Mini-Unit: Nutrition

Interspersed throughout our science units, I teach health topics to address the health standards in my curriculum.  It is a strategy that works excellently around breaks, because most of my health lessons take just a day or two.  Instead of starting something right before a long weekend or a holiday break, we do health lessons!

My students keep their work in Health Portfolios that stay in the classroom, and they keep track of their grades on an Assignment Record like the one pictured to the left.  (PS – It’s available HERE for free at my TeachersPayTeachers site!) They receive one grade for health during the fourth quarter based on the work they have done intermittently all year.

Anyhoo, so lately we have been working on a nutrition unit.  I found a great resource at — In addition to tons of information, the USDA has also put together curriculum units for several grade levels.

There are lesson plans for high school students, kids age 6-11, and even preschoolers!

Serving Up My Plate is a curriculum unit broken down by grades — Level One 1-2, Level Two 3-4, and Level Three 5-6. My students used Level Three.

First, I had my students use our classroom’s iPads, as well as printed infographs from the USDA site, to complete a graphic organizer about the five food groups.  They visited our class website, where I placed links to each food group. (You can check out our class site here!)  We used the MyPlate graphic to do this to maintain consistency across the unit.


On the backside of this graphic organizer are a number of questions about students’ favorite meals and the food groups represented in those meals. The whole activity is available here.  After doing this activity, we played a review game using the questions in the “You Are What You Eat” lesson from the Serving Up My Plate curriculum. We use white boards, and students work on teams to answer my questions.  I also had them make up a few questions, trying to “stump” the other teams. It was a fun activity!

But then, of course, we had to determine what they learned…

Now,we have moved on to vitamins and nutrients.  Students are using the “Nutrient Knowledge” handout from the Serving Up My Plate curriculum to fill in another graphic organizer. You can see the format of the organizers below, and my TpT file also includes an answer key.

Last year, I absolutely hated teaching health, but I have really enjoyed working through this Serving Up My Plate curriculum. I would highly recommend it for a nutrition unit! My students have enjoyed it as well, and the incorporation of the technology (via the iPads) has really spiked their interest.  The USDA’s site has a bunch of other resources as well! Students can plug in information about themselves (weight, height, age, activity level, etc.) to determine their individual food and exercise goals, and there are a variety of games and other interactive activities there as well. The info graphs are wonderful too – and are a great way to incorporate some of those Common Core literacy skills!

Animal Adaptations Web Quest & Research Assignment

Following up a unit on Ecology, my middle school students are currently working on a unit I designed to touch on the Next Generation Science Standards related to Growth, Development, and Reproduction, as well as Natural Selection and Adaptations.  Students are trying to answer the question:

“How does the biological diversity on Earth reflect the wide range of environmental conditions that exist on our planet?”

This unit is sandwiched in my curriculum between a “big view” of ecology and a “teeny-tiny view” of cells.  My goal is to move students from understanding…

1. how everything (living and nonliving) is interrelated

2. to how those living and nonliving things have impacted individual organisms (i.e. the environment has impacted living organisms as they have come to adapt to it)

3. to all of the stuff going on inside those individual organisms.

For that reason, I’ve focused not on the mechanisms of natural selection (genes, heredity, etc.), but simply on how an organism’s structural and behavioral adaptations enable survival (and therefore, eventually, reproduction).  As we “zoom” in closer at the stuff going on inside organisms in the next unit, we will come back to that heredity – answering the question, “How do living organisms pass traits from one generation to the next?”

While many textbooks do this all backwards — they start Life Science looking at cells and then eventually move on to ecology — this structure makes sense for me and my classroom.  For one, my sixth grade students work with two community organizations (Allegheny College’s Creek Connections and PA Sea Grant) to develop and carry out long-term, independently designed investigations that examine our local watershed.  Students are much better prepared to begin work on this project after spending the beginning portion of the year learning about ecology and the interactions in a watershed.  That background knowledge is crucial to developing research projects with depth and relevancy.

The second reason I like to start with ecology is (and yes, this is my personal opinion buuuuut) I think the broad view of ecology is of more interest to students, and it is certainly easier for them to find the connections between the content in their science books (or articles, internet, labs, etc.) and the real world.  Despite the fact that I am now a science teacher (and I love it and I never want to do anything else), I was never “into” science during my K through 12 years.  I mean, I probably liked “moments” here and there in my science education, but I never thought of myself as a “science” person.  It wasn’t until I took Intro to Environmental Science that I realized how fascinating the subject is — and I think it’s because through that class, I learned how connected everything is, and how IMPORTANT science is to our world, and — whether you’re in a science field or not — science is literally everything! Why is it raining? Oh, science. Why do people get sick? Oh, science. Why shouldn’t I put fertilizer on my garden? Oh, science.  Why are raspberries so freakin expensive? Oh, science.  (Obviously, there are many fields of relevance when seeking an answer to these questions, but science is without a doubt one of them!!)

