Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The First Few Days

It takes more than one day to get kids comfortable with the expectations in my class. We practice & review for a long time. It looks something like this:

Day 1 - Introductions (Read about day 1 in detail.)

Day 2 - 
  • Welcome back students at the door, reminding them to check the agenda displayed on the board.
  • Review start-of-class procedure/check the agenda.
  • Pick up Safety Contracts & composition books (Have Sharpies to put names on books.)
  • Give students a chance to ask questions.
  • Go over RULES.
  • Review group work procedure / discuss the importance of TEAMWORK (Read my TEAMWORK post.)
  • Do a teamwork activity like Marshmallow Towers, Marble Ramp, there are hundreds on the web.
  • Discuss teamwork and group work. Advantages? Disadvantages?
  • Review clean-up procedure.
  • Dismiss.
Day 3 - 
  • Meet students at door, reminding them to check the agenda displayed on the board.
  • Review procedures.
    • Start of class
    • Getting supplies
  • Pick up Safety Contracts.
  • Set up Journals. (See how I do this here.) This takes a long time, longer than you would think. More on how I use notebooks can be found HERE.
    • Teach how to glue (Dot, Dot, Not a Lot!)
    • Scrap paper in the recycle bin.
  • Wander around and check each journal.
  • Review teamwork. Complete the teamwork organizer and glue it into the journal.
  • Review end-of-class procedure.
  • Dismiss.
Day 4 - 
  • Meet students at door, reminding them to check the agenda displayed on the board.
    • Students will be instructed to get their journals out & have them on their desks.
  • Explain how a daily warm-up question will be displayed from here on out.  Show the timer and how it will work.
  • Do the first warm-up question.
  • Wander around and check each journal.
  • Do Animal Tracks observation & inference lesson.
  • Process lesson.
  • Explain turning-in-work procedure.
  • Turn in student sheets.
  • Review Rules, Procedures.
  • Dismiss.
Day 5 - 
  • Have agenda & warm-up question ready, remind students to check board and get busy.
  • Discuss warm-up question.
  • Explain EarthWatch.
    • Students have a copy of the Atlantic Basin Hurricane Tracking Chart & a world map.
    • We use the data from the National Hurricane Center to track tropical storms & hurricanes during the year.
    • We use the World Map to record any other Earth event - large earthquakes or volcanoes, wildfires, tsunamis, landslides, avalanches, anything really.
    • In the fall, we record hurricane data almost daily. After that what we record is random, but usually we have something a couple of times a week. I get my earthquake data from Teachable Moments - it is wonderful!
  • Do first EarthWAtch
  • Continue on with content instruction.
  • Review procedures as needed.
  • Dismiss.
The rest of the year -
  • I introduce procedures & policies as they come up.
  • I review something weekly.
    • I often include a quiz or test question about a procedure or policy.
  • After a holiday, I review the major procedures before we do anything.
  • It's an ongoing process.
The time I take to teach procedures up front really pays off the rest of the year.  We save a ton of time because kids know what to do.

A new school year

The first day of school. A new year. It's always a little thrilling and nerve-wracking. Even in the years when we need more summer, when we don't feel quite ready to come back, the first day is exciting. New possibilities. New students. One of my favorite things about teaching is the brand new start we get each year. It doesn't matter what happened the year before, it may have been the worst year ever, but the new year is just that - new - and I can start over and change whatever I want to change.  I love it.

I've learned the importance of a good start. The first day is my chance to get the kids excited about science and looking forward to coming to class. It truly sets the tone for the entire year, and I only get one chance to do it right.

Trial and error over the years has given me a pretty good set of activities and events to start the year.

Before school starts -

  1. Organize my room for the the start of year.
    1. Make sure everything is clean, thank maintenance for all they did over the summer.
    2. Arrange desks.  I like to start the year with desks in a U shape.  This makes for easy conversation.  When I want students to work in groups of 4, I just pull two chairs around to the other side and have four kids working at one table.  There is enough room. I have students clear the tables of everything except the lab supplies. They can put their books on a now empty table or in the seat pockets on their chairs. 

    3. Hang posters.  I have begun making my own posters.  I can't find what I want pre-made, so I create my own at Vistaprint.  It's super easy and when you hit a sale (there is almost always a sale) it's no more expensive than purchasing posters from a teacher supply store. I have limited wall space, and only one true bulletin board. I hang teaching stuff (anchor charts, word walls) on my cabinets as well.

