What, it’s November already? One would think that as a middle school teacher and magazine columnist I should have a better handle on my time management and blogging skills, but obviously I do not. Here I am though, finally writing again, on a school night! So, hello, dear reader and friend. Let’s catch up for a bit.
The first quarter of the school year has blown by, much like the non-existent season of fall here in the Northeast. (Seriously? I had a couple of weekends to enjoy the colorful foliage before some storms came in and left bare branches.) Working at a new district has been both exciting and challenging; exciting because it’s a new workplace, and challenging because it’s a new workplace. My past columns have focused on inquiry-based instruction, modeling instruction, and the 5E learning cycle so I have been really pushing myself to walk the talk in my own science classroom. Since my first year of teaching, my work motto was “Be bold and courageous in all that you do.” Science is about experimentation anyway, so why not try new and different things?
Here’s some new things I “leapt” at this quarter and what I learned from them:
- The 5E learning cycle is a fun and effective way to teach science. One of the NSTA listserv members shared his 5E lesson plan template and I’ve adapted it for my unit plans. I think this year so far I have doubled the amount of hands-on activities and labs from what I usually do in a unit. Even though I increased the number of labs, prep time and clean up has been reduced with the installation of class jobs and student helpers. Students seem to be more at ease with vocabulary and concepts that most students in the past struggled with, even after review and reteaching. I think that is because they are making the connections between their Explore lab experiences and the content. I too find it easier to explain something when I can say, “Remember what happened when…?” or “Remember when you…?” Instantly an image pops up in their heads, and they get it.
- Visual sketch noting is not just for the artistically-inclined. Earlier in September, students completed a multiple intelligences survey and many described themselves as visual-spatial learners. I also had a lot of students who kept drawing in class. Rather than get annoyed by their scribbles, I embraced it and switched class notes to foldables and doodles in our science interactive notebooks. Now they were earning notebook grades for coloring and drawing–a win/win for us all! While I personally prefer outlines and bulleted lists for notes, I too have tried to be more creative by using Google Drawing to create diagrams, flow-charts, and summaries for notes. I also have tried drawing during team meetings, and while I get strange looks from peers, I realized I remember more things when I drew them because I could picture them in my head. Again with the images!
- Cognitive psychology tricks makes productive learning stick. (Hey, that rhymes!) In October, I attended a local science conference and one of the sessions I sat in was based on Peter Brown’s, “Make It Stick:The Science of Successful Learning”. The master teacher shared her experiences using vocabulary concept maps and summary sheets. I came home and tried both as review strategies for our first unit test. At first, students resisted. Middle school students resist change, especially when that change means they have to do more thinking and more work! They complained a lot about how hard it was, but then something shifted. They started getting into discussions about categorizing vocabulary words and how they should word their phrases to show connections. When they found out they could use the summary sheet for a test, they were excited until they learned they had to decide on their own what goes on that sheet. Students who really took the time to work on their vocabulary maps and summary sheets earned higher scores than those who blew it off. I like the strategies, and am interested to see what the results will be for the next unit. Will more students take it seriously this time? Hmm…
- When you have a low STEAM budget, build things out of junk. One of my classes is a STEAM class that meets every day for 20 minutes. It was a last minute schedule change before school started so I didn’t really have a lot of time or materials to plan out a curriculum. Thankfully, NSTA listserv members shared some STEAM resources and school staff donated recyclable materials to help me get through the first 10 weeks. I started off with weekly themed challenges, like the Apple A-lympics. Students built the tallest towers, cantilevers, wrecking balls, and bridges with apples. When they got bored with that theme (and the apples started rotting), we switched to two-week challenges such as cardboard marble mazes and candy pumpkin’ chunkin’ catapults. Students really enjoyed building things, but we got burned out quickly. When I get the next batch of students in December, I plan to throw in videos, science literacy articles, and basic lab skills review to break things up and give us some breathing space. Instead of a weekly challenge, I may break it up into 5- 2-week long short term projects or do 1 long-term project using Google CS where they can work on their own pace.
- Angela Watson is the queen of batching and streamlining; I want to be her when I grow up. Back in July, I signed up for Angela Watson’s “40 Hour Teacher Work Week” program. It has been hard to keep up with the weekly readings, audios and Facebook posts since school started but the content is pure gold. I have been commuting to work carrying only my lunch box! (If you’re a science teacher, you KNOW this is a biggie. I usually carry 1-2 totes of papers and STUFF that I need for a demo, activity or lab.) I have been getting more work done at work, and rarely brought work home since October. I have been getting out of work on time, and have not once had to go to school on a weekend to print! I get more time to spend with my husband, actually watch TV, or curl up with a book on weeknights. (Or like tonight, finally blog.) Bottom line: after seven years of teaching, I am starting to have my own personal life.
- Batching similar tasks means that I don’t go around in circles all day. I plan everything out the night before or morning of, prioritize my tasks for the day, and I make sure I check off my list. Done, done, and done.
- The weekly readings and Facebook posts keep me reflecting and revamping my routines and strategies to make it even more streamlined and effective. For example, I loved the idea of class jobs and I created all these fancy titles. Environmental manager? Technology specialist? Supply Manager? Cute, right? Fast forward to November and no one is doing those jobs. Turns out all I needed were paper passers. It may be Pinterest-worthy, but if it’s not getting what I need done, I need to avoid it and stick to what will help me do my job well and fast.
- Weekly Do-Nows, or bellringers, are a great way to set the tone for class. I used to do half sheets with 3-5 problems every day , which unfortunately just formed towering piles on my office desk because I didn’t have the time to look at them all. This year I created weekly worksheets and projected Science Spot’s Science Starters on the board or created my own problems in a Google Slidedeck. Now I’m thinking of revamping it again to a weekly review worksheet but with old NYS ILS exam problems printed on them instead of showing it on the board. Some students have also started to just wait until we go over the answers, but hopefully this way will deter reluctant starters and hold them accountable for the review.
- Where have single-point rubrics been all of my life? I learned about single-point rubrics at that same conference from that same master teacher who talked about concept maps and summary sheets. Single-point rubrics only describe the criteria for proficiency. Students’ eyes will no longer glaze over when they read over my rubrics! Why didn’t my college professors ever tell me about these beautiful things? Sorry, Rubistar, I no longer need your time-consuming analytic rubrics! Currently I’m rewriting my interactive notebook, lab report, and groupwork rubrics into single-point rubrics. This might be Pinterest-worthy. Streamlining can be sexy.
I’m not quite sure what’s in line for me for the rest of November, but hey, I’m trying and learning new things! That’s all I can ask of myself. So, be bold, my friend. Learn something new! Leap, and that net will appear! (Oh, and Happy Thanksgiving in case it takes me another few weeks to get back here.)