What I Learned From the Unit!!

During my first unit, I think the students and I learned quite a bit!

In today’s post, I talk a little bit about what I learned!

I taught the same lessons three times each day, so I was able to make small improvements as the day progressed.  One thing I learned, though, is that each of the classes is so different from the others that I now understand that much of my student teaching placement will be learning how to adapt my plans to the specific needs of the individual classes and learning how to adjust when things head off in directions I don’t expect.

I think the order of the lessons was appropriate and scaffolded student learning so that they could effectively deepen their understanding of the content as we progressed. The students were very engaged during the introduction of the phenomenon and were excited to ask questions, draw their initial models, and share their thoughts when we developed our original model of what was happening.

I think the thing I struggled with the most during the implementation of this unit was that I designed the lessons around small group and pair work, but the students had no experience with working together in those ways. They worked in pairs just about every class on labs, but when it came to working together on discussing what they read and answering questions about it, they would not speak to each other. Students were not only reluctant to work together, they behaved as though they thought it would be considered inappropriate if they did work together. I tried to offset this mindset by saying, “Please work with your partners on this so that you can both make sure that you understand each piece,” but this was not sufficient to change the behavior.

I think it would have been tough to shift this behavior in four lessons, but Dr. Van Borssum reminded me of the importance of explicitly teaching students how to work together. Although we have discussed at length the importance of modeling behavior and the gradual release of responsibility, I hadn’t translated this to group work. Because of this, there was minimal dialogue between students during any of the non-lab activities. Much of the discussion was led by me with the students raising their hands and offering up what was hopefully a correct response and then waiting for my approval. This was the type of environment I had planned to avoid. This was disappointing, and I think the students really could engage better and learn more in a more dialogic experience. I plan to explicitly model how to work in pairs and small groups when I begin my student teaching later in December so that we can benefit from those formats.

An additional thing I would change is to take more time to introduce and wrap-up activities. I am still working on how much “teaching” to do when I introduce activities. When we did the phenomenon activity in my first lesson, I think the brief introduction I provided was appropriate because I wanted the students to be curious and to ask a lot of questions. However, when I have introduced other labs, I have pretty much said, “We’ve been learning about X so far, now we are going to explore how X is affected by Y” and let them go. My cooperating teacher gives much more information before we begin and points out the concepts that the students should be looking out for. I think I would like to land somewhere in between my current approach and her approach.

One important component of having a less comprehensive introduction, though, is that I will need to make sure that I have enough time for the wrap-up after activities. My plan was to have enough time after each activity to add to the activity table (see below) and identify what parts of those labs contribute to our overall understanding of the phenomenon.

We usually did not have enough time to do this before class ended, and although I discussed what was happening with each group separately while they were working, I think it would have enriched student learning if we could have processed that information afterwards together. To make up for this lack of important discussion, we reviewed the activity table as a class in about 10 minutes on the last day of the unit. We were therefore able to put the pieces all together, but the activity table would have been much more powerful if used correctly by adding to it immediately after each activity. I intend to make filling out the activity table a higher priority in future lessons.

Tomorrow I start my four weeks of student teaching and hope to incorporate some of these things I learned!

What They Learned From the Unit

And, here is a little bit about what the students learned!

At the end of our first lesson, the students filled out an exit ticket in which they filled in the scaffolds for solids, liquids, and gases with particles of the correct size, spacing, movement for each.

Check out a few examples below to see how well they did!

At the end of the unit, the students revised their original phenomenon models to include what they had learned over the previous four lessons. Here is a look at one that incorporated all the new material nicely!

What I was particularly excited about, though, was these models by two of the English language learners in the class. The models aren’t perfect, but they have definitely learned a lot of the content and were able to successfully display their new knowledge in their models!

I am excited about what the students learned from this mini unit, but I also learned so much about how I could have done things better. I’ll discuss what I learned from this experience in my next post!

Teaching for the First Time…Times Three!

I finished teaching my first 7th grade chemistry unit last week! The unit was about the properties of matter and phase changes.

I think it went pretty well, although I have of course already accumulated quite the list of things I need to make sure I do better next time.

