Browsing: Thoughts from the Classroom

Exploring the NGSS: part 1

The best way to describe the Next Generation Science Standards is like this:  We used to teach students about science (facts, dates, people, history), now we teach students how to think like scientists.  In my mind, this is an amazing and positive shift.  Whether we become scientists or not, we all interact with our physical world is some way.  Observation and critical thinking is key to these interactions.  So, it may not be necessary to know the intricate workings of the ribosomes and endoplasmic reticulum (although who can deny what wonderful words those are!) but it is arguably helpful to understand what nutrients our cells need and what happens when they don’t get them.  This is the gift our new standards have given us, an opportunity for our students to ask probing questions while observing every day phenomena.

I’m sure many of us, myself included, can remember spending science class reading about other people’s discoveries and memorizing long lists of Latin-based words or laws about the physical world, particularly in middle school.  If we were lucky, we had the pleasure of a class with labs which at least allowed us to re-discover those discoveries we read about.  If this is all we ever did though, how would we ever discover anything new?  To examine phenomena, ask questions, and test theories is its own special type of critical thinking, one that requires instruction.  The Next Generation Science Standards is designed to steer instruction in this direction, but the fact of the matter is, it can be difficult to teach (and assess) “thinking like a scientist.”  The setup of the written standards is difficult to navigate as well, leaving many teachers unsure about what to teach.

Over the next few weeks, I will be exploring the Next Generation Science Standards for grades K-8 and sharing a few tips I’ve found helpful, both on how to navigate the new standards as well as how to implement them in the classroom.  I will be using and referring to the standards posted on the next gen website (although, in truth, I like the navigation and layout of the California site a bit better).  Lastly, I will try to share as many fabulous and fantastic resources as I can… starting with this one here.

Happy Teaching!

Next up in the series… Science Themes

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The Metric System… A Love Story

The other day I was having a conversation with my son about the metric system.  It started innocently enough.  He had asked what a gram was and I had obnoxiously and sarcastically replied “1/1000 of a kilogram.”  After rolling his eyes and telling me in an exasperated voice that was NOT what he meant, he then wondered how I’d know it was 1/1000.  Thus, a conversation on the metric system.  My mom, who was listening in at the time, chimed in with a helpful “I don’t know why you bother.  No one uses the metric system anyway.”  As shocked as I was, I was even more dismayed to note that this was the second time in as many days that I’d heard this sentiment.  Yes, I suppose our everyday dealings with measurements requires us to more routinely know the customary system than the metric system.  But who among us can deny the beauty and pure elegance that is the base-ten foundation of the metric system?  A simple glide of a decimal point this way or that and voila!  The value of the number has instantly changed!  None of this multiplying by 3 or dividing by 12.  No!  Just a flip of the little decimal and suddenly my liters are deciliters… my kilometers are hectometers… my…

Okay, maybe I find the metric system slightly more compelling then most but truly, it is a pretty nifty way to convert measurements, once you know what you’re doing.  Plus, it’s the accepted system of measurements for all things science, so naturally, I’m in (you had me at science… *sigh*).

Teaching 8th grade science where we deal with a lot of physics (and a lot of measurement!), I was always shocked to find that the metric system was relatively new for most students even though it is addressed in the (California) math standards during earlier years.  Though I’ve known some teachers to push forward with their speed and acceleration calculations using the customary system, I found it better in the long run to spend 2 weeks at the start of the year immersed in a unit on the metric system (despite constant moans from my students that they thought they were in science, not math… ugh!).  Knowing the metric system and using it throughout a course on physics (and even other science disciplines) allows students to have a more concrete understanding of the physical principles they are bound to encounter.  After all, if I’ve spent my time recording data in inches and feet, how will I deal with that pesky 9.8 m/s2 as my object comes tumbling towards Earth?

Certainly, there is a benefit to addressing both the metric system and the customary system in the science classroom.  After all, when I calculate the velocity of the Ferrari speeding down the American highway, it’s not likely the patrolman clocked it in meters per second.  Knowing how to use both systems ensures a student’s understanding of the concept.  But, let’s not ignore the metric system, at the middle or even the elementary school level.  There is something quite magical about a system of measurement that can change with the flick of a decimal point.

 

Want to try a metric unit in your classroom?  Check out my unit on the metric system here.

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Battling the Multiplication Blues

This year, after years at the middle school level, I made the move back down to elementary school.  I was excited for the chance to once again teach all the core subjects and to build a stronger community with my self-contained classroom students.

At the end of the summer I joined my new colleagues for a retreat to plan and discuss the coming year.  One of the activities we participated in involved having discussions with the grade levels above and below us about the skills students need most as they entered our classroom.  The one skill that seemed to permeate multiple grade levels was the need for knowing basic multiplication facts.  It was evident from the discussion that from 3rd grade on, the curriculum relied on a student’s ability to quickly recall basic multiplication facts and that students who did not obtain this skill by 4th grade were quickly falling behind.

