Building a Learning Environment

The most important lesson that they do not teach to pre-service teachers is how to build a nurturing learning environment in the classroom. My cooperating teacher during student teaching had the last name of Hellstern and there was never a more appropriate name for a person. She was cold to her students. She didn’t greet them at the door, she didn’t ask how they were doing. She was there to teach Chemistry and the students were there to learn. Her desk and chalkboard were on this raised platform in the front of class (designed by the school so that students in the back could more easily see the bottom of the board without the students in front blocking them) and she never came around her desk to walk amongst the students. When I took over the class, she actually remarked to me after a lesson that I spent too much time “talking” with my students at their desks about the problems we were working on. The mantra “don’t smile until Christmas” was probably developed by her.

I vowed never to have a classroom like that. I wanted my students to know that I cared about how they were as people as much as how they were doing in my class. Until the last few years, that has always been focused on simply getting to know my students and chatting with them about their non-school lives. Recently, I have made more of an effort to break down barriers by changing the physical environment of the room. This started by bringing in bungee chairs, then giving more options as to where students were allowed to sit in the room throughout the class block (not just during the independent/group work time), and then last year by bringing in lighting for the lab benches and neon colors everywhere. Oh, and calling my room the Room Of Awesome may have been over the top, but it set the tone.

Clearly, something worked. Every year I purchase a yearbook. As I have mentioned before, I do this so that when I retire, I can look back at all the amazing people and events that took place during my carreer. I wanted to share some of the comments that students left this year:

Your classroom is by far the coolest and makes me feel the most safe. 

Thank you for having the coolest and most comfortable classroom ever. I will always remember your chairs…

Thanks for the freedom of playing cards and other games during class when we finsihed out work.

Thanks for letting me sit on your floor for 180 days.

You definitely have changed the way I view teachers and view school. 

Over the past few years my struggles with my [personal problems] have made life pretty unbearable at times, but when I was having a hard day your door was always open and you always took the time just to talk to me. 

So, my message to all new teachers: take the time to learn who your students are as people first. By making sure that I openly recognize that they are human beings, and I show them that I am a human being too, I help create a learning environment that functions so much more effectively for all. We do more activities, we laugh more, we have more fun, and we learn a lot more along the way.

Your students are worth it.

With Heart Wide Open

I love every one of my students. When they hurt, I hurt. It is both my greatest asset and greatest weakness as a teacher. I treat every student as if they are my own child. Do they make bad choices sometimes that gets me mad at them? Absolutely. But if they were in trouble, I would stop what I am doing to protect them.

This year has been especially tough on me. I can’t even describe for you the amount of tragedies that my students have been dealing with this year. My classroom is a safe place, and I tell that to them on the first days of school. Luckily, many don’t n
eed it, but those that do, realize it can be a sanctuary from the world outside those 4 walls. Unfortunately, all I really offer them is an open-mind, a tissue when necessary, and a little advice.IMG_20130124_090126

I wish I could give them a hug and tell them everything will be ok in the end. If I had a superpower it would be to pull that pain out of them so they would never have to feel it again. I wish there was some perfect phrase that, after they pour their heart out to me, I could say and make them realize that everything will be all right.

To all my students, both the ones that have their world crashing down around them and those that are carefree right now: Whether I am physically there or not, whether it is a Wednesday or a Sunday, April or August, 8am or 8pm, I am there for you. You are not alone, and you are loved.

I wished you didn’t come back, but I’m really glad you did

One of my passions is fencing.

The summer before my freshman year in HS, the Olympics were happening in Barcelona. I happened to see a clip of a fencing match on TV and I fell in love. It turned out that my HS had a team (1 of only 19 schools in the state at the time) and as soon as the sign-ups came around I joined. I loved it. I loved the pace. I loved how I had learn to control my body in new ways. I loved looking through mesh at an opponent squared up against me. And, I was terrible. Now, that’s not the right word. What word would you use to describe someone worse than terrible? My team was small and my coach was committed to the idea that everyone gets to play no matter what. My freshman year I was 0-17 and I think I scored a total of 5 points all season (for those not in the know, each match is out of 5 points so I was out scored 85-5). My coach, my entire team, even I knew that if I was getting put into the meet, it was an automatic loss for that bout.

My horrendous record didn’t deter me. My sophomore year was an improvement. I started to purchase my own equipment and the coach saw my dedication so gave me more bouts to fence. I still lost 17 times, but I won 12! My confidence was growing so I began taking lessons at a private fencing club. My parents drove me 30 minutes each way for a 20 minute lesson and began shleping me to tournaments.