My unit focused around a scientific phenomenon that required an understanding of the phases of matter and phase changes to know how it worked. We started with a large beaker of colored water and put a small empty beaker in the middle. We then covered the large beaker with tin foil, put some ice on top, and heated the water to boiling. In the end, we had colorless water in the small beaker in the middle! So what was happening??

In small groups, the students observed and asked questions about what they were watching. They then had a chance to draw out their initial models of what they thought was happening. After each student drew out their own model, we worked together as a class to put everyone’s ideas together. Here is a look at what the three classes came up with before they even learned a thing about the phases and phase changes!

As you can see, when all their ideas were discussed and put together, they did a great job of explaining what happened! We were starting from a good place, and hopefully their understanding of the chemistry behind the phenomenon would deepen as they learned more during the unit! I’ll tell you about how it went in my next post!

Learning From the Best

The annual Science Teacher Association of New York State (STANYS) conference this year was in Rochester, NY! As noted in my last post, I generally hate conferences, but my initial reading of the conference schedule confirmed that there were going to be sessions at the conference that would likely be useful to me. I signed up as soon as I could!

Due to scheduling conflicts, I could only attend the conference on Sunday morning, but the two sessions I attended were a great introduction to the wealth of resources that STANYS members have to offer.

Using Phenomenon to Establish a Driving Question by Carol-Ann Winans, the Biology subject area representative (SAR) from the Nassau region. Below is a list of my favorite parts of the session:

  • Amazing shared resource of Carol-Ann’s presentation, scaffolds, and literacy labs: tinyurl.com/winans18
  • A strong example of an engaging phenomenon to address: how did scientists recognize that we were depleting the ozone with the release of chloroflurocarbons and then convince the world to cease harmful actions in time to avoid planetary disaster?
  • Masterful examples of how to pace a lesson that introduces a phenomenon and the associated scaffolds to provide
  • Working with experienced teachers who were able to embody middle school students
  •  Reminders of the struggles that students may have with the shift to phenomenon-based learning

The Chemistry Institute. Below is a list of my favorite parts of the session:

  • A strong example of an engaging phenomenon that we could explore further with hands-on experimentation: why was the finish on pennies affected by the taco sauce a Taco Bell?
  • Working with experienced teachers who had a range of experience with phenomenon-based instruction
  • Considerations for how a phenomenon that students can explore themselves differs from an anchoring phenomenon that captures all the ideas of a unit but that cannot be directly manipulated by students

The timing of these experiences aligned perfectly with my preparations to teach my very first unit to seventh grade students at Twelve Corners Middle School in Brighton. I was excited to learn about practices that were directly applicable to my student teaching experience. Next week I’ll tell you more about that!

When Motivation Isn’t There

Throughout my 20 years as a scientist, I have always hated conferences. I fall asleep during presentations and can’t imagine what anyone gets out of trying to read a poster when the author is hovering close by hoping or dreading that you will ask a question. Even during sessions in which I have given a presentation or a poster, I generally have had no interest in what others had to say.

I think much of my dissatisfaction with conferences comes from a lack of engagement and/or motivation. In contrast to research on scientific identity and engagement that supports the idea that people do not engage in active learning in an environment unless they see themselves as belonging in and valued by that environment (Gee, 2003), I have not often perceived a value of belonging in and engaging in the scientific conference community.

In addition, whereas I responded well to extrinsic motivation in the beginning of my school career because I was concerned about what teachers thought of me, this influence has significantly decreased over the years as my focus on learning has shifted to be more about what I want to get out of it versus what someone else tells me I should be getting out of it. So, showing up to and staying awake through conference sessions that I was not intrinsically motivated to attend has not been high on my priority list. As might be guessed, a lack of intrinsic motivation contributes to a lack of initiative (Larson, 2000).

I have always enjoyed learning best when sitting down with a textbook or a paper and reading. And, although I understand the official social component of this type of learning because someone wrote the content, I don’t generally think I benefit from discussing any of it with others.

In contrast, I have thought discussing science with others was useful when I had a particular task I was working on that I thought they could help me with. I once curated a database of genetic mutations that had been reported to cause hearing loss, and I actively sought out authors of relevant papers, sat poised with my pen ready through talks on newly identified hearing loss diseases, and pored over posters that focused on mutations. As noted by Pintrich et al. (1993), motivational beliefs are based on interest, utility value, and the importance of the task.