  2. Create seating charts.  I seat students alphabetically until I learn their names.  I do not let students choose their own seats until later in the year, after they know the expectations and procedures of our classroom. I write students names on a piece of paper or index card and tape it to the desks.  When students enter the first day, they are directed to find their seat.
  3. Create the agenda PowerPoint. I begin every day with our agenda shown on the board. This tells the students what the need to do to get ready for class. 
First Day of School -
  1. Have introduction PowerPoint displayed.
  2. Greet students at the door, asking them to check the board as they enter the room.
  3. After students are in the room, double check schedules to make sure everyone is in the right place.
  4. Introduce myself and welcome the kids again.
  5. Explain to the students that they have just learned the first procedure for science class - how to enter the room and get ready for class. I explain that every day there will be an agenda displayed for them.  They don't have to guess about what's going to happen, just look at the board.
  6. We provide a "lab manual" for students. I hand those out and help students put them in their science binders. All students are required to have a binder for science.
  7. Take a few minutes to look through the binder and see what we are going to study this semester. I then point out the "Important to Know" section of the binder.  This is where I have our rules, policies, and procedures.  I do NOT spend time going over these. That is a sure way to bore kids out of their minds and turn them off to science.  It bores me too. I point them out and tell the kids that I will introduce policies and procedures as we need them. I do ask them to know the rules, but I don't make a big deal of it. I point out the Safety Contract and ask them to have it signed and returned.

  8. I do a quick lab.  I use the drops of food color in whole milk lab, but any quick, fun lab will work.  It just needs to be a lab with a bit of "wow" to it. This lab serves several purposes. 
    1. It's fun. I want kids to enjoy their first day with me.
    2. It sets the tone for the class - we do investigations in my room.
    3. It gives me a chance to teach several procedures - getting materials, cleaning up materials, working with a partner. 
    4. Here is a more detailed explanation of the lab.
  9. I wrap up with a review of procedures, give them a chance to ask a few questions, tell them how glad I am that they are in my class, and send them on to their next adventure middle school!

Friday, July 27, 2018

My favorite resources by and for teachers - UPDATED

One of the most urgent issues for teachers, beginning and veteran, is what lesson, lab, activity to use to teach a topic.  Some teachers are in schools that have very prescribed curricula and have the lessons laid out for them, but most of us have to create or find lessons on our own.

New teachers can be dazed by this process - where to start? how to choose?  When EVERYTHING is new, this can be overwhelming.  Even veteran teachers, when charged with a new curriculum or just looking for a better lesson, can get lost in everything that is available.

Developing a lesson from scratch takes a crazy amount of time.  Even if you get an idea from someplace else, making it your own can be time-prohibitive, especially if you are a newbie and still learning classroom management, the culture of your school, data management systems, and all the other "stuff" that comes along with this crazy, wonderful profession.  However, I encourage all new teachers to create their own lessons as time and experience allows.  This is really the best way to get a lesson that is just right for you class.  They will have to be tweaked year after year, but that just makes the lesson better and better. It's also a great way to allow your creative side out.  

A Google search for "any topic lesson" can yield thousands of hits.  Some pretty good, most...not so much.  And who has time to wade through all of them anyway?  So what are our other options?

