My “Research Group” Model for Science Fair

A teacher friend posted this on my Facebook wall:


It seems everyone dreads science fair but me – no one likes science fair. Teachers say it’s a lot of work. Students say it’s a lot of work. Parents say it’s a lot of work. Well, it is a lot of work.  I was thinking back to what I enjoyed about my projects. I enjoyed the science, I enjoyed the fairs. I loved winning prizes. I loved knowing I was a scientist.

 There is a weird (and I think artificial) thing that happens with science fairs – an over emphasis on doing the whole thing alone. Problem is, scientists don’t really work alone, do they?

My first goal this year for science fair (which is well underway in my class!) is that we will build a community of learners in our classroom. Even though we are doing different projects and have different goals, we will chip away at the tasks ahead, and work together to achieve them. I’m thinking of this as the “Research Group” model (yep – like grad school). We will meet throughout the year, discuss the ideas we are working on, and get feedback from each other. We will raise each other up. We will read each other’s papers (peer review), we will look and and evaluate each other’s data analysis (more peer review), and discuss our display and presentations before the science fair (more peer review). Does the writing make sense? Will the data generated by the experiment answer the question? Does the presentation of data convince the audience? Does your analysis lead to more questions?

I will be at every fair my students are at, up through state. We will support one another on fair days with water and snacks or glue and post-it notes and sharpies. We will have the presentation done early, not 15 minutes before we leave for the fair (me? I never did that!) and we will accomplish our projects with the help of our peers, because that’s what scientists do

Density, proportional reasoning, and misconceptions

It’s a simple question: what is the relationship between mass and volume?


Some students immeadiately said, “Density!” So, I asked them to describe density in terms of particles, and they couldn’t.

There was a whole day of collecting data. A bunch of plastic blocks, mass on a triple-beam balance and cubic centimeters. Aha! As the volume increases, the mass increases. Blocks that have more volume also have more mass! 



It wasn’t long before a misconception appeared in the group. 

“No! There is no relationship!” said one student. The other students were silent and looked at me.

Me: “What do you mean?”

Student: “If you take a block, it has an amount of stuff in it. If that stuff got bigger, it would take more volume but be the same stuff and so, the same mass, so it would be less closely packed and the ratio of mass to volume would change. Therefore, there is no relationship.”

Me: “Would the stuff be the same, then?”

Student: “Yes?”

Me: “In your experiment, is that what happened?”

Student: “No. We looked at different pieces of the same stuff, different sizes.”

Me: “None of the ‘stuff’ changed volume?”

Student: “No, they were different sizes.”

Me: “Class, anyone agree or disagree?”

Student2: “He’s right, but that wasn’t our experiment.”

Student3: “Maybe we should check gases.”

Me: “I think he’s right too, and let’s save gases for another day.”

At this point, I wonder how many students we lose during discussions about density because they think we are talking about somehow changing matter, rather than talking about different kinds of matter. I would have never known my student was thinking this if I had been lecturing and assigned homework from the text book.

Then, I prompted the students to have a discussion about what is density at the particle level (By saying, “OK, remember our particle boxes? Would the particle boxes for each kind of matter be different?”), which was slow-going. We did not reach a confident consensus, but we will circle around to density again with density of a gas. 

Proportional Reasoning

I was very interested in developing the students’ ideas of density, in terms of the way we had measured and identified it. Because they were so comfortable with the relationship between mass and volume being density, and also Density = Mass / Volume, I asked them to find it on the graph. 

Nope. This was a new idea for them.

I asked what the units of density were (since they kept insisting on density = grams / cm^3). 

And then one student saw it. Then, another. “its the slope!”

But not all the whiteboards had the same graphs.  Some were grams / cm^3, others cm^3 per gram. They had a discussion about maybe next time they should check with each other to make sure the groups set rules for the board meetings, so it will be easier to compare data.

To close the day, I reminded them to make sure the info on their whiteboards was in their notebooks. Then I asked, “Ok, so which of the blocks will float?”

More complaints – one student suggested floating was related to surface area, so multiple shapes of the same kind of stuff had to be tested. Finally, it clicked for him too – what mattered was density, that the floating thing had fewer particles in each unit of space compared to water, sinking stuff had more.


(There were also good ideas about why the cork floated so “high” – it’s in the back right corner.)

There were a few things that are standing out to me at this point in the year:

  • Three weeks down, and we still aren’t using usual chemistry words like “element”, or “atom”. We are using “stuff”, “matter”, “space” a lot.
  • We do not say “per”, as in “grams per milliliter”. We say “for every”, as in grams of matter for every cubic centimeter of that matter.”  We try to speak intentionally, with clarity.
  • I do not do most of the talking, which is the most amazing thing because I can constantly check for student misconceptions and challenge them with Socratic questioning.
  • The students are really having fun! And so am I.

