Friday, August 28, 2015

Setting Up the Science Classroom – Desk Arrangements and Other Ideas

For some of you, the students have arrived and classes have already started.  If your year is anything like my early ones, there are rare moments to read blogs like this, let alone enact advice from them.  For others, the year is about to begin and there’s a crazy scramble to get ready. Obviously, it is best to set up your classroom before classes start, however I strongly recommend changing a system if it is not working.  Here are some key parts of my classroom that you may want to consider or re-consider:

Desk Arrangement
There are many different seating styles you can adopt for your classroom, and the best way to see them is to pop your head into other teachers’ classrooms.  Although I’ve tried many options, there are two that I settle on: stadium seating and group tables.

Group Tables  
When I think of my ideal classroom, I picture group tables—students working together on labs, activities and other assignments. When I first started teaching, I jumped immediately into group tables, because I had learned that student-centered teachers have desks arranged in groups. For some teachers and classes, this works great. However, if you are new to teaching and don’t feel confident about your behavior management and other aspects of teaching, it might make things more difficult. (Key Takeaway: If you are new and feel overwhelmed, I recommend you start with Stadium and move to Group after you are comfortable!)

Here is a sample chart for group seating of what group table seating looks like in my classroom. Desks are labeled by letter and seats are labeled by number.  This way, students can find their assigned seat easily, seat numbers can be used to identify group roles, and table numbers can be used to help clarify how to rotate.  Notice group tables are angled to face towards the front of the room so that no backs are completely turned to the board.

Stadium Seating
If you are new to teaching or still struggle with classroom management, you may find stadium seating to be a better option, especially at the beginning.  I still prefer this seating method because you can have all students facing the front of the room while giving instruction, presentations, or modeling something, but then students can turn to a table behind them to work in groups.

Here is a sample chart for stadium seating. Notice, just like  group tables, the stadium seating has table letters and seat numbers. 

The type of desks you have will make different arrangements easier or more challenging.  For example, in the sample charts shown above, I had nine larger lab tables meant for four students per table, so I had to squeeze three or even four students to a table in rows.  In a previous school, we had 16 smaller lab tables that were meant for two students per table. This allowed for better stadium seating which I doubled up for group tables.  If you have regular classroom desks, they are easier to arrange and move, but are harder to keep as groups.

Tips to Make Your Desks Work:

  • Assume you will have more students than is on your roster.  I always make room for at least two more students in even my biggest class.

  • Although it is labor-intensive early on, I like to put student names on tiny Post-It note squares (using the sticky end of the pad) and then arrange names on a template.  When its time to change seats, I simply move the Post-It.  I keep the chart in a plastic sheet protector so names don’t fly off.

  • When using the above system, I have codes for students with seating requirements (from IEPs, vision needs, etc.).  If you are afraid students will see your codes, you can write names in different colors to symbolize needs (e.g., seating up front as required from an IEP in blue).

  • If you don’t have the energy for the system above, use an online tool to arrange and assign desks

  • I’ve found the fastest way to get students in the right assigned seats is to line everyone up around the perimeter of the room, wait for complete attention and silence, state expectation that students stay around the room until I’ve shared all names, and then quickly put hands on seats and call out names.  Other teachers prefer posting seating charts or telling students as they enter the room.  Having letters and numbers on the desks can make this fast! (David – A4)

  • Desks move, especially in middle school.  Use colored duct or painter’s tape to mark where the desks should be at the end of each class.  Check with your custodian if there is a better material to stick on the ground (duct tape might not be a favorite).

Arranging Lab Space
For most of us, the instructional space and lab space are the same.  How do you make space for labs then?  You need to have lots of cabinets with items well organized in boxes. I have found clear plastic boxes (or labeled boxes) work best.  When it is time to do a lab, take out the boxes with the required materials and place them in a logical order along a back table or counter. Have one student from each lab group line up, cafeteria style, and pick up a tray or plastic shoe box, and then have them place each required object in their tray.  At the end of class, students clean and return items to the boxes for the next class.  If you train your first and last classes to learn how to set up and put away boxes, you have very little lab set up to do yourself!

