MS science

Transition Traditions: Grade 5 to Grade 6 Orientation

They line up outside my classroom in a less than orderly manner.  I make a comment on the situation to which a 6th grader responds, “They’re only 5th graders, they don’t know about lining up”. 

 According to instructions, the 5th graders file into my classroom with their 6th grade buddy and find a location at a lab bench.  Instantly they are bending, stretching, and touching everything within reach.  As I observe this adorable can of worms I reflect, “Oh yes, there is a reason I am not an elementary school teacher”.  Just getting their attention is a task.  Finally, the health teacher helps me with that rhythmic clapping thing they do in elementary to capture students’ attention. Suddenly they are all quiet and facing me.  That clapping thing is magic.

 They are making a wind-measuring device that will aid in determining the best place to build a windmill (it fits with the MS curriculum). I’m counting on the simplicity of this task making it relatively easy to guide 23 little ones through the process.  They eagerly place the eraser over the pencil and insert the thumbtack.  I notice many of them require the help of my 8th grade assistants to tie the string.

After each step I need their attention. I try the clapping thing but apparently I don’t have the correct rhythm as the response is a smattering of nonsensical claps.  But at least they’re listening again.

 After a short discussion on how to measure an angle and how the angle will help us determine wind power, we head outside.  On the playground they measure the wind power.  We move to the side of the school and then to the front discussing the differences in wind power at each location.  They understand that their collective data gives a good idea of what side of the school would make the best location for a wind turbine.

 We noisily ascend the stairs and return to the classroom.  I debate for a split second allowing them to take their wind-measuring devices with them but realize instantly that the pencils, erasers, and thumbtacks will be disassembled and used in ways I’m sure I can’t imagine.  So, I collect them.   Wow.  40 minutes with that group is exhausting. They’ve left the room and I realize I forgot to take a single picture. So I take a photo of the pile of wind-measuring devices.  “Yes” I reflect, “I’m correctly placed in secondary school”.

 The idea is good; to have the 5th grade students follow the 6th grade students around for a full day.  They meet the teachers and they get a sense of how a day in middle school feels and what to expect next year. Even the lunch experience is different with choices! 5th graders end their day with anticipation and excitement for the coming year.  It’s definitely a worthwhile tradition at our school.

 Do you have any good transition ideas to share?


Microscope Mania



I had deliberated the “e” task, thinking it was cheesy.  In the past I’ve jumped right into “real” organisms.  However, today I decided to start with the “e”, mostly to help the students with the instrument and understanding the orientation.

The room was BUZZING.  It was a deluge of energy and enthusiasm.  The happiest eleven and twelve year olds fervently focused on their task.  Seriously?  They were looking at the letter “e” under a light microscope.

“Now, this is truly amazing” one boy apprises me.

After they sufficiently thrill at the result of increased magnification, make their drawings, and comment on the orientation of the “e” in the lens relative to its position on the stage, it’s time to move on to hair.

Students eagerly tug at their hair pulling out single strands.    OK, one student grabs a pair of scissors and assembles quite a pile of hair on the lab bench.  No comment on that one.  The student pairs place their two strands of hair on the slides for comparison.

“This is AWESOME!”

“John’s hair looks like a tree trunk and mine looks like a glass rod!”  The entire class rushes to the microscope to view this incredible discovery.  The buzzing excitement rages on.

More drawings and observations.  Then, on to the preparation of onion skin slides.  Of course, each student is allowed to prepare his/her own slide and that is simply sensational.

“Wait, just one drop of iodine?”

“How do we tap the bubbles out?”

“Are these bubbles?”

Then, the discovery of onion cells!  “Those are all cells?”  “We can see the nucleus?!?!?!”  “This is SO AWESOME!”

Truly, there is nothing more satisfying than middle school enthusiasm.  I just love days like today.

Lowering Anxiety in the Classroom

Image from an article on anxiety (3).

Image from an article on anxiety (3).

Over our Spring Break last week, I had lunch with a friend who spent a day previous to our meeting at a symposium on anxiety, a topic that has lately made it onto my radar through people that I personally know who suffer with the condition.  Recently I also read the article “Surviving Anxiety” by Scott Stossel (1) , editor of The Atlantic and was very moved by its content.  I additionally learned that 18% of the adult U.S. population is affected by an anxiety disorder (2). I’ve had students that are plagued with different levels of anxiety and wonder how I can best meet their needs.