Modeling and volume, with precision and accuracy

Activity to investigate the relationship between cubic centimeters and milliliters.  Students carefully (or not so carefully) calculate the base area for their container, fill it to various heights (depths) of water, and measure the volume of water in the container.

One group of students recalled a prior teacher told them that one centimeter cubed equalled one milliliter, “because that’s how metric works”. I asked how they knew. 

“Our eighth grade teacher told us.”

Another student (10 classes into modeling) responded with, “but our data doesn’t support it!”

So the team of now six students set out to calculate their data both ways. The measured volume expected for their calculated volumes, and what size volume in the shape based in their measured volumes. They quickly determined that neither data set would solve their problem. The only solution would be better data. And the bell rang.  (And I silently laughed an evil laugh.  This group almost tortures themselves with these educational cliffhangers.)

The next day at the start of class, I asked how they thought the previous day of data collection had gone. This group immeadiately spoke up. “Not good. The containers you gave us were terrible.” (They were. I used what I could find. The sides curved. Sorry, kids.) 

I asked if they had the chance, if they would like to collect more data – as I put two very square rectangular pans on the lab bench at the front of the room. A student for each pan ran up, grabbed some tools, and got to work.

This is what they produced:


Look at that! A slope of 1 mL/cm^3!

Compared to others:



So, which is better: accuracy, or precision? Turns out students in the 10th grade think these terms are basically the same. I drew the classic three targets on the board: one with a cluster of dots at the center, one with a cluster off center, and one with a cluster that was spread out, but “averaged” to the center. I told them two were precise, and two were accurate.

One student told me her brain exploded. She got it. 

The kids almost immeadiately yelled which was which – and I asked, “how do you know the difference between accuracy+precision (the cluster close together at the bullseye), and precise but inaccurate (the tight cluster not at the bullseye)?

And we looped back around to discussing careful measurement and definining variables. And why. Context makes learning so much easier.

Teacher Evaluations – and what you can do for teachers you care about

A brief story about teacher evaluations

I am in the state of Ohio, so some of this is about to be a little Ohio-centric, because its what I know. The purpose of evaluations of teachers in the state of Ohio is:

  • To improve instruction by facilitating professional growth and development
  • To identify needs for staff development activities
  • To ensure teaching quality by bringing assistance to marginal teachers
  • To inform personnel decisions (retention, transfer, tenure, promotion, dismissal)

Evaluations are currently composed of two parts, each with equal weight: observations of teachers in class by a trained observer.  For me its my principal, and for me and my professional growth, she’s great for mine because she was a science teacher herself and can offer constructive feedback on how to make my class flow better.  I actually enjoy and look forward to those parts of my evaluation because it will make me a better teacher and therefore, will benefit my students both now and in the future.

The other part is “Student Growth” – and that’s the part for me that doesn’t really make sense or help inspire me to be a better teacher, because there are many things shown to be a bigger factor in student growth than the skill of their teacher.  Ideally, you can test each student at the beginning and end of the year, see how much they learned, and use that to measure a teachers effectiveness.  Right? What happened this year, is that my district told me they would provide that important pre-test… but didn’t.  However, there’s a legal backup if that data is missing.  I (along with many of my peers) was assigned the district average score for “Value Added Growth” from the previous year. My district has 30+ buildings.  From k-12.  My building usually scores the “best” in the district (but no, the board didn’t choose to use building scores.) So, half my evaluation comes from the standardized test results from students I’ve never met in buildings I’ve never set foot in before I was even employed as a teacher in my district.  And it really hurt MY ratings, because that score was an “F”.  (We got this news the Friday before Teacher Appreciation Week, too.) I feel like this will impact who my school will be able to hire in the future.  Why risk working in a district where students are struggling so much, if its going to bite you in the butt by giving you a poor evaluation?

So what?

The part of teacher evaluations that the public sees either comes in two flavors:

A.  The general public who feels that teachers should suck it up and submit to the evaluation, and

B.  Parents of kids who are being standardized-tested until their hair falls out (not kidding).

So, if you find yourself shaking your head at how terrible teacher evaluation is, you can do a couple things.  Here are my suggestions, particularly if you are a parent of a child in school now.

  1. Write to the school board.  They are elected, and they are close to the local situation.  Its good for them to know how you feel.
  2. Write to state legislatures.  They make the rules we are playing by.  The evaluation system is part of the Ohio Revised Code.
  3. Write a letter to your kid’s teacher if they were positive.  This is gold.
  4. Then change the information so the letter is to the principal of your school, and tell the principal how that teacher helped your child learn.