When I began working with my 5th grade students this year, I saw just how true these sentiments were.  Some of my students came equipped with multiplication mastery but many, too many, did not, making everything from fractions to calculating the area of a square difficult.  I sent home practice worksheets, assigned flashcards, and even gave weekly timed multiplication tests but the fact remained, those who knew it, knew it and those who didn’t weren’t investing the time needed to get it.

While flash cards and practice worksheets are not fan favorites in my classroom, learning games are which is how the Multiplication Battle Game was created.  (It started as a sneaky way to fill an extra ten minutes before recess and get kiddos to fill out their blank multiplication charts.) This is how the game works:

Students build a game board that consists of a file folder, a completed multiplication chart, and a blank multiplication chart.

One student attaches their game board to another students game board using binder clips.  The binder clips act as a support so that students can sit facing each other while viewing their board.

Each student then covers 5-7 math facts on their top board (the completed multiplication chart).  You can do this using sticky notes cut into small squares.  These become their “hidden spots.”

To play the game, each player takes turns stating a math fact with the answer. For example, Player 1 might say “2 x 4 = 8.”  Player 1 then marks the answer in the correct spot on their blank game board. Once player 1 has written down their math fact, player 2 will announce whether or not this was a hidden spot on player 2’s top board. If it is, player 1 can mark this on their blank chart with an ‘X.’

Player 2 will go next, following the same steps as player 1. Play continues back and forth until one person discovers all of their opponents hidden facts.

The first person to find all of their opponents marked spots wins!

Having students complete the blank multiplication chart as they play is the real key here as this is the step that provides students with the repetitive practice they need.  As extensions to the activity, I have had students complete the rest of their charts as homework after the games are over and I have even encouraged students to teach and play the game at home, offering it as a homework menu choice.

The outcome of incorporating the game into my classroom has been positive.  Yes, there are still students who struggle but the idea of ‘practicing math facts’ has a lighter tone in the classroom now.  But the best result?  Watching one student in particular light up as he recalls math facts automatically, a skill he didn’t have previously.  The smile on his face as he fills with pride and states math facts with ease is worth every moment in the classroom!

Interested in trying the game in your classroom?  Find detailed instructions and resources here.

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I was that student…

Imagine your most recent staff meeting.  A long hour (or more) after a long day.  Data and statistics and dates to remember flying at your exhausted brain which is drifting off to the papers waiting to be graded on your desk or the chocolate waiting at home.

Now imagine a student.  Imagine the student who raises their hand in class with so much intensity you are sure they will fall out of their seat.  ‘Quiet hands’ is simply impossible for this student as they wiggle, squirm, and “silently” declare “Oh, I know this!”

Now imagine this… today, during my staff meeting, that student was me.

I honestly don’t know what came over me, whether it was exhaustion or stress (or both).  I certainly didn’t plan it.  But as my principal asked a question about the data we were looking at my hand suddenly shot up in the air, I literally kicked the co-worker next to me, and I “silently” declared “Oh, I know this!”  Thankfully everyone, including me, burst into laughter that felt like a much needed release.  Data, after all, is not easily digested at 4pm. Banter about whether the student without the quiet hand should be called on ensued but I was finally allowed to answer.

The incident got me thinking a bit about how I react to the ‘little things’ in my classroom.  Do I recognize the moments when laughter is needed more than information, structure and procedure?  Don’t get me wrong, all of those things are important and we educate in an age when time is precious and there is a lot to cover.  But perhaps taking a moment to laugh with my students, to treasure their enthusiasm over their ‘quiet hands,’ is equally important?  Sometimes I know I can let those little things become big things in a negative way, focusing too much on the distraction and loss of instruction.

But tomorrow I have decided that I will find time to incorporate laughter and positive spirit in my classroom and to relish the enthusiastic hand.

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I See Race Cars…

I have a confession. I collect bottle caps.  Small, large, from all sorts of bottles, everything from Gatorade to milk. In the summer, when my collection reaches mammoth proportions and I can be seen begging bottle caps off strangers and relatives alike, this obsession seems undecidedly bad.  But in the winter, when the first race of the season is underway, and my collection has been put to good use, it’s easy to see this was never an obsession at all.  Because in that moment it’s finally clear, I never saw bottle caps, I saw race cars!

There is growing research to support the use of hands-on, inquiry lessons in the science classroom (Kauble & Wise, 2015).  In fact, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) adapted by most states puts a great deal of focus and emphasis on collaboration and student-led discovery.  But how does all this research and theory translate to the day-to-day of the classroom?

When I first started building race cars with my 8th grade students, pre-NGSS, I used it as a culminating activity. It was an active, engaging way for students to summarize and evaluate 4 weeks’ worth of Newton’s Law knowledge about how things move on Earth.  Powered by balloons, students had to engineer a car that could move fastest and furthest down the raceway.  Each of Newton’s three laws must be put into action for students to experience success and though the task sounded easy to most students at the beginning, a lot of hard work and critical thinking is needed in the end.  Race day was always a well-remembered highlight of the year and the students walked away with a much better understanding of motion after experiencing the hands-on engineering project.