  • Material that comes with textbook adoptions - ugh.  often low-level, cookbook labs, what many veteran teachers are trying to escape in the first place.  Still, often they can be modified  into really good activities.  The adaptation takes some time, it is fairly easy for most seasoned teachers, and a good exercise for novices.
  • Lesson collections of the web There are several large lesson banks out there.  Many are teacher-contributed lessons.  I love the idea of teachers sharing with each other, but again the lessons are hit or miss.  If you are looking for ideas, though, these collections are not a bad place to look.
  • Teachers Pay Teachers I have mixed feelings about this.  I certainly don't begrudge teachers making extra money, we certainly deserve it, but it seems to take away the collaborative nature that I have always loved about teaching.  I have found some very poor quality activities on TpT, and I do not like how we are not supposed to give negative feedback, but contact the author instead.  That just bothers me.  On the other hand, I found SCIENCE TEACHING JUNKIE, and oh my word! - her stuff is just wonderful.  I have used her materials a couple of times in a pinch.  I have not been disappointed. There are several big-time sellers that are pretty good. At least one major seller is way over-rated in my opinion.  Despite what is said, any materials may not be truly aligned with any particular set of standards.  There may be content errors. The activity may go deeper or not deep enough for your standards.  Many times the seller does not want the material to be adapted. And you don't really know for sure until you have purchased the product
  • Other teachers who made their materials available for free.  THESE ARE MY VERY FAVORITE PEOPLE EVER!!! 
    These teachers have put the materials that they use out on personal websites or blogs to share with their colleagues.  They are not sellers, they are real teachers sharing what they do in their own classrooms.  They don't make promises, they just make their materials available for others to use as needed. These folks are examples of the best of our profession.  I have listed my favorites below. 
  • My site (of course) science-class.net. I have long believed that sharing is the best way to support each other.  Let's face it, most of what we create came from an idea of someone else's or is an adaptation of something someone else has done. Very little of what we do is 100% original.  And even if it is, I still think sharing is a good thing to do. That's just me.
  • The Science Spot and Middleschoolscience - these ladies are the absolute queens of sharing! Years ago, when I first built my website for my classroom, I found these sites. As I transitioned my site from a totally classroom oriented one to a place to share, I used them as a model. Both of these teachers and their websites are amazing! Their materials are high-quality, fun, and appropriate; they are made for middle school.  You will love them.
  • If you are a Texas teacher, make sure to check out MissDoctorBailer, she will make your life much easier!  Her materials are all aligned to the TEKS; although they could be used with other standards also. Don't skip over her just because you are not in Texas. Her resources might work with your curriculum too.
  • Two newer finds are Ann Gordon and Sparkle in ScienceBoth are sharing their materials for everyone.  They believe, like me, that sharing is the best way to help our colleagues.  Good stuff!
  • Two sites that are biology, not strictly middle school are Biology Corner and Biology JunctionHowever, I have found both of them to be useful over the years.  Check them out for Life Science resources. 
  • I found a new site for Earth Science Teachers - Earth Learning Ideas. It's full of creative, fun, and practical lessons and ideas for Earth Science.
I know there are more marvelous, sharing teachers out there, and I will be happy to include them on the list, if their materials are totally free and teacher made.  We have a tough job, but the internet has given us an amazing platform for supporting each other. We really need to take advantage of it.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Notebooks UPDATED - August 2019

INBs, Interactive Notebooks, science notebooks, journals... whatever you call them, some sort of notebook for student writing, review, and reflection is pretty much ubiquitous in science classrooms today.

There are good reasons for this ubiquity.  Professional scientists keep notebooks. These notebooks are records of the experiences the scientists have with science. Observations and data, diagrams, thoughts and reflections all go in to a scientist's notebook.  The notebook becomes a running record of the growth of scientific knowledge and thinking.  When students use notebooks they are modeling what professional scientists do.

Notebooks help students organize their thinking.  Charts, tables, graphs, diagrams, written observations - all get better and better as students include them in their notebooks.  

Notebooks become a wonderful reference tool.  My students use their notebooks as study guides before tests and their final exam. 

They are a great way to assess students.  Quick notebook checks can provide teachers with a lot of information relatively quickly.

NSTA has an excellent article on the use of notebooks in science - Enhancing Learning with Science Notebooks.

I have used notebooks for years.  How I use them has changed quite a bit over time.  I imagine it will continue to change; education is not a static enterprise.

How I use notebooks in my class room.

We call them journals, not notebooks.  I started with the term journal 20 years ago and just never changed.

I think it is important for each teacher to use notebooks in the way that best works for that teacher, the students, the school, and the culture of the community.  What works for me might not work for someone else.  For learning to be meaningful, it has to be adapted for the students.  It's not about doing something the one, right way. It's about helping kids learn science.  This works for me, your mileage may vary.

I have students use bound composition books.  I don't care what color or design is on the book.  I have found that these hold up better over the course of a semester than spiral notebooks.

UPDATE! I have found these AH-mazing notebooks from Mead. There a bit more expensive, but if your school or students can afford them, they are wonderful.
There a couple of different types.
They have a built in Table of Contents, a place for a title and page number on each page, and are a little larger than a composition book.

I have a place in my classroom for students to store their notebooks/journals.  There is a drawer labeled for each class period, and that is where the journals are kept.  Students are not required to keep their journals in the drawer, but they are required to have them in class every day, so most do.
in the past, when I didn't have empty drawers, I used dishpans to hold the notebooks.

We set up our journals the first week of school:

  1. First & Last name on the cover.
  2. General Journal Instructions are glued on the inside front cover. 

  1. The first three pages are left blank to serve as the table of contents.

  1. Pages are numbered on the top of each page.
  2. (Updated)The first page is Taking Care of Materials & Supplies.

  1. The second page is How to Write in Complete Sentences instructions.

  1. Page 3 is How to Draw a Diagram in Science instructions.

  1. Page 3 is the student's first entry in the notebook.
  2. We repeat this the first week of the second semester.  We almost completely fill the a journal each semester.

Our journals are not the "Right-side/Left-side" Interactive Notebook.  Sometimes we have an entry that follows that format, but most do not.

