My first exploration for NSTA New Science Teacher Academy was on analyzing student work in science. In mid-February, I was transitioning from the girls’ school to the boys’ school so it was perfect timing to gather data on new scholars. When I began the exploration, I had one goal: to try to go back and add more inquiry to the lessons I just taught in the beginning of the year with the girls.
Exploration and lesson plans
The first unit was on the major characteristics of life. Previously I taught the unit through direct instruction and then a lab. This time, I decided to take an “activity before content” approach. On Day 1, scholars were pre-assessed with a Page Keeley formative probe, where they worked individually and then in groups on classifying a group of items as living or non-living. They pair-shared their results, and then worked together to generate a list of characteristics they believed all living organisms had in common.
On Day 2, I set up a rotating lab with 8 stations. (The lab was adapted from STEM Mom’s blog post on the same type of lab.) Scholars were directed to use the list of characteristics they came up with as a checklist to determine if the specimens at each station were living, non-living, or dead. There were obvious specimens—a live bamboo plant, a beaver skull, rocks and minerals. There were also some specimens that scholars had trouble with–germinating but moldy tulip bulbs, terrariums with dead leaves and fungi, a microscope slide of frog blood cells, and a beaker of yeast in warm water. If I had more time to set up the lab, I would have included the resurrection plants, cut flowers in water, and guppy fish. (In retrospect, I should have asked the scholars for their suggestions for next year’s batch! I’m sure they could have come up with more interesting specimens!)
On Day 3, scholars finished their post-lab questions and had small-group and whole-class discussions on their findings. I asked them which of their characteristics from their checklist were most helpful and least helpful, and which characteristics they would pick if they were to perform the lab a second time. We proceeded with a video and guided notes on the major characteristics of life.
On Day 4, scholars wrote a short written essay in response to a prompt. They used their new knowledge and lab experiences to justify why a specimen of their choice from lab would be considered as a living thing. At the time, it seemed to me that scholars really struggled with this last activity. Next year, I will provide a graphic organizer with the essay prompt so that they can sort out their thoughts and articulate their experience more easily. I think I will ask them to write their essay as if they were trying to explain the concept to a younger sibling, or to an elementary school student.
Another idea for next year’s culminating activity is to have them complete a scenario-based assessment. Previously during my research, I came across a PowerPoint called, “Is Sammy Alive?”, in which a young boy slowly becomes bionic. Scholars have to decide if he is alive, non-living or dead using their new knowledge of the major characteristics of life. I like how the teacher incorporates web 2.0 tools like Wallwishers with this activity, so I think I can try to adapt this lesson to spur discussions in class. I can also mix this PowerPoint with another assessment, where scholars pretend they are a newspaper columnist and they have to defend their reasoning on Sammy’s situation.
Conclusions and lessons learned
My first exploration provided me with an editable PDF tool that allowed me to assess target scholars. From their work, I noticed patterns and trends occurring within the class. For example, analysis of their pre-assessment revealed that many of the scholars’ observations relied on what they “knew” and “felt”. I realized that I needed to take time out and model how to do proper observations for lab. The effect was two-fold because I was also able to model my expectations for proper lab drawings. I also learned that the A-B-C approach was very helpful; when I did the activity first, they had something to connect the academic vocabulary and content to when we finally went over it during direct instruction. They were able to participate more in class discussion because they remembered what they saw and did, and could say that they had “proof” of it instead of it being something they already “knew” or “felt”.
To date, I try to rearrange my instruction to fit the A-B-C approach. One of the downsides is that lab set up can be time consuming. Sometimes it is not easy to get the lab materials ready on time, so I have to forego the activity and do the content (ie. direct instruction) first.
It is interesting to note the differences using the A-B-C approach in single-gender classrooms. When I taught all females, they seemed to have a better grasp of the concepts when I taught content before the activity. They seemed to want to know what they were doing first, and why. In contrast, when I taught all males, they seemed to have a better grasp of the concept after the activity. It was easier for them to understand academic vocabulary when I was able to say, “Remember when…in lab… and this happened? That’s [insert vocabulary here]!” That’s definitely something I’ll have to research much further, but I think after trying out the A-B-C approach, I will try to do more inquiry labs before direct instruction first.