Thursday, November 12, 2015

4 Ways to Keep Science Engaging in the Classroom

I haven't written a new post lately because I'm in Antarctica, working with a research team and communicating the science back to classrooms through PolarTREC journals. This reminds me of a key aspect of teaching science which is hard to remember in the day to day standards, tests and curriculum mandates: keeping science engaging!  Below are four ways to help keep (or get) students interested in science, which might significantly change the way they look at the discipline!

1. Connect Students with Exciting and Current Science

One of the hardest things to do is to include the cutting edge and often most exciting aspects of science into your lesson plans. I often struggled with this since I had to cover so much content. A way I learned to manage this was to include Science Pictures of the Day in my classroom. 

Here in Antarctica, I am posting "Ice Pictures of the Day" every weekday on my PolarTREC journals. You can download PowerPoint Slides with notes describing each picture. I try to align them to NGSS standards as well.

An example of an Ice POD. You can download the PPT slide from the 11/12/2015 PolarTREC journal page.

2. Connecting with Real Scientists
Michelle and the science team waiting to deploy to Antarctica

Another way to keep science engaging in the classroom is to connect students to scientists. Programs like GK12 are an excellent way to do this, but those opportunities are limited. You also can share students with the Cool Careers books from Sally Ride Science

I am happy to connect teachers and students with scientists while I am here in Antarctica. My journals have a section on each page where you can "Ask the Team" research questions. I also have access to geologists, glaciologists, chemists, biologists, physicists, astronomers, and meteorologists here who I am happy to feature on my journal or send a video to a teacher for. Email me at if you would like to collaborate!

3. Personal Stories Behind Science

One way to keep science interesting is to have a good human story behind it. The story of how Alfred Wallace was close to being as famous as Charles Darwin, but because he did not promote himself as well, his name is unknown.  Other stories I enjoy to tell are about Marie Curie and how she sacrificed her life for science due to the radiation she was exposed to. I also like to talk about Rosalind Franklin, the dark lady of DNA whose name is not often remembered along with Watson and Crick.  I also like to talk about current scientists, like Tyrone Hayes, a very charismatic biologist who studies how frogs are affected by pollutants. He also has become a political figure, speaking out against companies like Monsanto. Seeking out stories about scientists who model the demographics in your classroom (gender, race, ethnicity, etc.) is a great way to keep science interesting and relevant to your students.

4. Push Your Own Boundaries as a Science Teacher
Michelle peers down an Ob Tube outside McMurdo Station

I think the one of the best ways to keep students engaged in science is if you are as well. When I start to forget why I want to teach science, I find engaging programs that re-ignite my love of learning. The GK12 program, NASA's Galileo Educator Network, the Radiation Belt Storm Probe educator workshops, and the PolarTREC program are the more influential programs I have joined to stay enthused. Not only do these programs educate you and connect you with scientists, but it also helps you find a community of engaged, committed science educators who you can lean on for support.

For the time being, please join me virtually in Antarctica to keep your students engaged in science!  Here are the biggest ways you can get your class involved:

  • Read daily journals about science and life in Antarctica:  
  • Write questions or answer questions posted in the journals in the "Ask the Team" section of the journals. I often write postcards and send them from Antarctica to participants who respond!
  • Register here to participate in a live webinar on December 1st, where my research team will talk about our work while we are in Antarctica and classes can ask questions in real time
  • Email me at: if there are other ways I can collaborate with you while I am in Antarctica--I am eager to make connections with as many science teachers as possible!

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Productive Ways to Respond When a Student Refuses to Leave the Classroom

The recent Spring Valley High School incident has made me reflect on what I would have done if a student using a cell phone refused to put it away and refused to leave class.  Like many teachers, I have been faced with similar (if not exactly the same) situations. I never once thought to force the student out of his/her seat.

I have had to learn over time how to react and control my emotions when a student is defiant.  Early in my teaching, my anger would boil up when a student openly defied me. Over time, however, I have learned that reacting with anger and yelling is unproductive.

Steps to Handle Defiance:


  1. Move On (Secretly Wait & Take Deep Breaths)

    After asking a student to do something, such as leave the room, I don't stand there stopping the whole class in a stalemate. I move on with the lesson. Now really I am giving some wait time to the situation. Some students need more time to process what is happening and comply to the directive. I also am calming myself down. No matter how many times a student is defiant to me in front of a class, it triggers a fight or flight mechanism in me, and usually the "fight" mechanism. If I give in to anger, then I've lost control of myself and the class. I will get nowhere with the student and will most likely lose respect from the class. One way I've learned to pacify this response is to meditate or breath. I have gotten to the point where I don't even try to hide it in front of students--I hope they see it as a positive way to regain control.

  2.  Think

    While I'm continuing with class, I am really trying to figure out what happened and decide how necessary it is to follow through with a class removal. If a student has done something very disruptive and the student's presence is still a disruption to the learning environment (and all my other management tricks are not working), I may call the Dean's office or principal and ask for an administrator to come get the student. However, if it is something like a student refusing to put away his/her phone and he/she is sitting quietly in class, there is no need for class removal. After nine years in the classroom, I have seen plenty of disruption. I have seen many students storm out of the classroom and many others refuse to leave their seat. I have never seen a student refuse to leave their seat and continue to disrupt the class. Although the defiance is something that needs to be discussed eventually, there is no need to remove a student by force if he/she is not disrupting the class or causing harm to themselves or others.