Every bit of the first half of the evaluation is based on things with evidence: either direct observation or something documented.  (The second half is standardized tests.  Feel free to write about those too, if you’re so inclined.)  Letters from families on behalf of a teacher count as evidence, and electronic copies can even be directly loaded into our state database of information.

What can a parent say that will matter?

Part of the evaluation specifically mentions how a teacher interacts with parents.  Keep in mind that when most principals hear about a teacher’s relationship with a parent, its because a parent is complaining about a perceived slight their child is getting at that teacher’s hand.  Its only rarely good things.  I suspect when I offered an after school field trip not one parent contacted my principal either with stories about how much their student enjoyed the trip (even though I was told that personally over the phone by several), or thanking her for supporting the field trip (which she did with phone calls for special approvals and $$$ for a bus.) So what are the things a teacher would really like to hear they have done well for your child?  Here are some excerpts of standards from our evaluation rubric (these are for the highest possible ranking in their category) which are not only things a teacher is grateful to hear they get right every once in awhile, but also is something they can use as evidence of meeting professional standards and goals:

In “Instructional Planning”

“The teacher uses the input and contributions of families, colleagues, and other professionals in understanding each learner’s prior knowledge and supporting their development.”

Did your child’s teacher use your input in teaching your child?

In “Instruction and Assessment” under “Classroom Environment”

“The teacher engages in two-way, ongoing communication with families that results in active volunteer, community, and family partnerships with contribute to student learning and development.”

Do you feel like you were a partner in your child’s learning with the teacher?

In “Instruction and Assessment” under “Assessment of Student Learning”

“The teacher uses assessment data to identify students’ strengths and needs, and modifies and differentiates instruction accordingly, as well as examines classroom assessment results to reveal trends and patterns in individual and group progress and to anticipate learning obstacles.”

Did the teacher make an effort to not only get to know your child, but understand their history and do things that your child would enjoy in order for your child to learn better?  Its easy for a teacher to be inflexible about assignments and due dates – did your child’s teacher make learning personal for your child?

“The teacher continually checks for understanding and makes adjustments accordingly (whole-class or individual students).  When an explanation is not effectively leading students to understand the content, the teacher adjusts quickly and seamlessly within the lesson and uses an alternate way to explain the concept.”

Did your child’s teacher help him/her understand a concept by allowing them to retry at the information?

The teacher provides substantive, specific, and timely feedback to students, families, and other school personnel while maintaining confidentiality.  The teacher provides the opportunity for students to engage in self-assessment and show awareness of their own strengths and weaknesses.”

Did your child learn new ways to monitor their own understanding in a teacher’s class?  Was the teacher in contact with you about their progress?

In “Professionalism” under “Professional Responsibilities”

“The teacher communicates effectively with students, families, and colleagues.”

Do you hear from your child’s teacher?  Is that helpful to you in some way?  Do they do something special for parents like a weekly letter or blog?

In summary, let the teacher and the principal know how the teacher effectively communicates with you and give specific examples of how the teacher helped YOUR child learn.

 If you’ll excuse me, I have some letters to write for my kid’s teachers.  Have a great weekend, everyone!

Course Design – The value of online lab course materials (college version)

As a graduate student, I was assigned the TA job for an introductory course in geology. I really like physical geology – its the course where you get to look at all sorts of rocks and minerals, learn about specific gravity (a favorite of mine) and other physical characteristics, and maybe some introductory geology. Sounds like fun, right?

Why yes, I was that kid who collected gravel from parking lots. My church had some nice white limestone with pyrite in it. Don’t worry, I’ve stopped. Mostly.

Imagine my surprise when my top-tier geology program was running their labs for undergraduates by requiring students complete exercises from a widely published manual, but with only a few manipulatives, like specimens! Rather than looking at rock and mineral specimens, we used a book with pictures in it (with no scale in the pictures). How are students supposed to learn to identify rocks and minerals by using pictures? What about luster? What about turning it around in your hand to look at cleavage of a mineral? What about heft? What about process skills like using a hand lens?

I tried to help my students out by making answer sheets for them so they didn’t have to tear up their pricey manuals, but it wasn’t enough.  They didn’t like taking that lab and I didn’t like teaching it.

A couple quarters later, I found myself offered the head-TA spot for this course for a faculty member I knew well. I told him that I thought we could do better… and asked if I could rewrite the labs. He said yes! (I do recognize that good k-12 teachers do this all the time. Frequently, college lab TAs don’t get that kind of freedom.)

There were things that definitely needed changing.

