Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Getting Started

One of my procedures is what I call the "start-of-class" procedures.  The first thing I teach my new students each year is how to come into the classroom and what to do to get ready for the day.

When students walk in the room there is a PowerPoint projected on the board.  It looks pretty much the same every day -

  • Date
  • Agenda
  • What to take out (homework, iPad, etc)
  • Task for the day
  • Upcoming tests or quizes
  • Homework
  • Journal Question
Typical slide that is posted everyday as students walk into the classroom.

The Journal Question is a short question that reviews material from a day or two before.  
Our Journals are composition books.  These journals serve a combination interactive notebook/place to record warm-ups/whatever else I need them to be.

My students keep their journals in the classroom.  I have a drawer for each class period, and they grab their journal as they walk in.  In my previous school, I kept the journals in tubs on a table by the door.

My ppt for each day is three slide (15 slides for a week).  Slide 1 has the above information. Slide 2 is identical to slide 1 with the addition of a " countdown timer" I put on the slide.  At the official start time of class, I advance the first slide to the slide with the timer.  The timer is set for 120 seconds. Students have two minutes to finish the question, pass in homework, whatever is needed for that day. At the end of the 120 seconds, I advance the slide again to show a possible answer to the question.  We spend a minute or two reviewing and discussing the answer.  This acts as a mini-lecture to get kids focused on the content.  Student may add to or change anything in their answer they wish.  Often I ask them to make a special note, or underline or highlight something in the answer.

The "timer" I put on the slides is in the bottom right corner.

I randomly check journals whenever I have a chance, sometimes during class, sometimes after class.  I don't grade the journals.

Once a grading period we have a Journal Quiz.  Students can use their journals during the quiz.  The quiz is a combination of content questions covering the material they have written about in the journal and some organization questions, such as "What did we write about on September 22?"

My journal questions cover a the material we have been studying in class.  You can find my questions on MY WEB PAGE.

middleschoolscience.com (go to planbook > prompts) and sciencespot.net (my two long time favorite resource sites)  also have a collection of science starters.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Earth Systems

I teach Earth Science in an independent school.  When I was hired for this position three years ago, all of my experience had been in the public school.  Public schools in my state teach "integrated science."  It had been years since I had taught a class that covered only the earth sciences.

I knew I wanted to take a non-traditional approach; I knew I wanted to teach Earth Systems Science and not the usual earth-layers-plate tectonics-rocks & minerals-weather-water-space march through the textbook that had been my previous experience with the subject.  I am a big fan of Michael Wysession and The Principles of Earth Science Literacy. That philosophy informs everything I do in my class.

After I introduce my students to the idea of Earth Systems, I like to have them play Earth System Jenga as a culminating activity.  It is so much fun! It gets a little (maybe a lot) loud, but the kids enjoy it, and they are able to describe impacts and interactions in earth systems.

The lesson is an adaptation of one I found on the Internet, and tweaked to suit my classroom.
I found several sets of the natural colored wooden Jenga blocks - you could use the colored ones as well.

The kids had an out of uniform day when we played.  It made the day even more fun :)

I used a marker to color the sides of the blocks the colors I wanted.  This was a pain in the neck.  
I am going to spray paint them before next year for a nicer look.

I found that my 6th graders had a hard time getting the blocks back in the box at the end of the period, so I am storing each set in a large resealable plastic bag.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Teaching experimental design

My word! This is a hard concept for kids to master. My students come to me with very little background in designing an investigation from start to finish, so almost all of this novel information for them.

We work on designing our own investigations all year long, but I introduce the concept very early on with a couple of labs designed just for teaching these skills.

We begin a lab called "Scientific Cents."  It's a version of the classic Drops on a Penny lab.

I take at least an entire week and walk the kids through each part, step-by-step.  I teach variables, hypothesis, graphing, data analysis, drawing conclusions as we do this.  I don't take a grade on the lab.  Kids do the lab and make notes on each part a we go along.  This lab serves as a model for the next (and subsequent) lab(s) during the first semester.

I follow up the next week with "Bubble Tubes."  Bubble Tubes can be purchased from Education Innovations or ENASCO.  The kids love these.

I provide much less guidance with this lab - and I count it as both a lab grade and a test grade.  Students are encouraged to use the Scientific Cents lab as a model or example of what to do.

The results are remarkable.  Of course, final lab isn't what I would want to see in May, but for a first start, it's pretty good.

Sunday, September 13, 2015


The absolute truth.

Sixth grade is the best.  The kids are fun, inquisitive, still excited about school.  Friday morning before school started, I was in my room working when three young men from my class last year burst into my room in a state!  "Ms. P!, Ms. P! Come quick!!!"  They had found a little bird out by the gym and were sure that it was injured, and that I could save it.  My heart always sinks when situations like this come up.  If a bird really is hurt, usually there is not much I can do, and I hate that the animal is hurt, and I hate that I let the kids down.
In this case, I could tell that the bird was fine. It may have flown into the glass door and was a little dazed, but there were no obvious physical injuries.  We decided to move the bird away from the door to keep others from stepping on it until it could fly again.  When "S" reached down to pick up the bird, it took off and attached itself to my pants leg. So there we stood; three boys and me, just staring at my leg.  I started to move over to a tree and the bird took off and flew away.  The boys cheered, I dusted off my pants, and life was good again.

Monday, September 7, 2015


A concept my students tend to struggle with is variables.  They can define independent variable, dependent variable, and controlled variable just fine.  But they have a really hard time identifying each type of variable in a question, hypothesis, or scenario.

As a result, we work on variables all year.  Every investigation we do that is experimental in nature has a small section devoted to identifying the variables.  

Like many science teachers, I start the year with a unit on science skills.  I don't spend a super long on it; I prefer to jump into content and reinforce skills and practices as we go along.  However, I have found it worth the time to review the basics of data collection and experimental design early in the year.

I have several tools and lessons to help practice identifying variables:

Graphic organizer - 

Interactive graphic organizer -

Task cards - 
And lots of labs and review presentations -

One very quick lab I do is to have my students measure the length of a rubber band as it is stretched by an increasing number of washers.  I do this after we have practiced variables several times.  It is my lead-in activity to making correct graphs.

To help the kids remember which variable is which, and where they are plotted on a graph, I have them hold their left hands up in front them, thumb extended.  I tell them the thumb represents the independent variable, it stands alone - there is only one.  The fingers represent the dependent variable.  They depend on the thumb (your fingers need the thumb to make the hand work efficiently) and there are more than one because we record the dependent variable (data) several times.

Then I show them that their thumb is making a horizontal line like the X-axis (where the IV is plotted), and the pointer finger makes a vertical line like the Y-axis (where the DV is plotted).

Just to make sure that the correct axes are always on their minds, I used sticky letters and did this on my board.

I put this on the other side, just because.

You can download all of my materials from my website.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Middle school moment

I love middle school. I really love sixth grade.

Some students were in my class before school.  They saw that I had supplies set out for an investigation.  Evidently, I did not set the material out in a happy fashion, so they fixed them for me.

They made smiley faces out of all the trays.   For every team. Because, sixth grade.

Gummy bear reflections & update

I have done several versions of the Gummy Bears in water labs for several years. However, the last two years have been a disappointment,  I suppose it's the brand of candy I am getting, but instead of the big, swollen Gummy Bears I have had in the past; we're getting dissolved candy and moldy water. Yuck.

I am going to have to really research which brand of candy to get, or find a different investigation to do.  I'm leaning toward finding a new lab,