  3.  Discuss Privately

    If it seems as though the student has calmed down and there is a moment where students are working and I can talk to the defiant student privately, I may go over to discuss the issue with him/her. It is often the case that the student is not ready to talk to me. I may write a note or give distance until the next class period (if someone is too angry to talk to me later in the class period, they will probably not be calmed down for a while). If they refuse to interact with me and sit quietly for the rest of class, even if they continue to disobey the cell phone rule, I let it go. I have confidence that my other students know that I will work with that student and that using your phone in class is not acceptable.

    When I do talk to the student, I do not discuss the incident right away or speak to them with anger in my voice. I ask them how they are doing, if they've had a bad day or if something has gone on that upset them. If a student is furious because you want them to put away their phone, there's probably a deeper issue going on.
  4.  Think Again and Investigate

    After my class has ended, I'll have more time to try to better understand what happened. I'll check in with the student's advisor, other teachers (particularly those right before my class) and the Dean. I may or may not contact the student's parents that night--depending on how that would make the student react. I also may email the student. A lot of what I do depends on what I think will work with that individual student--getting to know students ahead of time, therefore, is key!
  5. Make a Plan

    Typically by the next day, the student has calmed down and can talk. Again, I don't address the situation in terms of what the student has done wrong, but more about what is going on and why the student was so upset. If the problem is something that re-occurs, I would work out a system so the student and I can deal with the issues in a proactive manner. 

    For example, I once had a student who would storm out of class angrily, yelling at me and the co-teacher. After eating lunch with her and talking, it became clear that sometimes she had a bad day and my redirection was the last straw. We came up with a plan that when she felt like storming out, she would ask permission and I would always say yes. We continued to develop a plan where she would go visit the Dean and give her a candy or cookie (yes, this was our plan--I was pregnant and always had cookies at my desk!). Over time, the student gained control of her reactions and our relationship improved instead of deteriorated.
The big point I want to make here is to not respond immediately with anger. Losing control in front of the class is bound to happen, but using strategies like cooling down (yes, you too!), meditating and trying to understand the trigger for the behavior is far more productive than proving your power in front of the class.

Read Your Students

A recent New York Times article mirrors many of the ideas above. The teacher interviewed also brings up an important preventative measure: read the students as they enter the class.  Pedro Noguera, author of "The Trouble with Black Boys:...And Other Reflections of Race, Equity and the Future of Public Education", discusses the importance of understanding the root of the defiance. Next time a student is defiant in your class, pause and remember how easily things can escalate into a situation you didn't intend for. De-escalating situations should be at the forefront, which may mean letting something go until everyone is calmed down.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Tips for Handling Tough Middle Schoolers

Every teacher has their own philosophies and strategies for classroom management. Some say not to smile until January, others insist that engaging lessons curtail any misbehavior. When managing students, teachers need to find a management systems that align to their own philosophies and personalities. That being said, it never hurts to hear tricks other teachers use to build relationships and keep class focused on learning.

Below are some of the ways I stay ahead of mutiny in the classroom and work with individual students who might need a little extra TLC.

Class Roles

It may feel scary to put a student who typically disrupts class or barely keeps his/her head up in a classroom leadership role, but I have found this to be exactly what some students need (note: I said some, this might not work for every student!). It is important to say, I NEVER force a student to participate in a role--it is strictly voluntary. I do try to persuade them to try it out first. Also, I make sure it doesn't go against any IEPs. Here are some classroom roles and the students I have found they are best suited for:

Document Camera Worker

I often flip between a document camera and powerpoint slides while teaching.  The document camera is at the front of the room, with a desk area and seat next to it. I especially like to put students who have low self-esteem about learning science in this role. These students take notes under the document camera or record answers as they are reviewed with the class. If possible, I also have them model how to record entries in the science notebook. Many students are afraid they will make a mistake in this role at first. To help boost confidence, I initially give the student a cheat sheet with the correct notes or composition book entry or answers. I have noticed students change their demeanor in the class as they begin to be an expert and leader.

Powerpoint/Computer Worker

I like to use powerpoint slides to stay on task and organize lessons. I put my computer near a student's desk and when we use powerpoint slides, I have the student closest to the computer forward slides for me, change to videos, and do other work. I intentionally seat a student who I think needs a positive role in class to the spot closest to the computer. Often times there are students who are hard to keep on task in class. For some of these students, the powerpoint role works great. For others, it may exacerbate them (especially if they have ADHD). I also like to teach the student hotkey tricks (e.g., ALT or Command  and Tab let you quickly switch to another app), so they move fast and learn something new.

Lights & Doors Worker

I always have a few antsy students who just can't stay in their seats. For these students, I have standing tables at the back of the room. When it is time to shut the door, turn on or off lights, or do anything near the back of the room, I ask them to do it.  The standing tables have been an amazing improvement for the focus and behavior management of some of my students!  It is important not to use standing tables at the back of the room as a punishment. I never force a student to work there--it is voluntary. If my room has little space, I'll put taller stools there, so there's an option of sitting.  Also, it's important to check IEPs and make sure students who need this accommodation are not required to be at the front of the room.