“Interest simply refers to the student’s general attitude or preference for the content or task (e.g., some students just like and are interested in science). Utility value concerns the student’s instrumental judgments about the potential usefulness of the content or task for helping him or her to achieve some goal (e.g., getting into college, getting a job). Finally, the importance of the task refers to the student’s perception of the salience or significance of the content or task to the individual.” (p. 183)

I think it is perceived lack of utility value and/or importance that has led to my consistent disengagement from scientific conferences.

Last week end, I attend the Science Teachers Association of New York State conference.  As I walked through the doors, I felt an unfamiliar excitement bubble up in my chest. Could that be intrinsic motivation I felt? Stay tuned for next week’s blog post about the sessions I attended!


Gee, J. P. (2003). Learning and Identity: What Does it Mean to be a Half-Elf. In What Video Games Have to Teach us About Learning and Literacy (pp. 51–71). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Larson, R. W. (2000). Toward a psychology of positive youth development. Am Psychol, 55(I), 170–183. https://doi.org/10.1037//0003-066X

Pintrich, P. R., Marx, R. W., & Boyle, R. A. (1993). Beyond Cold Conceptual Change : The Role of Motivational Beliefs and Classroom Contextual Factors in the Process of Conceptual Change. Review of Educational Research, 63(2), 167–199.

How We See Ourselves

I grew up with…and continue to live with…just about every type of privilege a person could have. I was born to loving middle-class white parents who were successful in school and in work, knew how to work the systems of life to get what they needed and wanted, and taught me that I could do and be just about anything I wanted. I also had teachers who supported me at every turn, and I had various role models – both male and female – for all my interests from soccer to singing to science to writing.  This trend has continued through my life, and I’ve had opportunities to experience success in various fields and environments.

All of this instilled in me the confidence and the skills to pursue any path I have been interested in. Throughout school, my graduate training, and life I have not only been interested in doing well, I know I can be successful. I see myself as a scientist, musician, athlete, writer, and soon-to-be teacher. Research supports that this makes a big difference in how people learn.

People cannot learn in a deep way…if they are not willing to commit themselves fully to the learning in terms of time, effort, and active engagement. Such a commitment requires that they are willing to see themselves in terms of a new identity, that is, to see themselves as the kind of person who can learn, use, and value the new…domain. (Gee, 2003, p. 59)

Brown (2006) studied a group of science students who

Despite their complicated understanding of how the community of scientists build knowledge among each other, require validation of information, and are engaged in detailed multitiered research, students did not perceive themselves as members (or, in some cases, potential members) of this community of scientists. (p. 115)

In addition, people resist learning identities when faced with low expectations for achievement and restricted access to resources (Nasir, 2008).

What can we as teachers do to support our students as they build their science learning identities? Students learn when they are treated as capable learners and held to high expectations (Ladson-Billings, 2012). When learners are given opportunities to solve authentic problems, held accountable, and provided with the relevant resources, they can see themselves as effective practitioners (Engle, 2002). And, when we treat the diverse languages, cultures, and literacies of learners as resources for lessons and activities instead of deficits, we can expand science learning identities to include characteristics that students can better connect with (Ladson-Billings, 2012; Paris, 2014).

For me, my learning identity building came naturally as I learned in an environment that closely aligned with my home environment, and I was supported by various communities. I need to explicitly consider that this is not the case for all students and ensure that I am connecting with who my students are and supporting the growth of their learning identities. I am still learning how best to do this with my students. I would love to learn more about the strategies that others use to best serve their students in this.



