Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Catching Up & Stars

We rounded out our investigation of the universe with a study of stars.  My lessons and activities can be downloaded here.

I'm not satisfied with this unit, and will be looking to beef it up next year; particularly the study of the a star life cycle.  Something to do this summer!!!

However, our construction of the H-R diagram really helps students how temperature, color, and size are related.

This takes a couple of days.  The graphing of the data is time-consuming, and students need some help at first.  A timer is useful to help keep students focused while doing this.
We spent one class period graphing and the next processing and going over the H-R diagram.
Next year I want to do a much better job with the life cycle of stars before we do this activity.  I think it will make a much more coherent flow for the kids.

Catching Up & Galaxies

A lot went on this fall.  My school had an accreditation visit. There are some departmental issues as well. All on top of the day-to-day things that go on in schools.  It made for an extremely busy semester.

I am going to spend some time this holiday to reflect on the big or new lessons and activities I did this fall.

We did a couple of things with galaxies. Copies of my lessons can be found here.

The first investigation we did was Classifying Galaxies.  I modified a NASA lesson (updated photographs, students sheet) to have students first develop a classification system for 15 galaxies, and then use the Hubble Tuning Fork for a more official classification. Finally, students compared the two systems.

My students were fascinated by the photos.  I printed and laminated a class set of color photos.  I have a Scotch thermal laminator for my personal use.  Seriously one of the best investments I have ever made for school.  Anyway, the kids loved the photos.  Something about the beauty of space really resonated with y students this year.

This is a fairly straight-forward lesson.  Students complete it in one class perios and we process it the next day.  

A follow-up to this lesson is Galaxy Zoo.  After we discussed the classification of galaxies, I spent a little time describing the idea of Citizen Science.  I explained the importance of it, and then showed them the options on Zooniverse. We spent the rest of the class period working partners to describe galaxies in the project. Galaxy Zoo.

Several of students have particpted in other projects on their own!! Yay!  I love it when they get involvled, even when it's not science.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015


CAST - the Conference for the Advancement of Science Teaching - is the annual conference put on by the Science Teachers Association of Texas (STAT).  CAST is the largest state science conference in the nation, typically 6000-7000 attendees participate each year.
With that large of a conference, it is always worth my time to attend.
This year was no exception.

From the Bureau of Economic Geology:

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Our Universe

The idea of RED SHIFT was hard for my students to visualize.  I found a short, easy demo to demostrate it, and wrote it up into a quick lab.  You can find the Modeling Red Shift lab on my webpage.

I used elastic instead of a rubber band, and I glued a sparkly star to the middle of the elastic for fun.

The timer on the board in the background is from Online Stopwatch.  I often use it to help the students manage their time.

From out to in

Three years ago I began teaching in an independent school.  This was a BIG change for me.  Most of the change was due to the complete autonomy I have in my classroom. Every instructional and curricular decison is mine to make.  The only parameter I have is that I teach Earth and Space Science.

Earth science as a distinct course for middle school hasn't exist in my state since 1995, when the implementation of state standards called for integrated science.  It had been a loooong time since I taught Earth Science as a course.

My first year, I followed the scope and sequence that the previous teacher used.  It was a fairly traditional sequence - geology, followed by weather and water, and astronomy at the end of the year.  

The second year, I tweaked this some, but didn't make any really significant changes.

After a lot of reflection, and some discussion with another independent school science teacher, this year I turned everything upside down!

Since I emphasize the idea of systems, I began with the largest system of all - our universe,  From there we moved on to parts of the system - galaxies, then stars, then our star - the sun.  Then we looked at the sun - earth  - moon system, in particular the impacts we see on our planer.  Seasons, moon phases & eclipses, and tides were on the list.

I intend to go from the largest of systems to the smaller Earth systems, spiraling and reviewing every step of the way.  Always emphasizing the relationships and interaction in the systems.

You can see my complete scope and sequence by clicking HERE.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Getting Started with Warm-ups

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. This acts as the warm-up for my class.  
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 - date, agenda, journal question. 
  • 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. While they are doing this, I take attendance, check make-up work, and so on.
  • At the end of the 120 seconds, I advance the slide again to the third slide 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.  Students 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 do this for every class period once or twice a grading period. I don't announce these checks.

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 "How many journal entries have we had?"

My journal questions cover the material we have been studying in class.  You can find my questions on HERE.

Once a semester I grade for completeness and accuracy.  This is announced. I use a simple checklist for this.  I print the checklist on mailing labels and stick them on the next blank page in the journal.  (You can download the checklist here.)

Sometimes I grade a specific assignment.  This is often data from a lab or observations of a demo or exploration.  This is announced.

I've used some form of this procedure in two different schools and three different grades.  It's been a good system for me.

*****I have switched up my formatting for my agenda some. You can see my new format and the reason for it HERE.

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,

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Gummy bear fun

Another fun way to reinforce observation and help students distiguish between qualitative and quantitative observations in the Gummy Bear Investigation.


