Classroom Management: Tactile Learning and Insisting on Mastery

They’ve been given a piece of paper with random concepts and diagrams. These ideas relate directly to the lauric acid lab they just completed and to the content they will be reading about in their next homework assignment. This is a tactile experience engaging students in the content of Changes of State and the Kinetic Theory. The instructions are to cut the vocabulary terms and the sentences describing and the diagrams illustrating what particles are doing during each phase change and in-between.  Then, they are to glue them in the proper order beginning with “Solid” making the correct links between the words and the diagrams.

As soon as they pick up the scissors they are smiling. They read the words out loud as they cut. Then, they spread them out. “Do you think this goes with that picture?” Intensity fills the room as students concentrate to figure out the connections. First a comparison with each other’s work and then a final check with me before the final gluing. This gives me a chance with each individual to assess whether they are mastering the concepts. It is clear they are still struggling to make a connection between temperature and changes of state.

They are given the additional task to write what is happening to the temperature at each phase of their developing diagram (a direct link to the lauric acid lab).  These instructions are given verbally and written on the board. However, as soon as their last paper is glued down,  they are “done”. The chatter and joking and distraction begin and most of them simply ignore these additional instructions.  So, how do I get them to do it?

“Your exit ticket today is for me to see your written sentences regarding the temperature on your diagrams.” Suddenly they become productive again. They value their break time and do not want to be stuck in the class figuring out temperature and phase change connections. Hastily written sentences are shoved in front of me.  Instructions such as “I can’t read that, please make it legible” or questions like “What is actually happening when you add energy at this stage of your diagram?” or  “What is happening to the atoms and how does that relate to the temperature?” send students returning to their seats in a flurry. Some return three or four times before getting it correct. With each return to the seat there are heavy sighs and murmuring complaints. But once I give that final “OK a huge smile spreads across their faces. Grinning from ear to ear they insert their completed and accurate diagrams into their binders. Some even thank me. All of them cheerfully say “good-bye” as they head off to their well-earned break.

After a couple of months, they are already trained and fewer and fewer are needing to return for “redos” when we have similar activities. They realize I’m actually looking at their work and expecting mastery. Thus, they are making the effort to get it done correctly the first time. And, more and more are asking questions earlier on in the activity to make sure they understand.

Since this activity we have moved on to other topics but the discipline we have been developing is beginning to pay off. Many of the behaviors I described in my previous post have completely disappeared. They still have their moments but there is definite progress. And, my last assessment with them yielded individual ‘bests’ for all students and a drastic overall class improvement in performance at this stage of a unit. My genuine exuberance and expression of pride in them made them laugh at me but I could tell it also made them feel good.

My message from this experience? Give them a chance to “handle” the material, even if it is content but do not let it stop at being a ‘fun’ activity. Stay the course, not lowering standards, and insist that they demonstrate mastery. The results? Developing discipline and leaps in learning!

3-Dimensional Learning with the History of Atomic Theory

Simple supplies

It’s Thursday afternoon (the equivalent of Friday to the rest of the world). They’re tired. They would rather go to the volleyball tournament but our team isn’t currently playing. And we are discussing the history of the atomic theory. They clearly are not convinced this is going to be an interesting lesson.

In an effort to help them appreciate the study of the unseen world, practice conducting an investigation, collaborate to produce data to serve as a basis for evidence, to see that different patters observed can provide evidence for causality in explanations of phenomena all in the context of studying the history of the development of atomic theory, I set up a little activity for them that I had modified (by making it simpler, of course!) from one I found on the Internet (1).

A board, some textbooks, a marble, butcher paper, and they’re intrigued. On the floor and pencils in hand, they are intent on the task. Mental gymnastics begin to take place as they try to figure out the shape and placement of the unknown object under the board. Inadvertently my students find themselves in observation, recording of data, and discussion.  

It was intense. And, it was also the last school day before Halloween.

“If it bounces off in that direction, what does it mean?”

“Wait, does that mean a rounded or straight edge?”

“What do you think?”

“Should we mark it here or there?”

“What is another way we can approach this?”

They also make connections to the documentary film, “Clash of the Titans” on the development of atomic theory they were to have viewed before coming to class. The gold-foil experiment of Ernest Rutherford is suddenly appreciated. The students wonder at the determination, the intuition, the ideas, the experimentation of great scientists. More importantly they see how different and conflicting perspectives work together to come up with more accurate results. They perceive 

I concur that “Science is more than a school subject, or the periodic table, or the properties of waves. It is an approach to the world, a critical way to understand and explore and engage with the world, and then have the capacity to change that world..."  President Obama (2)

Furthermore, “The National Research Council's (NRC) Framework describes a vision of what it means to be proficient in science; it rests on a view of science as both a body of knowledge and an evidence-based, model and theory building enterprise that continually extends, refines, and revises knowledge.” (3)  Thus, students must be immersed in practices that connect them with this vision.