1.  We needed to abandon the lab manual.

2. We needed to use hand samples! (This meant cleaning the supply closet. Repeatedly.)

3. We needed to rewrite the lab exercises.

4.  We needed to publish the labs for students.

Over the course of the quarter, I worked with this faculty member to create labs that complimented his lectures, and emphasized hands-on skills that couldn’t be taught any other way.  He wrote a couple new labs too – and we did wet chemistry to look at water quality on campus – definitely not an experience students using the manual ever got!

The most useful thing I learned through this process was how handy it was to distribute course materials online.  Because I was producing full labs as the quarter moved along, we could not publish the labs as a manual in advance and put it for sale at the bookstore. I also could not afford to make copies of each page for every student (I wrote introductions as well as instructions and answer sheets).

We compiled a terrific website for the course – not only was each lab activity posted, but also notes, homework, and even podcasts of the lectures (courtesy of the faculty member).  There was a student hospitalized for a couple weeks that quarter, and geology was the only class he didn’t have to drop – he just followed along with the podcasts and online homework submission.

Through my time as a graduate student I had the opportunity to be head-TA for this course many times, and each time it got a little better and we could change it to fit the emphasis of different faculty members.  What students loved best?  I like to think they liked the hands-on part of the labs, but they didn’t know it was ever any other way.  Every quarter I got comments about the online manual – they could just print it out (on campus if needed! no forgetting your manual at home!) and it didn’t cost more than the cost of printing.

This was a great model for us, and reflecting back on it, I’m hoping to develop more course materials online for my students. I’m still in the research stages of how to do this best (I get twitchy about protecting copyrights), but I would love to see your comments on this!

Best Pencil Sharpener Ever!

For Christmas this year, one gift was more touching than any other: my father-in-law (who works as a bus driver at a school in a district I don’t work in) gave me $100 cash and said, “I know teachers spend their own money on their students.  The next $100 is on me.”  (This is the first good news of this post.)

I really needed a pencil sharpener.


Students are hard on pencil sharpeners.  I inherited one with my classroom – one of the few things the previous teacher abandoned left behind, so I knew it was going to be awesome.  No.  It was constantly jamming and I could take it apart a bit and make it work another day or two, but one day before Thanksgiving it just quit on me.  Thanks, crummy electric pencil sharpener.

A few weeks before my electric sharpener broke, I was at a friend’s house for a party where she showed off her pencil sharpener to all the other teacher friends who were there (you know its true – teachers are so often office supply nerds).  A crank pencil sharpener?  Really?  Yes.  Really.  She actually owns two or three.  The one at her house, one in her classroom, and one that goes home with parents to sharpen pencils.



My new pencil sharpener is sold by a teacher, and in the interest of full disclosure, Classroom Friendly Supplies, the company who sells them was willing to send me a free one to test if I would post a review on my blog.  (The second good news of this post – if you’re a blogger read between the lines here folks.)

I quickly received a delightful pink pencil sharpener in the mail, and it just as quickly became the most famous and most popular pencil sharpener on my floor.  I work at a magnet school for the arts, so kids have tried no end of crazy pencils in this little tool.  It expertly sharpens regular pencils – and quietly!  My students and I effortlessly put hundreds of pencils through this during Graduation Test week (ugh).  Colored pencils can jam it up a little (due to the wax content of the “lead” part of wax colored pencils), and the pencil made with recycled jeans instead of wood was tougher, but the pencil sharpener is so easy to dismantle that not even a slightly jammed sharpener is a problem. The other bonus about just pulling out the blade and knocking out the rare bit of stuck graphite means you aren’t chewing through inches of pencil waiting for that to happen.

Students sometimes stop by my room in the morning – just to use this sharpener.  Last week, a student commented it was the best sharpener they’d ever used, and others ask where they can get one.

If you decide to try one, you’ll get a simple, hand-crank sharpener, the blades, and a clamp.  I don’t use the clamp, and can’t imaging that they blade will get dull anytime soon.  But, when it does, I can just order a new blade! (Third good news!).


[Here it is with the shavings-catcher pulled out so you can see the mechanism.  The picture to the right shows the interior of the sharpener with the blade removed (which only takes a twist and is easy with that black grip ring).]

After using this for the last 5 months, I cannot recommend this pencil sharpener enough.  Its beautiful, a little retro, efficient, quiet.  You can’t lose, and I’m looking to buy a second.  Our mascot is the tiger… maybe I can get black and paint tiger stripes on it.




To Mr. Nye

Dear Mr. Nye,

I read with excitement that you would be debating Ken Ham on evolution and Biblical Creationism. I think the first word I used to describe it was “epic”.

Feb. 4, 2014 in Petersburg, KY

“Is creation a viable model of origins?” Creation Museum Founder and AiG President/CEOKen Ham will debate Bill Nye at the Creation Museum on Tuesday, February 4, at 7 PM. Bill Nye is the former host of the popular Bill Nye the Science Guy TV program for children, current Executive Director of the Planetary Society, and frequent pro-evolution guest on TV interview programs.

