Sunday, January 26, 2014

What's UR Rxn? A chemistry class blog, part 3

This is the final installment of my development of a chemistry writing blog project for my Organic and AP chemistry classes. I will cede the keyboard to my students for the next post as we launch our “What’s UR Rxn?” blog.

One of the problems for science teachers assigning writing projects is the necessity to assess the student’s writing. It can be a very intimidating process, especially for teachers who are more used to black-and-white answers instead of the shades in between associated with the more subjective grading of writing. For the last five years, I have done a writing/role-play project called The Ethanol Project.  (I published this project in the NSTA journal The Science Teacher in March, 2013.) The journal reviewers wanted a “turn-key” lesson, and so I produced a two-page detailed table of writing objectives and expectations. This blog project has a much looser rubric, because I wanted to allow students to write about science or chemistry in their own voice and with a style suited to their topic.

I have spent the last two days reading and assessing the student’s posts and also their comments as peer-reviewers. Oh, it has been joyful for me NOT to be reading about ethanol!!  My students wrote about deer antler spray, cranberries, crowdsourcing antibiotics, Indian silk, the need for pot-testing labs, honey, caffeine, turmeric, snowflakes, and the biology of listening to music. So many interesting topics, it was not as much of a chore as I thought it would be. 

Another goal of this project was to make it completely paper-less and cloud-based. I did not want my email inbox filled with documents to transfer to various folders. Just as each student had a Microsoft SkyDrive folder for their documents (rough draft, two peer edits, the final draft, and a checklist which included a list of sources, image sources, and an honor statement), I decided to create an assessment page in a Microsoft OneNote folder for each student. As I went through the SkyDrive folder, I would toggle over to the OneNote folder and write comments and grade their blog posts, in addition to commenting on their editing. I did not want to put the assessments into the SkyDrive folder as they are open to everyone, so the OneNote folder allowed for private assessment space. I can now email each page to each student. The following table was copied into each OneNote page.

Rubric Grading Template
Final draft (50 points)
1.     Creative title (5) 
2.     Writing is thoughtful, organized and uses a colloquial voice, as opposed to an analytical one. (25) 

3.     No grammar or spelling errors (5) 
4.     Image(s) must supplement the writing. (5) 
5.     General creativity (5) 

6.     All requirements met: at least one current source, source a minimum 400 words, title, hyperlinks, and a copyright-free image (5) (Bonus points for primary sources.)


45-50 = 100
40-44 = 95
35-39 = 90
30-34 = 85
25-29 = 80
20-24 = 75

Yes, I have a rather generous grading scheme. The beauty of the student peer-review process (and the fact that I think our school’s English and history teachers do an amazing job of teaching writing!) is that there were very few distracting errors in grammar, spelling, or sentence syntax. Also, my organic chemistry students’ grades were pretty low coming into this assignment due to just finishing units on spectroscopy and stereochemistry, so they needed a bit of a grade boost!

The chemistry blog project has definitely been a success: it was fun to develop with my students, interesting to implement, and even rather enjoyable to assess. My AP chemistry students will be writing their posts during second semester. I listed this project on my AP chemistry audit document as my method to meet the Curriculum Requirement 4:  “the opportunity to connect their knowledge of chemistry and science to major societal or technological components.” I have checked the box required by the College Board, but I would have done this project even without that requirement. 

You’ll get to read my students’ posts once they have produced their own blog site

I would love to know “What’s UR Rxn?”

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

What's UR Rxn? A chemistry class blog, part 2

My organic chemistry students were given the “What’s UR Rxn?” blog project rubric shortly after my last blog post. We spent the latter part of one of our one-hour blocks to discuss ideas for their blogs. I had a stack of C&E News from the American Chemical Society for them to peruse. It was fun to watch them try out ideas on me and on each other. Their topics all were supposed to be different from one another, and I was very surprised when the first student to “shotty” an idea, said loudly, “I get chemical weapons in Syria!” 

The students were given seven days to write the rough draft.  I think one of the hardest parts for some of them was to change their writing style to fit the project and to fit themselves.  I told them that I did not want, “blah, blah, blah, citation, paraphrase, paraphrase, citation.”  Not that the teachers in other classes encourage this kind of writing, but I think the possibility of being caught plagiarizing looms large and it tends to make their writing choppy and unnatural. 

Prior to the peer-edit day, I set up a folder on my Microsoft SkyDrive for the project and created a folder for each student, accessible to all for viewing and editing.  (Full disclosure—I did my best to embrace Google Drive and Google Docs over the summer in my online class and even dabbled with Evernote and Dropbox.  I never felt comfortable until I got the new version of Office on my laptop in August with Skydrive, Word, OneNote, and Outlook all integrated together. Sounds odd, but it was like coming home! And no, I’m not paid by Microsoft, but our school has some very high connections with Microsoft, so we have always been a Microsoft school.)

At first I was not exactly sure how to assign peer-editors for each post, but as a class we decided to use a random-number generator.  I assigned each student a number and we called out numbers until everyone was matched. After the first edit, they could invite others or choose their next edit. All the folders were open to everyone, so they opened the rough draft, saved as name_edit, and used the markup tools in Word, and away they went. It was completely silent!  (At least block 1 was, block 7 can never be truly silent…) Students gave each other great, constructive criticism, (edits in red):

[This paragraph is definitely more complicated and confusing than the previous paragraph. I would suggest simplifying the process more so normal people who don’t have too thorough of an understanding of chemistry can follow along.]  (I like the fact that ‘normal’ people don’t have an understanding of chemistry!)

Or “seemingly invulnerability yielded, [You are using an adverb on a noun.]

The students were then given another seven day period to make changes and post their final draft in the folder. They were not allowed to email them to me.  A few tried, but I told them to go back to the SkyDrive link and make it work.

Another fun piece of the assignment was that they had to pick an image/avatar for themselves for the end of the blog and add a 140 character description so the blog readers would know something about them. Here is Abdullah’s picture—I love that he included his mom.

Or Helena’s description:  “I’m Lena, currently a high school senior. I’m not sure what I want to do in the future, but I know what I’m passionate about. If you like art, 90’s bands, or Woody Allen films, we’ll get along just fine. And if you don’t, we’ll still get along fine.”

Pure Helena.  (Though maybe a few characters too long.)

What’s UR Rxn?