Friday, September 26, 2008

The First Seventh Grade After School Science Lab

For those of you who cruise regularly through my rants, raves and whines, you've obviously realized that this year's crop of seventh graders is - to put it mildly - a challenge.

Actually they're a freaking nightmare, but I'm trying to put a Pollyanna spin on it.

Anyway, the three of us who teach seventh grade science (and yes, we are the Queens of Collaboration), just couldn't put up with the bad behaviors anymore and have had to eliminate labs and go to demonstrations in our classrooms. Thus, the birth of the Seventh Grade After School Science Lab.

This Wednesday was our first meeting and it was - can you believe it! - a pretty amazing success.

We handed out about 60 permission slips (we only had space for 32 and that was pushing it) and had 16 kids get them signed and in by the deadline. On that day only 13 showed, and it was wonderful. Two teachers, thirteen kids, one great big awesome lab. (Mrs. Robin isn't able to do the labs with us yet as her hubby is deployed and she has two kids of her own to deal with.)

We are finishing up our unit on elements, compounds and mixtures and we decided to have them work with a mixture called a colloid. Colloids are mixtures where the particles are so small that they don't settle out.

Like butter, for example.

Yup, we had them making butter. It's really a pretty fun lab that we haven't done for a few years due to time constraints. It's pretty easy. You get some little plastic containers that are somewhat clear (Gladware works well), some marbles, and some cream. Basically, you fill the container with cream, plop in a marble, and give to a kid to shake. They had to shake their cream for ten minutes, stopping every minute to observe any changes in their mixture, and to make notations on their lab sheet.

(BTW, if you ever plan to do this do NOT ever use baby jars. Marbles can crash through a baby jar to create a mess like you wouldn't believe, not to mention glass everywhere!)

The changes the cream goes through is pretty cool if you're a kid and haven't ever made whipped cream with a mixer (these kids think whipped cream comes in a can or a plastic container in the freezer section of the grocery store). When it finally turns to butter it happens in a flash and all of a sudden you have a sloshing milky liquid and a yellow blob of butter in the container. The kids were a hoot - shaking their jars, and hopping up and down and trying to get their butter made the fastest.

The hardest part for them was the part of the lab where they had to let it sit for ten minutes and make more observations (the clear liquid settles out and the butter gets a bit firmer). After that we gave them crackers and they ate their butter and crackers.

They were ecstatic. They loved the big lab. They loved the fact that they got a lot of attention as there were only 13 of them in there. They cleaned up without complaint (and did a good job of it too). They filled out their lab sheets in detail and never once whined. No one asked if it was for a grade, which surprised me as these kids usually won't lift a pencil without asking if they get credit for it. They even worked together on a puzzler that we had to kill the last few minutes of class since we weren't too sure how long they'd take.

We walked them out to the parent pick up area, with their little containers of butter (if they hadn't already snarfed it all down), and they couldn't wait to show their parents what they'd made in science lab. A lot of the parents took the time to roll down the car windows and thank us for doing the lab, and off they went.

Mrs. Eagle looked at me and said, "This was the most fun I've had in a long time."

She's right. It was a lot of fun. It was nice to do a lab with kids who wanted to be there and who listened.

And we're already planning our next one.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Little Janie Appleseed

Take a look, dear friends, at my new toy.

No, it's not a torture device to use on my Fifth Period Class From the Very Depths of Hell Itself...although it did cross my mind. It's a super duper all in one apple peeler, corer, slicer do-dad.

This is one of the reasons why I needed this little gadget.

You can't quite tell in the picture, but this is my little apple tree. The same tree that was knocked down in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The same tree that maybe, in a good year, has produced a bucket or two of apples. The same tree that last year, after the April where it went from 80 degrees to 18, didn't produce a single apple having had all its blossoms freeze off. The same tree that survived a 22" deficit in rainfall last year and wasn't watered due to water restrictions.

This tree is, this year, going absolutely freaking crazy. We're talking apples beyond apples beyond apples. And no, I have no idea what variety of apples they are as the tree came with the house. I do know that they are tasty and sweet and make killer apple sauce. All organic and no sugar added, thank you very much.