Building Strong Relationships

Many teachers will tell you that the students they know the best were once their toughest. When you start to clash with a student and find that he/she is pushing your buttons, although it is the one person you may not want to interact with, that is the best solution. Getting to know tough students is often the solution to their disruption in your class. Here are some ways I've gotten closer to students who need a stronger relationship:

Buy a Book

First talk to the student--what are their hobbies? What do they want to do when they grow up? Once you know an interest, hobby or future career that a student has, buy them a book on the topic. I like to write a note on the inside. If it starts to get expensive or you want to maximize the effort, I often keep the book in my library and lend the student the book, with a note inside.  If it's hard to get a conversation off the ground, you can always lend them a book that other students like. For example, "Wonder" is a great book, so is "The Hunger Games" and "Diary of a Wimpy Kid." I write my name on the bottom of the book to ensure it gets returned. Not only does it show the student you care about him/her, but it also starts a conversation. You can ask if they liked the book or if they've read it yet!

Start with a Positive

Some students seek out negative attention because they simply want attention. When co-teachers and I believe a student has this tendency, we try to counter-act it by giving them positive attention from the start. This often requires two teachers in the room. When that student comes in and starts class, one of us will sit with him/her and check in with them about their day (or other interests) while they work on the Do Now.  Throughout class we sit down and check in, giving them positive attention before they seek out negative attention.

Lunch Buddy

When a tough student is really tough and has me completely stuck in building a relationship, I will resort to buying them lunch--or atleast a snack.  I'll ask them what they like to eat for lunch (trying to stay on the healthy side of options) and invite them to join me for lunch one day in my room (NOTE: Keep doors open and have a colleague somewhere in the room. You should never be alone with a student with the doors closed) or in the cafeteria. If they refuse because they want to eat with a certain friend, I'll invite that person too (or if there is a group of students I'm really struggling with, I'll invite 2 - 3 of them). When they come to eat, I do not address any of the misbehaviors that I'm frustrated with. Instead we play UNO or talk about stuff that is positive. Playing UNO (or another game) has been especially helpful. Students often will open up to me and share personal stories that help me better understand their situation and reasons for misbehavior. Often once I know their story, it is a lot easier to conference with them when misbehavior occurs later in class.

Managing Meltdowns

If you are like me, despite every attempt to run a smooth class, you will have students with meltdowns in your room which completely disrupt your lesson plans. We often forget that students have lives outside of our class--if a student loses his/her cool in class, it's important to remember that you don't know what triggered it. The sooner that student can be calmed down, the less time your class can be derailed. Never argue with a student in class and call for assistance if the situation is serious.

What may start as a minor disturbance can escalate into a meltdown if you are not careful. When a misbehavior disrupts class and a warning doesn't change anything, I like to conference with a student privately. Here are some tips I use when conferencing with a student.

Be Random and Be Kind

When you walk outside or to the back of a room with a student, they are expecting you to talk about their misbehavior. They may be embarrassed of being singled out and your redirection speech could trigger a bigger outburst. I've noticed that not starting with the behavior works best. I like to start with a random observation or by saying something nice to the student.

Take a walk

If there is a co-teacher in my classroom who can take over, I often like to do a little loop around the building with the student. If I can't leave the area, I like to stand or sit next to the student, looking outward and not at them. I've found that not forcing a student to look at you while you discuss behavior works best for many.

Anger Workbook Book for Teens

Some of my students have so much anger that despite my best strategies, they still have to get their anger out. I like to have copies of the Anger Workbook for Teens in my classroom for students to work through. One strategy is to write out what is bothering you and then rip it out. If an outburst is due to an incident outside my class, I'll often have a student write out what they're feeling and rip it up, so they can get back to class.

The Takeaway: Respect Them

In the end, if you want to work well with students, respect them as people. Do not humiliate them. Do not make them feel ashamed or point out their weaknesses in front of the class. Do not assume you know why they are acting the way they are--in fact, assume the best. I truly believe that every child wants to succeed in my class and some of them have just lost their way at some point (often because of how a teacher had made them feel.)

What are your management strategies? Please share below!

Also, please follow me on facebook and twitter.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Connect Your Students to Polar Science

Send Me Your Penguins

Here is a fun way to connect your class to Antarctica: decorate the flat penguin template, decorate it however you like, and send it to the address in the directions by October 23rd, 2015. I will be joining a team of scientists on November 1st to study human impacts at McMurdo Station, Antarctica. Aside from posting journals about the science and life in Antarctica on my PolarTREC page, I will also take photos of your flat penguins at the station and email them back to you!

Adaptation Lesson: Blubber Gloves

While you wait for your flat penguin to make it to Antarctica, you can teach students about the interesting life at the bottom of the world, and the adaptations they have to keep warm.  My favorite fun hands-on activity is Blubber Gloves.  Here is a sample lesson using the Blubber Gloves.

Making Your Own Blubber Gloves

You may feel overwhelmed by the process of making blubber gloves, but it's really quite simple. To start you need Crisco (or any kind of shortening), freezer bags and duct tape.  A 48 ounce canister of Crisco typically makes 3 gallon-size gloves.

