You just asked what??

This week we were prompted to write about how we can get students to investigate their own questions. So, being an overachiever, I decided to PRACTICE it rather than just WRITE about it.

Because we’re working through a unit on human reproduction, I think its important for students to be able to question and have access to evidence-based information. The first step to finding that though is having a classroom culture that nurtures and encourages questions. In my last placement, I created a question wall and used questions to frame each day’s lesson- displaying questions with students’ names on the board and using their questions to deepen understanding through mini-assignments.

“Doesn’t being in the sun too long cause cancer?”-Ari

I think validation of questions is important. Kids need to know that what they’re wondering is something that can be explored and explained… maybe. I brainstormed a little bit about having a question box that students could ask anything in (see Alyssa’s AHHHMAZING question box turned Padlet answer key), but ultimately didn’t land on that as a solution for my classes. I think providing answers is really important but its even more important to give students the skills to find the answers themselves.

So cue step one in seeking answers. This week, we did a lab about Plan B. We spent the first part of the week talking about fertilization and embryo implantation and BOTH classes asked how Plan B worked. I had no idea.

“Wait, what does Plan B do? Doesn’t it kill the zygote?” -Sami

So I googled it! And found some answers along with some not-doctor-approved talk about killing fetuses. And two days later, I shared findings with students by creating a hormone lab for them to use what we know about ‘normal’ menstrual cycle hormones and figure out how Plan B manipulates them. Through the work they’re doing, they don’t just get the answer, they have to use knowledge we have (the hormonal influence on the menstrual cycle) to apply it to something they might find if they google Plan B (releases synthetic progesterone) to figure out the answer (Plan B, because it contains a progesterone-like compound, delays ovulation but doesn’t kill an already fertilized egg).

The students are about halfway through the lab, but many seemed interested (in everything but the graphing) and I’m excited to see what conclusions they can draw!

Why do I gotta learn this stuff?

“Ms. E, why we gotta learn this stuff?”

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a phrase similar to that one I might not be rich, but I’d be able to buy groceries for the week. It can often be difficult for students to see the value of the work they’re doing and the understandings they’re developing, so perhaps making the necessity and value visible will help entice some of our more trepidatious learners.

This spring I’ll be teaching a unit on cellular reproduction- Mitosis and Meiosis. Two big fancy words that are meaningless that occur in units so small we can’t see them without a microscope. So, how do we help students see the value in things they can’t see? Getting on their wavelength may be a good place to start…

Y’all need to know about your own selves!
Literally everything that is living or was once living is made of cells, so why not know it?!
So maybe Science isn’t your favorite class, and that’s okay! But there’s some seriously interesting history related to scientific discovery! Redi and Pasteur at two different times worked to prove that life cannot just pop up out of the blue- all living things came from other living things! Imagine living in a time when people thought squirrels could just pop up from nowhere!
Truth be told, learning the PMAT and Interphase steps of the cell cycle will help you pass the Regents exam. But knowing how those steps get disrupted and can cause unstoppable cancerous growth might motivate you to become an expert scientist who can save the world one day.

Okay, so learning the minuscule organelles in cells, the steps of the cell cycle, and the differences between mitosis and meiosis is tedious, trust me, I’m aware. But having that base of knowledge, being inspired by passion, and using that knowledge to work toward solutions for far-reaching problems- that’s important.

I’m lucky to have found something I’m passionate about (spoiler alert: its teaching), but you, a student, are still working on finding it. So having access to these little knowledge banks, whether its cellular reproduction, the American Civil War, or the differences between tint and shade, will all help shape your passions and drives. Sure, I’d be ecstatic if you learned that uncontrollable cell division is what causes cancer and were inspired to learn more and eventually became a cancer researcher… but I’d also be ecstatic if you became a musician, an engineer, or a mechanic… as long as you’ve got the scientific knowledge to make informed decisions.

Pit them against each other

Me to my students: “Raise your hand if you want to play a game now…”

My students:

Image result for animal raising hand

Most teachers have probably experienced this. And even more have probably played some kind of review game before, myself included. My problem has been though in involving all students when a question is asked in games like Jeopardy or Family Feud. So as we began preparing for a quiz this week, I didn’t want to make the same mistake again. I wanted something that would maintain attention even when it wasn’t a student or group of students’ turn… and wow, did I find it!

