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September 2019 | Classroom Commentary
Strategies for Fostering Community in High School Chemistry Classrooms
By Colleen M. Robinson
When I earned my teaching credentials oh-so-many years ago, I felt prepared to teach students content, manage a classroom, and, hopefully, inspire a deep love of chemistry. I was not, however, ready to develop true community within my classes — simply because I had no idea that what I wanted was for students to own a sense of connection and belonging. If a true sense of community developed, I was pleasantly surprised; and if it did not, I was at my wits’ end trying to over-manage my students in the name of learning.
Over the course of several years, I realized that what I actually wanted was for all my classes to develop a sense of community in which they were responsible for themselves. In such a community, they would be invested in not only their own learning, but also their classmates’ learning as well. This, in turn, meant that in addition to chemistry content, I had to teach them the skills to be metacognitive and work in groups.
Building individual metacognitive strategies
Many successful students start high school chemistry and realize that they do not know how to study and/or assess their own learning. I hear over and over that “chemistry is hard” and “this is the hardest class I have ever taken.” I agree with them to a point: chemistry is hard, but it is also fascinating and worth the struggle to understand it! Thus, I want students to know how to learn in order to develop a greater sense of responsibility for their own learning.
To do this, I highlight a specific metacognitive strategy through direct instruction, and then have students practice the strategy in class and at home as it relates to the content being covered. The skills I focus on are goal-setting, growth mindset, study habits, reflecting on learning, and identifying resources for help — in that order. See Figure 1 for some ideas and activities to use in your classroom, and Figure 2 for sample prompts and corresponding student responses.
|Goal Setting||Set daily social-emotional goals for individuals regarding use of personal electronics and ways to be a good team member.||Make a S.M.A.R.T. goal regarding the chemistry content being covered, and track it over the course of two weeks.|
|Growth Mindset||Have each team member share out regarding specific group tasks where they feel “stuck,” and then brainstorm ways to overcome them. Also, use the citizenship rubric 2-3 times a semester to focus on growth over time.||Students interview their guardian(s) about how he/she/ze deals with obstacles. Then write 3-5 sentences explaining how this could be applied to an academic setting.|
|Study Habits||Give students choices from a set of study techniques to complete an individual assignment and show evidence of using the particular method.||Have students pick from a set of study techniques and show evidence of use for their homework.|
|Reflecting on Learning||Compare individual work to an exemplar.||Give an incorrect sample problem or an example of poorly-constructed writing and have the students correct it.|
|Identifying Resources||Brainstorm in teams about what resources are available to solve a particular issue in class. Share out ideas to the class.||For homework issues, if a student cannot figure something out, he/she/ze can still get full credit by showing at least two learning resources they attempt to use.|
Figure 1. Skills and strategies used for metacognitive development.
Additionally, every Monday, students reflect on the learning from the prior week for 15 minutes using “Metacognitive Monday” prompts. The prompts change each week, but generally have two parts:
- An “aha” moment. Example: Use a short video like “The Learning Pit,” an inspirational story such as that of Malala Yousafzai, or a motivational quote.
- The following three questions:
- What did you learn last week? Explain your understanding in depth.
- What concepts from last week are difficult for you to understand? Why?
- How will you prepare for success this week? Be specific.
Student responses to these prompts not only act as a refresher for them after two-three days away from school, but also provide me with valuable formative feedback that I use to address common misconceptions and plan for deeper learning.
Every Monday I have asked you to think metacognitively about what you learned the prior week. Today I want you to think metacognitively about being metacognitive!
Please answer the following questions in as much depth and with as much detail as you can.
Figure 2. Example of Metacognitive Monday prompts with corresponding student responses.
Students get better at answering the “Metacognitive Monday” prompts over time. Most learners, in the beginning, will make generalized statements with no supporting evidence. For example, the week after learning about models of the atom, one student wrote, “last week I learned that atoms have protons, neutrons, and electrons,” when answering the first general question, What did you learn last week? Explain your understanding in depth. I used this student’s answer the following day to coach students on how to provide evidence to back up their statements. In small groups, students wrote more complete answers that we shared out (see example below). The updated group answers still needed refining, but I didn’t focus on that fact right then. Instead, students compared their original answer to the “better” answer and reflected on how to make their own answers better in the future.
Example: Last week I learned that atoms have protons, neutrons, and electrons. In the 1800’s people thought atoms were solid spheres but Dalton proved that they were wrong because you can remove negative particles from an atom using electricity. These particles are the electrons. Protons and neutrons are found in the nucleus of the atom. Rutherford showed this when he shot tiny particles at really thin gold and the particles did not go straight through. Some particles went through and others bounced off at odd angles. This showed that a nucleus existed.
It is obvious that teaching students to be metacognitive helps them become better learners. In my practice, I have seen that better learners are more confident and capable of working with their peer groups. They are also able to identify when they need help — and also when they can provide help.