  1. Lay out 2 freezer bags.  Turn one of them inside out and fit it inside the other one.
  2.  Scoop Crisco in between the freezer bag layers on one side.  I typically use 10-12 spoonfuls, about 1/3rd of the container.
  3.  Seal the inner bag to the outer bag on that side. Turn the bags over.
  4. Put 2 - 3 scoops of Crisco in between the outer and inner bags on the second side.  Seal the bags together.
  5. You  now should have lots of Crisco between the bags on one side, and a little bit of Crisco on the other side.  Keeping most of the Crisco on one side, smooth out the lumps so that the sides are smooth.
  6. Place the bag on the table so the thicker side is facing down.  Place your hand in the "glove" and fold over the bag so that the thick layer covers most if not all of your hand.  Crease or leave the bag folded.

  7. Making sure the bag is completely sealed, tape along the outer edges and down the crease of the fold. I also tape the very end of the "glove".
  8. Lastly, create a similar glove using just one plastic bag.  This can be a control to compare the blubber glove with.  

You now have blubber gloves!  I like to have students make hypotheses, then use them in ice water to make observations, and lastly inferences about penguins!

I will be posting pictures of the day and journals/videos about life and science in Antarctica on my PolarTREC page. I am happy to make connections between what you are learning and life at the bottom of the world, so stay tuned!

You can also stay updated from my facebook page or on twitter (@MsBrownTeacher)

I'll resume posts about general science teaching when I return in December.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Science Picture of the Day: A Small Way to Make a Big Difference

When I read end of year surveys I’ve given to my students (see the second page of this survey for an example), they often site the picture of the day as the thing they liked most about my class.  Yes—it stings a little that all of my efforts to create meaningful labs, carefully aligned assignments and field trip opportunities are trumped by a 1-minute discussions after our Do Nows. However, they have provided me with a way to incorporate the current events of science into my class and build strong relationships with students by allowing them to create some of the curriculum. 

How I Create the Picture of the Day

Initially, I found Pictures of the Day to present to students myself. As an Earth Science teacher, I used the Earth Science Picture of the Day website to pull interesting pictures connected to the content I was teaching. Any subject matter teacher can easily find pictures connected to their field: ChemistryBiology, and  Physics (well, Astronomy).

I would quickly copy and paste the picture into my PowerPoint template, including a sentence or two and, to stay true to my plagiarism rules, the link (sometimes correctly cited when I had the time!) I often started a timer to ensure I did not spend the whole class period in a discussion about the content and on very busy days, I did not entertain questions about the slide. Students were excited by the photos and it took self-control to limit time discussing these events. Occasionally I allowed us to get side-tracked for some time, but wasn’t that the point of teaching science?   

One day a student emailed me a picture she had seen connected to Earth Science, suggesting I put it up as a picture of the day.  I did, crediting her for finding it.  Soon, students started sending me pictures of the day all the time! When there was a lunar eclipse or other event connected to class, I asked students to take pictures and send them in. Eventually students sent in their own pictures and videos connecting Earth Science to all aspects of their lives (I got a lot of sunset pics!). Students also sent in news clips and photos they had seen online. I did not offer extra credit or any other incentive for participating, simply a credit to that student. Of course, not every student participated, but it was a fast, easy way to have students make meaningful connections between their world and my class. Also, many of the most active contributors surprised me—students who showed little signs of interest in class would send me pictures and videos. Providing these students a safe way to participate in class greatly helped our relationship and hopefully their love of science.


To jump-start students sending you pictures, you can start by including your own pictures of science. My co-teacher and I include pictures we have taken over the summer of us with something science-related (i.e., anything, since you can make lots of connections to science), and then I’ll include a great picture of the day from a former student. I started receiving pictures of the day by the end of the first week of class!


Freezing Friday: A Way to Incorporate a Science Narrative Over Time
In 2011, I applied to be a PolarTREC teacher (for the third time) and was finally accepted. I was invited to go to Antarctica for two months to work with researchers.  This experience was life-changing and I wanted to find a meaningful way to share such cool science (literally) with my students. However, like many of you, I was overwhelmed by content standards and could only devote a day or two to the topic. My solution was to slowly tell the story of my research in Antarctica one day a week through the picture of the day. I called these pictures: “Freezing Friday”.


If you are passionate about a topic that you can’t afford too much class time for, I strongly recommend devoting one picture a week to the idea. Trying to post a picture every day might be too much, so I recommend starting with one.


I’m Going Back to Antarctica—Let’s Share the Experience Together!

Or, better yet, let me involve you and your students in some cool, real-time science!  I have been invited back to Antarctica in November to work with my old research team (I will be posting journals about my experience).  I will be sending out “picture of the day” slides (with explanations) through my Twitter account: @MsBrownTeacher and Facebook page. You can post pictures daily or weekly.  Also, we will be conducting a live webinar from the ice on December 1st, and I will be sharing more ways I can interact with your class in future posts!

Below are some more sample Earth Science Pictures of the Day slides:

Students would sometimes write out the description for me too!

Teachers sometimes shared pictures of the day with me too!

