Saturday, November 5, 2016

Interactive Graphic Organizers

Interactive graphic organizers, 3D graphic organizers, "foldables" - whatever you call them - are a favorite tool of many teachers.

I have a love-hate relationship with them myself.  I love them when they are used judiciously and with the intent to review or reinforce a concept.

I hate them when they are over-used, take the place of an investigation, or become a "craftivity."

I love them when they are a relatively quick way to review a concept.

I hate them when they become the focus of a lesson.

I love them when they are easy to cut out, provide a note-taking or writing experience for students, and are easy to keep in a notebook.

I hate them when they include multiple pieces to cut out, intricate designs to cut around, or have lots of little pieces to glue.  Activities like this become about the cutting and gluing, and not about the content.

I do use them fairly often, I call them content organizers in my classroom, and we use them to organize our thoughts after instruction.  My students like to put them in their notebooks.  I keep my content organizers simple,  They are easy to cut out, very few angles or designs.  I also keep them to one piece of paper.  Nothing to glue or put together.  The only thing we glue is the actual organizer into the notebook.

Sometime I ask for color - when the content requires it, but most of the time, not even that is needed.  Although I always have some students who like to put color on theirs anyway.  I have a number of students who use highlighters and color-coding to help them learn.  I also have some student who just like color.  I'm certainly ok with that.

I have created a large number of content organizers, for all branches of science science, plus some generic ones that can be used in multiple ways.  I have also made a couple of non-content organizers: mindset, student reflections, etc.

I am presenting my organizers and ideas at the Conference for the Advancement of Science Teaching in San Antonio.  You can find all of my organizers at this LINK.

Friday, November 4, 2016


Density is a critical concept in Earth Science. So many of the processes depends on it, so understanding density is crucial to understanding how our planet works.

My kids come to me with a reasonable background in density, but it is mostly mathematical.  They are very good at calculating density, but they need some help really understanding it.  They especially need help understanding the relationship between mass and volume.

This year I created a set of stations to help them experience density.

Most of the activities were taken from the MiddleSchoolChemistry website by the American Chemistry Society.  If you have never visited this site, do so now. It is AMAZING!. Really quality materials there.

My students enjoy stations, as long as I don't over-do them, and they enjoyed this set in particular.  Although I will still need some follow-up instruction, using these stations was two days well spent.

Find my stations HERE.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Whiteboard Reflections

I have been intrigued by the whiteboard activities I have seen on social media, especially #miss5thswhiteboard on Instagram.  

Most of the whiteboard activities pose a question and students answer the question on the board with markers or sticky notes.  I teach middle school and have relatively short class periods (45 minutes a day), so the time it would take to have a class of students write is a little more than I want to give up.  Plus, I only have one whiteboard for instruction and it is used everyday, so I don't have a place to set up a message and leave it for all classes. Although, I love that idea and I may try it with some unused wall space in the corner of my room.

What I have decided to do is incorporate the whiteboard messages with my daily notebook question procedure.  

I have described my start-of-class procedure before, but in the proverbial nutshell, my students come into the classroom and check for the daily Notebook Question.  This is my version of a bell-ringer, warm-up, do-now, science starter, whatever you call it.  Kids have two minutes to answer in their notebooks while I take attendance and stuff like that.  The question is usually a review of material from the last week or so.  Quick and easy to answer.  At the end of the two minutes, I show a possible answer and we take a minute or two to discuss it.  Kids can change or add to their answers as necessary.  The whole thing takes less than 5 minutes.

I have decided to include a whiteboard reflection-type question every now and them.  I did two this week, and have one planned for next week.  I doubt I will do more than one a week, and some weeks I won't do any.  I have some ideas for making the questions more science-centric, and I will post those as they are more developed.  At this point, I have used questions others have created.

