Curriculum & Planning, Lesson Plans, Middle School, Resources, Science

Simulating An Oil Spill Clean Up

My students are continuing their year-long study of energy by investigating its ties to Earth Science, particularly in the form of fossil fuels.  My goal in this unit is to demonstrate the effects of using fossil fuels on the environment.  While certainly a big impact of fossil fuel use is climate change, my focus in this unit is the environmental impacts of extraction.  (I plan to get into climate change in the next unit, as we examine climate and weather and their impacts on ecological systems.)

In my last post, my students investigated the effects of surface mining on “Earth Cookies.” I wanted to find a similarly hands-on activity to investigate oil extraction, particularly off-shore oil drilling.  I came across an idea online to simulate an oil spill clean up using vegetable oil, food coloring, and student creativity.  From this basic framework, I created a set of instructions and student printables for this activity.  You can find it at my website:

oil spill clean up student activity hands-on learning
$5.00 PDF

First, my students learned about oil by exploring the EIA Energy Kid website.  We also watched a short video on the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska 1989, and read about the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill.  Finally, students created a chart to list the different tools and strategies that are used in the real world to clean up oil spills.

The list they created included:

– booms  (that contain or corral oil slicks)

– skimmers (that scoop oil from the surface)

– sinking agents (that bind to oil and make it sink to the bottom)

– sorbents (that absorb oil)

– biological agents (fertilizers that speed up plant growth and therefore biodegradation)

– dispersants (that break petroleum into small droplets)

Working from this list, students created their own devices that fulfilled these different purposes.  I provided students with a number of supplies, from cotton balls and string to corks and craft sticks.  They then worked in small groups to develop booms and skimmers, and to identify what materials they would use for sorbents and sinking agents.

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This took about two 45 minute class periods, and they came up with some really creative ideas.  You can see some of their designs below:

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After this engineering activity, students created an oil spill to test their strategy.  One student acted as the group’s recorder, documenting the evaluation of each device and the group’s observations.

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This activity was definitely a success.  I was able to incorporate engineering activities into the unit, and students were able to see the challenges of removing oil from the environment.  While climate change has been a hot topic in terms of fossil fuel use, it’s important to remember these energy sources can affect our environment in other ways as well. Finally, this activity will help my students during the upcoming unit assessment, which will ask students to represent various stakeholders in a discussion over a town’s energy decisions.  Stay tuned to hear more about that activity!

Curriculum & Planning, Education, Lesson Plans, Middle School, Resources, Science

Simulating Surface Mining with Chocolate Chip Cookies

My 5th graders are working through a unit on natural resources, particularly our energy sources.  Having learned about the layers of the earth, the rock cycle, and fossils, we are looking at fossil fuels.  While they have built some background knowledge through books and online web sources (I love Energy Kids!), I wanted to incorporate  hands-on activities for each type of fossil fuel.

Since the first fossil fuel we are learning about is coal, I decided to use an activity I first learned about while working at Asbury Woods Nature Center. If you do an online search, there are many free resources outlining this activity.  The gist of it is that students receive a chocolate chip cookie and must “mine” the “coal chips” with a toothpick or paperclip.  They get to see how the cookie, which represents the Earth, is changed by mining – a visual representation of the damage done by surface or strip mining.

To gear my kids up for this project, I started the unit by showing a video: 300 Years of Fossil Fuels in 300 Seconds, available at YouTube.  This video is VERY information heavy, so I made sure to explain to students I don’t expect them to learn or remember everything. I asked them to listen for information about fossil fuels, specifically coal, and identify ONE thing they didn’t know (and now do).  I will admit that I like to push my students – I don’t expect them to master every task I give them, but I always want them to TRY.  And I am blessed to have students willing and motivated to do so!

After we watched the video, I discussed with them how the Industrial Revolution changed our source of energy from “muscle power” to “machine power,” which derives its energy primarily from fossil fuels.  We discussed how nearly everything we use and do each day is in some way created from fossil fuel power, and we brainstormed what might happen if suddenly we didn’t have that source of energy anymore.

After this class discussion, students read about fossil fuels from a volume in a set of books called Science Explorer.  The Science Explorer series are a set of thin books on a wide range of topics, and I actually prefer them to our science textbooks.  As they read, students worked together to make an outline of all of the headings and the important information found in each section.  This was a skill that was new to my students, so we did the first few headings together, and afterward, we reviewed what things students wrote under each heading.  You can see a sample of their outlines below:

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Then, students read about the mining and transportation of coal in more detail from the Energy Kids website.

Then, our activity started!  Briefly, students were given a set of instructions (class set), the supplies to mine their cookies, the graph paper worksheet, data analysis worksheet, and conclusions worksheet.  As a part of their data analysis, I provided the skeleton of the chart I asked them to create, as this is a skill that is relatively new to my middle school students.  It was a great way to incorporate math into the activity without taking up a ton of time!