Sometime I would receive pictures that don't connect, but I always posted them to connect with students.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Lesson Plan Resources -- My Favorites

If you are in the same place I was in as a new science teacher around late September, I was starting to wear down (i.e., I was barely surviving).  Lesson planning was a major time-drain.  Despite my prior blog about lesson planning, you may also be burning the candle at both ends trying to keep up with what you’ll teach every day.

Below are some of my favorite places to go for help when I need lessons or other resources to include in my lesson.

For Do Nows, Hooks, Exit Tickets, and even Homework:  Page Keeley’s “Uncovering Student Ideas in Science”

I’ve brought up this resource a few times in my posts, because it is that helpful!  When I’m starting a unit or feel like I need something to shake up class, I often turn to this resource.  There is a misconception probe for just about every topic.  I like to give out the probe at the beginning of class (often as a Do Now), discuss without discussing the right answer, and then return to it following the day’s activity. I’ve even made lessons, card sorting activities or demos based on the probes. I also like to make a 2nd copy of the probe and have students interview a family member at home for homework—the students enjoy teaching their parent or older sibling something for a change!

This site is great since you can browse by standard or subject/grade level.  There are good quality lessons as well as relevant videos.  When I’m stuck wanting a good hook, or need an activity or video for a station lab, I’ve often found something here.

For emergency lesson plans in a pinch or a specific video: Discovery Education

This resource is best when you have an account—ask your school or district if they have a username and password.  Discovery Education has videos with related worksheets that can be downloaded and used in a pinch when you are feeling sick and need a quick sub plan or your colleague didn’t show up to work and you need to cover.  You do have to choose the videos carefully—there are some old ones in there, but I’ve also used this as a resource to show a video clip about a specific topic that I can’t find easily elsewhere.


For elementary/middle school students or re-teaching/centers work: Brain Pop

This resource also requires a username and password (although there are a few free videos). Most schools seem to have an account—ask around if you don’t

have access. Although BrainPop sits low in the Blooms Taxonomy pyramid, it can help you fill in a needed piece of a lesson. They are definitely geared towards a younger crowd and break down topics pretty simply, although I’ve seen some of my 9th graders enjoy them—especially when they are struggling with a concept. Brain Pop has simple worksheets and games too. I have used Brain Pop as a resource when I teach a station or centers activity.

For readings, interactive activities and lesson plans: NSTA & NSTA’s SciLink

You can register for free and access a variety of lessons, readings and interactive activities at NSTA’s SciLinks website .  The search feature helps you sort through pages.  There are a lot of resources under each topic, often pulled from trusty resources like NIH.  Also, there are articles and lessons from NSTA’s own publication.  If you haven’t already joined NSTA, you should.  NSTA is a great resource for lessons, message boards, conferences and journals.  Although I rarely made time early on to read the NSTA journal (Science Scope, Science Teacher, etc.), when I did I often found quality lessons or other ideas to try out in my classroom.  Also, the NSTA newsletter that comes out monthly has freebies and grant opportunities.   

 Share your resources too!

These are just my favorites--I'm sure you have some too! Please post them in the comments section below.   Or, post them on my facebook page or on Twitter!

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Science Lesson Planning 101 - 6 Tips to Stay Sane

For some of us, it is extremely difficult to “shut off” being a teacher after the last bell rings.  I used to work until the wee hours of the morning, only to wake up early the next day and start all over again.  I almost burnt out because I was spending so much time working.  What did I spend most of my time doing?  Lesson planning.

Lesson planning can be the most creative part of teaching science, and also the most burdensome.  Here are six tips I follow to lesson plan effectively and efficiently—allowing me to spend some free time doing things for myself!

#1.  Plan in Peace

Your planning periods are precious drops of time that all too often get sucked away by others or yourself.  When I started teaching, I didn’t use my planning periods to lesson plan. They were spent commiserating with colleagues, just sitting in my chair, shell-shocked from the class I had just taught, or cleaning my room. By the time I actually lesson planned, I was exhausted, so it took me three times as long and I often wasn’t happy with the results.  The first step to lesson planning is to find a place and time of day where you can be the most productive.

Maia Heck Merlin, author of The Together Teacher advises teachers to sketch out their week and find times where their energy is high to do important tasks (like lesson planning).  The second aspect of this is to find a place where you can work undisturbed.  I recommend locking your door and shutting lights out (yes, I really have done this!) or putting on headphones so that others do not disturb you.  Carving out an hour or two for planning and not letting an email, teacher, or your own thoughts to dig into that time, is important.

#2.  Start with the End in Mind

It feels wrong to plan the assessment, which is at the end of the unit, before digging in to the first lesson, but using backwards design is crucial to teaching effectively. 

Hopefully you’ve looked at the book (if not, find a copy at your school or get your school to purchase you a copy!).  I won’t go into the details here, but the basic principle is to have a clear understanding of what you want students to know before you start planning your lessons.  Create the assessment or final project first, and work backwards from there!  Before I have hit burn-out mode, I usually sit down for an hour or two and sift through past state exams, pulling questions into different quiz banks that align to my different units.  When it comes time to teach that unit, I form a test based on the quiz bank items, along with more challenging questions.  I also like to scaffold in vocabulary questions and other key conceptual understandings.  Lastly, I am sure to include relevant hands-on (lab practical) skills. For example, I would have students answer a few questions requiring them to use a microscopes for a unit on cells.  I usually don’t format and finalize the test, but I keep it open while planning and make sure that I have prepared students for the final assessment.  It also helps to model Do Now, exit ticket and homework questions from the exams.