You had a significant impact on me as a student and as a teacher. I was in Jr High and High School when you were “the Science Guy”, and remember sitting in the audience at the International Science and Engineering Fair in the stands of Churchill Downs for opening ceremonies my senior year of high school. In college I held titles like “Chem Club Demo Guru” and worked at a kids museum, where I performed demo shows and live animal talks and tried to bring enthusiasm to my audiences and students, like you.

When I tried to find out how to watch your upcoming debate, I learned that it will take place in northern Kentucky (a little more than an hour from me), but my heart sank as I read on… at the Creation Museum, for a $25 ticket, on a Tuesday night. I have long avoided going to the Creation Museum. As a paleontologist, I don’t want to spend the $20 in admission to support an organization that I strongly disagree with. To see this debate, I would certainly consider the $25, but I am concerned that this money will go towards funding the Creation Museum. But a Tuesday night – that’s difficult too. As a high school science teacher, to drive to the Creation Museum after work, watch the debate, and come back home is doable, but a stretch. Too bad it couldn’t be on a Friday or Saturday.

As the Science Guy, you are a leader in science education, and those of us who teach students daily (a quarter of my biology course focuses on evolution) want to see how exactly you handle this debate. I’m delighted to see that there will be DVD and Streaming options to watch the debate. Please, please, please give us the opportunity to watch this event for free. Now that the event has sold out, it will be my only option.



A link was posted to my Facebook page yesterday that included options to buy the live-stream of this debate.  The least expensive is $4.99.  From the site:

Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?

Leading creation apologist and bestselling Christian author Ken Ham is joined at the Creation Museum by popular TV personality and evolution apologist Bill Nye.

Ham, a former science instructor who emigrated to the USA from Australia over 25 years ago, is joined by the popular children’s program personality Bill Nye “the Science Guy” for this first and only scheduled debate. Each man delivers what he believes is the best information currently available for his case. Each then has an opportunity for rebuttal and afterward answers questions submitted by the audience.

The upcoming February 4 debate has already generated significant attention from national media, and tickets to attend live were completely sold out within two minutes of release.

Don’t miss this “debate of the decade”! Watch at home, or organize to show the live stream to your small group, your youth group, or even your entire church.

The debate is to be held in the 900-seat Legacy Hall lecture arena at the Creation Museum (sponsored by Answers in Genesis). The live event is not expected to be televised but is being streamed live on the web and recorded for DVD and digital download distribution to help offset significant costs in organizing and sponsoring the debate.

Wait.  Because of “significant costs in organizing and sponsoring the debate”, you are charging for access to it forever?  As far as I can tell, its being held in an auditorium owned by Answers in Genesis (of which Ken Ham is CEO).  According to your website, you sold 800 tickets at $25 each (that’s $20,000) in 2 minutes. (Edit: I forgot about the 200 seat simulcast room.  That’s another $5,000.  $25,000 total from ticket sales.)

I’ve watched dozens of TED talks, for free, and I’m certain those cost money to produce.  They require venues, and fancy stage decor, and a few staff, and generating tickets.  AIG owns the venue.  I doubt it is costing more than $20,000.  I will probably watch this somehow, but I will not be doing it alone.  If you will not make this FREELY available to those who aren’t there, I will make it free for some.  (And readers, I challenge you to do the same.)

I went looking about what Mr. Nye has said about education, and found this:

So there are people that would, that believe when you need to make budget cuts the first thing you do is cut education.  Just increase class sizes, have fewer teachers.  But you can argue—I mean I’ll just point out, the heck with argue—that’s wrong.  No, instead you should invest more in schools and teachers, especially science and math education.  Teaching math is not expensive, it’s a value.

And the thing to do when a lot of people will pay to see a debate about Creationism and Evolution?  Charge for it.  I hope the money does something good.  Since I live near the Creation Museum, I wonder if this is a stunt to raise money for the Ark as attendance to the museum declines, but I really hope the Science Guy wouldn’t allow himself to be used that way.

Update (Jan 16, 2014):

It has been announced that the debate will be streamed FOR FREE!  I’m curious about the circumstances.

I accept late work for full credit

There.  I said it. I accept late work for full credit literally until the day I submit grades.

I know there are detractors to this policy, even in my building.  They say, “It teaches bad habits.  Students must learn deadlines!  The real world doesn’t work that way!”  I don’t actually disagree.  I would like my students to only have good habits, and the real world does have deadlines.  