So working from my own experience, my goal is to “catch” them early in the year with the big cool concepts and ideas – the trips to the creek, the water-quality tests, frogs and lizards and fish tank science… and then once I have lured them in,


Let’s talk about cells.

Anyhoo, I apologize for that rabbit trail!! Back to business: Adaptations.

After spending a day or two talking about the different environmental conditions we can find on earth (via a lesson on biomes), we start to focus on how animals (and coming soon, plants) have adapted to survive in these environments.  We focus on structural adaptations first.  We do some hands on activities like “Bird Beak Buffet” (working on that write-up — I’ll post when complete), watch Bill Nye’s Locomotion, do a little book-work from our Life Science Daybook, so on and so forth… Then, we start talking about behavioral adaptations.  Once my students are familiar with the two definitions, I set them free to investigate various adaptations via an Animal Adaptations Web Quest.

I have divided adaptations into four categories – environmental, defensive, locomotion, and feeding. Because we discussed locomotion and feeding prior to completing our web quest, I only have my students do the Environmental Adaptations and Defensive Adaptations pages.  That said, I still included in the document the Locomotion and Feeding pages to give all you readers more options.

Animal Adaptations WebQuest_Page_03

Basically, students use our school’s iPads to define each adaptation and identify an animal that uses that adaptation to survive.  They also are asked to identify whether the adaptation is structural or behavioral (for the environmental and defensive adaptations).  For the locomotion and feeding adaptations, students have to explain what structural adaptations enable that type of movement or diet.  I direct my student’s to BBC’s Nature page on wildlife adaptations because it has great summaries and examples for each, but you could probably do this activity with a good book about adaptations – or a collection of books about various animals. You could even use these pages simply as graphic organizers and present the notes yourself. I do include an “answer key” with information about each adaptation in the PDF file.

Animal Adaptations WebQuest_Page_10

Overall, the activity is designed to touch on the following NGSS standards:

·      an organism’s growth is affected by environmental factors (LS1.B)

·      animals engage in behaviors, like being part of a group, that increase the odds of survival and reproduction (LS1.B & LS1.D)

·      animals use their perceptions and memories to guide their actions (LS1.D)

I follow up this activity with an individual research assignment where students take a closer look at one specific adaptation.  Then, they share their research with the class via a SHORT presentation.

Animal Adaptation Research 2_Page_1

Animal Adaptation Research 2_Page_2

This drawing is probably my favorite:

Animal Adaptation Research 3

So now that we have wrapped up our study of animal adaptations, we are moving on to plants! Stay tuned…

Rubrics and What Not

This year, I have been busy refining the 5th and 6th grade curriculum I teach and “standardizing” elements.  While last year I interpreted my school’s standards to mean I had to teach each area of science to both grades — which I found difficult to do without just skimming over the content areas — this year I divided up those standards so that 5th graders learn physical science and earth science, and the 6th graders focus solely on life science.  In developing activities I plan to use again and again, I have  been busy creating tons of rubrics for all of these activities.  While it has been a bit of a pain this year creating them all, it will be WONDERFUL next year when I can just print and copy!

Without a doubt, rubrics are key.  At a school like mine where parents are VERY active in their children’s schoolwork, providing students with the rubrics in advance and grading based on those rubrics has eliminated a lot of issues and conflicts that may otherwise develop. Additionally, grading is much more time efficient with a rubric! Instead of trying to compare student work or arbitrarily assign letters, I can very quickly evaluate a paper, presentation, or project by simply highlighting the box in which the student falls.  That said, I rarely highlight just one box.  Sometimes students fall somewhere in between, or their work is missing an element I would expect in top-mark work.  I generally highlight where students fall and then determine grades — usually by creating a falling scale.

For example, on a 16 point rubric (four criteria at four levels), a full 16 points would score 100%, while a student who earns 12 points (the second level down) would end up with 90% in my class.  I’m not simply taking 12 divided by 16, which would leave students with a 75%, as some teachers do.  I design my rubrics so that Level 3 is “B quality” work — the percentage students are assigned needs to fall in that range as well. I pretty much do this with all my grading, and it has worked really well. I think it reflects student understanding better than doing a flat “points to percentage” type thing. I can hold my students to high standards (and keep those full 16 points a bit elusive!) without killing students grades for work that is still of good quality.

