Oh…Chem: The Power of a Narrative in an Advanced Science Course

“Negative finds the positive.”  I use this phrase often.  If you did not know me, you might think I was a pessimist.  In fact, I am quite the opposite: I am a teacher and I believe that optimism lies at the core of any good teacher.   I share this phrase, “negative finds the positive”, in my attempt to distill the complexities of organic chemistry[1] into something sticky for my students.  While most chemistry students experience limited amounts of organic chemistry in high school, it is a discipline featured prominently in my Advanced Chemistry course at St. Mark’s.  In fact, organic chemistry is critical to the narrative of the course, helping my students and me to seek deeper understandings of the broad discipline of chemistry.  Organic chemistry is our yearlong storyline.  And like all stories, there are characters, action, and a plot.

The course’s narrative begins with the backstory where we tease out issues of structure, order, and symbolism.  Nature relies on low energy systems to create order.  Water flows downhill and eventually into larger bodies.  In chemistry, high energy atoms combine to create larger, more stable (i.e. lower energy) molecules.  Molecules can be hugely complex, an interconnected system of atoms with properties different from the component parts.  Humans simplify these systems and the orders they create with symbols, some as simple and familiar as H2O and as complex as


Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Varenicline

Just as in the analysis of a novel, it is critical for students to find and understand these symbols for the more complex picture they are creating.  With the symbols called out, we can unpack them further as we move deeper into the narrative.  Molecules are built through the movement and sharing (or transfer of) electrons – infinitely small and negatively charged particles – due to their attraction to slightly positive centers resulting in a bond; negative found a positive.  The storyline comes into resolution.

A narrative is often propelled by the actions of its characters.  Organic chemistry is no exception.  The characters – the molecular and charged systems created as symbols previously – begin an organized choreography, described by “curved arrow notation.”  Like the central theme of a great work of literature, “negative finds a positive” re-emerges as we employ curved arrow notation, a symbolic human construct created to explain the un-seeable.  Using this notation, the breaking and creating of new bonds are articulated; the tails of arrows indicate the source of electron density (“the negative”) and point to electron deficient centers (“the positive”).  This work also foreshadows learning yet to come, even as it creates new characters and yet more action:

Pic 2

Source: http://www.chem.sc.edu/faculty/shimizu/333/Chem_333/1c.iii.html

Action is not enough to make a story compelling, however.  The most interesting narratives have both action and a tension.  The characters in our organic narrative are motivated by myriad factors, giving rise to dynamic equilibria.  In its simplest form, equilibrium is a competition between the forward and reverse chemical reactions.  Applied to organic chemistry, equilibria are often a tug-of-war between species in a chemical reaction that are pushing and pulling on a hydrogen atom.  The negative finds a positive to which it wants to hold firmly.

The forces behind the scenes add rich layers of complexity and drama.  The rate of the reaction and the energy concerns are major factors in the outcome of the story.  Which force will dominate:  speed (“kinetics”) or energy considerations (“thermodynamics”)?  All reactions are not created equal in these ways, allowing for points of comparison and deep analysis as we unpack the narrative.  In the midst of kinetics and thermodynamics, the course spirals back to curved arrow notation and substitution reactions, topics from early in the year return.  We revisit these earlier topics and unearth new perspectives and complexities not apparent in the first encounter.  The plot thickens and the idea of “negative finds a positive” returns once more.

The idea of narrative and of telling the story of chemistry has always appealed to me and fit my view of the field.  As a teacher, I want to create the conditions for my students to engage readily with the course and develop lifelong skills through the vehicle of the course content.  By creating a course with a strong narrative component, I am able to tap into something critical to the human experience.  We tell stories to entertain, to transmit knowledge, and to build connections.  There is power in this history and I attempt to draw from it in pursuit of deeper learning opportunities for my students.  Organic chemistry creates a platform that entertains, transmits, and connects my students to the broader discipline of chemistry, turning a potential negative into a positive.

