The second to last web seminar I attended for NSTA’s New Science Teacher Academy this spring was on student inquiry. It was led by one of my secret idols, Page Keeley! (If you have an NSTA account, I suggest you search for that archived seminar from the Learning Center and watch it ASAP!) As a student teacher two years ago, I was very lucky to get copies of the first four or five volumes of her books from one of my Twitter PLN members. They have been very valuable to me in my instruction over the past years.
As a new teacher, I had the opportunity to use several of her formative probes in my instruction. Previously, I used them as warm-ups or bell-ringers before I introduced new units. They were used to quickly assess scholars’ background knowledge, preconceptions and misconceptions about the unit I was about to teach. The warm-ups were paired with think-pair-shares, small group and whole-group discussions. I listened carefully during these discussions, noted key concepts and/or skills I needed to address, and sometimes saved quotes from scholars which I would later refer to during direct instruction and lectures.The seminar, however, taught me that I was barely scratching the surface with these formative probes.Keeley shared many ideas on how to incorporate the probes before, during, and after instruction.
Sticky Bar Graphs
One of the tips I decided to try right away in class were the sticky bar graphs. At the time, I was transitioning from “Characteristics of Life” to ” Cell Division”. (See previous post on inquiry lab, Characteristics of Life). We were going through the major characteristics of life (“MRS. GREN!”), and we were moving onto energy processes and growth. I used the probe, “Sam’s Puppy”, from Keeley’s Volume 1 book to see their thought processes on cell division. Scholars were given the prompt, directed to write a short written response to justify their reasoning, and then anonymously post their results in a bar graph using post-it notes.
I loved the sticky bar graph because it allowed me to quickly assess the scholars’ thinking in a glance. As you can see in the picture, the majority of the class picked option A and this taught me that they were already aware of cell division as a way for most organisms to grow, reproduce, and repair damaged structures. Scholars who chose options B and C relied on other background knowledge, which I later was able to expand on during a short class discussion on their choices. Some scholars were reluctant to share at first, so it is important to stress the fact that there is no right or wrong regarding these formative probes. It is simply a way to get scholars thinking about what they already know and believe about science concepts, and for them to articulate these thought processes. For example, 3 scholars chose option B because they thought organisms grew larger as they absorbed more food. 1 scholar chose option C because he thought organisms grew larger as a result of cells increasing in size.
The discussions proved most beneficial because scholars asked each other questions, and each had to defend their reasoning behind their options. The scholar who picked option C later realized a flaw in his reasoning when another scholar asked, “If organisms grew based on the size of their cells, how does that account for short or tall organisms? Do you mean to say that some cells stretch out more than others?” Hmm…
Unfortunately, I was unable to go back to the bar graphs at the end of instruction due to interim testing schedules. If I were to go back, I would give them the same formative probe and a different colored post-it note to see if they have changed their understanding of cell division at the end of the unit. It would be nice to see the before and after graphs!
The other probe I later used for cell division was a card sorting activity on cell cycle stages and mitosis phases. Scholars really had a hard time with this part of the lesson, despite the acronyms (I make cupcakes, but Pam makes apple turnovers!), hand mnemonics, and the dozens of clips and animations I used in class. After going through my notes from the seminar, I decided to create my own card stock templates and laminated the cards. During the week, scholars spent 20 minutes a day practicing with the card sorts. They were allowed to use their notes at first, but soon they were challenging each other to match the labels, diagrams, and definitions in decreasing time frames. Again, the card sorts were a quick way for me to assess who were at-level, beyond-level, or needed more 1:1 help. I walked around and observed each group, and paired my observations with a simple 3-point checklist for assessment on that day.
I really liked the card sort activity because it was a good way for scholars to practice vocabulary, match definitions, and to get them moving around and working with partners or small groups. 2-3 scholars per group would work best, I think, for these sorting activities. In retrospect, I should have used this strategy earlier with cell structures/organelles and functions! I think I will do this probe for that concept next year. Using the probes for formative assessment is definitely a work in progress, but they have taught me a lot about my scholars’ thinking. I will try to work on incorporating more probes in my arsenal, and making sure I go back frequently during and after instruction to tie everything together.