Here again.

By | June 28, 2015

As I headed over to my blog dashboard, I realized it has been almost exactly a year since I last posted. And, funny enough, I am exactly where I left off. I am back at Taft School, this time for a two-week AP chemistry workshop. The main difference is this time I actually will be teaching AP chemistry in the fall.

This is my second round of professional development so far this summer. A few weeks ago I attended an amazing week-long conference at St. Paul’s School. Early in the week, we had some lectures on how students learn, effective strategies to maximize what students learn, and backwards design. In the second half of the week, we applied a bit of what we learned to prepare a full lesson to other participants. One great thing about this conference is that all of the participants were from independent boarding schools. As a group we had a wide variety of experience, some teaching just a few years, others teaching almost a few decades. While I went in skeptical about having a single conference for history, English, foreign language, math and and science, I actually got a lot out of the experience. In fact we were never segregated into our subject areas. I observed and gave feedback on nearly a dozen lessons in spanish, psychology, English and science, and feedback on my lesson from humanities teachers on my own lesson was most valuable. And as an added bonus, I got to know a few of my new colleagues.

Later this month, I will be going to ChemEd 2015, and leading a workshop (along with Laura Slocum and Brenda Royce) on Stoichiometry.

A very busy summer indeed.

What I Learned: Day 4 and 5 of AP Workshop

By | July 30, 2014

All textbooks are not created equal (though a few are very similar)

As is typical in these sorts of workshops, I ended up with about 500 lbs of free textbooks. In addition to the typical (Zumdahl, Brown/LeMay) I got to look at a few that I hadn’t heard of or considered before.  My favorite among the shiny doorstops was Gilbert’s. However, the book that I’ll probably read the most myself is Principles of Chemistry by Michael Munowitz. He’s a science writer, and clearly has a passion for chemistry, that comes through in his writing. Unlike the others, it is written for those who want to gain a deep, conceptual understanding of chemistry, rather than focusing on problem solving techniques. If you teach chemistry, you should definitely add this book to your shelf. It isn’t great for intro-level high school students, or even most AP students, but it will help you as a teacher find more and better ways to explain the more abstract aspects of chemistry. I can’t find sample pages online, but here’s a review from JChemEd that will give you more info on it. Here’s a glimpse, from chapter 3 (Prototypical Reactions)

“Humpty Dumpty’s great fall tells it all. He falls from the wall and breaks into pieces, never to be mended. He goes from high gravitational energy to low, and he changes from a single, orderly arrangement into scattered, disordered bits and pieces. Lower energy. Higher entropy. Lower free energy.

“Molecules, like Humpty Dumpty, also take the easy road, the road that leads to less energy and more disorder. Only if the reactants can decrease their free energy will a reaction occur on its own, for only then is the transformation profitable. The larger the drop in free energy, the more thoroughly do the reactants combine to form products. A lower free energy is the thermodynamic profit that nature demands to convert A and B into C and D.”

That’s it for the workshop. I’ve left a few things out. There were a couple of really good labs that I will definitely do this year. I’ll post more on the baggie lab and also on the thermodynamics lab in a later post (hopefully while at BCCE). I hoped that we’d have time to share resources with the other participants, but the workshop was a little too short.

I, again, definitely recommend taking an AP workshop at Hogwarts Taft TEC. It’s no way as fulfilling as a good modeling workshop, but it is a pretty good way to spend a week or two of your summer. Just be sure to bring an extra suitcase.


What I learned: Day 3 of AP Chemistry Workshop

By | July 24, 2014

Modeling Chemistry (or physics, or bio) seems to be the perfect prep for the new AP class

When looking at the College Board’s recommendations for improving performance on this year’s Free Response Questions, some repeated themes include

  • have students draw particle views of…
  • distinguish between descriptions and explanations
  • have students describe in words what they observe
  • have students explain what they believe is occurring (but cannot see) in terms of both chemical principles and particle-level diagrams
  • no naked numbers
  • algorithmic calculations are okay only if accompanied by conceptual understanding

Erica Posthuma-Adams wrote an article in the Journal of Chemical Education about modeling chemistry and AP Science Practices.

Your students lack time management skills.

Which is why 57% of test takers left the last Free Response Question blank.

Skeptical baby is skeptical.

While you should definitely teach better time management skills, they may add a reading period in next year’s exam.

They 2015 exam is already written, so there can’t be major changes to it at this point.

What I learned: Day 2 of AP Chemistry Workshop

By | July 22, 2014

Drop Counters are AWESOME.

When given the choice between spending 20+ minutes manually entering volume data every 1 mL, or sitting back and watching it the data graph itself in 3 minutes or less, I’m going with the latter. Not only does the data come out great but it frees up the students to actually look at and analyze the data they’re collecting in real-time, rather than fiddling with stopcocks and reading burets.

They look impressed. Though they may be staring at the ring stand.


They’re not cheap, but having one setup would be a great way to visualize and talk about the various regions of the graph as a class, and to ask and answer student-driven questions (Students can make predictions of how a SA/SB titrations would differ from SA/WB, WA/WB, and see if they were right). The Pasco version of the dropcounter also allows you to collect conductivity data simultaneously, which opens up more possibilities for whole-class inquiry and exploration.


That’s pretty much it. We worked in pairs completing lab kits for the 16 guided labs as produced by Flinn, Carolina, and Wards. The instructors wanted us to see if the labs met our expectations, if they could be completed in a reasonable time, and if they were AP-level. We’ll debrief thattomorrow. My initial impressions:

  • The “sample data” provided in some teacher’s guides clearly cannot be obtained with the provided materials. One of the labs simply couldn’t be completed as written, or with reasonable modifications.
  • I think some kits were thrown together in order to be released in time for the beginning of the ’13-14 school year.
  • The convenience factor fades quickly. It is generally best to build your own kit from scratch. The AP manual itself, though it has flaws, has been a better resource than many of the kits.

On to day three…

What I learned: Day 1 of AP Chemistry Workshop

By | July 22, 2014

There’s a lot of AP-level chemistry in a simple 4-ingredient baggie lab.

Calcium chloride. Sodium hydrogen carbonate. Phenol Red. Water. A common first year chemistry lab, but incredibly useful in third quarter of an AP chemistry lab. Dissociation, hydrolysis, precipitation, neutralization reactions, thermodynamics, net ionic equations. Inquiry. Its all there. And its cheap. And its straight-forward enough to also work separately in a first year course.

I’m really bad at writing multiple choice questions.

I am not particularly bothered by this. I rarely if ever include them on my tests.

Nothing magical has happened yet to make me want to convert my course to AP. But I’m looking forward to the rest of the week, and getting a closer look at the new curriculum/labs.