Here are four of my buckets of apples. I've had at least seven, and there's still a lot more apples on that little tree. So, since I tend to be frugal (hey, free apples!) and I sort of think of canning as one giant science lab in my kitchen, I'm making apple sauce.

Lots and lots of apple sauce.

A week ago, I hand peeled, cored, and cut up a bucket of apples and made four quarts of apple sauce.

I thought my right hand was going to cripple up and never work correctly again. This was not, obviously, going to work. So, I found out that one of my favorite stores, Linens and Things, sold apple peelers. Cool! So I went over after church to get one.

And they were sold out.

But there were 16 coming on the truck on Tuesday. Apparently I am not the only one with a very productive apple tree this year. I asked the very helpful lady to hold one for me and went back on Tuesday (when I was sicker than a dog with the crud which turned out to be an ear infection), and got my new toy.

It is a joy.

It does everything but tap dance. A quick turn of the handle and I've got a perfectly cored, peeled, and sliced apple. Wonderful!

My father, the original gadget head, who was visiting for a few days, thought it was pretty cool. In fact, he thought it was so cool, he went and bought one. Not because he cans, but because he figures he'd make the doctor happier by eating more fruit because, hey, it's fun to jab it on the spikey thing, turn the handle and watch the peel curl off and the slices come off the end all perfectly even.

And he even took a bucket of apples with him.

And four quarts of apple sauce.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


I think I've broken some sort of record.

First, a cold ten days into school.

Now, a full blown ear infection, along with heavy congestion, lots of coughing and general misery.

We're barely six weeks in and I've been sick twice. This one is a kicker, however. It started Saturday afternoon with what I thought was one of my rare asthma attacks. I'd had wicked bad allergies all day, which isn't surprising as fall is always bad for me. However, by Sunday morning it was a steady cough. I haven't missed school, but I've pretty much come home, did supper, and hit the bed.

Only to cough nearly all night long.

Fortunately, one of the benefits we have as employees of the school district (county employees get it too) is on-site health care. It's free, if you're part of the insurance plan, and although there are no walk in's it isn't difficult to get an appointment at one of the six clinics across the school system. The one closest to me is right up the road at the high school we feed into. I have a standing Wednesday appointment to get my allergy shots, so today I went in, looked pathetic and walked out with prescriptions for plugged up heads, cough, and the ear infection.

I just want to feel better.

So, I'm going to bed.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Birth of the After School Seventh Grade Science Club

We tried.

Over the past five weeks Mrs. Eagle, Mrs. Robin and I have forged ahead with our lessons on matter, which included a number of relatively easy labs which, in the past, have been hugely popular with our students. We've explored solids, liquids and gases with our popular "popcorn lab" where we use popcorn and Crisco to mimic the three states of matter. We've done our Layered Liquids lab on density involving colored water, syrup and oil. We've even done our Oobleck lab which has often resulted in parents requesting the recipe and students recreating it at home in their family kitchen just for fun.

It has been a disaster each and every time with this particular group of kids.

They cannot, will not, behave for a lab. They will not listen. They will not stay in their seats. They will not complete and turn in their lab reports, leaving them strewn across tables and the floor. And the noise level is unbelievable. This group still does not get the concept of using "lab voices".

And no amount of card punching, phone calls, time outs, and whatnot works. They just don't get it and they don't care.

The final straw for us this week was the Oobleck lab. For some reason they thought it would be fun to throw Oobleck at each other. Fortunately, Oobleck is simply cornstarch and water and can easily be washed out of clothes...however, my room (and Mrs. Robin's room and Mrs. Eagles room) and even the hallways outside our rooms looked like a powder bomb had gone off.

"This is insane," said Mrs. Eagle later that afternoon. "I have never, in eight years, had kids behave this badly during a lab. Never."

We both nodded and agreed and Mrs. Robin commented that she was starting to count the thirteen years she had before retirement.

So we've bagged the labs. We just can't trust that this group of kids can behave in a safe manner in a lab. They're so noisy that if we had an accident or an emergency, they wouldn't hear any instructions. And the thought of allowing these kids near a $200 microscope is just plain scary. They don't take care of equipment, and think nothing if something breaks.

