Today’s Contributor: Helen Wilson
I teach PreAP Chemistry and Scientific Research & Design (Wicked Problem Project) at LASA.
I fell in love with edtech a long time ago, and I plugged in accordingly. It is a universal fact of life that kids love shiny things, and I loved the dimension of fun and excitement that it added to my classroom. At least, at first… because when you wear out the shiny thing, it starts to lose its allure – not only for the kids but for yourself. I got to realizing that my approach to edtech definitely lacked a certain… something. Some kids still got lost with a whole-class edtech approach. And sadly, despite the use of the shiny thing, not everyone truly was engaged. Not everyone was learning to the extent of what I wanted, or needed, them to learn. And I wanted the kids to talk to each other about the content… make it really multidimensional, instead of a one-way interaction between student and screen, AND I wanted to talk to them – to observe them grappling with the content. So, while I cannot control all the factors that affect how kids learn, I can definitely control how I use edtech in my own classroom. Edtech is not a quick fix, nor can it replace you or your lesson. I knew I would need to change my lesson design. But I needed baby steps. Simple steps that I could not mess up.
So, when BLEND came along, I decided to try something a bit different. I would really try to do a true blended learning approach – craft a lesson where some of the face to face instruction is replaced by online learning and, at the same time, build in some time where I could connect with all the kids personally – where kids would have to interact both with each other and with the chemistry. I read up on it, and then I decided I needed to try it.
For my first attempt, I taught the gas laws and the gas variable relationships. This is what I did, and what I would change for next year:
- Half of the class did a 5-station activity where an example of each type of gas law problem was posted, worked out, at each lab table. The kids examined the example and then solved the corresponding (different) problem in their course packet. They checked their answers to both problems themselves according to a key that I provided. This part went incredibly well – the kids had so many rich conversations, and I observed a lot of peer tutoring going on as they figured out how to apply the formulas.
- I was waiting at the sixth station with a simple demonstration of Boyle’s Law: shrinking marshmallows in a sealed syringe (here’s a cool YouTube version of this). We discussed the gas variables involved in the phenomenon. I feel I could have planned my questions better to make them more higher level, but at the time I wasn’t sure how conversant they were with the concepts, especially coming straight out of a first experience with just calculations – since doing calculations doesn’t guarantee comprehension of the science behind them.
- The other half of the class was doing a gas variables simulation and completing the assignment associated with it – one I created. At the time, we did not have 1:1 Chromebooks; I booked a COW cart. This part of the lesson also went amazingly well. I also provided some links to video tutorials to help reinforce the relationships they found. For the future, I would also include a BLEND quiz to check their understanding of the graphs and the variables, or even create a BLEND assignment where the kids would have to create an edtech-based game to help themselves practice.
- The two halves switched at the halfway point. Since I have very quick students, I got to the point where I let groups of kids just switch as tables and activities became available. I simply said they were required to do all three parts (the rotation, the simulation, and the demonstration) by the end of the period, and if they finished early, I allowed them to start on their (chemistry) homework.
When I looked back at this lesson, I realized that this baby blended learning attempt had a lot of the elements I was looking for. While monitoring the demonstration, I got to have the conversations with my students I wanted to have. I still love the look of surprise and wonderment students get when they see science happening in front of them. The kids helped each other with getting the simulation to work and with solving the problems they needed to solve. Periodically they would come up to me at the demonstration table and I was able to deliver one-on-one and small-group lessons targeted to whatever need they had. They could do the simulations and play the videos over and over as they needed to. And it left me time for a very memorable (and lengthy and complex) conversation with a student about why and how anyone would want to apply external pressure to a gas tank. The period went by so smoothly and with very little stress on me. Before, I would worry about keeping every single student on task 100% of the period. I wasn’t worried this time – I had some student voice and choice (to stay a long or a short time with an activity) and I also had a very clear idea of how the classroom should look. The kids picked up on that and ran with it.
I have since learned that I can’t do every single lesson in this exact way. It’s not a quick fix. You look at the content and you see if you can craft a lesson accordingly – and sometimes it doesn’t work. The content may be abstact enough for the kids to need much more guidance from you personally than from a screen. And I have a long way to go as far as implementing more blended learning.. namely, to fit in more formative assessment and increase differentiation. I’ve taken more baby steps in that I’m trying to incorporate my tried-and-true edtech into those blended lessons in different ways. (Have you tried to do a “blind” Kahoot? You should – it’s brilliant!). I’m truly finding new shine lingering on my beloved shiny things. In fact, I am doing a blended learning lesson today! And I feel very good about it.