My friend described how it is important for people with anxiety to face their anxiety to the point that they feel they can’t take it any more and then back off.  Gradually they will learn that they survive the event and can survive feelings of anxiety. 

She gave the example of a student who has anxiety about a certain type of assignment.  Parents will often talk to the teachers and get the assignment somehow removed “for the child’s sake” and that, of course, makes things easier on everyone.   Most importantly, it seems better for the child because the anxiety drops as he/she realizes “Whew, I’ve dodged that bullet”.  However, at this symposium, the professional advice was to allow students to experience the anxiety to maximum tolerance levels, pushing them to complete assignments or give presentations.  Then, in the end, they realize they have survived and it will give them confidence to continue to challenge themselves.

As a teacher, I feel it is not my place to determine the upper acceptable anxiety limit.  I am willing to work with parents and professionals to build modifications for any student with an anxiety disorder.  However, I do want to create an environment that lowers anxiety levels for all students.  Here are some practices that hopefully lower anxiety levels in my classroom.

  1. There is no time limit for tests, especially in grades 6-10 (IB, as always, is it’s own beast).  In the beginning, I try to give at least a 20-minute buffer time on all exams.  I make it very clear that all students can take as long as they need on an exam.  If, later in the year, I realize some students need even more time, I build it in to the schedule.  And yes, sometimes this means allocating an entire block of class-time for an assessment. 
  2. No noise towards end of an exam. Once a student is finished with a test, they are to turn over the page and quietly work on the next assignment, reading, or homework for another class.  I do not want anyone to feel pressure because the rest of the class is finishing up and he/she is still only partway through the assessment.  There is no scraping of chairs and shoving of desks as students attempt to turn in exams, rather, the room remains still and quiet until everyone is finished.
  3. Consult students on assignment schedule. When scheduling assessments and projects for a given unit, I check with the class and tweak the schedule as necessary, dependent on assignments or sport games/tournaments they already have scheduled.
  4. Ease students into solo presentations. Standing in front of a class to give a presentation can be very stressful for students, even those without anxiety disorders.  In the beginning of the year, I pair students to present from their seats, for example, to report on some research they’ve done together to further the class’s understanding on a given topic.  Later, different pairs will actually stand before the class to present a digital presentation of choice (Keynote, Prezi, etc.).  It isn’t until students have been exposed to these types of scenarios several times before I expect them to stand solo before the class. 
  5. Establish rapport. Before each class I ask the students how they are doing.  They all relax and some students share stories from their morning, day, recess, or lunch.  This seems especially important after weekends or vacations.  I am genuinely interested in how they are doing and I hope they feel that.  Furthermore, this practice hopefully makes me more approachable to them.
  6. Greet students. When we pass in the hallways I always say, with a smile, “good morning” or “hello” to students, using their name, even if they initially duck their heads in that teenage awkwardness clearly hoping to not be seen.  100% of the time they return a smile and greeting.  My hope is that the students become more and more comfortable at school and interacting with teachers.
  7. Attend sporting events. As often as possible I try to watch them when they play sports at home games, even if it is only for half the game.  Again, I’m sending the message that I care about them, including parts of their lives that aren’t connected to my classroom.
  8. Love the job. I genuinely love teenagers. Furthermore, I honestly love what I do.  With purpose I chose to teach middle and high school.  I’m not afraid to show my enthusiasm, sometimes resulting in shared laughter with the students.

It is my desire, that taken together, these practices minimize the “scary teacher” relationship with students.  I want students to feel comfortable.  I desire to optimize the learning experience by diminishing opportunities for anxiety in the classroom.  Do you have additional suggestions for lowering anxiety in the classroom?  Please share below.



(1) Stossel, Scott. "Surviving Anxiety." The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 22 Dec. 2013. Web. 28 Apr. 2014. <>.

(2) "Facts & Statistics | Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA." Facts & Statistics | Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2014. <

(3)  Image from "Anxiety treatment with a computer just as good as therapy, study says." ZME Science. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2014. <!GbcnB>. room/facts-statistics>.

Differentiated Learning via the neighborhood ecosystem (and the IMYC)

Activity 1: Data collection in our neighborhood canal region (I posted about the distraction we had that day).  Students recorded observations on sightings and evidence of living organisms in the forested area banking a canal across the street from our school.

