Visualising reaction mechanisms in VCE Chemistry can sometimes be difficult. Making plastic models helps, but I’ve been thinking that it would be much more convenient if students had their own paper version of molecular models that they could keep for themselves and use at home.
That’s why I created Foldable Biomolecules. Each Foldable Biomolecule is a PDF template that students can fold into a shape that demonstrates a chemical reaction clearly. Pull apart the edges of each sheet to visualise a hydrolysis reaction, and push them back together to visualise a condensation reaction.
These paper-based biomolecules are downloadable, shareable and much quicker to set up than their plastic counterparts.
You can also download the complete set of Foldable Biomolecules as a single PDF here.
At the beginning of each academic year, I ask my VCE Chemistry students what the most important things are in the classroom in order to learn Chemistry. Typical answers include ‘pens’, ‘notebooks’, ‘tables’, ‘chairs’ and ‘a teacher’. I have a different view.
Students are the most important ‘things’ in the classroom if any learning is going to happen. No learning happens without students present!
The primary source of information is not the teacher. It’s the textbook. The textbook explains every topic on the course concisely and accurately, and teaches students all the theory required for the end-of-year examination. Textbooks contain so many practice questions that some students don’t even complete all of them. Before hunting for extra resources or question sets, do all of the questions in the textbook first.
Pens are more important than notebooks because the textbook is designed to be annotated. The giant margins in a textbook (which aren’t there in novels) are placed purposefully to accommodate students’ personalised notes. Students should use at least two different colours of ink to annotate their textbooks, and they should highlight important definitions and phrases as well. (They should translate words, too, if they are fluent in another language.) Teachers will need to guide and encourage students through this process initially. Some students enter your classroom with an aversion to writing in textbooks.
Making your own notes is a very efficient way to learn. Any teacher who gives pre-made notes to their students is depriving their students of the opportunity to learn for themselves. It’s fine to give some notes to students as an example, but the vast majority of student notes should be written by the students themselves (even if they’re copying most of it from the whiteboard).
An interesting study found that students who reviewed their own notes outperformed students who reviewed notes given to them by their teacher.
A teacher’s role, in addition to providing academic and moral support, is to bring the textbook (or the subject) to life. A teacher is the difference between reading a play and watching a play. A teacher makes the subject more engaging, more interesting and more relevant by bringing their own experience, funny stories and exciting experiments into the curriculum. Great teachers make even the dullest academic subjects exciting to learn. They serve to inspire and guide students to an extent that technology will never be able to match.
Not in my top 5…
iPads, laptops and other gizmos
laboratory equipment & chemicals
printed notes for students
past examination papers
What do you think of my low-tech “top 5” list? Should technology be in the top 5? Will technology reduce the need for teachers? Is something other than the textbook the primary learning resource in your classroom?
I came across an amazing website today called Science Questions with Surprising Answers. The website is run by Dr Christopher S. Baird, who teaches at the Department of Physics at University of Massachusetts Lowell. The website answers fascinating (and sometimes bizarre) questions with a rare balance of accuracy and clarity.
I particularly like the Chemistry section, which answers the question, “Are two atoms of the same element identical?” His answer is as follows:
“No. Two atoms of the same chemical element are typically not identical. First of all, there is a range of possible states that the electrons of an atom can occupy. Two atoms of the same element can be different if their electrons are in different states. If one copper atom has an electron in an excited state and another copper atom has all of its electrons in the ground state, then the two atoms are different…”
The blog actually reminds me of the book, What If?, which is a more comical (and less relevant) companion to this blog.
Browse his website and introduce it your students this semester!
I love this speech. Neil deGrasse Tyson was interviewed by a TIME journalist for their 10 questions page, and was asked by one reader: “What is the most astounding fact that you can share with us about the universe?” Neil deGrasse Tyson’s response was as lucid and as awe-inspiring as always. He answered the question in a relatively modest three minutes, starting with:
“The most astounding fact… is the knowledge that the atoms that comprise life on Earth—the atoms that make up the human body—are traceable to the crucibles that cooked light elements into heavy elements in their core…”
Tyson is a world-famous astrophysicist and currently serves as director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York. He’s very popular on social media and recently hosted the hit TV series Cosmos, which had the biggest launch day in TV history (and featured a 30-second introduction speech by Barack Obama).
I love Neil deGrasse Tyson’s videos because they inspire people to pursue Science. I show one or two Tyson videos to as many of my students as I can, usually at the beginning of the year. Happy New Year.
Here are some of my other favourite Tyson videos on YouTube:
It’s so much easier to change your teaching style at the beginning of a year than in the middle. This is because new students in a new class after a long summer break are much more receptive to change than the ones who are already used to the way you teach. In fact, most students return from their summer vacation eagerly expecting something new!
The following checklist is based on what I’ve learned since I started teaching in September 2006; and I believe it’s a great way to start teaching a new class.
Part A: Get to know your students
1. Make a grades database in Excel
Start with the following columns: Surname, First name, Email address and Gender.
Make columns for any compulsory assessment tasks (raw score and percentage). If any assessment tasks are submitted late, just add a comment to the relevant cell in the spreadsheet. Nothing more needs to be recorded in this database. Keep it really simple!
