Classroom Strategies, Science

Bringing State Parks into our Classroom with PORTS

Parks Online Resources for Students and Teachers, or PORTS, is a phenomenal and engaging program for K-12 students and their teachers. It’s offered through the California State parks, and is open to all classrooms! Yes, even y’all outside California!

Chatting with Ranger Francesca from Crystal Cove State Park

Last year was my first opportunity to participate in PORTS. My classes talked with Ranger Jennifer at the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook, and learned more about weather and climate. Although her program was geared for grades 3-5, she was excited to speak with older students and have slightly different conversations.

This year, my 7th grade science students had the opportunity to video chat with Ranger Francesca from the Crystal Cove State Park in Laguna Beach, CA about habitat protection and restoration. Just like Ranger Jennifer, Ranger Francesca was delightful to work with! She was engaging, patient, and excited to share her park with our class. Students were attentive as she showed us around her park, displayed and annotated graphics, and answered their questions. At the end, we even had time to ask Ranger Francesca about her college experience and why she picked this career.

The video chat was done through Zoom, which was perfect because Ranger Francesca was able to show and annotate graphics during our presentation.

Students were super engaged while chatting with Ranger Francesca

To prepare for our video chat, I modified some of the provided lessons in the unit, and adapted them for our needs. I also let the ranger know ahead of time what we had studied so far, to make our time more efficient. For example, for habitat protection and restoration, we were already ⅔ of the way through our ecology unit, and had studied ecosystems, food webs, and resource availability.

Although it isn’t required or suggested in the program, I also asked my students to write thank you letters to our guest speakers. Many have little experience writing thank you letters, so we brainstormed sentence frames and what to include together (“Thank you for talking to our class about… “ or “Thank you for taking time to talk to us…” or “My favorite part was…”). Many students also drew pictures showing what they learned.

I highly recommend PORTS to all K-12 teachers! It’s a ton of fun, and the kids love it! They’ve been talking about it non-stop for the last 2 weeks!

Classroom Strategies, Science

Socratic Seminars in Science

[This post was originally featured on Kids Discover, How to Promote Critical Thinking with Socratic Seminars, on April 18, 2017.]
As teachers, we’re constantly being told to implement 21st Century Skills and the 4Cs (critical thinking, communication, collaboration, creativity). However, beyond that, we frequently aren’t sure where to begin.

To tackle each of the “Cs” in one class period, one of my favorite activities to do with my 7th grade science classes is a Socratic Seminar. Although Socratic Seminars take some preparation for both the teacher and the students, the outcome is well worth the effort! The goal is to get students to dive deep into what you’ve covered in class, and think critically about the topic at hand

A Socratic Seminar is a student-led discussion where part of the class is in an inner circle speaking, and the other part of the class is in an outer circle observing. In my classroom of 30 students, I put students in groups of 3, with one speaker and two “wing people” observing. These jobs rotate at set time during the discussion (more on this below).

My role as the facilitator is to silently watch the discussion from outside both circles. I make notes on who participates, who refers to the text and classroom activities as evidence, and I silently redirect students who get distracted. I also give instructions when we rotate jobs. During the discussions, as much as I want to, I don’t chime in!

To prepare for a Socratic Seminar, we read at least two articles in class on a topic. Our most recent Socratic Seminar was on human impact on ecosystems. Our preparation included:
  • Reading news articles about microtrash, pollution, and how human activities change ecosystems
  • Using Google Expeditions to go on a virtual field trip to Borneo to observe how humans have impacted the rainforests through deforestation, land encroachment, and agriculture
  • Watching The Lorax movie and talking about how that ecosystem was affected by the Onceler’s choices
  • Studying the California Condor rescue and re-population efforts

Having a wide variety of multimedia sources is essential for a successful Socratic Seminar.

Here’s how to set up a Socratic Seminar in your class:
To set up the Socratic Seminar, I provide students with a few open-ended questions ahead of time, and have them brainstorm their responses. Additionally, I ask students to write out a few of their own questions that they can ask the class.

The day before, I volunteer a few students to set up my classroom with 10 chairs in an inner circle, and 20 chairs with desks to form an outer circle.

When students walk in, I assign them into groups of three. Sometimes these groups are randomized, other times they are intentionally grouped based on personalities and strengths.

Person A sits in the inner circle, and the other two teammates, Persons B & C, sit in the 2 chairs directly behind Person A.