Activity 2: Students constructed energy pyramids of our neighborhood ecosystem and generated an informational brochure on Google Docs that they then linked to the blog post they wrote on the topic.

Activity 3: A brain pop video and a game on making food chains.

Today, using their data from activity #1 and their learning from activity #3, students have been instructed to be thorough in drawing out food chains of our neighborhood ecosystem.  Once again there is instant energy in the classroom.   As I circulate I enjoy the enthusiasm, the focus, and the intensity that surrounds me. 

“Can we turn this into a food web?” a student queries as he holds up a marker that he has lifted from the already burgeoning web on his paper.

One student is holding his food chain poster in front of the camera adjusting the frame to capture the image “just so”. 

Several are further analyzing the data to find additional connections.

“How do I incorporate the decomposers?” a boy questions as he holds up his poster gesticulating how he imagines adding this important piece of information.

Two girls compare food chains to see if they can glean some ideas from each other. 

I survey the nearly completed food chains.  They are all so wonderfully distinct!  Language learners have drawn pictures instead of writing all the names. Left to right.  Top to bottom. Some with bubbles, some with squares, some with just the animal names and arrows. A few students have elected to actually create a food web of the multiple chains.  One student has succeeded in incorporating the decomposers.  The activity in itself has lent itself to differentiation. 

Then they eagerly capture an image of their poster to upload the picture onto their blog.  The posts are written and published.  “Class is over already?” one notes as she looks at the time.  It has flown by for me as well.

The International Middle Year Curriculum (IMYC) claims to be a “challenging, engaging, internationally-minded, concept-focused curriculum designed specifically for the unique learning needs for 11-14 year olds” through “making meaning, connecting learning, and developing minds” (1) My experience with this curriculum is that I have a lot of work to do with regard to creating rubrics, building in the scientific method, and scaffolding.  However, the overall outcome is, indeed, a differentiated, vigorous, and exciting learning experience. Any other IMYC experiences out there?

(1) "What is the IMYC?." The International Middle Years Curriculum. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Apr. 2014. <>.


The Power of Student Blogging

Hope is in the air as the middle students query, “Do we get to work on our blogs?” They are anticipatorily at attention sitting on the edge of their seats with their computers ready to open if I give the “OK”.  I had planned some blogging time towards the end of the lesson but they are just so ready NOW that I alter my plans.

One student is literally bouncing up and down in his chair with excitement.  “THREE people have viewed my blog!”   Other students immediately check their statuses as well.  “Can anyone in the world see our blogs?”  “How many followers will we get?”  The eagerness is palpable. 

They are incredibly focused as they ponder the aspects of global warming that interest them.  They are thoughtful and careful as they attempt to put their reflections into the written word.  Web sites are consulted, images are uploaded, and miraculously, everything is properly annotated with resources.  The quality of work these 11-12 years olds is producing is quite impressive.  They are invested.  It is their voice.

One student wrote, “ I have been asked to consider three effects of global warming that I’d like to do more research on.  This meant for me to think out of the box and do a lot of research on the topic.  I feel like all of my posts should be providing new information at all times.” Over and over I have been surprised by the ambitious approach students have taken with regard to their blogging. 

Using blogs as a method for students to communicate learning and reflection has so far proven to be a far more powerful tool than we originally expected.  My colleague and I initially thought the blogs would center on the progress of each student’s science fair project.  However, the blogs rapidly expanded to become regular forums documenting the progress of learning in all aspects of our classrooms. 

I encourage giving students voice in their own learning.  It empowers them.  It makes them accountable.  It engages them. Plus, it simply energizes the classroom and the learning experience.

Intensive language course for language learners?

“Go cafeteria?” he points to himself.

I look at him and the clock.  The class just came from lunch, two minutes ago.  “What do you need in the cafeteria?”

His response is unintelligible.  “Do you need food?”  He nods affirmatively.  So I figure because of the language barrier he somehow missed lunch.  I let him go.

