Save Fred

One of the first assignments I had my 5th and 6th grade students complete was something called Save Fred.  If you haven’t heard of it, the basic premise is that Fred the Gummy Worm was out boating when his boat capsized.  His life preserver has become trapped under the capsized boat, while Fred clings to its top.  Students must figure out how to get the life preserver out from under the boat without knocking Fred off.  The catch is that they can’t use their hands — they can only touch Fred, the boat, and the life preserver using four paperclips.  Students have to work together to find a solution, trying out different strategies and evaluating what works.

Students had to document their process, recording the strategies they used as they tried to Save Fred.

Afterward, I directed students to the Next Generation Science Standard’s eight practices of science and engineering, identified in the NRC’s A Science Framework for K-12 Science Education.  Students Think-Pair-Shared, and then as a class we discussed, which skills students had to use as they worked through the activity.  We talked about how the “Scientific Method” is not always the linear series of steps they had been taught — sometimes (most times!) scientists used these practices out of order. 

Overall, the activity was a great “ice breaker” for the beginning of the year.  Students were able to do something fun, get a little treat (they ate Fred and his gummy life preserver afterward), and begin developing those scientific practices right off the bat!

Download this NGSS Science and Engineering Practices bookmark from TeachersPayTeachers. Laminate, cut, and distribute to students.

 

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.

And I mean EVERYTHING.

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!

 

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?

Closed Ecosystem Challenge

As we have been working our way through a unit on ecology, I have found the tropical aquarium and frog terrarium in my classroom incredibly helpful.  For concepts like populations, communities, the carbon dioxide – oxygen cycle, and nitrogen cycle, students are presented with concrete examples from classroom pets they have observed all year.

To wrap up the unit, I wanted students to consider and observe the two very important cycles to the preservation of life — the carbon dioxide – oxygen cycle and the nitrogen cycle.  To do this, I divided students into groups and asked them to design a closed ecosystem in which the needs of all organisms are met.  You can check out the assignment pack I gave them, as well as some images of their ecosystems below:

 

Students test their ecosystems for water quality parameters like dissolved oxygen, pH, nitrites, nitrates, and ammonia.

Some students chose to house betta fish in their ecosystems.