Introducing, Grudge Ball. I’m not convinced there’s a better game for middle schoolers out there. Not only is there minimal prep (score for teachers!), but it pits groups against each other in healthy competition that allows for students to retaliate when their points have been taken! While I could spend paragraphs detailing the rules, the link above does a marvelous job explaining in ways that I cannot.

What I will say though, is how easy it is to adapt rules to fit your students, a central pillar of success in shamelessly stealing other teachers’ resources. When one group was ‘out’, instead of just earning back points, I had them earn them back by stealing from another team or when students had trouble remembering content, they could use their team as a resource to earn just one point instead of none.

Stealing in this game is not only recommended, but necessary for group survival! Which seems to parallel teaching, based on the last few posts I’ve made, recent observations, and conversations had in the teaching community…

So try out Grudge Ball, and let me know what you think and how else you’ve adapted the original rules!


Compound Connections

This week in the big bad world of sixth grade science, we’ve been connecting the chemistry of diffusion and osmosis to cells. This required some note taking about matter, mixtures, and organic vs. inorganic compounds.Great topic right? It makes multidisciplinary connections that allow students to see how one field of science isn’t stand alone! But note taking and lecture can often be boring, as any former or current student knows.

The true magic and accessibility of this lesson laid with student engagement and connection-making. My cooperating teacher was enthusiastic and taught great content, but when he allowed students to share ideas, no matter how ‘wrong’ or outside the box they were and coupled student sharing with humor, the kids really came alive in a way I’ve rarely seen in lecture-style teaching. So the first, and most powerful ‘connection’ was between he and the kids.

The second connection the kids made was to our avocados. They’d been debating on whether an avocado off the plant was living or non-living. When they realized that dead organisms are made of organic compounds, the debate was sparked anew! Now that they had a little more evidence, they could support their claims better and argue about the true nature of living things, a topic that even scientists can’t agree upon!

The third connection was made by just one student in the class and was whispered to me excitedly. As we learned what makes an organic compound (carbon) and that they comprise all living things, the boy’s face lit up. He excitedly raised his hand and I walked over to hear his question. He said, “Wait, that’s what the Mars lander is doing? Looking for carbon in organic compounds to see if we can live on Mars??”

Wow! While he’s a little off about this mission, he made a powerful connection to something that clearly interests him… which will hopefully help cement this week’s learning in his memory! In addition, he can start to read scientific press releases and begin to understand some of material that can often be a barrier to readers. Deeper connections between classroom science learning and practical, real-world applications of new knowledge appear to be the key to invested, ingrained learning.


This week I’d like to share something simple: 2 more blogs.

First, a beautifully written article about the role cell phones play in middle schoolers’ lives. The blog itself is pretty general with some good articles, but the stories make it real. They allow us to actually picture ourselves in the shoes of middle schoolers and their parents. Check it out here.

Second is a a link to an article posted by the Beetles group, an outdoor field science teaching organization that is at the forefront of outdoor environmental education on the west coast. The particular post I’m linking talks about territorial acknowledgement of indigenous lands and peoples when teaching in an outdoor setting. While this does not directly apply to classroom teaching, the cultural relevance of the article and boundary-busting nature of the blog and organization speak to my soul. Check Beetles out here!

While neither of these blogs are as wonderful as this one or any of the GRS cohorts’, they are well written, poignant reads with plenty of thought-provoking material… happy reading and happy thanksgiving!

Quality Online Content

As I begin to wrap up the marathon runner mini unit…and students begin to piece together what tea, gummy bears, potatoes and carrots have to do with the runner, I realized I needed one final piece to bring the story to a close. Cue: YouTube.

I know there’s a lot of garbage online and there are tons of videos that have plenty of scientific inaccuracies out there, but every once in awhile you can stumble onto gold. And I say stumble on in the loosest sense; it takes pointed searches and time to find that perfect video that explains only as much as you want it to, gives quality visual and audio content, and is scientifically accurate. And besides, it’s easy to get sucked into the wacky corners of the YouTube universe…

But eventually after a few minor distractions (see above), I did find the perfect clip. After a  few days of predictions and evidence-based reasoning from students trying to explain why too much water might be a bad thing, I realized they were on the right track and just needed one more piece of evidence to solidify their explanations. Students were predicting that the runner’s body swelled up like a gummy bear, let too many nutrients out like the tea bag, and that the potato and carrot cells expand in lots of water (one even said that the water was messing with the vacuoles!). But they were missing key evidence to support some of those claims.