The students have had a positive response to the ones I used this week, and were eager to share their thoughts with classmates.  Like my typical review questions, we didn't spend lots of time on this, but it was very effective.  I'm very pleased with how it is working.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

A new start

One of the best things about teaching is the fresh start we get each year.  No matter how good or not-so-good it was last year, it's all new again.  Full of  opportunities.
We started back today; kids will be back on the 17th.
Two of my goals for this year:
  1. Try some different forms of formative assessment.  I've fallen into a rut.  I especially want to work on using exit tickets to inform my instruction.
  2. Branch out with some of the online assessments I use.  I used Socrative, Quizlet Live, and Quizziz last year.  I used Kahoot! some too, but have given that up.  My kids didn't take it seriously; it was all about winning the game, and the review :(  How can I make using them even better?
I have created quite a few generic exit tickets to use with any content, and I will be working on more all year.

Find my exit tickets HERE.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016


Teamwork is a really important part of my class.  I emphasize it all year long.  At the beginning of the yer we work mostly in groups of 2,  As the year progresses, I expand the groups to four.  I don't like to go over that because the teams are too big and 6th grade shenanigans ensue.
We work individually as well, but almost all labs are done as a team.

I teach teamwork just like I teach any other procedure in the class.  We begin on the third day of school.  I do a short teamwork activity called MARBLE RAMPS. I have described this in a PREVIOUS POST.

I have used others in the past also; mostly "tower building" type activities.  Most engineering design challenges can be used as long as the emphasis is on team.  I choose a relatively short and easy activity in order to complete it in one class period.  Since this is the third day of school, I am also still teaching other procedure - how to enter the room, how to get supplies, and so on.  Doing a fun activity like Marble Ramps allows us to learn how teams function, how team members contribute to teams, and what makes teams inefficient.  This also is the first time we glue in our notebooks, so I can teach "dot,dot, not a lot" for gluing. :) 

A typical class period goes like this -
  1. Students come in and check the board (see my post on START OF CLASS PROCEDURES)
  2. I review previously taught procedures, and introduce the teamwork procedure.
  3. I start the lesson and give students about 30 minutes to complete their ramp. (Our class periods are 45 minutes long)
  4. When the ramps are completed we have a class discussion about the pros and cons of groups and talk about what each individual can do to make a group work well.
  5. Students write their thoughts on a graphic organizer and glue it into their science notebooks. This gives me my first opportunity to show them how to glue something in their composition book. Even in 6th grade, this can be an issue.
  6. Then I wrap up class and send them on their merry way.
All of my procedures are in a SCIENCE HANDBOOK that I have created for my classes. These are kept in the student binders all year.  My group work procedure isL

Partner and Group Work Procedure

Why we have Group Work Procedures:

  • To make sure that all instructions are heard and followed 
  • To be respectful of our neighbors 
  • To keep students safe during activities 
  • To make sure each student has the opportunity to participate in lab activities 

Some of our work is group work,

  1. QUIET talking is allowed during group work. QUIET talking means that the people you are working with can hear what you are saying, but others cannot. 
  2. Of materials or supplies are needed during group work, someone will be assigned to get the supplies. Only one person at from each group is allowed out of their seats at a time. 
  3. Do your fair share of the work. 
  4. Collaborate with your group. That means sharing, learning, participating, and helping EVERYONE in the group. 
  5. Each person in the group will be graded individually, 
  6. Turn to face the teacher during instruction.

I also use group roles or jobs when in teams. I change the jobs to suit the lab, and I change which job a student has with each lab as well. I want them all to have a change to participate in multiple roles multiple times over the course of the year. My roles include: Principal Investigator, Noise Monitor, Neat Freak, Facilitator, Critical Friend, among others

All of my teamwork materials can be found HERE.

Thursday, July 21, 2016


I frequently assign reading passages to my students as homework. These are readings that are not from the text.  Many are from Discovery Education, but I use other sources also.  I posted about my favorite places to find good readings HERE.