Like I said above, you can find many free resources that explain this activity.  They can provide you with the instructions and maybe some follow up questions.  That said, the instruction sheets and student worksheets that I created are available for purchase at my Etsy shop, as well as TeachersPayTeachers. I love resources that look professional AND fun, even if my students and I are the only ones to see them! If you are the same way, please check out my creations! You can also see a preview of these documents below. I was able to utilize Roxie’s CreationsTrina Clark, and  DigiWebStudio to make it all look absolutely wonderful as well!

cover page of activity pack
student worksheets

My students LOVED the activity – let’s be honest, anything that involves food is a hit!

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They also learned a lot though.  Not only were they able to see the effects of mining on the environment as a problem, but they could also identify its consequences and brainstorm ways to reduce that impact.

Not too bad for a 5th grader!
Not too bad for a 5th grader!
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What are three ways we can minimize the impact of coal mining and use on the environment?
Education, Language Arts, Middle School, Uncategorized

Thoughts on Summer Reading

Thoughts on Summer Reading

In my early explorations of my predecessor’s desk this past year (he left in rather a hurry), I came across the summer reading assignment he had used the previous year.  While I don’t remember the exact details at present, he asked students to complete “author studies” using classic novels.  Students had to read two classics and write some sort of essay, due at the start of school.

As summer rolled around this May, I had to come up with a summer reading program for my rising seventh and eighth graders.  To be honest, I can’t remember what “summer reading” entailed in middle school.  The first year that I actually recall my summer reading assignment was the year I entered high school, 2001.  We had to select a book from a list provided–I chose to read Emma by Jane Austen.  I am guessing I recognized Jane Austen’s name as the author of Pride and Prejudice, which I assume I recognized as a romance.  And who doesn’t like a good romance?

Apparently, me.  Or at least, the rising ninth-grade version of myself.  That book dragged on.  I, who can consume a book in a day, who used to play hooky just so I could stay home and read all day, hated reading that book.  I just couldn’t get into it.  The characters confused me; the comedy was lost on me.  I couldn’t tell Jane Fairfax from Frank Churchill. (That may be an exaggeration. I am pretty sure I was aware of gender differences at the very least.)  The point is: I wasn’t ready for it.

I have come to believe that you can’t appreciate a book until you are ready for it.  There have been numerous occasions in my own life that I have purchased a book, which has then sat on my bookshelf for weeks, months, sometimes even years.  Then, one day, for whatever reason, it catches my attention.  When I read it, it speaks to me.  It connects to my life, it offers some sort of wisdom.  Simply put, I am ready for it.

Leaving middle school, I was not ready for Emma.  Though an avid reader (literally, I consumed printed material), I just wasn’t ready to read that novel on my own, and I hated it.  I can’t even tell you what it was about, except that Jane Fairfax was a pain in the ass and Harriet was an idiot.  (And that’s only what I recall after Googling the names of Emma’s characters.)  And it wasn’t just Austen’s style.  Just one year later, a sophomore in high school, I picked up the novel Pride and Prejudice, and I LOVED it. I loved the witty humor, the romance.  I’m pretty sure I read it twice.  That year, I also really enjoyed reading Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities and Homer’s The Odyssey.  Not exactly the lightest of reading.  But that didn’t matter, because I was ready for it.  And even if I hadn’t been, it was a class venture–we had classmates and a teacher to rely on, to help interpret what we were reading.  There were supports for those who needed it.

Summer reading doesn’t really work that way.  You’re on your own.  More than that, you’re on your own when you’re supposed to be done with school! Most kids don’t want to read A Tale of Two Cities over the summer.  Frankly, most simply won’t.  They’ll use SparkNotes to get whatever information they need for whatever silly report you’ve assigned, and they’ll BS their way through it.  It’s not only a waste of their time, but a waste of YOUR time when you have to read all those essays! And really, do YOU want to do that during YOUR summer break?  I would think not.

At least, I think not.  So this year for summer reading, I decided to do something different.  They can read whatever tell them to read next school year.  This summer, I just want them to read, PERIOD.  So I instituted the following Summer Reading Program:

So far, I’ve had some positive responses! I’ve had a student email me, two or three parents respond, AND one even called the principal with praises!  Considering MMS is cutting a middle school position, we have a new principal unfamiliar with our work, and I was the last hired, any praise I can get is a good thing right now!! (Though I have to admit it’s my multiple certifications that are keeping me around, commendations can’t hurt.)

Anyway, I don’t know if it’s the “right” thing to do, letting the students select their own books this summer.  Maybe I’m expecting too little of them.  I know I run the risk of students selecting novels below their reading level, opting for the “easy” way out.  Then again, I doubt assigning a weak reader a book way above their reading level without the supports available during the school year is any better.  I guess it’s my hope that the students will select the books they’re ready for, whatever subject and level that may be.  They can read a little, write a little, and enjoy their summer.  We can worry about the classics next fall.



Ms. Making Things Up As I Go


A Book Which People Praise And Don't Read - Mark Twain

Curriculum & Planning, Education, Language Arts, Middle School

Help, I Think I’m Sinking!: The Overwhelming Nature of Language Arts

A Relatively Short Introduction

For those of you who haven’t read my highly engaging Who Am I and Why Should You Care? page, I am a 24 year old Language Arts teacher at a private school in Pennsylvania.  I received my bachelor’s degree in History (with a minor in Environmental Science) and went on to earn my teacher certification (Social Studies concentration) and M.Ed. in Middle and Secondary Instruction.  As a result of  the competitive job market in Pennsylvania and my own broad range of academic interests, I added certifications in 7-9 Science, K-12 Environmental Ed, and 7-12 English.  The way it worked out, I landed my first real teaching job in a middle school Language Arts classroom.