This is school.  My job is to teach a year of material to my students. Period.  Technically, its hard to find due dates in my class.  I will say things like, “I will collect this at the end of the period” or “bring this completed tomorrow” and I expect the students to submit the work.  Every week we have a quiz, and the feedback on the regular classwork helps them on the quiz.  That’s their payoff for timeliness.  So, I do accept work late, but if you turn it in late, you probably will fall behind.

Here are the things that are the biggest factors in my “late” work policy:

  1.  If it is worth doing, its worth doing late.I only assign things that are worth doing.  I assign them because I want you to know and understand the material.  None of it is filler. 
  2. If they do the work, then I want to give them credit for doing it.
  3. Turning things in when asked for means they get valuable feedback.  I want students to learn the value of managing their learning, and that an assignment is an opportunity to learn, and not just an opportunity to earn points.  

Is accepting work late more work?  I don’t actually think so.  I try to set up my assessment of work so it take less than a minute for most items (because hey, when you have to grade a hundred of the same thing…) The students who turn in work “late” usually do for only a couple reasons:

  • Forgot it/left in locker/left at home
  • Was sick/absent
  • Didn’t want to (or in a few cases, just completely checked out for a month)

So, in the first case I’m looking at deducting points not for the quality of their work, but for their organizational skills.  In the second, I do have to give students who were absent (even if it was unexcused) the number of days plus one to turn in their late work.  That would take me so much more time to figure out than it takes to just grade their work.  And the last case, well, a student who thinks they’re going to fail will NEVER try in your class.  What’s the point?

Story time.

Our amazing administrators (actually, our junior high and high school vice principals) have started Saturday School.  Based on the data I saw yesterday, Saturday School is a powerful deterrent for behavior violations in our building.  I have sent students straight to Saturday School for using cell phones in my class. (I am so grateful to my admin backs me up on that!)  While at Saturday School, students “have the opportunity” to make up late or missing work.  Many teachers say, “No!  I don’t take late work!” (citing bad habits and a lesson in personal responsibility), but not me.  I had a student who had not turned anything in all quarter, and his name came up on the Saturday School list. During class on Friday, I confirmed with him that he would be at Saturday school, and told him I would leave work for him and I expected to see it Monday, and Monday, I would give him full credit for all his work. I stayed late after school Friday, putting together a copy of every assignment he missed, printed copies of my science notebook, a textbook, and a box of school supplies just like we have in class.  I was delighted that he came into school Saturday, participated, and by Monday had completed almost all the work he hadn’t turned in the rest of the month.  (This happened again with another student a few weeks later.)  He passed the quarter, based on his work, despite not being good at keeping up the beginning of the year.

I know some districts are moving toward policies where students “can’t get a zero”.  Many people – teachers, parents, the public – are often outraged about this.  Here’s why these policies happen: when students realize they can’t pass, mathematically, they become a behavior problem.  They quit working entirely, lose interest, and distract other students during class time.  Allowing students to turn in work late means that when they realize they are about to be held accountable for their time (usually the last week before parents get a report – for me, twice a quarter) the ones who have not been paying attention start to work.  If I said, “nope, no credit for late work”, then not only would these students not bother to learn the material, they would just count the quarter as lost and try again next time – or worse, they figure if they failed first semester they’ll fail the whole course and the last semester is a bear. 

My goal is for my students to learn the material.  My goal is for them to learn the value of keeping up with a course.  Some students even ask if they can redo an assignment and turn it in for more points.  There is great educational value to reviewing your own work, and I usually allow this (particularly for daily work and notebook checks, but not for quizzes.)

So what have I gained?  I have students who sometimes take an extra day on an assignment because they want to do a better job.  Students who are busting their butts at the middle and end of each quarter before grades are due. Students who know I’m there for the material and to teach them to learn, rather than deduct points for technicalities.  I have students who might fall behind but still try to catch up.  My students will learn a lot, and they won’t fail for making mistakes that children make. 

Notes and the Interactive Notebook

This one’s for Adam, who commented,

This is fantastically helpful. I am doing a notebook for the first time this year, but only for labs, demonstrations, and some reflection. While it is helpful and the students like it, I’m recognizing that only using it sometimes is a problem. Could you elaborate on what you are doing with notes? That’s an area I have yet to touch with the notebook and would be curious to hear your method.

Sure, no problem.  And I have to admit, this was one of those things that seemed difficult to find a solution for but in the end was pretty intuitive.  The answer is: some pages are for notes.  Students just take notes on them.

I used to do this in my research notebooks.  I would go sit in a library somewhere (my office was at Ohio State in Orton Hall, so usually I’d just go upstairs to the Orton Hall Geology Library and either sit in a comfy chair with a journal article and my notebook or sit at one of the old worn tables to take my notes and make tables from my reading.

