My Big Idea for Science Class

I teach sixth grade science and math, and if you asked me I’d have to admit that I enjoy teaching science much more than math.  That’s not to say I don’t put a lot into teaching math.  I do.  But teaching science feels a lot less like work and a lot more like a field trip to Hogwarts.  A huge part of this is how engaged my students are during science class.  Chicken or egg, I can’t tell you whose enthusiasm came first, but my students and I are in it together and it’s a beautiful thing.

So here’s where I’m at as a science teacher:  My students are engaged.  We do labs and experiments often, at least once a week and often more.  A lot of these labs come from science kits that my principal was willing to purchase for me.  The kits provide many opportunities for students to observe physical science concepts and collect data, but the questions they explore are scripted and the answers they arrive at are predetermined.  Don’t get me wrong, the students DO learn from these labs and most are able to transfer their learning to related hypothetical situations and assessment items.  In this respect, the kit labs are great for addressing Louisiana’s sixth grade physical science standards.  However, they fall short in providing opportunities for students to engage in true scientific inquiry.

In addition to these shortcomings, the exercises provided in these kits don’t always hold every student’s interest.  Some would rather learn about insects.  Some would like to study volcanoes.  Sometimes a student will ask a really great question inspired by one of the labs and I don’t make time to investigate it because I’m so concerned with getting through every standard on the scope and sequence.  I worry this sends the message that only the questions the teacher asks are worth exploring.  That’s not good.

The kits are training wheels.  Training wheels for my students.  Training wheels for me.  They keep the ride smooth but prevent us from really taking off on a grand, uncertain adventure.  This year I’d like to take the training wheels off.

Below is an attempt to bring structure to my summer brainstorm:


  • Encourage students to pay more attention to the natural world.
  • Encourage students to indulge in their own curiosity.
  • Allow students to generate their own questions and investigate topics they find interesting in addition to those mandated by state standards.  Move from guided inquiry to open inquiry.
  • Provide opportunities for students to engage in long-term experiments and research projects that they can revise and revisit throughout the year (teach them that real science investigations aren’t neatly wrapped up at the end of a 70 minute time period).
  • Provide space and time for students to practice communicating about the science they have learned.
  • Provide more time to practice science process skills.


Set aside each Friday in science class for allowing students to share observations about the natural world, generate questions, research topics of interest, plan and conduct investigations, and share what they have learned.  These Fridays would be dedicated to student-generated investigation and communication.  I imagine Friday’s would look something like this:

  • Begin by asking students to keep a weekly journal of observations they make about the natural world.  This would be ongoing throughout the year.  Examples: The clouds looked really red when the sun went down last night.  The hissing cockroaches like to hide under their food dish.  My foot falls asleep when I sit cross-legged for too long.  The mirror in my bathroom is wet after I get out of the shower.  I’ll probably have to model this a lot in the beginning.  Observations can be made anywhere, but I want to take a few field trips to parks and reserves to get students’ eyes on nature.
  • Allow students time to share observations.  Ask students to make inferences about some of these observations, and discuss the difference between observation and inference.  Ask students to determine if we can learn more about these observations by conducting an experiment.  Which of these questions are easily testable?  Which could we learn more about by doing research?  By interviewing an expert?  By making more observations?
  • Ask students to pick one of these observations to investigate further.  They can pick one of their own observations or an observation generated by one of their classmates.  They can pick a topic that they haven’t observed but would like to learn more about.  They can also choose to team up with other classmates for an investigation.
  • Work with students to help plan their investigations.  Will they try to set up a controlled experiment and collect data?  Will they research their topic on the internet or (gasp!) in books?  Will they observe their subject further?  Will they try to interview an expert?
  • Allow time for experimenting and researching in class.
  • Allow time for guest speakers/interviews with experts.
  • Work with students to design a way to communicate what they have learned about their topic.  Maybe they can post findings on a class wiki?  Make a Powerpointless?  Write a lab report or science book?  Stage a news report?  However they decide to present their findings, I want them to share verbally with the class.  This doesn’t have to be very formal.  I picture it more like a discussion circle.  Maybe students could choose to display one of these investigations in a school science fair.
  • Investigate their topic further or start again with another area of interest.

I imagine this schedule, the whole process for the students, as being very flexible.  Students will probably start off in the same place, sharing observations, but will quickly diverge as they follow different paths of inquiry.  Some students might complete many investigations throughout the school year.  Some maybe only one or two if they are really committed to ongoing data collection and research.  The sharing part, however, is something that everyone will participate in regularly.  Students will continue to share weekly observations, communicate where they are in their investigation or research, or communicate their conclusions when they feel they have reached the end of their work.

Another note.  I don’t want any of this to be for a grade.  I’m hoping that if the student selects not only the topic of inquiry but the method of inquiry, the motivation will be intrinsic.  Learning for learning’s sake.  I want to encourage more of that in my classroom.