A few minutes later he returns with the school nurse who then asks the class, “Has anyone seen Josue’s coat?  He says he left it in the cafeteria” 

With this level of language skills it feels like a waste of time for Josue to even be in science class.  He has no idea what is going on.  He doesn’t understand instructions.  He doesn’t understand the tasks.  He is just following the crowd.  He Google translates every printed word I give him.  I've had EAL training.  I have a skill set to help language learners, however, even this need is beyond my current abilities.  He has a good attitude.  He’s trying.  By the end of science class, which is towards the end of the day, his eyes gloss over.  He’s exhausted. 

It seems it would be best for these brand new language learners to just take intensive language instruction for a few weeks before entering the classroom.  Then, they would be so much better equipped to cope and more able to begin learning in their new language.

The carbon cycle: An activity that really works!

I use sticky-tack to hang my oversized laminated equations of photosynthesis and respiration on the white board (they extend the entire length of the board).  Some interest is generated.  I pull out the large, colored, laminated atoms of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen and intrigue officially settles in.  I have the students stand up and I quickly arrange a few tables into a circle and another set of tables into a second circle.  The students can hardly wait to see what comes next and they crowd excitedly around me eager to receive some atoms.  I divide the atoms, allowing students to form carbon dioxide or water molecules with the atoms given them.  I ask them to look at the equations on the board and determine what needs to happen with the atoms.  We all are “pulled into the roots of the plant” and enter the first enclosed circle of tables.  The big “LIGHT ENERGY” sign is held up and we all link arms and rearrange (albeit a bit awkwardly) our atoms to create a sugar molecule.  We release some diatomic oxygen molecules from the plant.  Then, as a big unit, still linking arms and holding our unified sugar molecule, we are “eaten” by some kind of herbivore, the students pick cow.  We enter the second circle, together as one unit of sugar, and are inside the cow.  The oxygen molecules are also brought in.  We are broken up and the atoms are rearranged with the oxygen to form carbon dioxide and water molecules again.  The big heat energy sign is employed.  We repeat the cycle several times giving different students “charge” of directing the group through either respiration or photosynthesis.  We follow the carbons and discuss how the same carbon atoms are reused over and over again.  They ponder the implications.  They get it. 

I like this activity for several reasons:

1)   It emphasizes the rearrangement of atoms during chemical reactions

2)   It demonstrates the actual cycle of the carbon cycle

3)   It illustrates the chemical processes of respiration and photosynthesis

4)   It engages the students directly with the content

5)   It encourages collaboration as students need to juggle the atoms and form the molecules

6)   It can be used as a formative assessment by having students take turns directing the group through the either photosynthesis or respiration.  As soon as a student has to verbalize the process it is clear whether they understand or not.

I have taken the activity from the US Global Change Research Program ( site that outlines three carbon cycle activities (at the bottom of the page) to conduct with students in order to guide them towards understanding the concept of the carbon cycle in terms of photosynthesis and respiration.   I highly recommend laminating the molecules and signs and equations as students WILL handle them with vigor. 

Furthermore, I originally made the activity for my 6th graders in the context of a Global Warming unit.  However,  I find myself pulling either the molecules or the equations out for other classes, even my IB Biology classes!  They come in surprisingly handy.  Just this past week I pulled out the laminated pieces and used the entire activity on my 8th graders after realizing they still weren’t understanding the carbon cycle as I presented it to them in the context of a chemistry IMYC unit (I posted about that on Friday).  

Another round of the Carbon Cycle or can we move on?

My 8th grade students have supposedly learned the water cycle, the carbon cycle, and the nitrogen cycle.  They’ve completed a lab “How does combustion affect carbon dioxide levels in air” and today they submitted a lab “How do plants affect the nitrate and ammonia levels in a bin of water containing two fish”.   I’m ready to have them undertake a global warming lab that will hopefully help them make the link between increasing CO2 levels, greenhouse gases, and global warming.  However, I wasn’t sure if they have really grasped the concept of the cycles.  In a PowerPoint I put together some formative assessment questions, all multiple-choice and all designed to expose misconceptions.  They answered on their whiteboards.  WOW was that ever interesting and incredibly informative!  3/5 of the students clearly had NO deep understanding. 1/5 was 100% ready to move on and the other 1/5 was 99% ready to move on.   So, it very easily told me that I needed to do an additional, very hands-on activity that I had tucked away “in my back pocket”.  I saw several “light bulbs go on” and at the end of class everyone (including those that had been ready to move on) commented, “That was very helpful”.  One more round of formative assessment on Monday and I'm quite sure we’ll be able to start the lab that day as well.