At first, I drew notes on my whiteboard and wanted my students to copy what I was writing as I wrote.  They had a good deal of difficulty doing this.  Many of my students write at different rates and I was writing things across the board or over diagrams and while they were writing they were looking down, and didn’t immediately know where I was working on my whiteboard.  They got very frustrated.

My notes for classification - useful to no one but me.  This was not working for my students.

My notes for classification – useful to no one but me. This was not working for my students.

When I asked for feedback, many students asked for “more notes”, which I thought I’d been giving them.  A few (brave) students came to me and said that what they specifically wanted was powerpoint slides with notes.  This now makes sense to me – they are very predictable for students.  They can look down to write and predict where the next thing they need to write will be on the slide.  As an added bonus, they are easy for me to print off (frequently using the “print as an outline” feature) for students who need more time for this process – this way I don’t have to completely stop for the one or two who are below grade-level readers and/or slow writers, and those students can choose to just listen during lecture and write later.  (Our sped support teachers know I’m doing this, and I’ve started sending them copies of scans of my notebooks and the ppt slides so these students can access them in their rooms as well.)

Its important to never forget that our students are learning the skills of being a student – including note writing.  They get writing fatigue if you give them a ton of notes.  I try for less than 10 slides, and each slide usually has one or two nice figures (right now we’re doing “the Cell” so its SEM pictures of organelles or bacteria, or nice diagrams without a lot of words on them).  These slides note’s fit less than two pages of a composition notebook, and I also give them an “overlay” page with diagrams that complement the notes.

And since I mentioned overlays… an “overlay” is a handout page that gets taped as a flip page over the notes – so a student can flip it up or to the side and see what’s written on the page underneath.  I like distributing these figures as handouts because students don’t need to draw pictures in their notes (which is time consuming) and it gives them a reason to trick them into spending more time in their notebook and in the material (coloring the picture). If you go this route, you can hand them out at the beginning of the lecture or the end.  I have been using pages from The Biology Coloring Book and other similar texts (reduced to 92%), and students color them in during downtime during lecture.  Some students may find this really distracting, and for those students you may want to hold the overlay insert until after the lecture.

So, here’s what my more recent pages have been looking like:

Notes Spread

This is a two page spread of notes, with a handout for an overlay.  It takes about 10 minutes to cover these notes (which feels like forever to me), but this day we also did special organelles in plant cells (with a plant cell handout), and structures in prokaryotes.  This allows just enough leftover time for questions (we’ve had a lot on cells) and then time for distributing the handout, taping, some coloring, and time for me to walk around and see who didn’t take notes.

Also, students can borrow my notebook as a “master” if they miss a day.  They don’t get to leave the room with it, though.  Its not uncommon for it to be floating around the room during class, and everybody always knows where it is (its nice that it has a funky distinctive cover, which helps when it takes more than 5 seconds to figure out where it is).

Does that answer your question?  I’m happy to follow up if I need to.

My first quarter with the “Interactive Notebook”

This year, I have been doing everything with modified “interactive” science notebooks for my biology and physics classes. Everything. I even keep one myself that helps me plan, sketch things out, and use as an example.  Its also handy when students complain about tedious tasks, like numbering all the pages.

“You can do it!  I’ve done it twice!”

As I posted earlier, I’ve been using Teaching Science with Interactive Notebooks by Kelli Marcarelli.  This is a great book and I recommend it highly, even at full price.  Kelli gives all the information you need to put together a comprehensive course using interactive notebooks (rather than say, binders or a file cabinet full of folders).

Anyway, I wanted to share with you what I’ve learned.

1.  Do your notebooks in a way that makes sense to you.

It makes just about zero sense to me to have the input page on the right and the output page on the left. None.  When we do the “input/output” pairs in my class, my input (usually notes) goes on the left, student work reflecting on that information goes on the right.  I get that this works for some people and for some students, but no scientist that I’ve ever met does anything except keep notes and data in chronological order.  We always move chronologically and no skipping around on pages.

2.  Keep a notebook yourself.

Keep a notebook yourself.  Not only is it a fun scrapbook of what you’ve learned, but you can use it as an example of what students should be doing.  The only thing that’s a bummer is that if you put answers in it, students will just copy your notebook.  Mine is a good example for layout and the contents for each page, but I’d get a pretty low score on a notebook check because its incomplete and doesn’t have any of the answers or extended response writing that I require of my students.

3.  My students really like notes.

Who knew?  I had been giving notes on a white board, because I thought that modeling note writing would be good for them.  They hated it.  I gave my students a short feedback sheet and asked how the class could be better – and they asked for more notes not on the whiteboard.  The other teachers are now stopping by and mentioning that my students are happy to have notes for their notebooks.  (I feel that students doing this seems a little weird, but whatever.)  One commented the students were happy because they have seen the changes I made to the class after their feedback and they feel like I’m listening to them. (Little happy dance!)

