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.
Classroom Strategies

Whiteboard Desks: Low tech can be really fun!

My desks before the transformation
Somehow by the luck of the draw, I ended up with the worst desks in our entire school when I joined this staff in 2013. Not only are the desk legs loose, and I’m constantly tightening them with a wrench, but also they are peeling and carved up. One even says “I hate this class” in big letters across the front. Let’s not even get into the gum artwork under the desks…
It finally came to a point where I was fed up. These desks have been through a lot, and they aren’t serving my kids’ needs. I can’t exactly go out and buy new desks. Solution: do some DIY and make whiteboard desks.
Rewind: A few years ago I went to the Home Depot down the street from my school, and really nicely asked the employees to cut up some panel board into 12” x 12” squares. Normally they charge for cuts; however, it wasn’t busy that afternoon and I made my case that I’m a local teacher, so they didn’t charge me! I had students use colored duct tape to cover the edges, and I had my own student white boards.

After the transformation. Thanks Eddie!
Fast forward to this year, I mentioned that I wanted whiteboard desks to a math teacher at my school, and he jumped right on it! We found that for every 4’ x 8’ panel board, we could make 2 tabletops for me, and 4 tabletops for his classroom. Eddie went to home depot, bought the panel boards, cut them, and we glued them to my desks. Yes, we glued them. No, it wasn’t an issue because it is a drastic improvement in desk quality.
To do my whole classroom in whiteboard tops, it cost just under $80.
Thanks Eddie!
With my new desks, not only is writing more pleasant, but also it has brightened up my classroom.
Students rotating and giving feedback after making claims
and finding evidence from an article.
Since we did this in January 2017, I’ve used them multiple times with students. They’ve brainstormed for projects and given peer feedback (in a different color), drawn diagrams of science concepts, and reflected on their work.
My favorite part of it is that students can quickly do a gallery walk to see their peers’ work, and add in comments and feedback in a different color marker. When they’re all done, they take a picture and we erase the desks.
Books, Classroom Strategies

Read alouds aren’t only for English class!

Why does reading a novel have to be compartmentalized to English class?
There’s such a huge push for reading and annotating text in all content areas, and most of these are informational texts. While helpful, I can’t say my students are super excited by reading tasks (although the content might be interesting), and it definitely doesn’t foster a love of reading.
My students were shocked when I told them we would be doing a read aloud in 7th grade science. “Why are we reading a book in science?!” they immediately asked.

We Are All Made of Molecules
The book I chose was We Are All Made of Molecules by Susin Nielsen. I preordered it back in the spring, and when it arrived, I binge read it. It was that good.

The story comes down to Stewart and Ashley, two complete opposites who are thrown together when their parents move in together. It deals with social status and social perceptions, bullying, LGBT prejudice and unhealthy relationships.

If you’re planning to use this book (or any others) with your students, make sure you pre-read it, and decide if it’s appropriate for your students. There are some intense parts relating to Ashley and her boyfriend, which can be shocking or upsetting to some students. However, it all fit in perfectly for my class.

As part of our health unit, we have to incorporate information about LGBT identities, as well as healthy versus unhealthy relationships and dating violence. Even with my passion for teaching help, I was unsure how to approach these topics. The conversations that followed our reading were deep and emotional, and way more meaningful than any Slides presentation.

The Read Aloud
At first, I had no idea how to structure the read aloud. I tried reading at the very end of class, but I kept running out of time. My good friend, Doug Robertson, suggested that I start class by reading. I switched it up, and reading became a habit. It was really nice for students to decompress before moving in to science content.

Each day, my students begged for another chapter! Mind you, many of my students are highly reading-averse…sometimes I indulged their request, sometimes I would quietly close the book while they protested. It took us about 4 months to read the book, although it wasn’t until the last 2 that we actually read steadily.

After the Read Aloud
We finished the book with a huge round of applause. I created a Form for them to share their thoughts on the books, and ask questions to the author. As a class, we narrowed down the questions, and we posted them on our classroom Twitter account (I/we haven’t done much with it as of now, but I’m hoping to add more pretty soon).  Then, we waited patiently for our responses.