[1] Organic chemistry is the study of the structure, properties, and reactivity of the compounds of carbon.  These compounds often contain other atoms, most notably H, O, N, and members of the halogens.  Organic compounds are incredibly important and prevalent in our lives, from biological and industrial processes to petroleum products to pharmaceutical agents.

NB:  This essay was originally published in The LEO, the academic journal of St. Mark’s School.


My 2015 Leadership Resolutions

I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions. The optimism of a new calendar year seems to quickly give way to the day-to-day realities of life, leaving all the great intentions of December 31st thrown to the curb like so many scraps of spent wrapping paper. But this year is different! An unusually restful winter break gave me the time and space to think about how I would like the rest of the academic year to unfold. With no further ado and on the eve of heading back to school tomorrow, I am committing to the following leadership resolutions for 2015:

1.) Dedicate more time to mentor colleagues. I am fortunate to work with a number of talented faculty members, all with a variety of professional goals. I enjoy this work immensely and want to spend more time helping colleagues grow in their careers. Our students benefit greatly by working alongside faculty who feel energized by their work and their own growth. My job as a leader is to create these opportunities and culture within the faculty.

2.) Improve communication within the community. I love the fact that my school is ambitious and is immersed in significant change efforts (e.g. new schedule, curriculum revision and alignment, etc) in support of our strategic plan. As a leader, a significant aspect of change management is ensuring that everybody knows what is happening, what decisions have yet to be made, and constructing ways for meaningful input. Doing so, however, requires smooth, consistent, and clear communication within the community. I am re-committing to making sure that channels of communication are understood, that colleagues have a chance to ask questions and offer input, and that communication flows in both directions. This area is always one for improvement!

3.) Slow down! The pace of winter break helped me recognize just how fast school can seem some days. To commit to and pull off the two previous resolutions, I need to simply slow down. Spending more time on the important rather than the urgent (see Stephen Covey) will be essential in this respect.

I have some good ideas that will turn these resolutions into habits, but this post is my starting point. Here’s to a great 2015!

Building the Plane While Flying It…

We hear a lot these days about the necessity of “innovation” in schools. Every school wants to be a part – nay, a leader – of the next great wave of change on the educational landscape.  Most schools approach this work systematically and (hopefully) in accordance with their mission statement, ensuring alignment between their future and their purpose.

Leading change in any organization comes with its challenges and independent schools are no exception.  These institutions are often steeped in tradition and are filled with dedicated, talented faculty and staff, many of whom have devoted their lives to this work.  By their very nature, independent schools are stable, an attractive quality for families looking to create a partnership in helping to raise their children.  When one layers this foundation with the hopes and dreams of savvy students and their parents, the work required to make significant change in a school can seem downright daunting.

And yet…there are schools that are “building the plane while they fly it.”  These schools continue to deliver an excellent educational program while asking hard questions about their approach, structures, and assumptions around teaching and learning.  I am proud to work at such a school.  We are an institution that is looking hard at current practices, keeping the best aspects and looking for ways to allow new ideas to permeate our minds, hearts, and bags of tricks.

One major piece of current work is focused on our use of time.  For the 15-16 school year, we are pursuing a MAJOR schedule revamp, allowing us to think about using time differently.  We are preparing for next year by piloting some of those changes this year, carving out time to see how the changes and programming feel and work.  With reflection and feedback on the other side of the pilot, we can continue to refine and improve our work.  The work of preparing for a new schedule has benefited the school in other ways, however.  This change has launched the faculty down a professional development path where teachers are carefully questioning how we teach, what we teach, and how we assess.  In short, we are innovating; we are taking the best of what we now do, preserving it, and improving on the overall product.  This work requires flexibility, patience, imagination…and not a small amount of courage.

So…keep on flying that plane…and don’t be afraid to do a little remodeling on the way!

Opening Meetings

Opening meetings. The mere thought is enough to send even the most dedicated faculty member into convulsions. In passing, a few colleagues joked with me that these meetings are hardly their favorite time of year and I understand and appreciate their perspective. Faculty members come to schools to work with students, not sit in meetings. And with that in mind, I work hard to make the opening sequence make sense, run smoothly, and contribute to the overall educational program of the school.