4.  You really do have to show students what to do with an output page.

This is the odd thing about these interactive notebooks – just like learning inquiry, students have to be taught how to produce “output” that is “reflective” on whatever you focused on in class.  For now, I have been giving them figures to put in, or tiny pictures they can use to make a concept map, or I use my document projector and model how I reflect on the material.  This is the one you have to set them up to be successful on, or they freak out and hate the notebooks.

5.  Interactive notebooks might be an “all or nothing” thing.

I’m not sure on this idea yet, but students love that they have JUST ONE NOTEBOOK in my class.  In fact, I provide them with tape and scissors so that everything is physically attached (we have a shake test – stuff falls out, and your notebook doesn’t pass the shake test!) Many have commented that they don’t like having an interactive notebook that they use “just sometimes” in their other classes.  Then they have to keep track of their regular binder, their textbook (I requested a classroom set of texts so students don’t need to bring them), and their interactive notebook.

6.  It would have been a good idea to specify how many pages should be in their composition book.

My students purchased their own composition books.  Some students have books with 100 sheets (like me!), giving us 200 pages to work with (Friday, the end of the second week of the second quarter, we were on page 93).  Some students have books with 70 sheets, they are getting close to that 140th page.  The simplest solution is to get another book and just continue page numbering.  I haven’t decided if we’re going to tape the books together or not at that point.

So, how do I plan with this thing?

Firstly, I do everything my students do, and on the same pages that they will.  (Now, my physics students do practice problems and we’re off, but it doesn’t bother me with them.  They are ok with the instruction “go to the next page in your notebook”, I think because they just have more experience.  Part of what I’m doing in Biology is teaching them how to mature as students and stay organized, and chaos ensues when they start straying from the order.  And there’s NO REASON they need more space than I use.  Period.)

I’m very fond of my page that I made when we did systematics and classification.  Every student got a page with pictures of insects, and had to sort them.  I sorted mine by morphology (one pair or wings, two pairs of wings, “bugs”, “arachnids”, “many legs”) – I tried to do it like they might.  I also might have looked up all their classification details and made a table, but hey, that’s what interactive notebooks are all about!  Going a little further.  (They are on post it notes so I can take them off the page and move them around.)  Make sure you do it yourself either before or with your first class (my first biology section is only just more than a dozen students, so sometimes I work on my notebook alongside them) so that you know what it will look like, and students who are more visual can understand what you want them to do.

page19 Insect Classification

page19 Insect Classification

I also did a cool food web page, and I only knew I needed two pages for this because I tried doing it first.  Students were first given notes on foodwebs then a handout with all the pictures of animals on them.  Each picture has a description beneath it that says what the animal eats and what eats it.  Students were directed to arrange them on the two pages with arrows going from the food to the predator, and some struggled with that.  However, we kept talking about them and I’m confident almost every kid understood food webs and trophic levels by the time we were done, because they’d struggled with sorting out a food web rather than just looking at a figure.

page22_23 Food Web

page22_23 Food Web

Lastly, here is an example of my lecture plans alongside the page students produced.  When talking about the idea of an ecosystem being made of parts that work together to complete a bigger picture, we read the Lorax aloud and then made a concept map showing how the characters (and sometimes things) in the story interacted with one another.  I put the main ideas I wanted to cover and how I wanted to cover them on post-it notes, which allowed me to best arrange my presentation of these ideas without stressing about how my notebook looked (also, I was still lecturing “chalk talk” style here – which many students didn’t like and I’ve abandoned in favor of powerpoint for now).

Here are my notes (page54-system notes Lorax)

Here are my notes (page54-system notes Lorax)

And here is the concept map (page55- Lorax concept map)

And here is the concept map (page55- Lorax concept map)

Students were given the pictures in the concept map and asked to arrange them then write what the interactions between the characters was in the story (they were read the story and also given the text as a handout – yay for Common Core wanting more text in science).  It was difficult to get them to complete this, even though I really liked doing it myself.  I suspect students didn’t want to read the story, or they froze up about where to put the pictures on the page and ran out of time – this one will definitely need revision next year.

Wanna see my notebook?

Here’s my biology notebook for the first quarter, “Ecology”.  I am not showing some of the front matter because it comes almost verbatim from Ms. Marcarelli’s fine book. (Head’s up: this looks fine on a PC but doesn’t come through correctly on my iPad.)

Dr. O’s Ecology Unit in her Science Notebook (Planning Notebook)

The Sacred Profession goes into great detail about using the interactive notebook in her high school history class. (HERE) (If you get stuck on her blog, I won’t be offended. Go. Have fun.)