This was not an easy decision. We have, over the past five years, tried to incoporate as many labs into our instruction as we can, and we've seen the pay off in rising scores and kids who are turned on by science. It's been tough, as our class time has been cut from 55 minutes to 45 minutes, and getting some of our labs done in this amount of time requires a lot of focus. And let's not even talk about budget issues.

But until this group, as a group, develops the maturity and the ability to behave appropriately in a lab setting, they're going to be getting demonstrations.

And yet...we weren't happy with that. Because we still have a few kids who actually care, who are actually put out with their peers who act like fools, and who are dying to do some real science.

So, with the blessing of The Principal (who's been cruising through our classrooms a lot this week and has seen for herself what behavior nightmares we're dealing with), we're starting an after school science lab club for the kids who actually care.

Basically the idea is that we'll put aside an afternoon of our time every other week or so, and allow kids to sign up to stay after school to do labs that apply to our current content. In order to do so, they have to get a permission slip signed by a parent, which will be due several days prior to the lab. We'll also have a cut off as to the number of kids that can attend as we want to keep the number managable. (We're starting to think a lot of our problems stem from the fact that our class sizes have jumped about 8 kids per class this year.) This will allow us to buy only the amount of materials we need for the labs, thus saving money.

And the best part is we'll have more time (however much we need), and we'll use the big lab, not our classrooms, to do the labs in.

Honestly, I'm hoping we won't have to do this for too long. The hope is that the kids who will be coming will talk up to the other kids about how much fun they're having and hopefully they'll figure out that once they grow up and behave, we'll do labs again in our rooms.


Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Yes, Mom, You Didn't Get an A


Another helicopter mother. One who doesn't work, and apparently has nothing better to do than sit and email us all day long. She seems to pick at least one of us a week to torment, then calls guidance and complains about us in long drawn out phone calls.

Her son, however, is a delight. He's a small boy, who is absent a lot due to asthma (which probably wouldn't be so severe if Mom wasn't a chain smoker). He's smart as a whip, even with his absences. But his mother is still doing his homework.

And boy, does she get pissed when she doesn't get a perfect score.

Her son, Tiny Tim Boy, got a 10 out of 20 on his vocabulary cards because they were incomplete. He also got a 7 out of 10 as his homework was incomplete as well. I suspected, based on the fact that his vocabulary cards were typed and glued onto index cards, and the fact that his written homework looked nothing like his writing, that Mom did it. His math teacher from last year informed me earlier that she tended to do that. Which is weird as this kid doesn't need her help.

So, I get an email...why did he only get 7 out of 10?

And another email...why did he only get 10 out of 20? She remembered counting his cards, rubber banding them together, and making sure they were in his binder. (And why wasn't he doing this?)

And another email...why did I take half off when all that was missing on his vocabulary cards was the picture? And how can I expect the kids to draw pictures of science words?

And yet another dare I fail a kid with a 50% when they don't draw pictures. If that was the way I was going to grade, why bother to do the work at all? Drawing pictures is stupid.

And so forth and so on.

So, I emailed The Principal, and let her know that I hadn't responded, but I told her what I wanted to say. She replied, "go ahead, and you might want to add that a 50% is easier to recover from than a zero for an incomplete."

And then those magic words "I've got your back. Make sure you copy me so she knows that I'm in the loop."

I love my Principal.

So...I responded with my points...

1. Usually once a student earns an incomplete, they start doing their work correctly.
2. A 50% is easier to recover from. I suppose I could give a zero, but that's a bit harsh.
3. There's this intrinsic thing about doing a good job. I would think having pride in your work and doing it right is more important than a 20 point assignment.
4. The purpose of the vocabulary cards, which may, at most, equal 100 points out of about a 1000 each grading period, is not so much as to get the 20 point grade, but to use as a study tool so the child earns 100% on a vocabulary test.
5. Many of our standards have the word "recognize" in them and emphasize the importance of pictures. Besides, people learn new language by visual associations. Many kids get quite creative when it comes to pictures to help them learn vocabulary.

I hit send this afternoon, copying The Principal.

Haven't heard from her and frankly, don't care.

Because if she wants to go to the principal and change teams because I'm not "fair", the Principal is going to tell her that all three seventh grade science teachers have the same assignments and grade the same no matter how well SHE does on her work, she's going to get the same grade.