Other Room Arrangements to Consider:

A Cool Down Spot 
Having a safe place for an upset student to calm down is very helpful! Find a nook where you can see the student, but most of the others can’t, where they can sit and re-group.  I have often put a spot in a corner by bookcases, where the cases can create a little nook area. To make sure it does not feel like a punishment, name the spot and explain its purpose at the beginning of the year.  I liked to call my corner “Antarctica” because you could “Cool down there” (plus I was going there that year!)  I decorated the wall with pictures of penguins and seals.  Also, I included some important books:  Anger Workbook for Teens, as well as fun science magazines.  For students who were really upset, I had little puzzles and fidgety toys, although I kept them in my pocket until the student sat there.  Be mindful to not have too many fun items, or else students may abuse the location.

Doc Cam / Powerpoint helper
You can leverage a lot out of an important seat!  In the first weeks of school, I look for students who are easily distracted or have a low self-image  about their success in science class.  I seat easily distracted students near my projector and computer, and ask them to forward PowerPoint slides for me during class.  I seat students who don’t think they are “good” at science near the document camera, where I ask them to help me by showing their work, correctly modeling note-taking or tracking lines in the text as students read aloud. I have a model notebook for them to follow so there is support and safety in showing their work. (Of course, I check in with students about this ahead of time and make sure they feel comfortable doing this.)

Standing tables
Whenever possible, I try to arrange standing tables at the back of the classroom for the students who do much better when they are not sitting still.  I get taller stools, so they can sit if they choose, but it is amazing how much more productive some students are when they are standing up!  For group work, these students hop up to the nearest table.

Help Me Help You! 
Is there something you are struggling with as a new science teacher?  Post it to my facebook ( or my twitter @MsBrownTeacher

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Science Notebook... A Personal Preference

What's in a Science Notebook?

There were a few moments as a new science teacher where I was stunned at how much thought I put into something that students didn't bat an eye at.  One such instance was arranging desks (we can tackle this in another post) and another was deciding on what system I should use for students' notes and papers. 

Although many students lose, forget, never bring, or rarely use their science notebook, for us teachers the notebook is very important. Some schools or departments require a specific system. If this is your school, be grateful--the decision of what to do can be paralyzing.

Many veteran science teachers, myself included, are adamant that our notebook system is the best. Although you may find you prefer a different method, below is my favorite way for students to take notes and stay organized for science class.

My Science Notebook System:

The Materials

I am a devout composition book user.  I require all students to bring in two composition books (college bound, 100 pages).  I do not accept any other type of notebook. (When a student brings in anything else, they trade their notebook in for a composition book!)  Why the composition book?  Because for some mysterious reason, students are less likely to rip out pages from a comp book than a notebook. 

Although the students just need to bring in two composition books, I purchase a few other items to make my system work. These include:
  •  File folders - one for each student
  •  Tape boxes and dispensers for each table
  •  A continuous supply of tape
  •  Address labels and Sharpee Markers to set up the notebook
  •  Index cards cut into thirds to make notebook tabs
  •  Lots of extra composition books to trade and give (I like to have a stock of 50 when teaching 150 students, but typically don't use them all in a year)
  •  Copies of composition book rubrics and achievement grade rubrics
I use the file folders to keep track of students' lab work.  I use different colored file folders for each class period and label each folder with a student's name. Labs stay in my room in these folders and allow me to track what labs students have and have not done.  This system is used to track lab hours for Regents coursework, but I also think it has helped students stay accountable for finishing lab work.

I purchase small plastic boxes that interlock and tape dispensers for each table, and my schools have been kind enough to purchase tape throughout the year.  The interlocking box is key--it allows you to hear when an antsy student is trying to waste tape.  Whenever I hear the sound of a box opening, I instantly stop class to stop a tape user from abusing the tape!  It may seem like a pain, but it's what works best for me.  I have also tried glue bottles and glue sticks. I do not recommend that you try these.