I don't like to spend much class time reading - I prefer labs and discussions, but I strongly believe that reading non-fiction, scientific text is important.  So I search for articles that reinforce or extend what we are covering in class.  I include passages about current and historic events too.

Making a worksheet to go along with the readings is not very effective; kids are way too good at looking for answers without actually reading the information.  Still, I need to know that they have read it and are ready to spend a couple of minutes discussing what they read.  And there needs to be some type of accountability piece.

I found this strategy ( I don't remember where, if someone does, please let me know so that I can give credit where credit is due) and it works really well.  

On the page they students are to read, I put this:

As you read this article, mark the passages 
with these codes:

!  This is important.
√  I knew that.
X  This is different from what I thought.
?  I don’t understand

I made a sheet of address labels with this on them, so I can simply peel off a label and stick it to a paper before copying.  You can print a copy of my labels HERE.

A quick check of the papers lets me know if everyone did the assignment.  I don't take a grade, but not having it completed affects participation in my class.   It also gives a great way to start a discussion.  What was important about this?  What was a surprise? What is confusing?

This has been a painless way to get my students reading and discussing science!

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Using a Microscope

Using the microscope is a skill that most 6th graders need to practice.  Even if they have used a microscope in elementary school, I find that many are still uncomfortable with using one.  Often they are afraid they are are going to break the 'scope or a slide.  And they are almost never sure of what they are seeing.

They only way around this is practice, lots of practice.  I have several investigations I use to help students get this practice.

You can find them HERE

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Science Practices

I am working to get my entire WEBSITE completely updated.  It is slow going because I spent so many years where I couldn't do much to it.  But page-by-page I'm getting there!
This week I gathered my new materials and organized all the resources I have teaching science practices and skills.

Like many science teachers, I have tried multiple ways of helping kids understand the "doing" part of science.
When I first started teaching, many, many years ago, I taught the "scientific method" as my introductory unit. As I grew and learned, I realized that wasn't the best way (since THE scientific method is not a real thing), but I still started the year with a pretty big "science processes" unit.

I eventually moved to teaching all skills through content only; with no skills unit at all.  This was not effective for me.  Trying to teach a skill and content at the same time resulted in neither being mastered very well.

I am back to starting the year teaching skills.  I do not spend nearly as long on it as I used to, but explicit instruction in certain skills, followed by deliberate and purposeful follow-up within content all year long is the best way for me to help my students learn both practice and content.

The Next Generation Science Standards include science practices as part of the student standards.  I really like this.  These standards make it clear that science is not just content, it is so much more.

However, some time spent on the skills that are part of the practices have proven very useful to my students.

My materials for practices and skills can be found HERE.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Mt. St. Helens

Every summer my husband and I take advantage of the fact that we are both teachers with a flexible summer schedule and visit some part of our beautiful planet.  For the last several years, we have been working our way through the National Parks.  My goal is to visit every park in the contiguous states at least.  There are a couple of remote parks in Alaska I know I won't get to :(

In June we toured the Pacific Northwest, including Crater Lake, Mt. Rainier, Olympic, and North Cascades National Parks.  We also visited Mt. St. Helen's National Monument (run by the Forest Service, not the Park Service).

It was a spectacular day!  Cool and bright.  There was also an iridescent cloud above the mountain - just to make it even better!!

Flying home, I took a snap of the mountain from above, I could see the blown out spot really well.

It was incredible to see the mountain and the residual destruction up close.  I teach about it in class, but to experience it for myself is inspiring.  Plus it will make my instruction even better!

Find my new volcano resources HERE.

Friday, April 1, 2016


One of my most favorite things in the world is the yearly conference by the National Science Teachers Assciation.
Even though it means writing 3 days worth of sub plans, I always bring back something worthwhile.
My favorite find today is the Earthviewer app from HHMI.
This is going to be amazing!

Friday, March 25, 2016


My school has a lovely tradition called "Grand Day."  The Thursday before Good Friday, grandparents are invited to school with their grandcildren.  There is a nice breakfast and fine arts performances for them.  In the classroom, we design a lesson that the kids can do with their grandparents.