Once you know your unit test, you can then chunk smaller goals together for weekly quizzes or assessments.  I like to sit down with a big lesson planning book and my yearly overview open, and sketch out the topics I will hit each week.  I am careful to include buffer time, knowing that some lessons will take longer than I expect.  I then break down my week-long topics to individual days.  I try to only have one science content objective for each day. For the more challenging objectives, I give two or three days. 

#3.  Have Routines

While I’m sketching out my week in the lesson planner, I like to have some routines that repeat each week.  I have a Do Now and Exit Ticket (or some close) every day.  I like to plan for an assessment every Friday.  The schools I have taught at had a block period every Wednesday/Thursday.  I always planned a lab or some kind of hands on activity for that day.  I also tried to follow the 5E Model when planning lessons.  Therefore, I try to start with some kind of Engage and/or Explore activity (I find the “explore” can very easily be an engagement!  It could be an exploratory inquiry lab, a graph or data that sparks discussion, one of Page Keeley’s Uncovering Student Ideas probes, a cool demo without an explanation, or some other hook. Whatever it is, I try to have the students think through what is happening, rather than telling them the information.  From there, students hopefully elicit key concepts or vocabulary that are necessary to process for the lesson. After we discuss key concepts and practice vocabulary, we are typically ready for an elaboration—some kind of hands-on activity or experiment that digs deeper into the concepts.  Students then are evaluated on their work from the week. 

I find that having a weekly routine helps students know what is coming up, and also makes lesson planning a lot more structured and easy to dig into!

#4. Think Twice, Plan Once

Do you spend most of your nights re-thinking the next day’s lesson?  Don’t!  You will likely burn out—teaching is a marathon, not a sprint and it is so important to plan in a way that keeps you from doing this.

A frequent issue that arises in my work with new science teachers is that they have a hard time leaving lesson plans alone.  At the end of each day, they re-think and change the lessons for the next one.  On some level, this is good teaching—lessons should respond to students’ needs.  However, if it comes at the cost of teacher’s sanity because he/she is up all night re-working lessons, then everyone loses; the teacher is not going to be their best self to teach the lesson.

Learning to let go of the perfect lesson takes time, but I also think it can be accelerated by consciously resisting the urge to re-do lessons every night.  One solution for the urge to respond to students’ understandings and their pace is to leave time in every lesson for a short address of the day before. This could be a 2 minute talk right after the Do Now (especially if your Do Nows specifically review material from the day before!).  I also leave buffer time by having a whole day assigned to a quiz on Friday.  I typically use the first half of class to finish work from the week before giving the quiz, or I give a Do Now quiz and use class time to finish something.

Besides buffering time into your lessons, remember that the beginning of the year and the first week after the holiday break are times when students will need practice meeting your expectations.  That means activities will take longer to complete.  Don’t pack a lot of activities and transitions into your lessons during these times, because you may be spending some of your time redirecting students to meet expectations.

Lastly, when you find yourself wanting to re-shuffle lessons, instead think of ways you can shorten them.  Labs are usually the victim of re-shuffling because students can never finish them in time.  If this happens to you quite a bit, consider having only one or two discussion questions that get at the key aspect of the lab.  Shorter often is better.

#5  Multi Task & Stay on Task

Your planning periods are precious!  The more you can get done in one planning session, the better.  Once I have thought through the big ideas and have a clear objective and activity for each day, I like to drill down to the daily lesson plan.  I do this by filling in my lesson plan template while also completing PowerPoint slides for the week, using another template .  (I prefer to use daily PowerPoint slides to keep students and myself organized and have resources for absent students.)

If you have the luxury of co-planning with a fellow science teacher, one can write up the lesson plan while the other creates the PowerPoint slides. (This is how I learned the trick—thank you Gretchen!). 

While you are lesson planning, you may get stuck somewhere—you can’t think of a good Do Now, or you are about to spend 40 minutes looking for the perfect image for a handout… STOP!!  Setting these time-wasting activities aside, and moving on to other aspects of the lesson results in getting more done.  Often ideas will pop into your head after you have skipped them, and you don’t waste precious energy searching for the perfect (often non-existent) solution.

#6  Manage Expectations

Finally, realize that you cannot put every idea you have into your lessons and still cover all the content in time.  Trying to cram too many activities into a day will only leave you and your students stressed out and unhappy.  It is difficult to set aside or cut an idea in order to keep your lessons simple and efficient, but in the long run it will be better.  I leave a section in my lesson plan for reflections and remind myself that I can always try something else next year.

Remember, teaching is a marathon, not a sprint.  Follow these tips and be mindful of your time.  The best thing you can do is have a healthy work-life balance so you are your best self when the bell rings!

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Managing the Science Classroom - The 4 I's and Science-Specific Systems

Everyone has different ideas about how to manage a classroom. A teacher’s personality greatly impacts their success and approach to their classroom.  My approach is directly connected to who I am as a person and teacher. Below are some general guidelines that I find helpful for classroom management (The Four “I”s), as well as some procedures for managing labs, and other science-specific classroom activities.