In my opening remarks this year, I addressed the issue of why we have opening meetings. From my perspective, there are three reasons that schools should convene to start the year:

1.) Promote a sense of community. One of the qualities I appreciate about my school is the strong sense of community present in the faculty. This characteristic must be tended and not taken for granted. Part of that work comes in bringing the community together for a shared, unifying starting point to the year. Not only do we meet, but there are a number of social occasions to enjoy, from daily lunch to dinner at the Head’s house. Relationships are built and strengthened in these moments, all leading to a more cohesive faculty body.

2.) Improve the educational program of the school. In our opening meetings, we try to spend the majority of the time focused on professional development for faculty members. From colleagues presenting on their summer professional development work to a challenging session on “difficult conversations” relating to the shooting of Michael Brown to a consultant working with to help us unpack the cognitive process of “attention”, our faculty spent the better part of two days LEARNING together. I can’t imagine a more powerful tone setter for the year to come.

3.) Managing the business aspect of school. Schools can get into trouble with opening meetings if this aspect of the agenda dominates. Yes, we conducted our fair share of “business” by walking through orientation, providing updates on committee work, and faculty discussions to move that work forward. In a school that prides itself on the strength of the faculty community, it is important to get everyone on the same page and share information widely. Again, when these agenda items dominate, eyes tend to glass over.

Overall, I am pleased with how opening meetings ran. It was a great time of learning and community building, setting a great tone for the 14-15 year!


Next week, my daughter will move from the infant room to the toddler room at her school.  At the same time, my son will move from toddlers up to pre-school.  Their school let us know with a simple form letter, one I saw tucked into the cubbies of older kids many times before.  It is exciting to see them moving into new environments, as they are clearly ready in their own ways.  These are more transitions in a life full of transitions.

Moving these two little humans into a new school environment made me think about the multitude of transitions that students, their families, and faculty members face as they join a new school.  Unfamiliar social waters, different expectations, and the challenge of simply navigating a different physical space are just a few of the challenges in starting anew in a school.  For these community members, just as for my children, this transition is unique for them; it’s the first time they have made this particular change in their life. As such, it is important for schools communities and “experienced members” of the community to keep this mind.  While we may be an seasoned professionals at navigating the start of the school year, it is important to keep in mind that there are a large number of people around us who feel quite differently.

As school begins this fall, keep in mind those who are going through this change for their first time.  Schools – students, parents, faculty – succeed as a community.  See the school and this transition through their eyes and then help make them make a smooth entrance into a new environment.  It is their first time through this transition and your help may make all the difference.

The Interview Question We Should All Be Asking

As I have written previously, January and February are busy months for those of us in independent schools with hiring responsibilities. Having spent the last two days at one of the largest independent school hiring fairs in the country, I was immersed in the world of hiring, an aspect of my work that I truly love. It was great to meet with so many qualified candidates over the course of my two days.  My challenge, however, was getting to know these amazing educators quickly and making a determination as to how they might make us a better school.

When I sit with a candidate, I make every attempt to allow the interview to be conversational, while always trying to unearth salient characteristics related to pedagogy, temperament, growth potential, and ability to help outside of the classroom.  However, the question that may matter the most is likely the one that schools may not raise often enough in a first round interview: How can you help our institution move conversations about difference, diversity, equity, and multiculturalism from the periphery and into the curriculum? Can you point to examples of doing so in your current work or experience?

The biggest opportunity for a school to move this work forward may come at this time of year. By hiring and then supporting teachers that are comfortable wrestling with these challenging topics alongside students, schools can truly elevate the level of conversation on campus. So to those of you interviewing candidates over the next several weeks, go ahead and ask about the level of language someone can teach, her experience in developing electives, or his comfort in running a dorm. But if you want to move your school ahead, don’t leave the challenging topics out of the interview. You community will thank you later…

What Did I Learn This Year?