The Set Up:

Students bring their two composition books in to school on the second day of the second week of school (allowing time for those who forgot over the weekend to get them). I am prepared with address label stickers, Sharpee markers for labeling, tape and cut index cards for the first tab. I also have my stock of extra composition books for students who can’t afford them, struggle to get parents to get them one, or bring in the wrong thing.  If a student is absent, I give their table partner two blank comp books and have them fill out the label for the absent student. Some may feel that providing students with materials enables them, but it makes it so much easier when every student has their notebook ready at the same time. 

Before setting up the composition book, I share expectations for markers and spend a bit of time talking about tape expectations (*especially in middle school).  This may feel like a waste of time, but nipping tape abuse in the bud early on will save you lots of headaches and money!  

We devote about 20 minutes to setting up notebooks, and I model the process with my own sample notebook at the front of the room with a doc camera.  Students write their heading (Name, period, Science and “Fall Semester” or “Spring Semester”) on both notebooks.  They tape a composition book rubric in to the front inside cover and an achievement grade tracking sheetinto the back inside cover (*this sheet is for an IB class, although it could be adapted to list key grades like tests, quizzes, labs & projects). I collect the spring semester comp book after they label it and store it in the room until January (this has been field tested--having them bring it back in January doesn't work!)

Lastly, students make a tab for the first unit and tape it  on the top of the first page.  They do this by taking a strip of an index card and taping it around either end of a page with a little bit sticking out to write a label on. I use tabs to distinguish the big units.

We do not make a table of contents. Many teachers do, but I often got frustrated at how page numbers differed and some students never kept up with it while others seemed overly concerned with it.  I require students to put a heading on the top of the page, when relevant (Do Now, taking notes, quizzes and tests), the date, and an entry number. Students write the same entry number for all pages used in a day. This way students can use as many pages as they like without being on a different page than me.  If a student is missing work, they have the wrong or missing entry numbers.   

The System:

My rule of thumb is: anything that students need to understand or know goes in the notebook. Do Nows and other notes also go into the notebook.  If a homework assignment is particularly useful, students tape it in the next day (while I check it).  Tests and quizzes get taped into the notebook after being graded, usually the unit test is the last entry in that tabbed section.  The only work that is separate are labs (actual labs, not activities), which I keep in a separate folder to track lab hours.  Although I started doing this because the state of New York required me to, I think it was valuable to have all of a student’s lab work in a separate place. 

I have used the composition book system for years, but it didn’t start to really be successful until I started grading composition books for effort.  I strongly discourage collecting all the notebooks and grading them after school--a pile of notebooks on a Friday afternoon is very depressing!  Although it requires good classroom management, I started grading the most recent pages in the composition book during every test or quiz.  Students pile their comp books by the aisle, and I flip through and give a grade using the rubric on the inside page.  This has been instrumental in keeping students on track with their work.  Also, I keep a model notebook at the front of the room so students can catch up with any missing pages.  I like to have a student who struggles to focus or needs a little special attention help me with my model notebook while I’m teaching.

Recently I started having students track important grades (tests, quizzes, labs, projects and essays) in the back of their notebook using another chart, aligning with IB standards.  I kept a similar chart on a big white sticky pad in the corner of the room, updating which assignments students should have recorded.  This helped students know how they were doing over time in my class, and became a good way to communicate grades to parents in between report cards.

If you are teaching middle school students or notice that students aren't bringing their composition books to class routinely, you should consider keeping them in the classroom.  I kept composition books in the room when I taught 6th & 7th grade students. I organized them along counters using magazine holders (surprisingly affordable at IKEA), labeled for each period.

Benefits of the Composition Book

One benefit of the composition book is that it saves paper.  I often make handouts that are half page size – either by using two columns in Microsoft word or by minimizing the document by 65% on the copy machine. 