Each student receives a paper copy of the “Socratic Seminar Preparation & Student Handout” (make a copy here). (You’ll notice there is a blank page in the middle. This is intentional. When printing & copying back-to-back, this ensures that the two observation sheets are single-sided.)

Socratic Seminar jobs:
  • Speaker: The speaker participates in the discussion with the rest of the speakers, taking turns to share ideas. The speakers ask their own questions, and guides the discussion.
  • Body Language Observation: This wingperson is responsible for observing the body language of their speaker. They mark off different characteristics, such as “spoke in the discussion” or “looked at the person who was speaking.” They are silent during the discussion.
  • Content Observation: This wingperson observes what is said during the discussion. They write down notes on both what their speaker said, and summarize what the rest of the speakers say. They are silent during the discussion.

The Socratic Seminar runs in three rounds, so that each person has a chance to do each role. Since I teach on a block schedule with 100 minute periods, it is easy to have students complete the whole Socratic Seminar during class. It can be spread over two days if needed.

Each round breaks down to:
  • 1.5 minutes – “Speaker, turn to your wingpeople and brainstorm questions and ideas you’d like to bring up in the conversation.”
  • 15 minutes – “Speakers, turn back to the center. You may begin.” [This is all I say–it’s ok if it takes 30+ seconds before someone talks!]
  • 2 minutes – “Speakers, stay silently facing the center. Wingpeople, you have 2 minutes to answer the ‘after discussion’ questions.”
  • 1.5 minutes – “Speakers, turn to your wingpeople. Wingpeople, each of you share 1 thing your speaker did well, and 1 thing they can work on for next time.”
  • 1 minute – “If you were speaker, move to content. If you were content, move to body language. If you were body language, move to speaker.”

Then, start back at the beginning for the next round.

Each round lasts 21 minutes, and with 10 minutes for initial instructions and set-up, and another 15 minutes for the final reflection, the whole process can be done in about 90 minutes.
At the end of the Socratic Seminar, students remove the two observation sheets from their packet and give them to the people they were observing. They receive the observations from when they were the speaker, and re-staple their packet. And finally, students complete the reflection on their participation.

My students also self-grade their participation in the Socratic Seminar based on this rubric:


Socratic Seminars are great ways to get students thinking deeply before a larger writing assignment. Many students benefit from talking through their ideas before they write. Even if you’re not doing an essay or a term paper, you can have students write a Claim-Evidence-Reasoning paragraph based on one of the questions discussed in the Socratic Seminar. Read more about how to scaffold a CER here.

6 Writing Prompts to Jumpstart Your Science Class

[This blog post, 6 Writing Prompts to Jumpstart Your Science Class, was originally featured on Kids Discover on January 11, 2017]

When my students see a writing prompt on the board, inevitably one of them sighs and says, “this is science, not english class!”

This always makes for a great discussion about what scientists do, and how the majority of their work involves reading, writing, and math. All scientists, and science students, must be able to effectively communicate their ideas. The Common Core Standards for Science and Technical Subjects grades 6-8 expect students to use the knowledge the gain from experiments, multimedia sources such as graphics or videos, and texts. Students also must be able to identify the author’s purpose and claim, and extract evidence that supports this claim.

Writing should not be reserved for special occasions, like research papers and lab reports. Instead, it is essential that we encourage our students to develop their effective science communication skills in frequent low-stakes activities, such as quick-writes and short paragraphs.

Writing in science also must go hand-in-hand with reading engaging and interesting pieces of text. There is a time and place for science textbooks. However, they rarely spark students’ love of science. Replace textbook reading with current event articles and news stories. Kids Discover Online has many great informational pieces and text on a wide variety of topics. Some of my other favorite sources for current events are Science News for Students (Society for Science), and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab News.

I use writing prompts as warm-up activities in my science class to build prior knowledge and get students brains to shift to science. Occasionally I collect their informal writing, but I never grade it. I prefer to keep the stakes low, and remove that pressure from my students. Typically, I’m circulating the class as students are writing, peeking over their shoulders, and asking them questions about their writing that will encourage them to write more.

Here are six writing prompts that will get our students’ brains in gear for writing in science:
– Who is a scientist you admire? Why do you admire them? What qualities do they have that make them special?
– Describe how our lives would be different if the lightbulb had never been invented.
– “Science, my lad, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth” (Jules Verne). What does this quote mean to you?
– Are humans hurting or helping our environment? Support your answer with evidence from your experiences.
– Should we colonize Mars? Why or why not?
– Science is all around us, when we do things like cook, ride a bike, or watch TV.  Pick a hobby or activity you do at least once a week, and explain how science is involved.

