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September 2016 | Classroom Commentary
Creating a Community in the Chemistry Classroom
By Kathleen Bernat
Like so many others, I began my teaching experience with the expectation that if I understood the material and presented it in an interesting way, students would take ownership of their education and find success. Frustrated by the lack of buy-in I encountered, I worked harder at entertaining my students and designing activities — but still did not inspire the level of student achievement I sought.
It wasn’t long before I discovered that student engagement is best achieved when academic content supports the emotional needs of each member of the class. I wanted my students to put real effort into the learning process, but they wanted to put that effort into their relationships. With this understanding, I have modified the structure of my class to make it more meaningful, intentionally creating a community in the chemistry classroom.
When teaching students of the Millennial generation, classroom community begins by ensuring that each student feels a sense of belonging. Many students are intimidated by the subject of chemistry and feel they are inadequate or can't be successful.
I typically teach about 100 mixed-grade-level chemistry honors students each year, and begin creating a sense of belonging during an open house held a few days before the official start of the school year. For this event, I print out each student’s school picture and tape it to a treat I’ve prepared for them, along with a note listing things they will need to bring to class on day one (many other back-to-school ideas are available on Pinterest.com). I make sure to shake the hand of each student and intentionally look at his/her picture so that I am able to greet many of them by name as they walk into the classroom the next day.
On the first day of class, I assure the students that this chemistry class is structured for their success and that if they make an effort, they will finish the year well. In addition to a demo with discussion, I go over classroom policies and ask the students if they want to add anything to the classroom rules, or share ideas from classes that they have enjoyed taking — even if those classes are in subjects other than science. Typically, students choose to modify policies about bathroom breaks and homework in particular.
I continue to cultivate connections throughout the year as I stand by the door before each class begins and greet each student with a compliment, fist bump, or a question about their day. My students look forward to having the class sing happy birthday on their birthdays (or “half-birthdays,” if their birthdays fall in the summer) and receiving a special personalized birthday pencil. Many students call it their lucky pencil! Multiple points of contact are important. Even if the teens think any one of them is a bit cheesy, I think they secretly enjoy the effort I’ve made to connect with them. My daughters have received personalized refrigerator magnets and certificates from other teachers, and have enjoyed them just as much.
Capturing lab work. Results of an equilibrium lab in which the
students created a rainbow of solutions using their understanding
of aqueous equilibrium. Image Credit: K. Bernat
Lastly, I try to take two or three pictures of each student throughout the year and post them in our Learning Management System. At the end of the year, each student tapes those two or three pictures into his or her lab book. This both finalizes and personalizes the year for each individual student. It is also a great way for them to remember the lab work and to strengthen their relationships with their fellow classmates. I also take pictures of each team with their results.
Eight years ago, when I began teaching at my current school, only 35 students were enrolled in chemistry. One reason for the low enrollment was that most of the student body felt that chemistry was too difficult, and that taking it online with our state’s virtual school would be academically easier. Today, in contrast, we have over 140 students choosing to take chemistry, which I think reflects the fact that they now feel confident that taking the class is worth the risk. This is a 400% increase, while the entire student body experienced only a 180% increase during the same period. Although chemistry is difficult, current students know they will gain so much more than just information. In fact, the guidance center has told me that students choose to change their schedule to ensure that they can take chemistry in our traditional classroom, because they feel that the alternative online course will not deliver an equal experience.
Anyone teaching for any length of time knows that differentiation is a key factor in student success. The difficulty with implementing differentiation in any science lesson is in the time it takes to create those multilevel directive activities. Inquiry labs and project-based learning serve to generate autonomous behavior and allow for differentiation based on student ability, without all of the extra time it takes to originate the directives. Many of my pre-lab assignments involve watching a video on the techniques introduced in the lab (video example). Students watch the video and write their own procedures based on the equipment and information given in the video. The pre-lab work is their ticket into lab the next day.
Download a PDF of the Homework Log.
Assigning a pre-lab video frees up class time for actual exploration of the question to be investigated, gives students the time to process the activity prior to class, and if necessary, replay instructions until they understand. Students are instructed to write everything they need in order to successfully complete the lab activity, and the full array of student skills is evidenced in how they respond. Some record copious details about the procedure, others record only the pertinent information, and a few simply make a list of things to do.