2. Set up group email lists
Use your email client (e.g. Outlook) to create groups for (a) your students and (b) your students’ parents. You’ll use these to distribute resources and reminders in future.
3. Email the parents
Send an introductory email to the parents and attach the course outline. For most students, this will be the only time you ever email their parents. Just send them one message to establish contact at the start of the year, and they’ll feel welcome to email you if they have any concerns regarding their child’s progress in your subject. Remember to put their addresses in the bcc field to hide their addresses from each other!
4. Prepare start-up packs for your students
See next week’s post on creating start-up packs for VCE Chemistry students, or make a similar start-up pack for the students in your subject.
5. Put students’ birthdays into your calendar
Take the time to put all your students’ birthdays into your calendar at the start of the year, then wish them a happy birthday face-to-face on the day. This builds rapport, and students really appreciate it!
Part B: Get to know your curriculum
6. Read and annotate all your textbooks
Teachers need to be very familiar with allthe resources they give their students. Just as you’d pre-watch a YouTube video before you show it to the class, you also need to pre-read the textbook before you endorse it and use it in class.
Unless you’re already done so, read all the textbooks for all the subjects you’ll be teaching from cover to cover. Make notes in the margins as you would expect your students to do. Highlight important facts carefully and summarise every paragraph all the difficult sections in your own words. These will be the words that you write on the whiteboard (along with any important diagrams) during the lesson.
Your school will give you a plan for the course you’re going to teach. However, these plans don’t always contain all the information you need. Get a copy of your course plan and add the following columns to it:
Textbook chapter references for each week
Any extra resources you want to use (e.g. YouTube videos) – you can always use more later; add them to the course plan if you do.
Assignments / tests and their due dates. Give each assignment/test a name and stick to it. Label how much each assignment/test counts towards the student’s final grade.
Experiments. Label how long each experiment takes and plan which days to do each of them for the entire term in advance.
9. Find out what’s going to be on the tests and exam!
Not all schools teach all topics on the curriculum, and not all schools test all the topics in the examination. Find out the topics to be tested on the tests and examinations and tell the students in advance (with textbook chapter references) so they can plan their revision.
Part C: The first few lessons
10. Monthly Seating Plans
Allow the students to choose their own seats in the first lesson. Sketch a map of the room so that during the introduction session, you can label who chooses to sit where. Tell the students that you will modify the seating plan every calendar month to break up students who don’t work productively together.
Be very strict about maintaining the seating plan. This creates an atmosphere of order, structure, fairness and respect very early in the year. Be strict about punctuality and homework as well.
11. Introduction lesson
Stand in a circle: “What’s your name” and “tell me something interesting about you”
Ask around the circle again: “What is [Chemistry/Physics/History]?
Sit down. Teacher answers questions 1 and 2 for the class. Distribute the start-up packs and show their contents.
Show students the textbook and get them to write their names in it. Don’t be afraid to write in your textbook!
Revisionof fundamental concepts from last year (a worksheet). Use this to recap the required knowledge for this course.
Dictate classroom rules & homework expectations into students’ notebooks
Show the students your office
Homework is to make a name plate to put on your desk (be strict about this)
How to take great notes (see my post on this in November 2014)
Start teaching the theory behind first topic to be learned. Follow textbook closely.
13. Third lesson (experiment/demo)
Do the first week’s experiment in the third lesson if possible. For year 11, doing flame tests in watch glasses is a great place to start. Keep the students motivated by questioning every aspect of the experiment: why use methanol, not ethanol? (Try both!) Why does methanol emit light when it combusts? (Electrons absorb energy/emit quanta of light) Why does the presence of metals change the colour of the flame? (Electrons at different energy levels in different elements emit light with different wavelengths when falling back to their ground state, producing different colours).
14. Do a feedback survey
Use SurveyMonkey to set up a very simple, anonymous survey and send it via group email to your students on Friday afternoon. There should be very few questions:
Which class are you in? (Tick-boxes)
How would you rate Chemistry lessons so far? (1-5 rating)
(Any other questions you want to ask)
Is there anything you particularly (dis)like about your Chemistry lessons so far? (Large comment box)
Thank the students for their honest feedback on Monday. Honest feedback builds rapport!
15. Plagiarism & Referencing Session (optional)
To establish an honest work ethic in the classroom, you can give your students a one-off session on Plagiarism & Referencing. Use PowerPoint such as these and give all students a printed handout. The purpose of this session is merely to raise awareness that copying is detrimental to student learning and should include:
what plagiarism is (and why it hinders learning);
the severe punishments for plagiarism in academia and in industry;
how to locate good learning resources (with emphasis on the textbook!); and
how to reference those resources in an assignment (using Harvard or APA style).
In some schools, the library staff are happy to arrange (and teach!) these sessions for you. Arrange this Plagiarism & Referencing session early in your course if you think that copying and cheating is a widespread problem in your class. ■
Is there anything I’ve missed out? Write in the comments section below.
People who don’t speak Chinese find it very difficult to pronounce Chinese names correctly. Chinese names are written using the pinyin transliteration system, in which some letters of the alphabet have very different sounds to English.
Here’s a handy table of the 25 most common Chinese surnames and how to pronounce them in English.