I think going to tournaments was the biggest break for me. My junior year was actually successful. I was 36-12 for the season. My name was starting to be talked about on other teams and by other coaches. When I would head to tournaments I was actually making it passed the first round. I even traveled to other states for tournaments. I think the day I got my license my parents celebrated, not for my accomplishment, but because I could drive myself to all of my fencing events.

Senior was by far my best year. I finished the year 40-5, setting the school record for best record (beaten by my teammate 1 week later) and was untouched in 2 different meets (that means I outscored my opponents 15-0, twice!) which was another school record (also tied by teammate the following week). I qualified and competed at the Junior Olympics taking 76th in the country. My fencing, I believe, helped me get into college where I fenced for another 2 years before my knees decided they were done.

Now, this story is actually not about me. It’s about my HS coach, Mr. Thomas. During my senior year, Mr. Thomas fell on some ice and shattered his wrist. He missed 3 months of school, 2 of which was during the fencing season. I immediately took over as coach, running practices, organizing line-ups, and helping younger fencers. After the fencing banquet in my senior year, where I won the Coach’s Award, my coach pulled me aside and told me something that I will never forget. He said that after my freshmen year, I was so bad, that he secretly hoped that I would not return to the team the following year. But, he never told me how he felt. He said that I needed to decide for myself if I was either going to continue to be terrible or work hard to improve. He said, ‘I wished you didn’t come back, but I’m really glad you did.’

There are a lot of lessons educators teach that have nothing to do with a curriculum. Mr. Thomas treated me fairly and gave me the same chances he gave to his star players. He saw that I was passionate, hard working, and played with heart. He gave me the support I needed to grow as a fencer.

Thank you, Mr. Thomas!

How do we differentiate for this?

I got sucked down the YouTube hole this week and stumbled acrorss a comedian who calls himself The Boy With Tape On His Face. Watch the video and you’ll understand.


This guy clearly sees the world differently than the rest of us. As I sat there watching, I kept wondering what school was like for this guy. Was he a good student or did his teachers always see him as a troublemaker or a daydreamer? Is it possible for the scholars and the performers to excel in school while being held to the same academic standards? I wonder what kind of school people with this kind of mind would design if given the chance.

Just random thoughts running through my head.


Inquiry Is Tough, But So Are You

Every month, Carolina Biological Supply puts out a publication for teachers with helpful ideas on how to improve their classrooms. This is the most recent article I wrote for them.

Inquiry Is Tough, But So Are You
By: Marc Seigel (@DaretoChem)

Innovation is tough in any classroom. That’s not a reason not to do it, though! Typically, high school curricula are content driven so students are not given the opportunity to practice learning in novel situations. As I talk with teachers using guided-inquiry activities (guided-inquiry is a teaching technique versus true inquiry where the students direct the learning), many have the same frustrations. Here are some common student complaints and how we overcome them:

“Just tell us what to do.”
In my experience, most students do not come to school to think; they come to be told what to do. Designing lab experiences that get students to start thinking on their own helps this process. Start the year with traditional lab procedures, giving every step, then remove steps as the year progresses. As you do so, point out these missing steps verbally during a pre-lab overview. If you use the same equipment and procedures throughout the year, eventually they won’t need reminders.
Record yourself setting up the equipment or going through your pre-lab overview. Have students watch the video before coming to class; class time is spent performing the lab and analyzing results. If students forget to watch the video, they should stay at their desks to watch the video while the other groups begin the lab. There will still be enough time for everyone to perform the lab, but those who forgot to watch the video in advance will analyze their results for homework.
“What should I have gotten?”
Some students are petrified of making mistakes in a lab activity. My response is always ‘It doesn’t matter what you got as long as you can explain how you got it.’ At the beginning of the year, give them the data table for their information, but in later labs, have them make their own. Have them document their learning with pictures throughout the lab so you can see what they see.
Don’t be afraid to crowdsource learning! Create a Google Slide file and share it with the entire class. Design a simple slide to show them what you want (results, error, picture of their results, etc.) then have them copy the single slide, and insert their own information. Now, you have 1 file that contains the results from everyone in the class! By having everyone contribute to one file, you have the added bonus of allowing the students to learn from each other because they can see everyone’s work.
“We are always doing inquiry labs.”
Guided-inquiry labs take more time than traditional labs in every way–creating, setting up, performing, analyzing–so too many can be taxing on both students and teachers. Spread out the guided-inquiry labs throughout the year. In your first year, have only 1 per marking period or 1 per semester. Once you see how these go, then consider adding one per unit or immediately follow an inquiry lab with a traditional one.
You can also use traditional procedures, but include non-traditional analysis. Have the students create a short video or a collage or a 3 slide presentation to demonstrate their learning.
“That group got something different. Did I do something wrong?”
I will give everyone the same materials and equipment, but let them choose their own amounts to use. While everyone generally has the same chemical change, they will do so in varying degrees. One group might create 12 grams of product, while others produce only 1. Focus on asking the students quality questions about what they learned. Ask them to walk you through their procedures and explain how they got to their product. This will allow you to see what they have learned and to help them articulate possible sources of error, if there are any. Don’t be afraid to give loose guidelines and let them meander their way to the outcome.
When students are explaining their results, don’t be afraid to record them on video using your cell phone. These videos can easily be uploaded to YouTube and shared with parents, administrators, or next year’s students so they can compare their results.
“We haven’t learned anything yet, how can we do a lab?”
Many guided-inquiry labs come at the beginning of a unit. Students may not understand the Chemistry behind the lab, but are learning it through the activity. Redesign your analysis questions to walk students through calculations and the learning. When they get to a certain point in the activity, have them watch a short instructional video in which you explain the concepts behind the lab.