Students observe Gummy Bear candies before and after soaking in tap, distilled, and salt water.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Observations, Inferences,and Predictions

A good activity to introduce or reinforce observations, inferences, and predictions is Animal Tracks (version 2)

I found a version of this lesson years ago and knew it could be adapted to make a great lesson on observation and inference for middle schoolers.
I start by briefly explaining the meaning of observation, inference, and prediction.  Then I show the first third of the graphic on the PowerPoint.  I give the kids some time to chat with their partner about what they observe.  Then we follow up with a conversation about fact vs opinion. Some students make inferences at this time, so it's a good way to illustrate the difference between the two.  Next we move on to inferences. Same procedure; team talk, then whole group conversation.  At this point some students are making predictions, so this time to clarify the difference between an inference and a prediction.  Then we move on to making predictions - team talk, the group discussion.

I show the next third of the graphic, do the same thing, then the final third.

The lesson takes less than one class period and is a wonderful springboard into doing what scientists do.

Liz LaRosa has another version of this lesson at middleschoolscience.  

Distributing supplies in a science lab

So much stuff!!!

Science teachers have a boatload of materials, supplies, and equipment to distribute, pick up, and clean.  Teachers with multiple classes have to do this several times a day.

I struggled with this early in my career, but with age comes wisdom, and I have worked out a pretty good system for my classroom.  I was helping my newbie science teacher son (so proud!!!)  with this the other day, and I had to think through my process.

My first priority was to make sure my students have what they need to engage in the learning activity of the day.  That means the students later in the day have exactly the same access as the students in my early class periods.  I had to eliminate anything being misplaced, broken (hey, it happens), or used up without me knowing about it.

My second priority was to cut way down on the amount of time I spent cleaning up after the students.  

My solution to this was to designate team supplies.  Since my students work in groups anyway, this was a logical step.  

Each table group is labeled with a team number.   
Each seat is labeled with an individual number.

Everything in my room that is a class set is numbered.  If a student is assigned to seat 15, then textbook 15 is the book that is used.  If something happened to the book, I know who to look for.

When we do labs, each team has designated materials.  I have signs on the walls, and trays and bins labeled for each team.  When students are given the signal to get supplies, they get their tray or bin from the selected spot.  When it is time to clean up, each time has a designated sink in which to wash out supplies if need.  The person chosen to clean up that day, rinses glassware and returns all materials to their team area.  It takes me only a minute to walk by and check that everything is there and intact.  If consumable supplies need replacing, then I know who needs what.  No one leaves the room until all trays or bins are returned and complete.  

I use the bucket as trash cans. One on each table keeps scraps of paper off the floor.

Sunday, August 23, 2015


Students in my science classes work in teams. Although my students come to me familiar with the idea of "group work" they still need practice with the idea of working as a team.

I have to teach what this looks like during the first week of school.  

There are a number of great teamwork lessons easily available on the web.  I have used one called Marble Ramps for the past few years.

The beauty of this lesson is that it gives me a change to teach group work procedures and reinforce procedures for getting supplies and cleaning up too.

This year I am adding something new to the lesson - a kind-of/sort-of graphic organizer for their notebooks.  We are setting up the notebooks tomorrow, so this will be the first item in it.  

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The first day of a brand new school year!

I love the first day of school.  So much promise, so much energy.

I like to start the year with a short lab.  I do not want the first impression of my science class to be one of boredom and rigidity.  So I never spend the day going over rules and policies and procedures.

Ugh! Tedious for all of us.

Instead I teach the start of class procedure, pass out the lab binder, show the Science Handbook, and move straight into a lab.

Of course, I use the lab to teach how to get and clean up supplies and materials.

The lab I do is called Scientific Observations, and it is always a big hit with my 6th graders.

It's a classic lab - students put four drops of food coloring in whole milk,  I tell the students that they are to make observations about what they see during the lab.

They dip a toothpick in Dawn dish washing detergent and touch the soapy end to the milk. (Any kind of detergent will do.)

As they observe what happens, I get a lot of "cool!" "awesome!" and similar comments.

When we process the activity, I tell the kids that they just did what professional scientists do - they made observations.  What usually follows observations are questions, so what questions did they have???

They start saying things Why did this happen?  What caused this?  How come the food coloring moved?  Questions of that nature.  So that leads me into a quick conversation about the kinds of questions scientists ask and how they help build the knowledge base for humanity.

I finish by explaining that whole milk has fat in it, and describing the connection between fats and oils.  I ask if they have seen commercials for Dawn that show the detergent being used on animals that are victims of oil spills.  Most have.  At that point I see some of the proverbial light bulbs going on.  They've made the connection!

I give a a more thorough explanation of why the food coloring moves the way it does. explain the clean up procedure, have the students clean up, and teach the dismissal procedure.

It's a great first day.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Kids Come Tomorrow!!!!

Finally! After a week of meetings, the real reason for school - our students - will be back tomorrow for a new year of science.

Since I teach 6th grade, it's especially important to me to start the year off as positively as possible.

I always start with a lab the first day of school.  This sets the tone for the year.  We do labs in science.  We're serious about science.  We have fun in science.  
It also lets me teach the lab procedures in a natural context.  Seriously. Who wants to start the year listening to rules and procedures all day long?  I certainly don't want to go over them all day.

So... I'm ready!

All of my stuff is neat, tidy, and ready to go.

Student lab manuals are printed & ready for distribution.

The daily agenda is prepared.

Tha lab is set up and ready for student investigation.

I'm pumped to begin year 34!!!!!!!
Bring it on!!!!!!!