Anyway, here are some of the rubrics I have been working with this year.  They are all available at my TpT store if you’d like to check them out!

Getting To Know Your Students

Just the other day I read an article from Corkboard Connections, “What Makes A Parent Love A Teacher.”  You can read it here, and I highly recommend you do! The gist is that, over the years, the teachers that stand out and make a lasting impression are the teachers that took the time to develop meaningful relationships with their students — they got to know them as more than just another kid in the class.

In general, I feel like I do a pretty good job of this.  My students and I talk about what they did over the weekend, how the play is going, or whether they won their game or not.  I generally go to at least one game for each sport, and for the sports I like, I often go to more. (I have to admit, two soccer games a year is enough for me…) I attend the school plays and other special events — (Monster Bingo? Uh yah!).  All in all, I think I do a decent job.

But after reading this article, I decided I wanted to do better. For most students, I know which parents are together and which ones are divorced, I know they have a brother in 2A or a sister in 8B.  But do they have siblings outside of our school? What days do they spend with mom, which days do they spend with dad? Does mom work? Do they have step-parents or step-siblings? What do they want to be when they grow up? What is their hands-down, favorite science topic? What do they want to be when they grow up? What do they want to accomplish this year? I realized that for many students, I don’t know these things, and I figured out that these are the things I want to know about them.  I realized that the “beginning-of-year survey” I gave to…

1) get contact information for parents, and

2) get to know the kids

… didn’t have the kind of information I now felt was important.

So yesterday, I had the kids fill out a new form.

Actually, it wasn’t a form at all. It was a piece of loose-leaf, and they answered seven questions that I had written on the board.

1. Name

2. Best Way To Learn

3. Favorite Subject

4. Favorite Science Topic

5. Clubs, Hobbies, Sports & Activities

6. Family (Who lives with you? Brothers? Sisters? Ages/Grades? Pets?)

7. Goals (For this year? What do you want to be when you grow up?)

While at some point or another, students have told me some of these things, or some of the elements were on the beginning-of-year survey, I never thought about organizing the data I collected.  In the article, the author linked to a resource from Cult of Pedagogy, called the “Deep Data At A Glance chart.”  I checked hers out, but I ultimately decided to make my own.  First, I didn’t like it being a Word document, because I find that charts get all funky on Word sometimes.  Second, I wasn’t happy with those categories, so I had to type new ones up anyway.  Third, I like things to have pretty font, so I used some I had downloaded to my own computer.  I put all of this into an Excel chart and then typed up my student responses.

Side Note: My students were really excited to answer these questions, and I was surprised at the time and consideration they put into it.  Some were confused why we were doing this in the middle of the year — I simply told them I wanted to know these things.  They seemed happy.  I’m hoping to be able to incorporate some of what I have learned into future conversations and what not.  I’m also glad I came across this before parent-teacher conferences next week!!

So while I created my own chart, I was SO PLEASED with the idea, and I totally give credit to that article and Cult of Pedagogy. It’s not like it was a complicated idea, but for some reason, it never occurred to me — which is a little surprising because I really like data. Collecting it, organizing it, using it, tracking how it changes, etc. Anyway, it was a great idea, and I am glad it was shared with me!

I created both an Excel and editable PDF of my data sheet. You can access it for FREE at my TeachersPayTeachers store.  Simply click EXCEL if you’d like the Excel version or PDF if you’d like the PDF version. The Excel won’t have the pretty font, but the PDF will.

All in all, I hope you take the time to read that article — it’s a good reminder.  Yes, these are things we all try to do, but in the craziness of the day, the month, the year, it’s all too easy for these things to get shuffled to the side.  I’m glad I was reminded to continue to take the time to really know these awesome kids:


Another School Year Has Begun…

Wow.  This is my second year at OLC, and you’d think having done it all before, it would be easier — or at least less work… Not at all.  I feel like I have been running around like crazy since school started — and even before it began!

I got back from my month-long stay Honduras at the very end of July and within days was back to work — working with a 4th grade student to complete 35 hours of tutoring, as well as teaching night classes at my second job.  That did not leave a whole lot of time to get my room ready, and I was determined to clear all the junk and old stuff out of all my cupboards, countertops, and filing cabinets.  I took over last year for a teacher who had retired, which was a blessing overall (she left me ALL of her stuff!) but at the same time presented its own challenges.  Not having the time to do a total and thorough cleaning, most of the stuff remained in the cupboard all year.  This summer, the very first thing I did upon my return was pull EVERYTHING out of the cupboards.


the tip of the iceberg (of science stuff)

On top of all the stuff I already had, I was hooked up with a fellow NSTA member from the Erie area through the award I received last April.  This retired teacher was cleaning out her own cupboards and offered to donate bags and bags of things — student rewards, books, science kits, magnifiers, craft supplies, etc — to my classroom. Yay! And also: Uhhh, where’s this all going to go???  Anyway, I had lots of STUFF and it was EVERYWHERE.