Getting Distracted

I always wondered if teachers know when they are getting distracted or off topic.  My children joke at the dinner table about how easy it is to get some teachers to completely derail from their lesson plan.  I have often puzzled as to how this is possible and just figured that things are somehow inherently different in the science classroom compared to other classrooms.  Does Science just not lend itself to distraction?

Today, however, I discovered how diversion happens.  I took my 6th graders outside to collect data for their ecology unit.  They were making observations to determine the organisms in our local neighborhood in order to ultimately build an energy pyramid of the surrounding area.  It was a beautiful, warm, sunny day, which is highly unusual for the Netherlands.  What a joy it was to walk out in the sun.  All of us were relishing the opportunity to be outside on such a perfect spring day.  The students were so engaged in discovery and recording their findings.  They were looking high and low, far and wide, and with the use of their magnifying glasses, they were also looking close-up.  Their tables were filling with useful information for their forthcoming energy pyramids.

I was scanning the group when I noticed a pair intently bent over their magnifying glasses.  I approached them eager to see what small creature they were studying.  Well, I must admit I was slightly amused when I realized these boys were trying to start a fire on a dried up leaf with their magnifying glasses.  While I appreciated the science they were immersing themselves in, I decided our ecology data collection time was drawing to a close.  So, I gathered the students and we headed slowly back to the school, savoring the sunny day as we strolled. 

A couple of boys who were a bit ahead of the group engaged in the fire making process again.  We came upon them as the threads of smoke curled up underneath the magnifying glass.  Other students asked for a magnifying glass and then I just couldn’t resist them anymore.  Maybe I didn’t want to go inside either.  So I made it official.  I gave them all an additional 5 minutes with the magnifying glasses and the sun.  Each and every student, girls and boys, reached for a magnifying glass and eagerly attempted the fire making process. The moment was glorious.  The students were so excited.  The sun was warming our skin.  It just felt so good.  I knew we were distracted.  I knew this didn’t have anything to do with energy pyramids but I just had to let them continue.  I was additionally surprised at how effective those little plastic student magnifying glasses were.

Finally, I told them it was, indeed, time to go inside and they obliged me.  I managed to get them through the gate when someone noticed the bark from the playground and the fire making inquiry started all over again.  Again, I knew we were distracted.  I knew we were off task.  I knew we were totally off track.  I looked at the time.  I weighed the pros and cons.  I decided to give them the additional moments in the sun. 

After another ten minutes we finally returned to the classroom, several children clutching pieces of bark engraved with their initials by the sun.  I was amazed at how quickly the students returned to our lesson topic and immediately entered their data into the class Google shared document.  They actually had more data than the previous year’s class. It was satisfying to see the data fill in. By the end of class we had reached my minimum goal for the day. 

So, I did it.  I succumbed to distraction.  And why, you might ask?  Because it was fun.


Where's the Contents page?

“Look at this!  There is this huge picture on the front and yet this magazine is nothing about that!”  Two students approached me with the same observation almost simultaneously.  I responded, “You need to check the contents page to determine on what page the article is printed” 

“Where’s the Contents page?”

I felt hopelessly dated as my students thumbed through the National Geographic genuinely clueless as to how to find the cover page article embedded deep within the monthly periodical. 

I had instructed students to take a “National Geographic” from the stack of science-based issues situated on the shelf beneath the fish tank.  They were to leaf through a magazine searching for any article that might be linked to global warming.  My intentions were to have them see how pervasive the effects of global warming might be by immersing themselves in some great photography and evaluating whether the scenes/people/organisms in the images might be affected by climate change.  I didn’t think it would evolve into a lesson on using a magazine! 

I actually had to explain that they needed to look at the first couple of pages of the magazine, locate the Contents page, and search for a title that matched the cover on the front of the magazine.  This task required several seconds of processing to make a connection between the images on the cover accompanying the headline “Saving the Alps” to the title of the article listed inside as “Meltdown in the Alps”.  It was fascinating.

It was evidence of how the world of reading, education, and knowledge acquisition is rapidly evolving.  My students know the power of the Internet and the method of finding the newest and latest information.  Why would they ever have need to refer to a magazine?  Well at a minimum, they were enthralled with the images and the turning of the pages today.