Keeping all important papers in the composition book is also helpful for parent meetings.  Whenever I had to go to an IEP meeting or had a parent come in, I would get the student's notebook or ask the student to take it out. Not only could we look at the student's effort grades in the front of the book and important achievement grades (tests, labs, etc) in the back, but almost all of the relevant work was taped in. For example, finding a student's test became easy (unless they didn't tape it in!).  The notebook also becomes a good resource for the student to review before cumulative tests.  

This is my favorite method, but I’m sure it’s not everybody’s. Please share your favorite system in the comments section below!



Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Science Lesson Ideas for the First Week of School

Queensland State Archives, Digital Image ID 1638
The first week of school is fast approaching. You have a sense of what you need to teach for the year, but it’s time to drill down to the day-to-day lessons!  The first week’s lessons are a chance to really engage students in science and find ways to get to know them (and vice versa).  Below are some first day and week ideas. 

First Day Expectations:

Before you start planning a 50 minute first day lesson, check to see what the first day schedule will be like. It seems as though every school organizes the first day of school differently.  At one school I taught at, we had 15 minutes with our science classes and spent the rest of the day with our advisory.  At another school we had twice the amount of time.

First Day Seating System:

There are many ways to organize getting students into seats in your classroom, taking attendance and teaching a lesson in 15 – 30 minutes. Below is how I handle the seating conundrum!

1.     Before the first day of school, buy packs of large (5” x 8”), colored index cards so that each period has enough of one color.

2.     Organize the colors into different periods (I always do rainbow order, with my first period as red). Fold the cards in half, length-wise, and write the first name of each student on the card.  Save extras—students who aren’t on your rosters will probably show up and need one or students will want a different name on the card!

3.     I like to arrange the cards alphabetically by first name and have students sit in groups arranged by first name. Early on, this helps me learn their first names better (inner monologue during cold calling: “Hmm… her name starts with an A…”)

4.     Before class starts, I quickly put the name cards on desks so students can see their names.  A “Do Now” on a powerpoint slide directs students to find their card, sit down and answer a few questions on the back of it:

5.     Once class starts, I collect any cards that no one is sitting at—those students often show up later. If they don’t, you know they are absent!  At the end of the class, I collect all the cards in order to put out the next day and help me learn names. Eventually I’ll collect the cards and keep them as cold-calling cards.

First Day Lesson Ideas:

  • Mystery Boxes

Mystery Boxes is a great first day lesson for many disciplines. There are different ways to do this.  Jean Beard created this lesson where students try to figure out the shapes inside the box.  These take a bit of prep-work to make.  An easier-to-prep lesson involved putting different objects in a box and ask students to guess what is inside based on observations. These lessons lead to a great discussion about the Nature of Science and how scientists use observations to make inferences, especially when we can’t see what we are studying (e.g., atoms, black holes, etc.).

  • Mystery Powder

This is my favorite way to wow students on the first day if I only have 15 minutes—especially if I am teaching Chemistry soon after. Students observe a white powder (instant snow), predict what will happen when they add water, and then drop a small amount of water into the powder. The powder will fluff up into fake snow, which surprises them! I explain that the water fits inside the holes of the powder using the diagram on the back. When I discuss physical and chemical changes later in the month, we refer back to this as an example of a physical change, since the water can evaporate back out.  If I have time, I also demonstrate adding water to a beaker of Sodium Polyacrylate. This is the same compound as instant snow, but it forms a gel instead of a powder. I then ask a student to pour it over my head, but luckily the gel sticks to the beaker!  Here is the handout I use.