Entries in our journal/notebook are:

We have a warm-up question every day.  This serves as a bell-ringer/starter, whatever word you like to use.  Students grab their journals as they enter the class.  More times than not, some student takes it upon him or herself to be the journal passer-outer.  It's usually a student who gets to class a little before the others, and just does it.

If we are going to use the journal again that class period, I tell the kids to leave them out.  If we are not, I have one person from each group pick up journals from that group and put them back.  If I forget to do this (it happens) they just put them up as they leave at the end of the period.

We use regular school glue to attach papers to the journal pages.  Glue sticks just don't work.  I bought the "Tap and Glue" caps for our glue bottles  They help a LOT.  I still have to teach the kids how to glue - dot, dot, not a lot - the first few times we stick something in the journals though.
Once or twice a year I wash out the lids with hot water to keep them working.

When students are absent they are expected to make up journal work just like they would do any other assignment.  Our warm-up questions are posted on the class website for easy access.  I don't keep a complete sample journal in the class any more.  I found that too many students were depending on it at the last minute. :(  The day before the journal quiz I would also have a group of kids coming in and trying to copy everything into their journal.  So, nope, not any more.

I do have an example journal to show the kids.  It's a really nice journal from a previous student.  They need a sample of high-quality work.

I do have a sample journal that shows how organizers, charts, graphs, and so should look like if completed properly.  It doesn't have all of the warm-up questions in it though.

I assess the journals/notebooks in multiple ways.

  • Random checks.  Periodically I grab the notebooks from one class period and check for completeness.  I do this for every class period once or twice a grading period.  These are unannounced.  
  • At least once a semester I grade for completeness and accuracy.  This is announced.  use a simple checklist for this.  I print the list on mailing labels and stick them on the next blank page.  Easy-peasy.  (You can download the checklist here.)
  • Sometimes I grade a specific entry.  This is often data from a lab or observations of a demo or exploration.  This is announced.
  • Journal Quiz - at the end of each grading period, I give a quiz based on the notebook/journal.  Students are allowed to use their journal.  This is announced.  I do not give pop quizzes.
  • When I grade, I write the grade and my comments on the next blank page in the journal.  Students are expected to include this in the Table of Contents.

Like almost everything I do in my classroom, journals are always a work-in-progress.  Every year, I tweak something, always trying to make it better.  However, I do think they are worth the time and effort we put into them.  My students use them to learn science, and that is the whole point!

Big Science Ideas

Big Science Ideas are my version of the Enduring Understanding from the Understanding by Design framework of Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe.

I use a 60-60-60 model in my room.

  • Some of what we learn is important for 60 days - it helps students understand other concepts this school year.
  • Some of what we learn is important for 60 months - it is important for understanding material throughout high school & college.
  • Some of what we learn is important for 60 years - it the knowledge we need to be informed citizens, capable of understanding complex scientific and societal issues.
Of course the number 60 is arbitrary, but it's a reflection of the fact that some of what learn is much more important in the long term than some other learnings.

The 60 year learning is what I call a "Big Science Idea."  It is a fundamental ideas and concepts that I want kids to know 60 years after they have left me and my classroom.  These big science ideas summarize important ideas and practices that are integral to Earth Science.

After we have investigated one of these big ideas, as part of the summing up or closure, I project the idea for the students.  They write the idea in their journals, and then take a few minutes to reflect on the importance of the idea.

These are super simple PowerPoints, with several ideas on a slide.  They can be modified to have fewer ideas or move the ideas from slide to slide easily.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018


Everybody is one phone call away from having their life turned completely upside down.
That phone call was for me in March of 2017.  After months of chiropractors and exercises, finally an MRI, my doctor told me I had spots on my kidney and bones. Stage 4 Renal Cell Carcinoma. Kidney cancer. 

I am fortunate to live in a big city with world class medical facilities. I have some of the best care available. That care has brought me to the place I am in today.  I am stable.  I have manageable side effects from the crazy amount of medications I am taking, my quality of life is good.

I existed in a fog for months, blindly doing whatever my oncologist said, automatically, without thought.  As the fog lifted, I began to move to a new normal.  That's a cliche phrase, but descriptive and accurate.  Life moved on, even mine.

Maybe someday I will write about my experiences with this ghastly disease, but this isn't the right time. Nor is this the place.  This is my place to share what I have learned in three and a half decades of being a science educator.  I'm not trying to do anything but be helpful.  Teaching is an incredibly hard job. No one really understands it except teachers.  

Having a cancer diagnosis makes me think about what I am going to eventually leave behind, I hope that one part of my legacy will be a little less stress, a little more time for my fellow teachers.