Brown, B. A. (2006). “It isn’t no slang that can be said about this stuff”: Language, identity, and appropriating science discourse. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 43(1), 96–126. https://doi.org/10.1002/tea.20096

Engle, R. A., & Conant, F. R. (2002). Guiding Principles for Fostering Productive Disciplinary Engagement: Explaining an Emergent Argument in a Community of Learners Classroom. Cognition and Instruction, 20(4), 399–483. https://doi.org/10.1207/S1532690XCI2004

Gee, J. P. (2003). Learning and Identity: What Does it Mean to be a Half-Elf. In What Video Games Have to Teach us About Learning and Literacy (pp. 51–71). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2012). I Used to Love Science … and Then I Went to School: The Challenge of School Science in Urban Schools. In J. Settlage & S. A. Southerland (Eds.), Teaching science to every child: Using culture as a starting point (pp. 13–19). New York, NY: Routledge. Retrieved from www.routledge.com/textbooks/9780415892582

Nasir, N. S., Hand, V., & Taylor, E. V. (2008). Culture and Mathematics in School: Boundaries Between “Cultural” and “Domain” Knowledge in the Mathematics Classroom and Beyond. Review of Research in Education, 32, 187–240. https://doi.org/10.3102/0091732X07308962

Paris, D., & Alim, H. S. (2014). What Are We Seeking to Sustain Through Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy? A Loving Critique Forward. Harvard Educational Review, 84(1), 85–100. https://doi.org/10.17763/haer.84.1.982l873k2ht16m77

Gradual Release of Responsibility

Oh scaffolding, how you continue to elude me!

I have been thinking a lot about gradual release of responsibility lately because I have continued to struggle to provide the correct level of scaffolding and structure to the activities we do in our after-school science club, STARS. Or, perhaps I am struggling with modifying my expectations to better align with the fact that students need more time than I allow to go through an iterative process when authentically working on activities and that initial attempts can…and should…result in products that are not as developed “as I would like.”

Most likely, my struggles grow from both of these circumstances and more!

Last week, we planned an activity during which students would create draft informational fliers to support our partnership with the Verona Street Pet Shelter. To structure this activity, we provided a Google drive of pictures from our visit to the pet shelter and sentence prompts that we thought the students would be able to use  generate guidance for pet owners about what to do keep pets happy and healthy. This idea has been the focus of our time together, so we wanted to give the students the opportunity to express what they have learned.

“Animal behavior benefits from ________ because ________.”

“Providing animals with ________ keeps them happy and healthy because ________.”

We also provided some rules that we thought would be sufficient to structure the activity:

Size = 8.5″ x 11″

Number of information sentences = 6

Number of pictures = 3

Things got off to a confusing start because we decided to have the students use the online tool Canva to make their flier drafts. None of the students were familiar with Canva, and although we had scheduled some play time, we really could have spent an entire session just trying it out. I had certainly spent at least that much time playing with Canva when I first used it!

In addition, although we told students to get started playing with the general format of their flier and the informational sentences while they waited for us to provide them with access to the Google Drive pictures, they were immediately focused on needing to get the pictures before anything else. We wasted a lot of time getting them all access.

We didn’t end up with any draft fliers that met our criteria; however, the students put together some really nice ideas! Check them out!!!


So, in the end, I think we tried to do way too much all at once. In such a brief after school session, we did not have enough time to introduce Canva and provide a chance to get comfortable with it, review all the pictures from our Verona Street visit to select which ones to include in the flier, and write up to six informational sentences using our previously developed knowledge and our sentence prompts.

If I were to do this again, I would:

  1. Use Google Slides because the students were already familiar with that tool. Canva has cool templates, but they really aren’t necessary for the project, and with our limited amount of time with the students, I don’t think providing sufficient time to play with Canva would be the best use of our time.
  2. Have reduced the number of pictures the students were reviewing and selecting from. We gave the students access to our full Google Drive folder of pictures, but we hadn’t vetted them ourselves yet. There was no need to have the students review so many pictures at the time they were making their flyer drafts.
  3. Have asked for their email addresses earlier so that we could have shared the pictures with them all before the activity started.
  4. Devoted an earlier session to writing up six informational sentences that all the students had reviewed and decided to use. The students had some great ideas, and we had briefly discussed these sentences before in earlier sessions; however, we needed to have explicitly generated these informational sentences before so that the students weren’t spending time at this session to  write them.

We plan to move towards finalizing our flier this week. Our plan is to have students review the drafts they made and select which components they want to include in our final version. Instead of having students choose from a world of options, however, we will narrow the selection of templates, sentences, and images. In truth, they did most of this work for us by making their selections next week! So, maybe we made a better start than I think?!!?