So tomorrow we’ll watch this:

Which will give students the final piece of the puzzle and support their claims! Yes, red blood cells that take up too much water through a semi-permeable membrane (through osmosis) do burst! And the marathon runner must’ve had so many cells burst that it affected how much oxygen got to her brain, thus causing her to go into a coma!

All in on “Ambitious Science Teaching” … and Avocados!

That’s right. After months of confused looks in class, millions of lingering questions, refreshing vocab, and general perplexedness, I’m in a fully committed relationship with Ambitious Science Teaching. I’ve been sort of nervous for the mini unit the GRS cohort is all teaching individually because I felt as if I didn’t have a handle on what ‘AST’ looks of feels like, but after day one, I’m sold.

Ambitious Science Teaching is a pedagogy and book created by Mark Windschitl, Jessica Thompson, and Melissa Braaten. The methods use equitable engagement with scientific phenomena to elicit students’ ideas, support changes in thinking, and press for evidence-based explanations. Essentially, teachers present students with a difficult-to-explain phenomenon and use activities to build upon prior knowledge and co-create explanations.

Before last May, this was a totally foreign concept to me, and as with any new concept, it was difficult to assimilate into my already forming theory of learning and teaching. Now that I’m in the thick of it though, the anchoring phenomenon (the hook and conundrum) has really stuck with kids. The activity summary table has allowed me to elicit student ideas and hash out their thinking in ways I’ve never seen. The model scaffold allows students to build upon ideas and not worry about being wrong.

We’re only one day into a tiny mini unit, but I can see how an entire huge unit linking TONS of science topics could be created starting just with a phenomenon!

Plus, a super cool science moment happened this week! We got into a mini debate/discussion in the absence of my cooperating teacher about the living vs. non-living status of an avocado… and it all came from the students. I told them if they wanted to come back the next class with some ideas for how we could design an experiment or test our theories to acquire scientific evidence, they’d get some extra credit. Little did I know some of the students would come back with a signed petition saying avocados are living and this…

It’s chock-full of scientific facts and evidence, but it didn’t settle the argument, so we’re going to try growing an avocado from the pit!

Technology and Phenomena

In just over a week, most of my pre-service science teacher cohort will begin teaching a mini unit series of lessons based on the Ambitious Science Teaching model. As I began planning with my cooperating teacher, other students, and with the help of some phenomenal resources (a la Heather– I can’t thank her enough!), I realized that some science phenomena are not demonstrations that can be done directly in a classroom.

Sometimes, there are scientific stories or events that happen in a specific time and space and are unsafe or unwise to recreate but would be great anchoring phenomena for a science unit. As I thought through teaching using these types of phenomena, I realized that a teacher sharing those stories wouldn’t be the most effective means of disseminating information. So then I turned to news videos or articles. In some cases, I think those mediums could be effective, but the stories I was finding sometimes gave too much information or were not directed enough in making students ponder “what’s going on?”

So thank goodness again, for the Stink Squad! This summer Alyssa, Sam, and I used a hefty science article related to our studies to create a short comic strip that would convey the information in a more engaging way for middle schoolers. And I’ve stolen that idea and created a comic to explain another stolen idea of a marathon runner going into a coma as an anchoring phenomenon for diffusion and osmosis.

The use of a digital tool, Pixton, will hopefully allow this mini unit to begin with a little more engagement than a lengthy article or teacher-told story- an idea that’s yet another steal, thanks to a Warner class, Digitally Rich Teaching and Learning. So I suppose the take-home message this week is that stealing’s okay when it leads to (hopefully) good ideas?



Mr. Prickles’ Escape: stages of team development and group conflict

It’s our second to last week of STARS, an after-school science club at World of Inquiry School #58 and we’re about to head to our red carpet movie premiere this weekend. The kids are excited and I can’t wait to see how proud they are to show off all the work they’ve done to their families and friends.

We’ve been working not only to prepare for the premiere, but also to help the group use the things they’ve learned to culminate our time together. This week, Ms. Grandon created an ingenious way to do so. She developed a game in which students had to work together to rescue Mr. Prickles (our team mascot) using games we’d played before and knowledge of how humans provide for animal needs (our central theme for the club). The game was much like an Escape Room, a game in which players are tasked with solving puzzles and clues to get out of a room. Mr. Prickles however had been locked in a box, so students had to help him escape by working together.