Here are a few of the tweets and responses:
Reflections on the Process
I am just in love with the read aloud. First of all, it was such a relaxing way to start class with my squirrely 7th graders. They were super engaged in the reading, and I rarely had anyone being a distraction. This could be a much more ELA-heavy activity, with reading and writing prompts: I opted not to, so my students didn’t feel like we were actually working. Instead, we had partner and class discussions after each chapter.

I’m also so extremely thankful for Susin Nielsen and all her support throughout this process. I reached out to her on Twitter when we first started our read aloud, and kept her updated on our progress. She has an excellent website with educator resources for her books! Thanks for letting us celebrate you!

What’s Next?
Now I’m deciding which book to read next…we’re going to be learning about ecology and the Earth. Considering Touching Spirit Bear by Ben Mikaelsen.  Suggestions welcome!

Claim Evidence Reasoning with Google Forms

I have a slight obsession with Google Forms. I’ve already written two blog posts about things to do with Google Forms. The first, Using Google Forms for Walkthrough Observations, is specifically for creating a workflow for informal walkthrough observations. The second, Google Forms in my Classroom, is examples of how I use Forms regularly in my classroom and with my students.
This post shares an excellent strategy for scaffolding paragraph writing. Total transparency, I got this idea from the one and only Mark Rounds at the Copper Country Summit back in August! Thanks Mark!

In science, we are focusing on writing Claim-Evidence-Reasoning (CER) paragraphs based on labs and phenomena. Our students struggle with writing in general, and especially with CER. We provide many scaffolds, such as graphic organizers and sentence frames, which helps not only our students who are English Learners and/or RSP, but also those who struggle with writing, or are just having a bad day. This particular scaffold uses Google Forms + Autocrat (Sheets Add-on) to create color-coded paragraphs, and has worked well for all of my students.

Form Set-up
I set up the Form with a separate paragraph responses for Claim, Evidence, and Reasoning (extra Evidence + Reasoning for longer paragraphs). Then, I created a template Doc with <> that exactly match each question on the Form. Using the AutoCrat Add-on within Google Sheets, I set up the mail merge to turn the form responses into a paragraph.

Here is a Claim-Evidence-Reasoning example. Feel free to fill out this Form to see what the final product looks like! I also created an Autocrat how-to screencast.
After designing my lesson, I sent the Form out to students via Google Classroom. Once they filled out the form, they were instructed to go to their shared with me on Google Drive (or Gmail) to view their Doc. They made changes and corrected spelling and grammar. I was able to click on links to their Docs from the Sheet, making grading easy.

I am amazed at the improvement in my students’ writing. When I looked through the most recent submissions, I was amazed at how much more my students wrote, and not only quantity, but also quality!

Example #1: This student is RSP, and is frequently lost during class. If I had asked her to write this without scaffolds or with simple written instructions, I would have felt lucky to get two sentences! Obviously, her spelling and grammar (and academic writing) are not perfect, but this is a giant leap.
Example #1
Example #2: This student is mild/mod special education, and is mainstreamed only for science. I am very impressed with how he supports his claims with evidence, and writes in complete sentences. He often gets overwhelmed with writing tasks, so breaking it up into tiny chunks allowed him to work independently.
Example #2

Example #3: This student is a Long-Term English Learner (LTEL). She is a hard worker and is conversationally proficient in English, but lacks strong academic English, reading, and writing skills.
Example #3
In my 8th grade AVID class, we have read, analyzed, and discuss multiple articles and sources relating to a single topic. For their writing, I included counterclaim and rebuttal components.

Example #4: This student is one of the top readers and writers in our school. While she did not necessarily need these scaffolds, she reported that this helped her organize her ideas as she was referring back to the articles and resources. She was thrilled with the color-coding too.
Example #4

Now what?
As I try to slowly remove writing scaffolds for students, this will remain a useful tool for students who either need extra support or opt to use it. It’s easy to have a generic Form handy, and even one they can use for other classes or in future school years.

When you try this with students, please tweet me or comment and share how it goes!


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.