Anytime we write, at any grade level, it is important to scaffold the writing. Providing sentence starters and paragraph frames is an easy and simple way to support all learners. Also, allowing students to first brainstorm their ideas with a partner before they write is also a simple way to improve students’ writing.

One of my favorite ways to scaffold writing is to have students first do a quickdraw. Students divide a piece of paper in two (can also be done on any app that allows students to draw), hamburger style. I project the writing prompt, and give them 5 silent minutes to draw their answer. Then, I project the same prompt, and have them write their response. I’ve done this as a stand-alone writing prompt, in response to an article, and as a reflection on a short 3-4 minute video.

A new thing I’m excited to try in 2017 is Recap, an app and website that allows students to record short video responses to a prompt. As a teacher, I can listen to my students’ speaking skills, and watch as their confidence grows.

How will you get your students writing more in 2017?


Engineering Beyond the Engineering Challenge

[This post was originally featured on Kids Discover on August 31, 2016]

Walk into my classroom in early August, and you’ll see students with their heads together, excitedly discussing their marble boat designs. There is chaos, but students are moving about the room purposefully between their desks, seeking out my feedback, and to the counters to test their models. 

Engineering Design Process

Three years ago, our school district adopted the Next Generation Science Standards, and we shifted not only the what we taught, but also how we approached our lessons. Previously, we addressed engineering as a one-shot challenge, where students were given a creation prompt, a time limit, and some materials. Typically I used a mystery building challenge, such as: “build the tallest tower you can from the materials in this bag in 20 minutes.” I knew that there was more to engineering than these quick building competitions, but I had no idea how to actually implement that into my classroom. When I heard about engineering-related projects other teachers were doing, they used coding, 3D printers, and robotics; even though I’m a techy teacher, this intimidated me. 

Last spring, my students and I participated in an engineering design field trial through the Lawrence Hall of Science where students were presented with a design challenge, had design constraints, and created and tested prototype models. After this experience, I felt more comfortable facilitating engineering into my science class. Engineering can easily be implemented by providing students with a problem or challenge, giving them design constraints (certain materials, budget, and/or size or appearance guidelines), and designating time for students to design, build, test, and redesign. 

So far this school year, we have done two different engineering design labs. 

Marble Boat Engineering

Testing marble boat designs

The marble boat engineering lab fit in less than our 100 minute block period, and was highly engaging for my students. I have done a similar activity with my students in the past as a one-shot design competition using pennies–this time I didn’t have enough pennies, so we switched to marbles. 

To prepare our lab stations, I set up bins and buckets with water and containers of marbles. After I introduced students to the lab and expectations (Mix 7th graders and water, some guidelines are necessary!), I asked them work in pairs to draw their first design in the “design & build” section. Once they showed me their drawing, I gave them a piece square of aluminum foil–any size works, as long as you stay consistent within the class period. 

Revising and retesting designs

Students went to test their design, and recorded how many marbles their boat held. When pairs returned to their seats, they filled out the “test” and “reflect” sections for their first design, and moved on to their next “design & build.” This design and build, test, and reflect process was repeated three times. Afterward, students completed their analysis questions to justify their most successful design. 

Once we finished the lab, we had a lively class discussion on what skills they used while completing the engineering design process. Eventually and with guidance, students came up with the following skills: ask questions, research, imagine solutions, build and test a model, and revise model. We discussed how engineering is not linear, and requires students to constantly think and reflect on what is working and what can be improved. 

One great thing about this lab is that I brought it to our moderate/severe special education class on my prep period. I was able to complete the lab in small groups with this group of students plus a few instructional aides. With the more verbal students in the class, we were able to have conversations about making changes to designs and what worked and what didn’t. For others, the act of counting marbles together was a valuable skill.

Paper Airplane Engineering

Testing paper airplane designs outside

After the marble boat engineering lab, I introduced my students to a larger project, the paper airplane engineering lab. This project took a week, two 100-minute block periods plus a Friday minimum day. In previous years, I’ve used a variation of this lab to teach the scientific method, independent and dependent variables, and data collection. My science team and I modified this lab to focus on engineering. Just like the marble boats, students designed, built, tested, and reflected on three different paper airplane models. Their goal was to create a paper airplane that flew both straight and far. 