  • Getting to Know You

This is my favorite lesson if I have a full period to teach it. If I don’t get to it on the first day, I usually include it in the first week.  I found this in a NSTA Science Scope journal and adapted it to make it fit.  I put objects around the room that represent me in some way. I like to make them tricky—a picture with me as a child and my great aunt, instead of my grandmother, a picture of my father in his navy uniform, a Turkish cookbook, and a skateboard I used to use a loooong time ago! Students rotate around the room and record observations of the objects and inferences they can then make about me (we review what the difference is). At the end, I go around and share out the truth—no I’m a terrible cook, but I’ve been to Turkey!  My favorite is the skateboard.  Students who skate can look at the marks at the bottom of the board and say what tricks I can and can’t do, while those who don’t skateboard can’t say as much.  We then talk about how prior knowledge deeply affects your inferences.  I would recommend asking a student to bring in his/her skateboard the next day to get this point across—it also is a chance to have a great start of the year with kids who may not normally feel like experts in science class.  Here is the handout and PowerPoint slides  I use!

  • Balancing Nails Challenge

If you are starting the year with Physics, this might be a fun one to start with. Each group of students receives 9 loose nails (or you can do it with 11) and another nail hammered into a board or piece of wood.  They are asked to find a way to balance all the nails on the head of the one that’s on the board.  Spangler Science explains it here.

  • Potato Mystery

If you’re teaching Biology, you can pre-soak potatoes in water, sugar-water and salt-water. Have each potato in a different cup (you can even use food coloring to differentiate each potato slice).  Ask students to observe each potato and make inferences about why they feel the way they do.  You can explain why the slices are different or let them ponder it until you discuss osmosis later in the year.  This may be best suited to high school students who already have some understanding of equilibrium and osmosis.

  • Making Silly Putty

If you or other science teachers at your school have done all the other ideas, this might be a good one to try (it’s not my favorite, but it still makes for a fun first day!).  Students predict what will happen when they mix Borax and glue together and share out predictions. For a chemistry connection, have students note the original states of matter. Students then mix pre-measured containers (Dixie cups!) together into a plastic baggie and voila, a gummy substance commonly known as Silly Putty forms!  Students share their observations and note the change in the state of matter.  For homework or if there is time, we discuss the history of Silly Putty with a reading on the back of the handout.

None of these are not original ideas—science teachers at your school probably use some of them at some point in the year—probably for the first day!  Check with other teachers to make sure the activity you use hasn’t already been done the grade before or a teacher is planning to use in a grade after.
Do you have other first-day lessons?  Please share on my facebook page, twitter or in the comment section below!

Next Up…

Other must-dos in the first week of school!

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Building a Yearly Plan from an Amorphous Curriculum, Step by Step

Do you have a vague idea of what you will be teaching in a few weeks (!!!) but no clue how to  arrange it into a logical plan?  Let's build it together! Here is how I do it:

Step 1  

List the big units you will be covering across a page. (Lost on how to do this? Read this post!)  I'm a paper and pencil person, so I like to write them out across a few pages.  

Step 2

Ok--this part is tedious, but if you stick through it, it will make your year a lot easier!  Go through all of the content standards you need to cover, and list them under the category that makes the most sense. You don't have to write out the whole standard--a word or two summarizing the idea and the standard number works fine.  Some of the standards are hard to pin into one category, but you'll eventually find a nice home for them. This is a messy process. Be prepared to re-write, erase, draw arrows and make strange notes so that it works!  By the end of it you should have a general idea of what content you'll teach in each unit.

Here's what my standards-driven outline looks like!

Step 3 

Figure out how many weeks you need to teach each unit.

Step 4 

What? You're still trying to figure out Step 3? This part has a lot of moving parts to consider, but we'll try to take it step-by-step!  Also, please skim the "Things to Consider" section at the end before proceeding--it might save you time!  

At this point, I like to get out a new piece of paper (or the digital equivalent) and re-write my units. You may not need to do this, but for some reason it helps me!  I start the year with an introduction, so I'll write that as my first "unit" (see a picture of my draft below).  This will include team-building and beginning of the year activities, safety reviews, and key aspects about science or the specific discipline. I then write out the units from my curriculum overview. For each unit, I scan through the standards I listed and summarize them in an order that would make sense to teach.  I only write down essential vocabulary in a logical sequence.