The Four “I”s of Classroom Management

It is very hard to coach new teachers on classroom management. There are so many other aspects of teaching that new teachers are trying to remember and the nuances of reading and responding to student behavior is enough to make any teacher give up.  That being said, the core strategies of good classroom management can be found in four steps:

Imagine It

Close your eyes (yes, I have done this while standing in front of a room full of chaotic children) and imagine the classroom you want.  Imagine what students are doing. Are they sitting? Are they hunched around desks? Are their books on their tables? Backpacks on their chairs? Phones away?  Think about what you want.  These are your expectations.  Try to pull out explicit, visible aspects of your expectations and take note of them.  It may help to even write them down.  Pick the most important one or two things that you would like to see in the classroom and focus on these. Once these are mastered (days to weeks to months later), then move on to other aspects.

Illustrate It

Once you can envision what you want to see, students will not magically understand and meet those expectations. First you have to show and teach the expectations. Explicitly state, model, and practice that behavior, then praise students who are getting it right.  If a student still isn’t meeting those expectations, assume the best and check in with him/her privately.  Model the behaviors and get confirmation that the student understands and can follow them, then remind him/her once more of the expectations before setting him/her free to enact them. Once the student gets the expectations right, praise him/her!  If a student is intentionally disobeying an expectation, it will become clear in this process.

Insist on It

So you know what you’d like to see in the classroom, you’ve explained it to your students, but how do you get students to do it day after day?  There is no magic trick.  The hardest part of achieving your classroom expectations is to insist on them.  When I was teaching middle school, I had the hardest time getting my students to start the Do Now right away.  My friend, on the other hand, had no problem. I would watch her students enter her room, sit down and start working.  When I asked her what she did, she couldn’t say; “That’s what they’re supposed to do!” was her reply.  I then noticed that as she stood by the door, welcoming students into the room, she would redirect those in the room to get started.  There was simply no tolerance for not doing the Do Now.  Students weren’t 100% silent when doing their work, but there was momentum in her classroom—students knew they needed to get started right away and if they didn’t, it would not be tolerated.

Insistence means that you do not ignore misbehaviors.  It is important to only focus on one or two expectations at a time, otherwise you will be overwhelmed.  If you re-state your expectations, re-model them (if necessary) and give students a chance to practice each time you do not see what you want, you will work towards a well-managed class. 

Consistently addressing misbehaviors can become exhausting. I believe this is why many of us (myself included) lose or never attain the classroom we envision—we do not stay on top of continually expecting the behaviors from everyone.  There will be many days when you are tired and want to let something go, or when you don’t have time to redirect a behavior because you will not get to a crucial part of your lesson.  However, when you are not consistent in your expectations, students will stop meeting them.

Intercept the Inequities

An often overlooked aspect of classroom management is how you invite or exclude students from being part of the class.  When a student is not meeting your expectations and you have gone through the other three "I"s, think about the ways in which that student might feel excluded from your class, or school as a whole. Do you call on that student as much as you call on others?  Do you welcome him or her into the class the same way?  Do you include examples of scientists that connect with that student?  It takes time and serious reflection to  acknowledge, let alone address, the ways in which you may exclude that student in subtle or obvious ways, but it is important to be aware of them. There are small ways you can ensure you are treating all students equitably--using a system to randomly call on students, including diverse science posters around your room, etc., but there are many ways in which you may undermine these gestures with your language, tone and even gestures. It is difficult to take the idea of how we, as teachers, spread inequity in our classroom and condense it into a few sentences here, so I will address this idea again in later posts. 

The Reality

Despite your best efforts, you will likely have days where the classroom feels mismanaged.  You are human, so are your students.  The Four I’s work in the grand scheme of management, but be mindful that we are working in a chaotic environment! Below are some other ways to trouble shoot problems in the classroom:

  • Film Yourself

    My number one weapon when things seem out of control is my video camera.  It is terrifying to film yourself teaching, but once you get over the fear, it becomes a source of objective information.  Sometimes I would think the class period was complete chaos, but when I looked at the film, I could see it was really only a few students acting out.  The film also can help me see when students misbehave and find reasons why. More often than not, it occurred when I droned on for too long giving directions!  Before filming, I always run it by my principal or department head (being clear that the video is just for me) and explain to my students that it is a tool for me to improve my own teaching.  Students wave to the camera at first, but they soon forget it is there.  Also, it is REALLY important you do not use the camera as a way to catch students misbehaving and punish them for it.  Although you may see lots of misbehaviors previously unknown to you, using film as a “gotcha” tool will only lead to mistrust and resentment and make your classroom more difficult over time.
  • Reach out the most to the hardest students

    It is likely you will face a few students who do not respond to redirection and the Four I’s.  When I realize who these students are, I also find ways to love these students the most.  It is much easier to accept and work with these students rather than try to battle them.  The first step starts with your mentality.  Instead of thinking that these kids are trouble, they don’t respect you, and dwelling on negative aspects of working with them, I like to flip my perspective on them.  I tell myself that they are good kids that must have some reason to act this way, and that it is a challenge to learn how to work with them and get them on my side.  I envision us as friends at the end of the year instead of enemies.  By switching your mindset, your words and actions will (hopefully) soon follow.  I often will spend time getting to know the student—going to their basketball games, asking them what their hobbies are, looking up notes they wrote in the ice breaker games at the start of the year.  If I find out they are interested in rap music, I might buy them a book about how to get involved in music production, or lend them a book that connects to something they mentioned they cared about.  I’ve also resorted to buying them Burger King and playing UNO with them at lunch—for no reason other than to get to know them better (UNO or some other game helps a lot—if you try to ask questions early on, it may feel phony. It’s amazing how much kids open up over a meal and a card game!)