To set up this lab for testing outside, I recruited students to draw landing strips, 1 meter wide and 20 meters long, in chalk on the concrete. With meter sticks, we marked off each meter along the landing strip. 

Collecting paper airplane data

When we went outside to test paper airplanes, students noted if their paper airplane flew straight and landed in the landing zone, and estimated how far their paper airplane went, down to the half meter (quarter meter for students who felt comfortable with that). Even though this is less accurate, we prioritized focusing on engineering practices over measurement skills–we will spiral back to measurement multiple times this school year, and exact measurements were not detrimental to our lab. For students who are ready, finding exact measurements and calculating the average distance would have been a logical extension. 

This school year, as my students and I get more comfortable with the engineering design process, we will be able to expand the scope of our projects. We have a good foundation for what engineering looks like on a small scale. Our next steps are to bring in an engineer as a guest speaker to talk about their career, and continue with more engineering projects that fit in with our curriculum.


Interactive Notebooks in Science Class

[This blog post was originally posted to Kids Discover on August, 3, 2016]

Technology is an incredible tool the enhance and extend student learning. As we move more and more towards one-to-one technology classrooms, we need to keep what is best for students in the forefront of our minds. Sometimes, an analog model works best for student learning, and we must set aside the devices for a while. In my seventh grade science classroom, I do just that with our interactive science notebooks.

I follow a fairly strict interactive notebook format, where the right side page is the input and the left side page is the output. This is based on brain lateralization, where the left side of the brain focuses on being analytical, and the right side of the brain focuses on creativity (remember, each side of our brain controls the opposite side of the body). We always do the right side, then the left side; this takes a while for students to get the hang of, but eventually it becomes routine.

Brain Lateralization diagram

We set up our notebooks together in the first two weeks of school, once schedules are settled and students are comfortable in my class. I require students to have a single subject 8.5” x 11” or 9” x 11” notebook, which is enough for our entire school year. On notebook set-up day, we number each page front and back starting with the first right side page as page one. It is extremely important that students number their pages correctly–this saves a lot of trouble and stress for both the student and the teacher later on. Then, I provide students with handouts and a list of what will go in their notebook. This includes general information about our class, bathroom passes (I give them six per semester, and I do not offer extra credit for leftover bathroom passes), templates for writing claim-evidence-reasoning in science, and a summary of notebook expectations. I have created some interactive science notebook templates. Feel free to customize to meet your needs.

At the end of each unit, students complete their unit title page, self-check, individual reflection, and parent reflection. This allows them to identify their best work, areas of growth, and progress they’d like to make. We check notebooks in class with trade-and-grade, which saves me time. I’m always walking around to double check grading, and I randomly spot check notebooks in each class.

Example left side page, illustrations for
different types of measurement

In our science class, we are on a 100 minute block schedule. I almost always follow the same class format: warm-up, right side input, left side output, activity, closure. The routine helps students know exactly what to expect each day, and there is plenty of room for creativity and excitement.

Our right side pages are input, and can be information from direct instruction, short flipped video lessons completed for homework, videos (Bill Nye and Magic School Bus are our favorites), or station work. These are done in Cornell Note format. I provide my students with cloze Cornell Notes to make the input part as quick as possible. Slowly throughout the year, as they learn to write faster and more efficiently, I have them take on more and more of the note-taking process.

Right side example, reading & annotating
an article

After we’ve completed the right side together, I provide instructions for students to complete the left side of their notebook. This is always a creative activity that includes plenty of color and open-ended prompts. Activities include: quickwrites and quickdraws, creating cartoons, T-charts and Venn diagrams, and labeled diagrams.

With the exception of video notes or graphic organizer, the right side page typically takes no more than ten to fifteen minutes. We usually allow for twenty to thirty minutes for the left side page, and occasionally longer for a more detailed assignment. The entire right-left cycle can be completed in under an hour, including a warm-up and organizing notebooks for the day. This leaves the last hour for the activity, which may be a lab, game, stations work, or project, that directly implements what was learned in the right-left cycle (or a few right-left cycles). With labs in science, it is easy to adjust lab handouts into a right (procedures and pre-work) and left (data and analysis) format.

Left & right side pages together. Cornell Notes on the right,
foldable on the left.

My students absolutely love their science notebooks, and always smile at the end of the year when they flip back through to see how much they’ve grown throughout the year. This year, I am lucky that my whole department is on board with interactive notebooks in science!