn chemistry, perhaps just less of it. We’ll be patient and kind with one another. I’ll be here for you. We’ll make it work.

I saw these statements as lies because at the time, I had no plan in place, and no idea what my administration would ask of us or what would happen if I became sick. The great news is that, while what I said was a lie in that moment, it’s since morphed into the truth, and is something I’m now proud of every day. The pride extends to administrators, parents, my AP Chemistry Teacher Facebook group, and, of course, students.

Here are some ways I have been coping with our new normal of online learning:

  • Unlocked resources were made available. I was thrilled with AACT’s reaction time in giving access to these useful resources. We know you’ve spread the word, since there’s been an uptick in visits to our website. AACT is happy to do what it can to help the educational world right now.
  • One type of activity that went over well during online learning days was a modified escape room-style lesson using Google Forms. Even though I was limited to presenting it remotely, it was something different to keep students motivated and get their brains back in the game. When you can access your classroom again, here’s an escape room article that features activities for different levels of chemistry.
  • Since the directive from our administration is to assign a project as a final exam (something new for me), I am planning to use my good friend Lindsay Davis’s Molecular Modeling Project, which will be a nice merge of reviewing past content and venturing into organic chemistry. Read more about this project in her article published in this issue of Chemistry Solutions.
  • I like to use some modeling strategies in my classroom lessons, and although that is a little more challenging in a distance-learning setting, I’m eager to implement some ideas from Ashley Shunk’s article about assessing student modeling.
  • I wish I would have known about the BOSSO reading technique for my remote teaching — it’s a reading assignment structured to help students organize their understanding of a new topic. While I’ve always had an interest in literacy, this is the first I have heard of this method. Jenelle Ball’s Chemistry Close Read Webinar is also a great resource.
  • The AACT multimedia library has been extremely valuable given my new teaching situation — and I hope you, too, will take advantage of the animations, simulations and videos that are available for teachers to incorporate into their lessons. The simulations are always unlocked so that students can access them. Every issue of Chemistry Solutions includes a new multimedia item, and the latest addition is an animation about the electromagnetic spectrum.
  • In case you missed it, ACS Earth Day Celebrations and Chemists Celebrate Earth Week both transitioned to digital campaigns in April; however, the content is still accessible online. Additionally, the year-long series of Teaching Earth Chemistry articles concluded in this issue of Chemistry Solutions, which may provide you with additional ideas for integrating earth chemistry into your chemistry classroom.
  • With the cancellation of the 2020 ACS National Meeting in Philly, BCCE, and countless other professional development opportunities, teachers are in need of ideas and collaborative opportunities. I was planning to present a workshop about station labs, so perhaps I’ll instead write article about them for Chemistry Solutions. You can write one, too!

A future of re-equilibration

A major topic in any equilibrium unit is Le Châtelier’s Principle: When a stress is placed on a system in equilibrium, the system shifts by countering that stress to re-establish equilibrium.When I teach this concept, I use everyday life as an example. When something great or terrible happens in life, we don’t just stay at those peaks or valleys. We shift back to our “normal,” even if that normal looks different than it did prior to the stress. A fast-spreading virus has knocked us out of equilibrium. We are shifting. We will return.

Since moving to online schooling, I’ve noticed that every well-intentioned solution is the basis for countless questions (some would say countless problems). But, really, isn’t that what science promotes? Questioning, hypothesizing, observing, repeating.

I look forward to thinking through some of these new questions with my colleagues by my side. Is blended learning, a combination of synchronous and asynchronous teaching, something we should do regularly? How much do grades matter? What is the effect of having to forego hands-on laboratory activities? Some of our upcoming webinars may help with these professional discussions.

In my chemistry classroom, I teach my kids to focus on one variable and control the others. That model is shattered in this moment where more unknowns become apparent each day. However, a positive outcome of all of this will be that, when life does return to normal, our job of showing how essential the skills of data collection, graphing, and error analysis are will be much easier, since kids will have real-world experience to help them understand.

I hope that you, your families, and your students are well. May these trying times leave us with a better handle on technology, a greater appreciation for medical research and healthcare, and a grace that we didn’t know was possible.

I am honored to have been your 2019-2020 AACT president. Thank you.

Regis goodeHeather Weck
President, AACT Governing Board

Photo credit:
(article cover) Zorro Stock Images/Bigstockphoto.com