Book Recommendation for Middle School Science Teachers

One of the professional books I read over the summer was Using Science Notebooks in Middle School by Michael P. Klentschy, published by NSTA Press.  I’m so glad I did.  I realize the title doesn’t exactly reach out and grab you, but reading the book I found that it was about so much more than using science notebooks in the classroom.  In fact, there are only a couple of chapters devoted to what a science notebook is or suggestions for formatting notebooks.  The majority of the book was about strategies for planning more purposeful guided inquiry experiences.

A big goal of mine is to allow for more open inquiry in science class, but as I work toward that I’m happy to have found a resource that will help me improve the guided inquiry that I’m already doing.  I’ve written before about  how much my students love the labs we do in class, and maybe for that reason I’ve always tried to allocate more time for my students handling equipment, taking measurements, and recording observations.   All this at the expense of time spent analyzing results and drawing conclusions at the end of an experiment.  I’m always worried about boring my students by spending too much time analyzing the data we have collected after putting the materials away.  Last year there was a lot of, “Who can tell me what the data shows us?  Thank, you Keyanna.  Did you all here that? [Repeat what Keyanna says.  Show her data table on the Elmo.]  Class, isn’t that what you noticed too?  [Chorus of apathetic agreement.  Nevermind that some people have data that does not support this conclusion.  Class is over in five minutes and then we get to go home.]  It wasn’t always this bad, but often it was, and I was willing to squeeze in a sub-par closure to a science lesson if it meant we’d have time to do another lab that week.  Klentschy addresses this shortcoming in his book:

Having middle school students plan and conduct investigations does not in itself constitute a high-quality science program.  If instruction stops there, it simply uses a mode of instruction called “activities for activities’ sake.”  After students conduct their investigations and/or supplement the investigation with a reading is when connections can be made and most science is learned.  (124)

Better lesson closure is another goal of mine this year, and Klentschy’s book provides a great framework with the Making Meaning Conference, setting aside an entire class to compare data collected by different student groups, analyze class data, and make claims based on evidence.  Using Science Notebooks not only provides many helpful writing and speaking scaffolds to help students do this in a thoughtful, deliberate way, it even gives examples of classroom conversations and student writing samples taken from real-world Making Meaning Conferences.

I tried my own Making Meaning Conference last week and was surprised by the level of engagement in my students.  In learning about the scientific inquiry standards, we have been working on an experiment using the flippers (little catapults) from the FOSS Variables kit, trying to answer the question: “How does the length of a flipper affect how far forward the cork ammunition will fly?”  The students had already tested out the length of their flippers, measuring the distance of the corks and recording them in their data tables.  This was the fun part.  We spent two more days learning how to graph the data and researching catapults by watching a short YouTube video and reading an article.  This also turned out to be fun.  Then came the Making Meaning Conference, which I was convinced would be a bore.  We filled in a large class data table and found the mean cork distance for each flipper length.  Then it was all about conversation, aided by some of the discussion scaffolds by Klentschy.  Below are some comments from different students, with my questions in italics:

What is the relationship between the length of the flipper and the distance the cork flew forward?

I claim that the shorter flipper makes the cork fly forward the farthest.

What evidence do you have to support that?

I claim that the shorter flipper shoots farther because for every group the cork went farther when the flipper was at 1 cm. 

Is this always true?

I would like to disagree with what Ally said because for group 2 the cork went the farthest when the flipper was at 2 cm.

How could we explain that?

Maybe they pushed it down differently that time.

Maybe they put the tape measure in a different place.

I would like to add to what Ally claimed because when you look at the mean for the whole class, it shows that the cork flew less when the flipper was 5 cm and most when the flipper was 1 cm.

How could you prove that using the measurements in the table?

I know that the 1 cm flipper shoots farther because the mean for the cork was 127 cm and for the 5 cm flipper the mean was 19 cm.

Is there anything that we read in the article that could explain why a shorter flipper would launch the cork farther than a longer flipper?

You get the idea.  This conversation went on for quite a while and the students were far from bored.  They liked the challenge of having to back up what they claimed with evidence, and they thought it was fun speaking in such a corny way.  I think the sentence frames will feel more natural to them after we use them more.  We followed this up by making claims/evidence statements, also described by Klentschy.