Even a discussion of the history of atomic theory can take students on a three dimensional journey that covers not only content but involves them in practices fostering connections with the world and broader ideas found therein.

  1. Muller, Eric. "READ: RUTHERFORD ROLLER - EXPLORATORIUM | THE MUSEUM - AWED.BIZ." AWED.BIZ. N.p., 2003. Web. 29 Oct. 2015.
  2. "Science, Technology, Engineering and Math: Education for Global Leadership." <i>Science, Technology, Engineering and Math: Education for Global Leadership</i>. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Oct. 2015.
  3. "Three Dimensions | Next Generation Science Standards." <i>Three Dimensions | Next Generation Science Standards</i>. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Oct. 2015.

Uncomplicated but poignant activities

It was a simple idea. It’s possible they’ve even done it before in another class sometime during their education. However, I knew they would learn from it and would thereby approach the learning objectives. So, I prepared the materials.

The instructions, accompanied by an image, were simple: build a model of the ventilation system. The building part was easy and fun. With their hands and minds engaged, they were hooked and as the more challenging part of the activity faced them, they plowed ahead. With the expectations for the write-up in front of them, they reached for the models again and again, seeking deeper understanding. They discussed. They questioned. They pointed. They pulled.


“Oh, I get it” followed by an explanation of the role of air pressure in breathing.

“So, when the diaphragm contracts, the thorax expands.”

“The intercostal muscles are located here and contract and expand with the diaphragm”

Soon everyone in the room can accurately and biologically describe inspiration and expiration. And all it took were some plastic bottles and balloons.

VALUE the power of simple.

Later in the day the health teacher and I were comparing curriculum since we share students who are doing a unit on the respiratory system in both health and biology. He began to describe an activity he had completed with the students and then hesitated, “Oh, it was nothing. It was so simple” he says, almost discrediting the activity because it was simple. “The students were handed a straw and told to run up and down the stairs using only the straw with which to breathe in and out.  He continued, “But they really got it. As they came up the stairs, they described feeling panicked, even though they knew they could remove the straw. Suddenly they had a real idea as to what it would mean to have emphysema."

Today as we continued our learning about the structures of the ventilation system, I asked those same students about what would happen if the airways were constricted. They immediately piped in what they knew about emphysema. They added their experience in the stairways and I asked them what they learned from that. The response was unanimous, “Now I know how it might feel like to have emphysema.” And all it took was a straw.

VALUE the power of simple.

Recently a colleague came to me and said, “I think I need to change the way I teach. I’m too lecture based and I need more activity driven lessons” and then she followed up with an overwhelming description of what that might look like. She had grand but complicated ideas that would require hours of prep time, a luxury she does not have.  “Simple goes a long way” was my advice. “What do you mean?” she queried. “Look at this gap activity – students simply matching concepts with descriptions” but it engages them. We brainstormed a bit and she came up with a brilliant idea. In fact, it’s so brilliant that I’ll be borrowing and reporting on it someday! She ran back to her room and produced the activity in about ten minutes.  And all it takes is a story problem and a stack of paper cut-outs with words to enable hands-on, engaged processing of the problem.

VALUE the power of simple.

Be empowered by uncomplicated ideas. Think outside the box but look inside the box (i.e. your classroom) for your supplies. 

Hands On the Content for IB Students

“Oh yeah!” the students cry out as they clear away the immediate space in front of them.  Hands reach out for the papers, scissors, and glue sticks.  Immediately heads bend intently as students arrange the pieces, discussing with each other what is most logical.  Once a consensus is reached, we have a conversation on the content contained in their organized diagrams.  Some eagerly include additional notes to their diagram.  Next, they find themselves with a graph to be annotated accompanied with “Factors Contributing To” each phase of the diagram.  All of this must be logically worked through and the students energetically approach the task.  Further consultation secures understanding. 

The completed diagrams and charts become part of their notes for this topic and will hopefully serve as a useful review next year at this time as they face their IB exams.  Furthermore, they are already conversational about a topic that has been allotted us two hours according to the IB guidelines whereas these students have nailed it in one hour!  Plus, they have genuinely enjoyed the process.

I almost feel guilty about these types of lessons, because I’m not “doing” anything. Of course, an hour of prep time is needed to simply cut out all the pieces and arrange them in sets for the students.  Once it is set up, it’s a lesson on autopilot.  Student enthusiasm and ultimate level of understanding makes it completely worth it.  As they depart the room a ripple of “thank you”s ensue.  Surprise and satisfaction surge through my being as students actually thank me for a lesson.  I invariably think, "So much better than a lecture".

What teaching strategies have you found effective for either students or yourself?

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 (http://www.globalchange.gov/resources/educators/toolkit/materials) 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).