Any non-traditional teaching method requires time and energy, both to implement the first time and to modify the next year. Some will be wildly successful, and others…well…less so. No matter what you are doing, focus on the learning, not the content, and on making the time in class meaningful for everyone.

Experimenting With Hyperdocs in the Flipped Classroom

One of the reasons I love the Flipped Classroom is it allows me to constantly make modifications for the needs of my students. I have been doing some work with Hyperdocs and really wanted to jump into for the Gas Laws unit we are starting at the beginning the 4th MP. The benefit of a good Hyperdoc is it gives the students all of the links to files up front, but only gives them 1 link at the beginning. I have been using Assignment Charts to show the students everything they need for an entire unit. I insert links to all of my instructional videos on YouTube into the Assignment Chart, but still students have a hard time going back and forth between Google Classroom, Google Forms, and YouTube.

So, I decided to package everything for the unit a little differently this time. In the Gas Laws unit, there are a lot of little bits to remember which requires a lot of podcasts. I rerecorded all of the podcasts into 4-6 minute videos and inserted them into an organized Google Slide file. Here is a screenshot of one slide:Gas Laws Slide screenshot

Each part of the unit is grouped into slides like this. I used the PHeT simulation for Gas Properties to explain the concept in that section, then recorded examples of how to solve the problems in a series of additional videos. All of the videos now play directly inside the Google Slide, instead of opening a new window and shifting to YouTube, and the students can still see everything else in the file while watching the video. For students that are pretty Math-savvy, they may only watch the concept video and figure out what they need to do on the Self-Check Quiz on their own. Others may watch every video on the slide before they attempt the Self-Check.

I have not abandoned the Assignment Chart, however. Since my Flipped Classroom runs asynchronously, it is important to give students all due dates up front.Gas Laws Slide screenshot 2The important factor is everything is now fully organized. Previously, if a student couldn’t remember where he/she was in the Gas Laws playlist (that has 14 videos), he/she might watch several incorrect videos before finding the one he/she needed. Now, he/she can click the link to the assignment he/she wants to work on and it sends him/her directly to the slide with all of the podcasts. If he/she has watched a video, a small “WATCHED” appears in the corner from YouTube. The Self-Check Quiz, if completed, not only changes color when clicked, but is auto-graded using Flubaroo, and the student’s score along with the answer key is emailed immediately. Even the labs, which are posted as assignments in Google Classroom, are linked so the students can see in advance what they are going to be doing.

As always, I have no idea if this is going to work. The Flipped Classroom (and my very supportive administration) gives me the flexibility in my classroom to try out new techniques. At the end of the unit, I will survey my students to get their feedback on the new method and report back here how it went.


Recently, I ran into a former student who is currently finishing his 2nd year at a local college. After a brief exchange of pleasantries, he asked me if I was still using the Flipped Classroom. I responded that I was and then he thanked me. He said that at his college, the professors do not spend an entire class lecturing, but rather require students to ask questions and interact with each other. If he doesn’t make the effort to learn the material before coming to class, he cannot contribute and his grade suffers. He said that he absolutely hated my method while he was in my class, but it taught him to be more independent and he comes to class much better prepared.

Now, I don’t tell this story to show how awesome I am. Actually, the year he was with me, many things went very poorly and I have changed a lot. The point of sharing this is teaching is often a thankless job. Sometimes we forget that our impact might not be felt for a very long time. Every teacher needs to take a moment and remember that even if you only impact 1 student per year, that is one person who’s life is different/better/changed because of you. That is not something everyone in this world can say.