With the help of my hardworking mom and aunt, and the company and only slight distraction of my slacker boyfriend (he played with magnets while I worked on my room), I did manage to get it all done!  I kept a lot of the decorations and organization elements from last year, but I also revamped a lot of my systems and switched to a slightly different color scheme (gray and blue, compared to last year’s brown and blue).  While I still have a ton of STUFF in my room, I think I’ve avoided a “clutter” feel, which I sometimes thought about my room last year. 

Here are some of my favorite additions and revamps:

I taped those neon garage-sale-stickers to all of my nonfiction books, sorting them into the various sciences (I chose physical, earth, life, and environmental). I’ve found this makes it very easy for students to take out a book and know where to return it to, and it’s also a way to direct students to nonfiction texts that fall within our content focus.

I’ve tried a number of ways to deal with absent students over the years, moving back and forth from over reliance on student responsibility to making way more work for myself… This year, I tried to blend the two, creating this “While You Were Out” bin. I have assigned a student (or two or three) in each class to act as our Attendance Secretaries. When a student is absent, they are to speak with an Attendance Secretary to find out what work they missed. Then, they can get whatever handouts students received that day from this “While You Were Out” bin. In addition to this, because my students are using interactive notebooks this year, absent students can also refer to my own interactive notebook that I have been building right alongside the students. This strategy seems to have worked with the few students we have had absent so far, and doesn’t seem to have put any extra work on my plate.

I love this idea — a voice levels chart. I first saw something like this when I was working in Charlotte, but this is the first year I have used it up north. While I don’t ALWAYS remember to identify what voice level we’re working at (I’ll admit sometimes I forget), it’s been my experience that students more consistently keep to an acceptable volume when I DO remember to identify a level. The descriptions in this chart also help to differentiate between the different levels, as compared to a vague directive like “talk quietly.”

This is easily one of my very favorite revamps. While I still have a supply center on the counter near the window, at each table group is a mini supply box with a few scissors, glue sticks, markers, crayons, and colored pencils. I even through in a few pencils and pens. This has eliminated a lot of supply-seeking things like asking neighbors, getting out of seats, etc. Students have also done a better job returning supplies to the correct location, probably since it’s right there in front of them! The books on the middle shelf are texts we use on a day to day basis (Sciencesaurus, Science Daybooks, and dictionaries), and the very bottom shelf is for my homeroom students to keep any extra books, trapper-keepers, etc. that won’t fit into their desks or cubbies. I have assigned one or two students in each class to be responsible for making sure the supply shelves stay neat and organized, and so far I haven’t had to say much about keeping them clean.

Just another way to stay organized. Now I can put any papers, supplies, etc. that I will need later in the week in their appropriate folder to keep my desk (maybe a little tiny bit) more clutter-free. I can make all my copies at the beginning of the week and just put them in the appropriate day’s folder. (FYI Those tabs are titled with the days of the week.)

Pinterest project! When students leave the room, they can write their names with dry erase markers in the appropriate box. I can quickly check to remind myself who is out, and students enjoy using the dry erase markers. Win win!


Bathroom/hall passes. I really wasn’t planning on going with the girl=pink and boy=blue but it was honestly the only two colors of washi tape I had on hand. I actually thought about flip-flopping it but I figured my 5th grade boys would not appreciate carrying around the pink hall pass…

My “Word Wall” of scientific vocabulary. I know there are a lot of really creative ways to use a word wall to make them more valuable to the student, but I’ve honestly not put much thought into it yet. I like that it fills up those cupboards, because last year I didn’t do much with them (I used all my posters all over the other walls), and hopefully at some point this year I’ll be able to put them to work in some of my lessons. Anyone have any ideas??? PS – Click the picture to download the chevron alphabet banner!

Made some super-cute curtains to hide my “storage cubby.”

I also made simple curtains for the windows. They were a little tricky to get up there since the window was so wide and the wall is cement. I ended up just stringing them on rope and then hung the rope on the wall with those Command hook things. So far they have not fallen!