But two years ago, when I started to evaluate my teaching in light of the new standards, I started to wonder… what if I didn’t teach Newton’s Laws?  What if students built the cars first?  Would they make connections and ask questions that would lead to a self-discovery of the laws of motions?  Or would my classroom devolve into a not-so-glorious mess of recycled boxes, glue, and, yes, bottle caps?  I decided to take my chances… we would build without knowledge of Newton or his laws.

When I first posed the question (Who can build the fastest race car made only from recycled materials and powered only by balloon?) there was a lot of excitement in the room.  But after the first build session, excitement turned to frustration… quickly.  A pack of frustrated middle schoolers can be a little scary, so it was important to channel this energy, thus the debriefing, an important strategy I discovered as I was making my transition to student-led inquiry.  I learned that it’s important to take time (10-15 minutes) to stop and generate questions when using this style of teaching.  Why are you frustrated? (The wheels don’t turn; the car won’t move.)  Responses from that first question turned into new questions.  (Why don’t the wheels turn?  Why is it important for the wheels to turn? (Newton’s Law #1!) How do wheels turn on actual cars?) And these questions became topics for research.  At this point, building stopped and research began but more importantly an atmospheric shift occurred in my classroom.  Suddenly the classroom atmosphere had shifted from ‘I want my students to know why’ to ‘my students want to know why.’  There was deliberate purpose behind their search for knowledge.  They had a mission to accomplish!

So, how did my quasi-experiment on the use of student-led science projects fair?  Well, as I would tell my students, more data and research would be needed to fully gage the impact of this method (they would roll their eyes too, don’t worry) but here is a bit of qualitative data I found… my students were far more engaged and present in the lessons.  The truth is, there is still direct instruction needed here.  The difference is instead of me saying “today we will learn about Newton’s second law of motion which involves the math formula force = mass x acceleration” the students are asking “why does my car stop moving when I add decorations?” and I am responding with a lesson. Additionally, students are assigning themselves homework, a phenomenon I find hilarious!  I am not a big advocate of homework and I don’t often assign it but in this situation, I found that most students would go home and do something related to their project.  Whether it was asking someone for advice, taking to the internet, or reading a book, the majority of students were considering the science well outside of the classroom.  And finally, the students were turning to each other for help and advice (collaboration anyone?).  Discussions about why wheels that turn are better than wheels that don’t turn supported by information from Newton’s laws and a few tests we did on friction were happening all around me.  It was enough to bring this curriculum nerd to tears.

So, the next time you see a bottlecap, or an old box, or even a scrap of paper, ask yourself what possibilities it might hold.  What could a little science, a little engineering and lot of middle school creativity bring to life from that simple recyclable?

Check out the complete balloon powered race car lesson here!

Reference:

Kauble, A., & Wise, D. (2015). Leading Instructional Practices in a Performance-Based System. Education Leadership Review of Doctoral Research, 2(2), 88-104.

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Reflections of a not-so-first-year teacher

For years I taught middle school, and despite what most people might think, I loved the age group of kiddos I worked with at that level.  But this year I changed districts, schools, and yes, even grades.  This isn’t my first time being a not-so-first-year-teacher (a veteran teacher learning the ropes in a new school) but this year, my fellow newbies were, in fact, newbies.  The 4 other teachers hired with me are experiencing their very first year of teaching and watching their tired faces grace the halls first thing Monday morning has made me take pause and reflect on my very first year.  (Ironically, that very first of first years was in the same district I am currently employed; my teaching career has officially come full circle!)
My very first year of teaching was also my first year of motherhood, so to say I slept very little is quite the understatement!  I can remember clearly picking up my son from daycare before they closed at 5:30 only to whisk him back to school with me, rushing down a quick dinner on the way, so that I could finish some task like inputting grades or prepping a lab.  On Fridays, I would load up my car with a 100+ student notebooks and other materials, prepared to spend my weekends strategically grading and planning from one nap time to the next.  The first half of that first year was a blurred whirlwind of barely making it from day to day.  I confess to showing perhaps one too many Bill Nye videos during that first half of the first year, clamoring for any extra time I could get.
But even though those first months were unbelievably crazy, I also made sure to take advantage of every conference and professional development opportunity that came my way.  Through these tools I gained an abundance of knowledge and know-how.  By the time Winter break rolled around, I have no doubt I was zombie like in appearance.  Still, I spent a decent chunk of my two-weeks  reworking everything I had been doing up to that point.  New lessons, new methods, new ideas (and a decent amount of sleep too!)  When I returned, Bill Nye was no longer a fixture in our weekly line-up.  The students were taken aback for sure, the level of rigor and accountability had certainly risen ten-fold.  But it was a few weeks in to our new regime that I realized just how much my students had taken notice of the change.  “You know Ms. Green,” a student said as I was passing out the latest assignment, “I liked it better when you didn’t know what you were doing.”
To this day, that comment makes me laugh and I think about it at the start of every new year.  But I have especially thought of it this year as I have found myself surrounded by so many new teachers.  We have amazing teacher preparation programs in California and yet, just like with parenthood, there is simply nothing that can prepare you for that very first, first year.  So as I watch their tired faces roam the halls in zombie-like fashion, I offer up this little blessing: your kiddos love you no matter what, and sometimes they love you more when you don’t know what you are doing.

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