First update on our journey towards SBG

Our focus group for Standard Based Assessment and Reporting had another meeting today.  We looked at five of the current report cards our school uses (apparently there are 23 on file!) between elementary and secondary schools.  It was astounding how much inconsistency there is and how meaningless the report cards appear to be when stacked up next to each other like that.  It is clear we need to rework the method of reporting at our school.

We additionally followed up on our faculty meetings in the secondary and elementary schools.  Clearly the elementary school teachers were more receptive than our divided (or should I say divisive) secondary teachers. 

I also shared with the focus group my experience in showing one of the teachers from the “include behaviors in the grade” camp how I manage reporting learning behaviors in my grade book without processing them in the final grade.  Upon seeing my reporting system this teacher responded very positively, “Oh yes, I could totally go for that.”  We concluded, in our focus group, that the secondary teachers might be more open to the SBG if they could be assured that behaviors would, indeed, be assessed and reported on, even if the behaviors did not affect the actual grade of the student.

We have decided that we will divide our focus group into two teams.  One team will create a streamlined report card that will work throughout the elementary school.  A distinct feature will be a column for achievements (based on the standards) and a column for learning behaviors.  The other team will create a reporting system for the secondary school that also separates achievements from learning behaviors (or, as I prefer to call it, “Employability Skills”).  Armed with more effective reporting systems, we will once again approach the staff in an effort to move in the direction of standard based assessment and reporting.  

Feedback Assessment, and Redos

This past week my 6th graders created a wall display of six different habitats with five to six animals grouped into each habitat.  They then each selected one animal that they would research and create a label with an annotation outlining the adaptations that that specific animal had allowing it to survive in its habitat.  We created a Google Docs with the sign-up sheet. Each student also entered in the planned annotation into the same document.   I wrote feedback on the document.  I gave them time to make changes.  Then I provided an assessment based on their written work and entered in the grade book.  If they made additional changes to complete the assignment according to the standard, I recorded the new grade and removed the weighting for the previous grade.  Thus, they (and parents) have a record of their progress without imperfect attempts damaging their grade.   Result: Amazingly accurate and well-done annotations from every single student.  So good, in fact, I was able to use their wall display as a reference for my 9th grade Biology class.

Though my attempts at informative and formative assessment don’t always yield these perfect results, I know what I’m aiming for and I’ll keep forever at it until the results are consistently bringing all students to the standard.

12th and 6th grade alike?

They’re between the ages of 16 and 18.  They are IB Year 2 Biology students.  They are applying for college and looking forward to being on their own next year.  They can think critically and debate.  They can grasp high level content.  They challenge ideas.  They are aware of global issues. 

Then, within in minutes of their departure, the “little” ones walk in.  They are energetic.  They laugh spontaneously at the silliest things.  They can’t find their notebook.  They don’t have a pencil.  They pull out a crinkled, torn lab paper from the bottom of the backpack.  They are filled with wonder and thrill in discovery.

I teach 12th and 6th grade students.  On the one hand they are so different but on the other hand I am amazed at the similarities.  The most surprising discovery for me is how much my 12th graders enjoy activities that years ago I considered “beneath them”.   Last year, after a special training course on teaching English language learners, I trialed some hands-on learning activities on my seniors. Truthfully, I thought these activities would only work on my middle school students.   I mean, what 17-year old is going to want work out biological pathways through handling laminated images?  Well, I was wrong.  They LOVE it.  So, I’ve incorporated these “best practice” activities such as sequencing of sentences to form a paragraph on genetic mutations or matching laminated vocabulary words on evolution with their corresponding definitions.  Whenever I present such an activity, my older students become excited and eagerly move into position to participate.  Like the 6th graders, they learn well when they are hands on with the content.

Both grades are unique.  Both grades love learning, especially when they are engaged.  Both grades are a joy to teach.  So yes, they are alike!

Lab Reports - Are they Worth It?

I realized I didn’t want to do it.  I had this urge to just say, “forget it”, lets draw the carbon and water cycles instead. But there they sat, my students looking up at me with the lab report guidelines in their hands. I took a deep breath, suppressing the feeling of dread but still wondering, "Is it worth it?"

The 8th graders had just completed another fun lab on combustion enabling them to observe and indirectly measure the production of carbon dioxide in a “chamber” where combustion had taken place. The standards for this lab include writing up the lab report to include all the proper elements. I just sat there dreading the “pulling teeth” component of guiding students through the process and continued pondering whether it was worth it.

