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.

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