Developing synergistic peer relationships
Having students focus on metacognitive practices was not enough to build a true sense of community. Students definitely improved their ability to function in chemistry class as individuals, but I still wanted to see a greater sense of interdependence to maximize learning. Additionally, I wanted students to feel a sense of pride and belonging when they walk through the classroom door each day. To this end, I decided to supplement “Metacognitive Mondays” with “Community Fridays.” My goals are to:
- Ensure that they knew their classmates as more than the person who sits at their table each day in chemistry class.
- Foster a sense of shared responsibility for their small groups.
- Teach them how to hold academic discussions and evaluate peer discussions.
- Celebrate successes and acknowledge their hard work.
These goals do not fit into as tidy a format as “Metacognitive Mondays.” As a result, I searched out strategies and ideas from the web, colleagues, and friends. I tested many approaches over the last two years, and have come to the conclusion that at the beginning of each Friday, students will spend 10 minutes getting to know their classmates, assessing their small group dynamics, and celebrating successes of all stripes. This looks different every Friday — but the students look forward to it, and so do I. You can see one example of a student’s response in assessing group dynamics in Figure 3.
Strengths in working with the group.
(Sincerity is important)
|Areas for growth in group work. (Phrasing matters! Write it in a way that can be heard.)|
|Partner 1||Helps me so much. I forgot the details on the model, and she was really kind to remind me without making me feel stupid.||Gets off task too easy. Should put phone away so you’re not distracted.|
|Partner 2||Is patient. I don’t always understand the math and she helps a lot.||None. Really committed student.|
|Partner 3||He keeps it interesting and real. Not afraid to call someone out for being lazy.||Maybe tone it down a little.|
Figure 3. Sample Community Friday task with student responses.
To encourage a shared sense of responsibility in small groups, I split the students into groups of 3-4 individuals who sit and work together for an entire semester. The groups come up with a team name and 3-5 team norms. Once a week, the groups engage in a team assignment that earns two grades, one of which is for the content/quality of the assignment, and the second is for participation using a rubric I adapted from a colleague in the Math Department (see Figure 4). I project the participation rubric for reference as the student groups are completing their work, and adjust the grades in real time. Sometimes I grade all members’ content and average the grade for the group. Other times, I pick the work of one student from each team to grade, and use that as the group grade.
All on Task
Some off Task
Many off Task
|Everyone is engaged with the same task at the same time.|
|Everyone is contributing to the conversation and using academic language.|
|Students are sharing their thinking and helping each other.|
|Every person in the group is taking responsibility for his/her own paperwork (not copying at the end).|
Figure 4. Participation rubric to assess group work.
Developing community is not solely for fun and games. Deeper learning based on a sense of community is my goal. This requires that students take part in “messy” conversations. To talk to each other and learn from each other requires a sense of belonging and an ability to take risks. As students become more comfortable working with each other, they are able to learn more. Thus, I insist that students take part in class-wide, small group, and partner academic discourses. This does not happen spontaneously!
To develop better ways to engage students in conversation, I’ve relied heavily on Zwiers & Crawford’s text, Academic Conversations: Classroom Talk that Fosters Critical Thinking and Content Understandings1. This book shows the power of discourse to deepen student learning, and delineates five skills that work together to help students maintain academic conversations: Elaborate/Clarify, Support Ideas, Paraphrase, Build on/Challenge Ideas, and Synthesize. My students are taught about each skill, see modeled conversations between teachers that they evaluate, and practice the discussion skills with someone from another group before any writing assignment using Flipgrid. Flipgrid is a website that allows teachers to create “grids” to facilitate video discussions. Each grid is like a message board where teachers can pose questions and their students can post video responses.
To ensure the discussions were impacting learning, I conducted an action research project to assess the efficacy of scaffolding student discussions — and had really positive outcomes. One of my favorite quotes from the project was from a young man who told me on the first day of class that he didn’t like science, and probably wouldn’t pass. At the end of the study, he said, “At first, I hated all the talking. It seemed dumb. Sorry, but it did. Now I get that it helps. It helps me learn and it helps a lot with all that classroom culture stuff you talk about all the time.”
Conclusion and recommendations
Anecdotally, I find that these practices have improved classroom culture and individual student achievement. I concede that these practices take time away from direct instruction regarding chemistry. Every Monday and Friday, I devote 10-15 minutes of class time for students to work on these ideas. During the week, I spend anywhere from 20-40 minutes covering the specific skills mentioned in this article.
For some teachers, this loss of time could be untenable. However, I know the time is well spent and provides returns that outweigh the losses. Students in my classes do not see themselves as lone individuals who have to tackle chemistry without help. Over time, they build synergistic relationships with their teammates and see the value of their learning. We work hard and recognize what it takes to overcome the difficulties in order to achieve. I will continue to implement these practices in years to come!
I have shared these practices with my team and some other teachers at my school. The ones who have decided to try some or all of the strategies have provided positive feedback regarding the impact it has on their classrooms. One well-regarded math teacher at my school decided to try the “Metacognitive Mondays.” After a few weeks, she wrote, “I just wanted to thank you for this idea. I'm connecting with my honors kids in a more personal way depending on what they write [in their weekly prompt].”