Tuesday, June 27, 2017

PGS: Give your students quantum numbers

Visitors to my classroom sometimes compliment me on its level of organization. I think my classroom is often in a state of high entropy, but such is the eye of the beholder. I confess some compulsion toward organization: there is enough randomness built into running a lab class in high school. If not held back a little bit, it can easily cascade out of control.

My school opened in 1963 and continues to operate in the buildings it opened with. My classroom is also my lab; it's a "shoebox" (no islands or peninsulas). It has electrical outlets that drop down from the ceiling. It has three functional sinks, a few gas jets, and more outlets along a long, narrow countertop. Below the countertop and along the back wall, there is classroom storage. I have a demonstration lab bench in the front of the classroom, a flatscreen. There are Ethernet jacks and electrical outlets along a recently installed racetrack along two walls. And there is a wireless access point on the ceiling in a corner.

The bulk of the floor space is occupied by 18 two-student tables and 36 chairs. Their positions and orientations can be modified at any time.

The default classroom instruction (sage on the stage) mode is three columns of six tables. We used to limit lab courses to 32 students, so two tables in the back would be unoccupied. This arrangement is neither innovative nor creative; it could be disparaged with the harshest aspersion known in education: "traditional".
One of my early-career epiphanies was that students shoulder much better stewardship of lab apparatus when each item of apparatus is labeled specifically for use by individual lab groups. So nearly every item in my lab carries some kind of group-specific identification. I use letters A through H. It's awkward when Group C is found using Group E's apparatus. And when something goes wrong/missing, the chain of custody is readily apparent. No group hopes to end up on the "Phyz Foul" list maintained on the whiteboard in the front of the classroom.
I develop a seating chart very early in the school year based on student seating preferences (front/middle/back). Thereafter, we do a seating chart shuffle every 20 school days, with an emphasis on performance-based heterogeneity and individual choice in mind.

In recent years, I've had occasion to collect and sort student work for later return to the students. I'm a big fan of milk-crate file boxes, so they're what I use for the temporary storage. With hanging files and manila folders, I could create files for each student labeled by last names. But that requires alphabetical sorting of each assignment and wastes manila folders at a high rate.

I realized that my seating chart serves as a very useful organizational / classification scheme. Each seat within each group could be assigned a number, 1–4. Add to that the period number, and each student on the year's roster has a unique PGS (period, group, seat) address during any given seating chart. Student 5F2 is in 5th period, group F, seat 2.
Students write their PGS code on work they turn in. Sorting the work is a breeze. File crates with hanging files and manila folders are useful in perpetuity.

For computer-based activities (PhET sims, etc.), students 1 and 2 can turn around so that everybody's working around the back table. If the computer (we use laptops) is positioned correctly, all students can reach it.

For more sprawling labs, students 1 and 2 can move to the opposite side of their table, which can be pushed (lifted) to adjoin the 3-4 table.
If the orientation of the letters and numbers (right to left, etc.) looks backward somehow, that's intentional. The orientations are designed to be logical in the student perspective.

This is a simple organizational tool that I find useful in my instruction. It's a small thing. But sometimes it's the small things that can make a big difference in day-to-day operations.

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