While English was not my first choice of certifications, it has proven to be my favorite.  I LOVE teaching Language Arts.  The thought of teaching Social Studies (which I may have to do next year in addition to Language Arts as a result of budget cuts) or Science (though I enjoyed it during my field experience) are rather distressing to me now.  I would be happy teaching nothing but Language Arts forever.  Well, maybe not forever.  I have strong intentions to apply for doctoral programs in Literacy/English Education in the near future — but that kind of  makes my point anyway.  I love Language Arts/English Education – reading about instructional practices, student learning, reading, writing, literature, multiple literacies, “new literacies,” “critical literacies” — basically, find anything you can attach the word literacy to, and I’m interested.  I actually READ all those articles NCTE sends out in their emails, or in Voices from the Middle (great journal, by the way).  Considering I barely perused the NCSS bulletins and journals, I feel it is a good indication I am meant to be a Langauge Arts teacher.  I think I may have actually found my calling (or at least, the field of my calling — I have ambitions, you know).

Anyway, I think you get the idea by now – I ❤ Language Arts.

And Now To The Main Idea: The Overwhelming Nature of Language Arts

The more I read and learn about all the awesome things teachers are doing in Language Arts classrooms across the country, the more overwhelmed I feel.  I have the next two and a half months to plan for a year’s worth of curriculum for my 7th and 8th grade classes – I have literature units to develop, grammar to incorporate, writing to teach… not to mention things like literary elements and figurative language and poetry and public speaking and vocabulary and diagramming…  The list goes on.  This is to some extent the drawback to working at MMS (My Middle School).

SOME BACKGROUND: About the time I joined the team, there were some major changes in administration.  Unfortunately, there hadn’t been a lot of structure before I arrived, and the emergency team they pulled together (though performing admirably in light of the circumstances) didn’t have time to worry too much about curriculum.  While the new principal has made it clear he plans to address this issue this summer, I am still left with lots to plan with little guidance.

Sure, I have the PA State Standards and (what I prefer) the Common Core State Standards.  Trust me, I have become incredibly familiar with both of those documents.  That said, Language Arts is still incredibly broad–something I have come to love about the subject, and something that has begun to fill me with a terrible anxiety.

When I completed my field experience, the school district in which I was placed had a very clearly defined curriculum for the seventh grade Life Science course.  It provided teachers with not only Essential Questions and Understandings, but even activities, projects and assessment tools.  We had a textbook to follow and specific content to cover.  It was very neat and tidy.  While it allowed for some creativity in the means of instruction, the bones of the course were packaged to-go.

Similarly, when I student-taught in middle and high school Social Studies classrooms, though not provided with such a detailed curriculum, I could work from the textbook, selecting chapters to meet various standards (like in Government and Economics) or working chronologically through U.S. history as in the Advanced Placement course.  There was an inherent structure to the system that made it much easier to keep afloat.

Language Arts at MMS? No such luck.  Now, I don’t know if this is a shortcoming of MMS or a challenge presented by the subject itself.  As I don’t have experience with Language Arts outside of MMS, I don’t know if the situation I have found myself in is normal.   (You tell me — is it?)  Without a school board-stamped document telling me what I’m supposed to teach, I can, in theory, teach anything I want any way I want.  While right now I bear that freedom as a heavy curse, I’m trying to think of it more as a blessing.  I am not curtailed by board designed and enforced curriculums, by standardized and high-stakes testing.  I have the freedom to explore new ways of understanding literature and texts, of responding to readings and other forms of media in new and creative ways, of incorporating multiple disciplines and practical literacies.  I very literally have a blank slate before me, 180 empty days, and it is completely up to me to fill them with meaningful and engaging activities.  (As I started that sentence, it sounded really great; as I finished it, the anxiety again set in).

William Kist pointed out in “Middle Schools and New Literacies: Looking Back and Moving Forward” (Voices from the Middle 19, no. 4) innovative teaching and “new literacies” classrooms “seem to flourish at the middle school level,” and he provides a variety of reasons for this phenomenon: teachers of this age group are more willing to explore, the structure of these schools is more conducive to interdisciplinary work, and middle school kids just require that extra motivation that innovation brings.  Middle school is the place to be trying new approaches and rethinking traditional English education.  Middle school is, simply, the place to be.  And for me, working in a private middle school without the need to worry about PSSAs and Keystone Exams, there is literally nothing stopping me from experimenting with the new techniques I’ve been getting so excited about.

So if I overlook the pennies in my piggy bank (or lack thereof) and the daunting task of planning ahead, perhaps teaching Language Arts next year at MMS is better luck than I’d first imagined.


Ms. Only Slightly Less Intimidated

Some E-Cards
And THAT piggy bank is getting full.