New Year's Eve

I am not big on New Year’s resolutions.  While I know that I should eat fewer sweets and exercise more, I don’t need the turning of the calendar page to remind me of these things.  Rather than devote space to resolutions for 2014, I wanted to take the opportunity to think about what 2013 taught me in the hopes that I don’t forget this learning and that I can springboard from it in 2014.  While any one of these might be a worthwhile blog entry, here is an abbreviated list of the standout lessons for me in 2013:

1.)  1 + 1 does not equal 2!

By far, the best, most exciting thing to happen in 2013 was the birth of my IMG_2611daughter.  She has shown herself to have a sweet disposition, smiling almost as soon as she wakes up.  There is nothing quite like the smile of your own child, a constant reminder of what pure joy and unconditional love look like in our world.

Although there is certainly an increase in “life maintenance” work in our house, the addition of a fourth person has exponentially increased the love and happiness we feel for one another as a family.  As I watch my son look at his little sister and draw out yet another smile from her, it is clear that 1 + 1 doesn’t equal 2!


2.)  You can never fully understand a person’s work until you walk 6 months in his shoes.

For the last six months (ending officially tonight at 11:59 PM), I served my school as Acting Head while our Head was on sabbatical.  Having known about this change in responsibilities for several years, I switched often between being excited for the challenge and anxious as to whether I would lead the school successfully during his absence.

Now that my six month stint as Acting Head is drawing to a close, I feel fortunate to have had this opportunity. I learned a great deal about how an independent school operates, especially through partnering with Trustees and Board leadership, parents, and the operations side of the school (business, facilities, advancement, etc).  Given my “normal” role in the school, my primary constituency is the faculty.  However, my work as Acting Head gave me exposure to and a better understanding of the needs of the full school community.  Independent schools are a complex picture and I now have a better sense of how the pieces fit together. The experiences of the last six months will be invaluable to me in my role as Assistant Head/Dean of Faculty and I look forward to applying this learning in 2014 and beyond in my school!

3.)  Alignment is key!

As part of our school’s STEM initiative, the Science, Computer Science, and Math Departments are immersing ourselves in the Understanding by Design (UbD) framework.  This initiative and the resources our school has put behind it are pushing us as teachers in good ways.  We are thinking carefully about continued contextualization, integration, and coordination of our curricula, and the UbD framework is helping us get there.

While I have always been a careful planner, our UbD work has shown me that I have not always been as intentional about the alignment of my unit plans and my assessments.  As I have been frequently reminded this year, we assess what we value.  In just the short time that we have been doing this work (we’re only collectively through Stage 2 planning in our professional development work with AE), I have started to think more about the alignment of my assessments with the overall learning objectives of my units.  This work has been some of the most rewarding of my teaching career, and I am looking forward to continuing this learning in 2014 with my colleagues.

4.)  Meaningful feedback from a variety of voices makes for a better product.

Over the last 8 months, I have led a major schedule review in our school.  We are repurposing our use of time Monday through Saturday, creating the structure and space for the type of work and learning we want to have happen as a school of consequence.  This process – lengthy and at times cumbersome – has again shown me the importance of bringing a variety of voices to the table around major school change.  From students to faculty to Trustees to parents, their opinions and feedback have helped move this process forward and will ultimately lead us to a better end product.

Throughout the process, it has been important to gather this input to help surface good ideas and eliminate other good ideas that did not as well reflect a new set of priorities for the school.  With this valuable feedback, our subcommittees have been able to make important decisions in our recommendations and move the process forward.  I am proud that this process has been transparent and given members of the community the opportunity to weigh in and participate.

5.)  Finding time to reflect is tough!

Although I started by saying that I am not big on resolutions, this lesson may turn into my first resolution for 2014.  I’m sorry that this has only been my third blog entry of the school year (a fact that I hope readers will allow me to chalk up to my dual role for the last six months?).  Every time I *do* sit down to read and reflect, however, I feel a sense of rejuvenation and appreciation for having learned more about what I think and believe as an educator.


I hope that you have a wonderful 2014 and that you find the time to reflect on a few lessons from 2013!  Happy New Year!