I’ve always been proud of myself for getting students that others have labeled “hard to manage” to use lab equipment in a cooperative, safe manner.  But I was even more proud of this rich conversation between my students.  I’ve seen the power of better lesson closure.  I’m a fan of making time for making meaning.  And I’m grateful for Klentschy’s book, Using Science Notebooks in Middle School.


Ego Check 2010

The last post I wrote was a reminder to myself that I chose to work in a high-need school, and my god do I need reminding lately.  Nearing the end of week three of the new school year, I am having a ROUGH time with one of my sixth grade math and science classes.

Did I walk into this year, my tenth year teaching and my second year at this school, too big for my britches?  Maybe.  I’m a veteran now, especially in the land of TFA, New Orleans.  Last year I earned the respect of students, parents and faculty.  I brought up test scores.  I researched and planned instructional innovations over the summer.  I’m ready to lend more of a hand to new teachers.  I have rested, meditated and can recognize the glowing light within all humanity, both individually and collectively.  I am and will continue to be AMAZING.

Maybe not.  I can’t get a group of sixth graders to stay quiet for more than two minutes.  Even on day one, there was no attempt from them to make a good impression.  No matter how many times we “line up and try it again.”  No matter how many rah-rahs.  No matter how many phone calls, or lunch detentions, or one-on-one conferences, or silent prayers.  One class is with me, the other is on another planet.

I’m not yelling though.  I still refuse to yell.

I don’t expect any class to be perfect.  Every class has good and bad days.  This class just hasn’t shown me the good ones yet.  It is by far the biggest classroom management challenge I have ever had.  Management has never really been a big issue for me, and it’s not one I thought I’d devote much energy to after teaching this long.  I thought I had this down, but this class has taken me down a few pegs.  I feel like the teachers whose rooms I’ve walked by in the past, me thinking “Poor sap.  They must be so miserable.  Maybe they’re just not cut out for this job.  For these kids.”

This year, that poor sap is me.  And I’m telling everyone who will listen.  My principal.  Other teachers.  Custodians.  And now the internets.  It’s the only way I can exorcise the shame.  I need everyone to know that I know this is not okay; this is not what it’s supposed to look like.

I’m not giving up on them.  I have to believe that it will get better.  There have been miniscule signs of improvement.  But in the meantime, I will think twice before judging teachers who look like they’re floundering because of poor classroom management, wanting to teach content but too distracted wading through waves of resistance.


Second Thoughts About My Big Idea

I’m getting cold feet about my big idea for science class this year.  I wrote about restructuring Fridays in my classes to provide time for students to investigate their own scientific questions.  I still love this idea, but it’s easy to imagine this learning utopia after a summer of bliss.  I forget how behind my classes tend to get, how panic sets in when I see the big test date approaching, realizing I haven’t made it through all the standards.  This panic is all on my end of course; the students don’t seem to lose any sleep.  The fact is that I know that I won’t be able to let go of guiding student inquiry and assessment towards the state learning objectives every single Friday.  And maybe that’s okay.  That’s what I was hired to do.  But I do want to make it a priority for students to take the lead more often.

I’m modifying my original plan.  I still want students to keep a simple journal of observations they make about the natural world.  I still want them to share these observations with their classmates.  I still want to use these observations as springboards into discussions about the difference between observations and inferences, generating testable questions and planning experiments.  I think this can be done every Friday in about 15 to 20 minutes.

I’m going to post a running list of questions generated by students during these  meetings as well as questions they come up with during the labs we do in class.  Then, instead of the every Friday structure I described before, I could set aside one day a month for students to investigate a question of their choice.

So it could look something like this:

  • 1st, 2nd, 3rd Fridays: Share Observations/Discuss/Generate Questions/Carry on with current science unit
  • 4th Friday: Allow time for individuals or groups to select a question and try to answer it through experimentation or research

I could also allow students more time to work on their own investigations after school during tutoring if they chose to come in.

This seems like a more manageable way to pilot this idea.  I’ll get a better feeling for how effectively this time was spent as the year progresses, and possibly expand the time next year if all goes well.