Chemistry 2014: Creative Group Work


Content Strand: PHYSICAL SCIENCE: Apply concepts relating to an understanding of chemical and physical changes,
interactions involving energy, and forces that affect motion of objects.

Objective 2b. Predict the properties and interactions of given elements…


Managing group work in middle school can be somewhat complicated.
Much like a careful chemist, a teacher must have awareness, patience, and an insightful knowledge of the different elements she is working with, or the experiment’s true result could be disaster. (Really I have none of these qualities in my natural state, which is probably why my tendency is to shy away from group work if at all possible, but I’m workin’ ahn it, oookaaayy?!!)

However, group work is important to middle school! The research says middle schoolers must interact with each other in order to learn and perform at the highest level. And this is unique to the brain development of kids at the middle school level. No other age groups benefit from group work quite as much as middle school kids do. Plus there’s also the fact that it’s required of us. Common Core has chemical reactions standards for all elements… arhhumm I mean “Speaking and Listening Standards.”

So that’s the case for mixing elements together in the lab.  The trick is to learn how to do it well. To be clear: I don’t actually think about working with my students in chemical terms. This is all contextualizing after the fact.

Middle school is a phase of life marked by energized, often chaotic thinking. The kids sometimes just can’t help how random these thoughts are flying through their heads. But perhaps all middle schoolers have a deep need for completeness and order to their thoughts.  That’s one thing we’ve got to write down in the lab notebook: All elements seek stability, a full outer shell of thoughts.

I’ve got some Alkali Metals. 

Just as Sodium and Potassium are driven to react with others by their super-unstable need to get rid of that one extra electron they’ve got whirling around, these kids always seem to have one thought that they HAVE to transfer to another kid, one OMG that just can’t be stifled. They are very reactive in group settings. Usually my Alkali Metals block up the whole door for a second or two when they enter, and they know exactly who they’re looking for before they enter the room.

On the other end of my Periodic Table of Students, I also have some Halogens. 

These guys are like Chlorine, Fluorine, and Iodine.  What makes them feel whole isn’t dumping off that one bit of news- no, these kids have plenty of ideas in their “outer shells,” but they’re one idea away from whole.  There’s maybe just one thing they’re waiting to hear to finish the puzzle, and they need to hear it from another student. These can be harder to spot.  I’m sure I’ve got Halogens I haven’t even spotted.  Sometimes they can go great with Alkali Metals.

I’ve got a couple of Noble Gases, too.

Like Neon and Argon, they’ve got all the ideas they want, and are none too pleased with the notion of blending. They might heave deep, pedigreed 8th grader sighs every time they notice the desks in group configurations, or perhaps they retreat into a novel, turning their backs turned to the others. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with Noble Gases- they aren’t always harmful to an experiment (though they can be); they just do not really blend to form new compounds.

I’ve got a lot of Transition Metals.

Like the Periodic Table elements, this group of kids covers a wide range.  Some are bright and bring cheer to their settings, some can be stretched and molded into different forms, and some just need a hammer taken to them in order to get them to work right.

The trick is in the combinations.

  • Once I mixed together a couple of elements with a Noble Gas, and it proved toxic. She refused to work with them, they refused to try to include her anymore, and I had to conference with them in the hall for 10 minutes just to get to the root of the problem.
  • Of course there are also reactions that are much too energetic.  The reactants bubble and pop fiercely, to the point that not only does their reaction suffer, but they also contaminate other reactions around them.
  • And then there’s the duds- the reactions that never quite have the activation energy necessary. The elements just kind of sit in their test tubes together, and they require lots of stirring.

But anyway. That’s one of my jobs as a middle school teacher: to find the right combinations to make the best use of all my elements.  Hopefully, the better at it I get, the better I can show them what amazing compounds they can be part of, what amazing properties they do in fact bring to the lab themselves, and just a little taste of the amazing possibilities that await them if they’ll learn to share their ideas.

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