In addition to the NEW stuff I’ve shared above, here are some of the elements I kept from last year:

Here is our “Critter Corner” (Forgive me: I ran out of C’s with the letters so had to go cutesy K for “kritter” on the board…) We have the tropical aquarium, a tropical terrarium with tree frogs and green anoles, hermit crabs (not pictured here), and then two pet rats (to the right of this picture). I’ve used the aquarium and terrarium a TON in my ecology lessons, as we talk about the interactions between/within populations, communities, and ecosystems, and I recently read that children develop compassion first through interactions with animals and pets… so hopefully they are benefiting through the care of our rats, Winkin and Nod.

Comfy Corner. The kids love this.

Supply Shop! Students can look here for any other supplies they might need — pencils, erasers, more gluesticks, more scissors, rulers, paperclips, rubber bands (have to watch those…), etc. There is also an electric pencil sharpener, a stapler, a hole punch, and a bunch of clipboards at this center.


Oh, and here is me on the first day of school (what a geek!): 


Hope you all had a fabulous first day, first week, and first month!


A Book of 5th Grade Science Memories

I posted a few weeks ago a template for a “Science Discovery Book” that I had planned to use with my 5th graders to bring a close to the year.  I asked them to write a paragraph about their favorite science memory this past year and then draw a picture to illustrate it.  I also took a photo of each student dressed in a lab coat, safety goggles, and other science accouterments.  I scanned their drawings, added their photos, and compiled all of their memories into a single PDF file. I have just a few more pictures to add, and then I’ll upload the completed file — probably to Google Drive — and send out the digital file to all of the parents… That way, they can save and/or print their own copies.

If you’d like to try this with your class, you can find the template for this project at my TeachersPayTeachers store.

Check out some of the memories and artwork below:

Scientific Investigations – Group vs. Independent Work?

This year, my sixth grade students worked in small groups to design a scientific investigation of their choosing that connects to the watershed content we were studying with the help of Allegheny College’s Creek Connections program.  Students first gained an understanding of watershed science, participated in water testing for Cascade Creek, and completed a biological and physical assessment of Cascade Creek’s health. Then, I assigned them to groups based on expressed interest (biological, chemical or physical studies) as well as my perceptions of their ability levels and leadership skills.  Students began background research in class, composed the first two sections of their final reports (introduction and methodology), and finally, were released to carry out their investigations. While several groups designed and carried out excellent studies, some groups really struggled with the group-work aspect of the project.  While it was my intention for the grouping to be an aid to students who may have otherwise struggled with carrying out such an extensive science project, the grouping actually became, for many, the most challenging aspect of the project.

As this became clear to me as the project evolved, I began to make adaptations to the assignment to increase accountability to their work and to their group.  While students were expected to carry out the investigation together, some students ended up doing the bulk of their project alone.  To recognize those students’ hard work, I asked all students to turn in an individual written report for their project.  This report was designed on the traditional format for all organized research and included the following sections: introduction, methodology, data, and conclusion. While all students were required to turn in a separate report, students who worked together and wrote their reports together could simply turn in two copies of the same report.  For students who felt they carried the weight of the project, they could write and turn in a report of their own, and they were under no obligation to share that report (or any aspects of it, such as data, research, ideas, etc.) with their group members.  In this way, students who had no part in the project were not able to skate by on their group members’ work. However, students still received a group grade for the display, as only one display was turned in.  Finally, I asked students to write a reflection of the project in class – How were responsibilities divided? Who did what, in terms of the work? How would you grade yourself and your group-mates? Is there anything I should know about the project? What would you do differently? What recommendations would you give me for next year? Etc.  I found students were very honest, admitting their own lapses and recognizing their partners’ hard work. I added a “participation” grade to their project based on my own observations, these student reflections of others, and the student reflections of themselves.

As I continue this project next year with the new sixth grade class, it is my intention to complete more of the project in class, so I can personally see student involvement.  Also, I have not yet decided if I will group students for this assignment, or ask them to complete an investigation independently.  I believe there are pros and cons to both approaches. The ability to work in a group, and for some to take on leadership roles, is an incredibly important skill, and scientists in the “real world” are constantly working with others, even when they may not be thrilled to!  In that way, this project simulated an authentic scientific investigation, and I think that experience is valuable. At the same time, I don’t want this project to cause more grief than learning.  I also want to be able to truly assess student understanding and mastery of science practices, and group work may make that assessment more difficult if one student carries more of the weight. Whatever way I choose to go, I will definitely make some improvements in terms of accountability.

Do you readers have any thoughts or recommendations? How do you hold students accountable during group work?