Maybe she'd be better off if her kid did his own work?

Sunday, September 07, 2008

The Premier Paper Passer

One of the things I hate to waste time doing is passing out papers to my students. With only a 45 minute class period, I try to eliminate as much "fluff" as I can from my day. Passing out papers just didn't seem to me to be really productive, although it is necessary.

To solve the problem of returning work to the kids, I set up a mailbox system. I have a big plastic file box, and there's a folder in there for each kid, organized alphabetically by class period. I give the kids four minutes at the beginning of each period to fill out their agenda, turn in work, and check their mailboxes. Actually, I tell them that they have four minutes, but they really have three. That's pretty much all they need. That saves me the hassle of calling out a kid's name, and waiting for him or her to get out of his or her seat, walk to me, and then return...or me having to scamper all over the room handing out work. I've tried having students return work, but that's just a big fat mess because half of them can't read the writing on the paper, they don't know everyone's name, and then there's the issue of confidentiality. Honestly, they all know who the goobers are who don't do well, but they don't need to have it validated.

Okay, so that solved the returned work problem. Now there's the problem with passing stuff out that we need to use during class.

Back when I had desks in rows, and not tables, I could easily walk across the front of the room and hand papers to the first kid in the row and they'd pass it back to the students behind them. Easy. However, I now have seven tables, plus the isolation island seats, and it's definitely not as easy to do.

And I believe that having a kid pass out papers is ideal because it gets the squirmy ones up and moving. It's no secret that I tend to have the hyper kids pass out papers. They're also usually the first to practically leap out of their seats when I ask for a volunteer. In any case, I go through a big deal every year teaching them how to do pass out papers. They are not to hand each individual person a paper (this can take freaking forever), but instead, count out four papers, and put it in the middle of the table, and then the kids at the table grab what they need. It works great if you have a kid who can do this without taking forever to count out the four pieces of paper.

So, last week we had the kids return to afternoon homeroom, the fifteen minute period at the end of the day when our homeroom kids return and we're supposed to check and sign agendas, send them to their lockers and - you guessed it - pass out the Very Important Papers that need to go home. I had a ton of papers to pass out - team newsletter, principal newsletter, and three pieces of paper having to do with our fundraiser.

I started off with two volunteers, Pinball Boy and Sweetheart Girl, and off they went. Pinball boy was back at my desk within thirty seconds.

"Next!" he barked, his hand out. I handed him the next stack.

Thirty seconds later he was back again.

"Next!" he barked, his hand out again. I handed him the next stack.

By this time I looked up and watched what was going on. Sweetheart Girl was doing a wonderful job of going to table to table and passing out the papers, but Pinball Boy had her beat in the speed department. He was flying. I don't think he actually stopped at the tables, he simply tossed the papers at them as he flew by. Papers were everywhere. Kids' hands were in the air grabbing at the papers as they fluttered down like multicolored leaves. They'd catch the papers, and staple them in their agendas, and then he was back with the next batch. It was a sight to behold.

He covered the entire room four times by the time Sweetheart Girl was finished...and she went pretty fast herself.

I have never, in my life, seen such a fantastic job of paper passing. This kid is a marvel. If there was a way I could bottle up his energy and sell it, I'd make a fortune.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Open House....

Rooms cleaned. Floors swept. Student work posted. Email sign up sheets laid out. Smiles ready

It's Open House night!

And I even wore a skirt and blouse.


We had a huge crowd, which is strange because it began pouring rain around 5:00 pm when the doors opened. Usually, if it rains no one comes out. We even had a health fair in the gym with vendors of health-related services set up at tables giving out free blood pressure tests, visitor passes to local gyms, and more.

I saw a lot of parents, which is nice. I saw a lot of former students which I enjoy as well, including a few that are seniors now which freaks me out. When did we get older? One is already being scouted by the Yankees and the Diamond Backs and I hope he makes it to the Show. That would be beyond cool. Another invited me to the first band concert over at the high school and marveled at my silver hair. I was blonde a few years ago when I had them.

Again, when did we start getting old?

Thank goodness I have them around to make me feel young...

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Carnival Time!

It's Kiddie Carnival Time, according to our host this week at Lead from the Start! Check it out! (It beats getting your room together for Open House!)