I then estimate how many weeks I will need to teach each unit. I do this by clumping similar sub-topics together and estimating how many of those topics are shorter lessons (1 day or less) versus longer block or multi-day lessons. Do not think a long list of standards = a long unit. Vocabulary-centered content typically can be covered in a day or two. Conceptual stuff or lab-centered ideas will take longer.

For example, say I was teaching the following concepts in a unit on Cells:   
  • cell theory 
  • structure & function
  • single vs. multi-celled organisms
  • plant vs. animal cells 
  • order of organization from cell to organisms 

I would give a week or two to structure & function, since this will cover all of the organelles and their jobs—a lot for a kid to learn and remember!  I’d also give two weeks to plant vs. animal cells, since this will be a good review of organelles and a nice chance to use microscopes to compare the two (which means practice using microscopes beforehand, taking a week).  I would bunch the other aspects (cell theory, single vs. multi-cellular organisms, etc.) into these weeks, totaling a minimum 4 weeks.  It would be tight to teach all of it in this time, but I could do it if I had to.  If I find I have more time to spare after calculating my other units, I will add extra week(s) to this unit, but it’s best to plan for the minimum time first and add weeks after.

 After my last content unit, I usually include a review unit, since I typically teach classes that have a cumulative assessment (e.g., state test).  Studies show that it is far more effective to review material in a mixed fashion throughout the year, rather than cram sessions at the end of the year (skim to the end of this article to learn more). Although I try to do this, honestly many of my attempts (exit tickets, extra review questions) get skipped because I run out of time in the daily lessons. If you are better at this, please share how you do it!  I often rely on an end of year review to ensure I’ve prepared students adequately for any cumulative test.

Here is my slightly-neater, second outline

Step 5:  Plan It Out!

You've done all the hard work--the last part is easy.  I recommend doing this last step on an online academic calendar, or be prepared to erase and re-write a few times. Write your unit headings into the correct spaces, leaving enough weeks according to your plan.  Hopefully you have some extra time at the end of the year. If so, figure out how many weeks that is, and add them to the most tightly-packed units.  If you are in the other boat and have run out of time, skim weeks off of the units that can afford it the most (or take a little off each unit if you can't do this!).

Try to end units logically in the calendar—before a holiday break or at the end of a grading period.  Use week-long inquiry projects to help stretch weeks to these end dates. Inquiry projects should also be considered at the end of units that are lab-centered.  For example, an inquiry project could be included after units on cells and plants--students could explore how salt affects elodea cells! Including week-long inquiry projects also allows buffer space if you run out of time with curriculum (but please try to include open inquiry projects in your year!)

Things to Consider:
  • Start with the state test date!
 Some state tests are much earlier than the end of the school year.  Be sure you know when the state assessment is, so you can plan backwards from then.  What to do with the week(s) after the test? That is a great time for dissections, inquiry labs, or less-tested curriculum.  Some science teachers are responsible for teaching sex ed. I found the weeks after the state test to be the perfect time to do this!  Nutrition, healthy living, and other topics also fit nicely here.

  • Don't plan for students to master everything
One huge lesson I didn’t quite get my first year teaching is that some content is meant to be introduced to students while other content is meant to be mastered.  Students may not fully grasp how homeostasis is a key function of organisms in 6th grade, but should be able to differentiate between abiotic and biotic.  How can you tell what needs to be mastered vs. introduced?  Some states are kind enough to mark this in their standards.  If you are not so lucky, look at the assessments—the type and number of questions will give you a sense of the level of depth you have to go to for that area. Make sure you are familiar with this before allotting two weeks to electron configuration when it is not tested in your assessments! 

  •  Not all weeks are the same
Don't assume that all your week numbers have the same number of days in them. Be mindful of shortened days (especially 2-day weeks, like Thanksgiving Break), and plan accordingly. Also, try to find out when field trips and beginning/middle/end of year testing dates are. You may not get much teaching in during these times! 

Next Steps:

In the next post we'll discuss planning weekly lessons, including the first week of school!