What about you? What would you have done differently to get this project off to a smoother start?

We’ll let you know how it goes!!!

Eliciting Student Ideas

As part of our program, we are learning about Ambitious Science Teaching (AST), which is an approach to teaching science that is both incredibly inspiring and incredibly intimidating.

In contrast to more traditional approaches to science teaching in which teachers impart their knowledge of the scientific content to their students who are listening patiently and quietly to learn the facts they are told, AST focuses on helping

students of all backgrounds to deeply understand fundamental science ideas, participate in the practices of science, solve authentic problems together, and learn how to continue learning on their own (pg. 3).

Eliciting student ideas is a key component of this process. The premise for eliciting student ideas is based on the fact that students’ backgrounds, previous experiences, and cultures not only influence how they make sense of new content, but they also serve as resources that can be used to make natural phenomenon more relevant and engaging.

So, eliciting student ideas is something we have been trying to incorporate into our work with our STARS after-school science club groups. I recognize how important this is, but it is also very challenging! As noted by Windschitl, Thompson, and Braaten (2018),

You can’t, however, just present young science learners with an interesting story and say, ‘Tell me what you think.’ You have to select a rich scenario, relevant to the science ideas, to get the students talking (pg. 88).

Identifying a rich scenario that is both accessible and challenging to students while also aligning with the learning goals we hope to accomplish is a daunting task!

In addition to the discomfort this shift from traditional approaches instills in someone like me who grew up simply digesting the content that was thrown at me, this shift also requires us to trust. We have to trust that we will frame the lessons, introduce the scenarios, and foster conversations in ways that guide our students to engage and take ownership of their learning. For me, this is going to take a lot of work and preparation.

More so, we have to trust our students. We have to trust that, when given the opportunity, they will engage with the material and use their resources to make observations, ask questions, and want to work towards understanding what they are seeing. Based on our initial experiences with our STARS students, I can already see that I have underestimated how well they would do all of this and more. They are absolutely capable making connections to what they already know and exploring ideas. I am looking forward to learning more from them!

Are you a teacher who uses these approaches in your classroom? I’d love to talk with you about how you do what you do!



Windschitl, M., Thompson, J., & Braaten, M. (2018). Ambitious Science Teaching. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Back in Schools!

This fall we are running an after school science club for 7th and 8th graders at the World of Inquiry School (School #58). In order to determine what the students might want to study, we started with asking them about some of their science ideas during lunch for two days. To do this, we had:

  • A “Graffiti” wall on which students could answer a few questions

  • A spin wheel that students could spin for candy and a category assignment to write about science in their life

  • An Instagram frame for taking pictures with student-developed science phrases on it

We learned a lot about what is important to the students, and we had a lot of fun getting to know them a little bit better!


Collecting Soil and Making Connections

Although camp officially started last Thursday, today was the first day we really spent time with the students on our project. We headed back to Burnap’s farm to get some soil samples, get some aerial pictures, and learn about farming from the farmers themselves!

We avoided the rain, I think the students learned a bit, and I learned a whole lot! Most importantly, we made some great connections with the students.

Our plan was to break up into three smaller groups and rotate through three different sites on the farm. Two of the sites were fields from which we had collected strawberries during out last visit, and the third site was in the parking lot! At each site we made observations about the time of day, weather, and soil before we took soil samples to be analyzed later. We also had a chance to fly a GoPro several feet up into the air using a weather balloon and take some aerial photographs of each site. Tomorrow, we get to analyze all the soil and see if we detect any differences between the sites!

I have learned a great deal about teaching so far. Although this is summer camp and doesn’t need to adhere to any official standards, we are creating lesson plans for each day of camp. These haven’t included all the details that formal lesson plans will, but we have gotten a good introduction into the structure of a lesson plan and what types of things we need to consider during out planning. In addition, we are working with experienced teachers from Sodus middle school and high school. Not only do they know the kids and the area, but they model good teaching practice throughout our lessons. Today I learned some strategies for making sure students were listening and respecting each other when they were talking. In addition, I learned how to work with students when they are collecting data and to hold them accountable for completing their tasks. I look forward to implementing these strategies tomorrow and learning some new ones too!