Classroom Procedures that Make Labs Run Smoothly

A big part of having an efficient science class has to do with classroom management (see the first half of this blog!), however there are some steps that can help make science class run more smoothly.  Here are ways I have tried to run a tight ship:

Photo courtesy of USDA

Cafeteria Style Lab Set-Up 

The most time-consuming part of teaching science is preparing (and taking down) lab supplies.  Of course there will be times when you have to prepare something ahead of time, but if you learn to let students do everything they possible can to set up and take down labs, you save yourself a lot of time and energy!  I use a cafeteria-style system to minimize my prep work (mentioned in this blog post).  Here are some key steps:

  • Organize lab items into bins or containers, so that there is a class set of each easily accessible. 

  • Have a model lab tray set up with every item needed for the lab.  Put this at the beginning of the cafeteria line or on a document camera. You also can list items on a board or Powerpoint slide.

  • Pre arrange lab groups using a seating chart system (again see, this blog post) and assign one seat number or student as the materials collector.

  •  Leave plenty of time at the end of class for students to clean up and put away materials.  Different seats can have different tasks (e.g., washing out beakers, wiping down tables, checking under the desk for trash).  You can always play a review game in the last couple minutes of class while surveying desks and material bins. My favorite? Science Taboo!

  • This is the key step—be very observant and careful to correct any mistakes and praise any successes in correctly taking and putting away lab materials.  Do not let any student leave the classroom if it is messy.  This means leaving ample time before the bell rings and being a stickler for perfection (imagine putting on white gloves to check for dust!).  Although it may mean a few students step up and clean up others’ messes while everyone waits, the message is clear: keep the room clean!  Also, don’t assume a table or bin is clean by glancing from across the room.  I typically inspect each table before dismissing it during lab days.

Best Lab Group Award

One way to incentivize a clean lab room and good team work is to give a best lab group award at the end of lab class once in a while.  I review the expectations of a good lab group (works well together, stays on task, doesn’t ask me questions they can figure out on their own, and cleans up quickly and thoroughly), and then make notes while visiting each lab group.  Narrating the groups’ progress helps inspire some healthy competition (Table B is wiping down their table… Table H is working together).  The lab award usually meant some extra points on their lab grade (they would staple their award to their lab at the end of class).  A template of my lab reward cards can be found here (want the word doc version? Contact me on Facebook or Twitter!)

Always Include Lab and Safety Expectations

Before every lab, I always include lab and safety expectations.  The lab expectations are essentially what was mentioned for the best lab group award—students are expected to collaborate and work together through their inquiry, rather than asking for answers.  Staying on task, staying with the lab group and following directions are also key.  I also think of any safety hazard that could happen through the lab and explicitly address what the safety hazards are, and what to do in case they happen.  I leave these expectations up on the board during the lab. 

Make Lab Behavior a Grade

When I taught at an IB school, how students conducted themselves during a lab activity was part of their grade.  Grading students’ behaviors while trying to manage all the other pieces of running a lab can be difficult, but having a rubric and grade attached to how students conducted themselves during an inquiry lesson definitely had an effect.  Here are ways I made it work:

  • Post the rubric on the board.

    I included a rubric for students' "Attitudes in Science" at the back of their lab worksheet--see example above (adapted from the 2012 IB Curriculum). This served as my expectations – I showed the rubric on the document camera at the start of the lab, discussed what the highest level looked like and made sure there was no confusion.
  • Track  behaviors (or look like you are tracking). 
    I always had a clipboard with my roster and many columns to record grades.  This included participation and lab work, as well as grades from assignments.  It was nearly impossible to track everyone’s progress precisely during the lab, so instead I put a plus mark (+) if I saw students doing something exceptionally well and a minus mark (-) when there was a misbehavior I had to address.  I explained at the beginning of class that students would get a certain score (say a 5 in a range of 1 – 6) if I did not mark a + or a -, a “6” if they had an exceptional behavior and something less than a 5 if I addressed a misbehavior with them.  I always made it clear to the student if they lost a point and whenever possible gave a heads up if they were about to lose a point (“Are you about to ask me a question you could answer within your group?”).
  •  Make Challenging Directions to Follow
    If one part of your lab grade is following directions, early on in the year, include a strange step in your directions (for example, draw a star in the corner of your paper).  At the end of the lab give the exceptional grade to those who followed it (especially if it is a minority of the class) and make all students aware of the small steps.  Although you hopefully do not use cookbook labs for every experiment, following directions is an important part of a lab!

Was this post helpful?  It was partially inspired by a science teacher’s suggestion (This post is for you Madelyn!). What are you struggling with as a new science teacher?  Please contact me on facebooktwitter, or leave a comment below with a topic you would love some input on!