Utilizing technology is also a great way to facilitate independence. In addition to the textbook questions, I assign a homework log (Figure 1) for each unit: a record of remedial activities, research, or reading for enrichment. Students choose how they want to interact with the material, and can earn credit for time spent on any learning activity related to the topics in that unit. Some of the sites that are commonly used by my students are listed in the table below, and are also on my class webpage.
|Chemistry: Matter and Change||Textbook, content practice|
|Mahjong chemistry||Practice and fun|
|Jefferson Lab: Balancing Act
||Practice balancing equations|
|Hangman||Fun with chemistry words|
|ccachemistryclub YouTube Channel||Videos|
||Free interactive simulations
|lSweet Search||Search engine for students|
The social aspect of lab also needs to be structured to ensure that each student participates. I typically assign 10 lab activities per semester. To ensure individual participation, I give a folded 3" X 5" card to each student. The student puts his/her name on the front of the card. The inside of the card is used as a log; students write the name of their lab partner on the inside of the card at the beginning of each lab (this gives them a reason to interact from the very start of the lab). I check the cards to confirm that no two people work together on more than one lab during the year, thereby creating an inclusive environment in which no one is left out.
During the lab activity, I walk around and make sure everyone is on task and that students are working with their assigned lab partners only. I do this because I believe teens seek out the academically strong students, and those students end up doing the majority of the work — so I try to eliminate that dynamic for the benefit of all. Monitoring lab partners in this way also ensures that each participant has the opportunity to develop lab skills and the ability to function independently. Another benefit of this procedure is that when someone misses an activity, I am able to record lab attendance by writing NH (not here) in place of a partner for that activity, and exempt that particular lab assignment. Students are allowed to miss two labs a semester, and those students who attend every lab are allowed to drop their two lowest lab grades. This eliminates the need to offer makeup lab time during lunch or after school.
I believe that cultivating independence is one of the most important reasons to take chemistry — but that traditional methods rarely help students achieve this goal. At the beginning of the year, my students usually appear to be “lost” in the lab and reticent about doing homework … but in a very short time, by utilizing these few procedural changes, I have students who can function with very little direction, stay on task, and are less inclined to treat lab time as free time to do homework from other classes.
In my opinion, students enjoy a class in which they feel they can do well and understand the subject and material. How many times do we hear, “If I had only known ____, I would have worried less and enjoyed the experience more”? In fact, many upper-level academic communities use grade replacement for those willing to retake a class in order to improve their performance. So why don’t we incorporate those ideas at the secondary school level?
I begin each year by informing the students that, with effort, they will always be able to recover. I also establish the framework that chemistry is cumulative, and the information they acquire in September will be needed for the end-of-year assessment in May. Likewise, homework can be reworked for half credit, lab write-ups can be improved for more credit, and one test per semester can be corrected for partial credit.
I also enter the top test grade as also a bonus test grade to incentivize improved preparation for each subsequent test. I have analyzed the effect of this policy, and have found that it raises the overall grade by one or two points at most — but raises the student’s level of hope and effort immeasurably. Students continue trying to improve through to the very last of the five tests we take. I have also found that along with giving specific learning objectives, providing hope in this way removes some of the fear of assessment; those students failing a test are comforted by the fact that the next test could be their best test, thereby raising their grade.
At the end of the first semester I evaluate each chemistry honors student and advise any who are lower-performing to switch into chemistry regular, which is taught by another chemistry teacher. This past year, I was unable to convince any of the five students whom I recommended to make this switch. Each individually expressed that he or she would rather get a lower grade in my class than leave our chemistry community. Their parents agreed, and they were able to finish the year in chemistry honors.
Going forward, I would like to compile hard facts and begin to establish correlations with the changes I continue to make in regard to student performance. I have tracked informal data from surveys conducted at the beginning and end of the year and from generalized standardized tests scores. Our school has determined that taking chemistry will result in increased performance on standardized tests, with some students even obtaining perfect scores. Data from surveys also indicate that students believe that their performance is enhanced by the methods mentioned above, and their confidence levels show a marked improvement during the course of the year.
Building a community in the chemistry classroom is vital to the health of our school. Although my expectations have remained the same, the way that I present the material has drastically changed. Absenteeism in my classes has continued to decline and class size is maximized every year. These factors clearly indicate that students want to attend my class. Fundamentally, teachers want to design their courses to ensure that every student finds some success, is able to take ownership, and leaves with a stronger sense of community. A guidance counselor may place a student in your classroom — but a sense of belonging, independence, and mastery will give them reasons to take ownership and find success.
Palazzo, David J., Young-Jin Lee, Rasil Warnakulasooriya, and David E. Pritchard. “Patterns, Correlates, and Reduction of Homework Copying.”Physical Review Special Topics - Physics Education Research 6, no. 1 (2010). Accessed July 1, 2016.
Peele, Stanton. “How Do High Achievers Really Think?” 1991. Accessed June 18, 2016.
Pink, Daniel: The Puzzle of Motivation. Ted Talk, July 2009. Ted Global, Oxford England.
Photo Credit: K. Bernat (Top and Bottom)