I also have to modify for learning support and English language learners so as I’m juggling three different rubrics I’m still tempted by those carbon and water cycles. 

Finally, I plunge in.  I pull up a template and we begin with the title page and introduction.  I have them start with just that.  It always amazes me how long each step takes, even just getting the format of the title page.  Why should I be surprised?  It’s always the same and it’s precisely why I had to suppress dread that was attempting to creep in.

However, as I see perfect title pages appear on computer screens throughout the classroom, I start to feel a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.  I’m energized to carry on.  They start writing their introductions.  It’s not so bad.  My heart swells with compassion and a desire to see them succeed.  Suddenly, the dread is gone and my slate is clear.  I’m ready to tackle this.  And, it IS worth it.

Teachers: How do you teach lab report writing?  Do you use a rubric?  Do you use templates?  We’ve streamlined our lab report rubrics from the 6th grade adding incrementally the expectations leading students to the IB standards in Grades 11 and 12.  The format is all the same for all the classes in grades 6-12, regardless the teacher.  It’s very consistent and effective in training students in the lab report write-up. 

Adaptations: Failed It!

We completed a joint construction.

They had a rubric.

They had an exemplar.

They referred to the rubric during the entire process.

So what went wrong?

Today my 6th graders proudly hung their posters for assessment and viewing.  The assignment was to research a particular arctic animal and report on the adaptations that animal has to its habitat. 

I hear my colleague's voice loud in clear in my head, “Now remember, your adaptations have to link directly to the habitat you have described—how does that specific adaptation help your animal to survive in its habitat?”

We have done this project together before. 

We’ve refined it.

It seemed perfect.

So what went wrong?

I saw students checking off the items from the rubric.

I consulted with them.

The co-teacher and I both viewed their words before the printer was engaged.

So what went wrong?

The posters are a disaster.

Not one student fully grasped the concept of connecting the adaptations to the habitat and that was the main point of this project!

So now the conundrum: Do I have them redo it?

I should.

Mastery ought to be the expectation.

But the time it will take.

It’s like pulling teeth.

It’s probably worth it. 

So back to the drawing board.

Revisit the standards.  Rework the rubric.

It’s worth it.  I think.  I hope.

Combustion: Nailed It!

“What do you think will happen?”

“I think the water will go down”, stated one.

“I think the candle will go out and then the water outside the glass will rise”, added another.

“I think the candle will keep burning” hypothesized a third.

On it went.  I smiled with each suggestion, anticipating their surprise when the results actually came in.

Before them sat a tea candle secured to the bottom of a glass dish.  They had read their procedure and had been instructed to hypothesize as to what would happen to the level of water in the experiment.

After they had written their hypotheses, I allowed them to carry out the experiment.  Deliberately they added the water, being careful not to add too much.   Conscientiously they lit their candles, observing all safety rules.  Then they delicately covered their lit candles with the jar and eagerly placed their faces at eye level with the candle and peered at their experiments through their goggles.  The flame extinguishes and the water is pulled into the jar, rising up over the candle. 

This is my favorite moment: the instant they observe something totally unexpected.  Their mouths drop open, their faces lighten, they smile, and their eyes glisten with excitement and discovery. They look at me.  I encourage them to explain what they have observed.

We then begin a great discussion on combustion.  They easily identify that the reaction consumed all the available oxygen in the jar resulting in the extinguished flame. 

I refer them to the combustion equations we’d balanced earlier.

“Hey, more oxygen is consumed than carbon dioxide is produced”, notes a student leading the group to talk about density of particles inside the jar as compared to outside the jar.  How I love when they lead the way!

I ask them about the role of the flame.  They then talk about heating up the air particles only to have them cool down again when the flame is gone.

It takes a little time but then they finally make the connection between the particle density and temperature change (ultimately, the air pressure) causing the water to be “drawn up” into the jar.  There is something so satisfying in seeing the “lights go on” as each student grasps what has happened. 

Of course they have to repeat the procedure several times.  Anything with a flame is worth repeating.  As long as they can explain combustion and its role in the experiment, I’m happy! They clean up and depart the classroom beaming and vibrant with newly acquired knowledge.  And that is why I teach Science!