Anticipated Hurdles

  • Some students are more independent than others.  I see some of my students having a harder time knowing how or where to start.  I will definitely have to model setting up and conducting experiments in various ways, which will happen Monday through Thursday like it always does.  I’ll have to work closer with some students.  I think I might also have to have a list of investigation topics handy for those students who are unable to choose one of their own for whatever reason.
  • Materials.  My school has scientific anemia.  Science instruction has not been a priority, though this is beginning to change, and as a result we have very little in terms of laboratory equipment.  What do I do if a student asks to use a microscope?  We don’t have any!  A telescope?  Litmus paper?  I’d hate to think our lack of materials could stand in the way of a student choosing a path of inquiry that really excites them.  Our school has some money to spend, but the ordering process takes a lot of time.
  • Classroom space and storage.  I envision many different setups needing a place to live all around my classroom, which is not very big and is definitely short on cabinet space.
  • Having little or no expertise in a student’s area of interest.  What do I do if a student wants to investigate robotics?  Uh-oh.  I guess that’s when my investigation starts too.  I also need to be on the lookout for experts who wouldn’t mind talking to my class or even emailing with individual students.
  • Diverting too much time from the state-assessed physical science standards.  This makes me a little nervous.  I’m justifying it mathematically like so:  There are 87 standards listed by the state for sixth grade science.  40 of these, or about 46%, are listed under “Science as Inquiry“, the process skills which could apply to any strand of science.  While these inquiry standards are imbedded into the physical science investigations, I see no problem in dedicating every Friday, or 20% of my instructional time to 46% of my standards.  Besides, I have a feeling many students will choose to investigate physical science questions that come up during Monday – Thursday instruction.
  • Chaos.  This is one I look forward to, actually.  Students all over the room working on different subjects in different ways.  It could be great.  Even though I don’t want to grade their work, I will have to stay organized, keep up with student progress and make sure that I’m scheduling time to meet with each student or group regularly.


That’s it, or most of it.  My big idea in rough form for science class this year.  I realize that this is not a new idea, just new to me and my use of classroom time.  This is what a real science classroom should look like and probably does in many schools.  But it’s big for me.  I have the classroom management down.  I even have the student buy-in.  It’s time to push my science teaching to the next level, and hopefully meaningful student learning with it.  I’m nervous.  It could be messy.  But I’m more excited about this idea than I have been about anything other in a long time.

Along those lines, the purpose of this blog is to become a better teacher by communicating with others.  It’s my sincere hope that eventually I’ll connect with other science teachers who can offer input or advice.  Maybe other teachers who are already doing something like this in their own classrooms.  Maybe teachers who want to try this out themselves and share experiences throughout the year.  If nothing else, writing about it here makes it public and means I might actually try it.


Fake It Till You Make It

J was a girl in my sixth grade math and science class last year, perhaps the most popular sixth grader in the school.  All the girls wanted to be her.  All the boys wanted to be her boyfriend, even though as sixth graders they had very little idea what that might even look like, much less how to go about getting her attention.  She was very smart.  Mature.  Confident.  All the right clothes.  To seal the deal, during the second week of school she pulverized a seventh grade girl who was teasing her on the yard to let everyone know she was not to be trifled with.

A reputation like this needs to be cultivated in the classroom as well, and for J this came in the form of extreme eye rolls at peers and teachers and a tendency to shout students down for daring to look at her the wrong way, whether or not I was teaching a lesson.

I had to nip this in the bud.  Students at my school are used to yelling at each other at will.  This makes it harder for me to teach them how to interact with civility, but not impossible.  I brought her out into the hallway and explained (again) my expectations for how we talk to each other in class, even if someone is getting on your nerves.  I told her I thought she was a leader, a lady, and that I expected her to set an example for others.

This put J between a rock and a hard place.  On the one hand, she had a reputation to uphold.  Adjusting her behavior to be more respectful in my classroom would be seen by her peers as a sign of weakness.  The alternative, however, was sitting with me in lunch detention and phone calls to her mother.  So what did J do?  She gave me what I asked for, kind of.  J adopted the most exaggerated, insincere, milk-toast version of what she imagined I thought a lady should act like.  Perfect manners, perfect posture, Stepford smiles.  Her best white-person accent (I imagine most white teachers of classes with majority black or brown students know what I’m talking about here).  She was Doris Day having tea at the tennis club.  “Yes, Mr. Young.  You know, I never thought of it that way before.  I can’t imagine how I could have made mistake like that.  I would love to pass those papers back for you.”

J and I had reached an unspoken compromise.  I got her to stop acting up in class while she got to save face by openly mocking not only my requests for gender and classroom conformity, but even my race.  This new behavior was considered even more subversive by her peers; there were stifled giggles all around the room every time J and I interacted.  They loved it.  She was still getting attention from them, the kind she wanted, and I got a more peaceful classroom.  I decided I could live with that.  I pretended that I had no idea what J was doing and that she was pulling one over on me.  Win-win.