It was hugely valuable because not only did it require students to access knowledge gained during our time together, it also required them to work together. For adults, this notion of working as a team is trivial- we do it everyday and know how to navigate the sometimes awkward stages of working together. For 6th and 7th graders though, teamwork can be challenging. It’s a skill that has to be learned through modelling, coaching, and struggling with others.

And wow, did our team struggle. They needed lots of time out moments where the game was put on hold to discuss what good teamwork looks and feels like. After several pow-wows, a few tears, and lots of positive encouragement, the team finally came together with the guidance of a few leaders within the group to accomplish the task. It was even more satisfying for them to ‘win’ because of the struggles they experienced together.

Bruce Tuckman developed a model to describe the stages of team development and it was definitely apparent with our STARS. The stages he describes are Forming-Storming-Norming-Performing; watch the video below to hear each stage described.

It seemed this week that our team had spent the last few months in the Forming stage- they’d only just begun to understand our common goal and had applied it to their STARS work on an individual and more superficial level. During the escape game though, they firmly entered the Storming stage. Students were openly rude to each other, talking over one another, and some even shut down by leaving the group or shedding a few tears. And at that time, we could’ve let the activity end and moved on to more preparations for the movie premiere (as was in our lesson plans).

But instead, we allowed the team (with some conflict resolution help) to continue with the game. This allowed the team to move into the Norming phase where leaders were established, roles were assigned, and eventually the team began Performing. The sweet success (literally sweet, there was candy) of victory was even sweeter because of the joined struggle students experienced.

Without giving the team the time they needed to storm and norm a little bit, the activity could have been just another frustrating school thing they had to do. Instead, because they were given the space and time to work things out, students grew as teammates and developed some of the intangible skills adults need.

Learning science requires collaboration and conversation with peers and this can only be achieved in a respectful environment where each member of the community feels valued and heard. This is achieved by reckoning with each stage of group development and having the time to work through problems. While it was difficult to watch at some points and took more time than anticipated, the group development experienced by our STARS was valuable and something I plan to take into my classrooms with me.

#Mr.Prickles’Adventure : The Value of Field Trips

Think back to your best memories of elementary and middle school. The most cherished memories (or for some, the only memories) probably don’t contain sitting at desks, practicing equations, or finishing worksheets. Instead, I’ll bet you remember all the things in between the mundane. Time in the lunch room, presenting an art project, or best of all, field trips are probably better remembered.

Out of everything that happened in 12 years, I remember field trips best from my time in school. Whether it was taking the short ride to Ganondagan yearly where my best friend’s parents showed us through the long house, or the considerably longer ride to Genessee Valley Museum where we dressed as pioneers and churned butter or played ring toss games, field trips always held the most prevailing memories.


While I’ve experienced field trips as a student and as a ‘tour guide’, hosting students who spent time at camps away from their school, I’ve never participated as a teacher running the trip…until last week. We (myself, Madeleine, and Robin) took our STARS team to Verona Street Animal Shelter. While there’s a TON I could say about how wonderful this organization is and how much good they’re doing to keep animals (and their humans!) in the Rochester community happy and healthy, I’d instead like to focus on how beneficial the trip was for our STARS kids.

As a teacher, the trip was stressful. We corralled 10 kids on the RTS buses, walked through the city, and worked to sustain attention and energy through all the distractions an animal shelter provides (OMG a yorkie!!). There were a few tears, complaints about sandwiches, lots of ‘when will we get to play with the puppies?’, but so many more smiles.

The STARS came away from our visit being able to better articulate both the big question we aimed to address as well as the action that matters in our community that they would take. They came away with a true understanding that not only do animals need food, water, and shelter to be happy and healthy, but they also need socialization with animals and other humans and time inside and out. Without visiting the shelter, making carefully crafted observations, and talking with experts in the field, we would have only been skimming the surface of understanding.

More importantly though for our STARS team, we came away from that day as a team. After visiting the shelter, we ran around the park across the street, kids had a big group hug, and we saved Mr. Prickles one more time. The trip brought our STARS closer together through the formation of more real connections created by a shared experience.

While planning and executing field trips is difficult for teachers, they are ideal for developing deeper understanding, and they’re arguably better for developing deeper relationships and lifelong memories. That’s something I won’t soon forget and will most definitely practice as a full-fledged teacher.