In my class, we do a variation of Bunnycopters.  The kids can explain to their grandparents how we design experiments and control and manipulate variables.  The grandparents really get into it, and the kids have a great time explaining experiments.  I use bunnycopters because it is right before Easter.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Finding Authentic Reading Passages

One thing I like to do in my classroom is provide students with reading passages that explain current issues in science at an appropriate level.  I am fortunate to have access to Discovery Education materials at my school,  A boatload of articles are at my literal finger tips.

However, sometimes I need or want somethng even more current, or different.  With discvoveries happening every day, it's hard to keep up.

There are two wonderful sources for articles for students.  One of these is Newsela. Newsela provides articles on all sorts of topics, not only science.  There are also multiple Lexile levels for each article is easy to differentiate for your students.
Each article includes a ready-made writing prompt and a quiz.  You can create classrooms and monitor progress.  There's even a app.  This is all free, but there is a subscription service that gives you reposts and such.  

I don't use all of the features Newsela offers.  I generally look for the article I want, and make up questions or a graphic organizer to go along with it. 

My other favorite source for articles is Science News for Students.  These aren't leveled, and there aren't as many resources as Newsela, but the articles are wonderful; very engaging for my middle school kids.  One of my favorite parts is the "Explainer" - when the article uses a term that may need more explanation, it's highlighted to the side with a link for more details.  There is also a glossary of "Power Words" at the end of the article.  I find this extremely helpful.

Other great places to find articles for middle school students -

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Earth Layers

I wanted a different way to model the layers of the earth.  I had done the clay, the make-a-model-at-home; the usual activities. I was tired of having dozens of cakes and such in my classroom.  The kids were more about the model and not some much about the properties of the layers.

I like the judicious use of of "interactive" or 3D graphic organizers; sometimes called Foldables®. The awesome Dinah Zike coined and registered the term Foldable® and created a juggernaut in education.

I think I have all of her Notebooking template books for science, and find them helpful for many topics.

Sometimes I use her work as as springboard for something I want, but she hasn't created yet.  Sometimes I I just like the use of paper to create what I need in class.  Such was the case for Earth Layers.

What I made is not truly a Foldable®, but it was Foldables® that gave me the idea for what I did.

My FoldableSlashPaperModel can be found here.

I don't care for activities that require a lot of cutting, gluing, and coloring without some instruction as well.  I had to structure my direct teach portion of this lesson to go along with what the students were doing.  A talk a little, work a little, talk a little, work a little lesson worked well.

It took about 2 class periods, but the kids got it. :) 

Friday, January 1, 2016

Catching Up; Space Cycles - Day & Night

After we have studied the universe, I introduce my students to the idea that what happens in space can have a direct impact on our own planet.  Regular, predictable patterns in space produce regular, predictable patterns on Earth.

First we review rotation and revolution.  My students are pretty comfortable with the concepts so it is a quick review.  I use an interactive graphic organizer to reinforce the terms and move on.

Then we look at patterns in day and night.  
My students are aware that day-->night-->day-->night is a pattern.  They are also aware the the number of daylight hours is greater in the summer than in the winter.  Since my students tend to be well-traveled, most know that some places have daylight later into the evening than others, or that the sun sets earlier in some places than others.  They have all heard that sometimes the poles have nothing but day or nothing but night.  What they do not know is that these differences are very regular, very predictable.  They do not know the relationship of of latitude to the number of daylight hours.
We do an investigtion called "Days and Nights Around the World" in which the students graph the number of hours oh daylight at different latitudes This creates a pictures of very obvious patterns.  Graphing anything takes my students a long time.  
Graphing this data and identifying the patterns takes one full class period.

However, when we are finished with the activity, and the processing of the activity, students have a really good grasp of how the number of hours of daylight varys due to latitude and time of year.