I couldn’t have imagined in the beginning how long the act could go on for.  Weeks, then months.  A perfectly polite, insincere J who might have thought that I was a moron but was one of my best math and science students.  The other students found it less and less funny and eventually stopped reacting to it.  Apparently the act wasn’t funny in other classrooms, probably because I was J’s only white teacher and there wouldn’t have been any point.  In those classrooms she was still shouting at other students, shouting at the teachers and regularly getting suspended.  Some students even found it necessary to warn me, “You think J’s really good but she’s not.  She just acts like that in here.”  To be sure, I had discipline problems of my own but J was never one of them.

Somewhere along the line the act became less of an act.  J still carried herself with impeccable manners.  But her heart wasn’t in the white accent anymore.  Our conversations were less about making fun of me and more about the math and science, more about the learning.  From time to time I could see her get irritated with another student, but then take a breath and calm herself down.  More than once, on those days where it seemed as though the entire class was sprung, J was the only student sitting still and ready to move on with the lesson, impatiently looking at everyone as if they were unruly children.  A lot of times these withering looks from J were enough to shame the class into getting their act together.

Somehow, a relationship based on mutual respect had developed.  I don’t know how I managed to earn that respect.  Maybe it was because she felt like she was learning math and science.  Maybe it was because she knew she could enter my room without a look of dread that she was seeing on the faces of other teachers.  Maybe she appreciated my high expectations of her behavior, however awkward my initial requests were.  Whatever it was, she became one of my best students.  Good grades, good test scores, amazing attitude.

It makes me think of so many students that I’ve worked with over the years.  As teachers, we’re supposed to love all  our students unconditionally.  But some of them make it so hard.  Some of them you’d rather throttle and you can’t imagine ever being able to like this kid, let alone love them.  You’ll endure them.  But you can’t let them feel that or it’s over.  They’ll make a you’re life a living hell and they certainly won’t learn anything.  So you fake it.  You smile at them.  You ask them how their day is going.  You force them to come to tutoring.  You tell them you’re disappointed when they screw up and that you expect better.  You tell them you believe in them.  And somehow, always, it starts to stick.  They start to believe it and open up to you and give you reasons to love them.  And by the end of the year you don’t want to let them go.

Rules, Rules, Rules

Okay.  This is a teaching blog.  And even though the idea paralyzes me, I’m supposed to write about TEACHING.

I’m considering revising my classroom rules for next year.  You know the drill.  You’re a teacher.  You’re supposed to have those babies posted, first day of school.  There are supposed to be five of them, for some reason.  They suggest order.  They instill fear or inspire learning utopia, or at the very least cover a bulletin board.

I’ve learned after nine years of teaching that classroom rules are largely symbolic.  I do think it’s important to set a tone for the year on the first day of school, and part of that should be discussing your rules.  But once the year begins and controlled chaos sets in my discipline system becomes flexible at best and arbitrary at worst, all under the guiding principle that one should do the right thing or suffer some sort of personal inconvenience.  Rules like “Come to class on time with your learning materials” seem to go without saying and are far from inspirational.  I want the rules to read more like a mantra.  To that end I’m taking out the red pen.

Following have been my classroom rules for the last couple of years:

  1. We never give up.
  2. We never put people down.
  3. We come to class on time with our learning materials.
  4. We use appropriate voice levels.
  5. We stay on task.

Sure, these are fine.  But after we talk about them the first week I rarely refer to them again (except for rule 2, which I have to revisit throughout the year).  This is what I’m considering for next year.  Note that not all of the following are my creations.  I’ll try to give credit as best I can.

  1. Be nice.
  2. Work hard.
  3. Don’t argue with the Ref.

Rules 1 and 2 are frequently used mottos in KIPP schools, but I think they poached them from Rafe Esquith.  Pithy and more important to me than anything else.  I also like rule 1 because the sign “Be nice or leave” is commonly found in bars and restaurants around New Orleans and I’m sure the kids are familiar with it.  If only it were that easy in the classroom.

I heard rule 3 from a presenter in a classroom management PD that we had to attend last year.  I wish I could remember the guy’s name.  I didn’t get much else from this presentation but I like the way he worded this concept.  It’s the only one of the three rules that reads slightly negative but I think it’s necessary.  I’m a little old school in that I believe that when an adult tells a sixth grader what to do or calls him out on bad behavior, there is no place for arguing or talking back.  As my dear friend, teaching superstar Jen Mickey used to put it, “When I say jump, you say ‘How high?'”  This only works if the adult is fair and has their ego in check.  Another caveat: I need to explain to my students that sometimes teachers make mistakes and it is okay to question them at the right time and place, in a respectful tone of voice.

I have known teachers, my friend Jen Mickey among them, who post no rules.  Their presence and the tone they set in their classrooms supersede rules.  Am I there yet?  If I have to ask, probably not.