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

The Next Generation Science Standards & Lesson Planning

At the NSTA’s Boston Conference this year, I attended a Professional Development Institute on the Next Generation Science Standards. Since then, I have been looking forward to taking the time to review the standards in greater depth and consider how I can incorporate them into my curriculum.

I am pretty lucky to work at a private school that gives me a good deal of freedom with what and how I teach.  I have a set of standards for each grade level – but to be honest, they are nearly identical.  There are perhaps ten changes between fifth and sixth grade’s seven page documents.  I have been thinking how challenging it is to cover all of that material in one year’s time (and actually, in only three quarters of the year, because I am supposed to teach health as well!), and really, how unfeasible it is to truly explore the content.

As I started to brainstorm some approaches for next year, it occurred to me that because I teach two grades, and these middle level grades are all working towards the same school curriculum documents and NGSS standards, I could divide the curriculum in half.  Fifth grade could explore one half of the seven page list of standards, and sixth grade could cover the other half.  This allows us to take enough time to truly engage with the content and build science practices, instead of just memorizing and “spitting back” a cursory overview of the topic.

Right now, I’m leaning toward starting with the physical sciences in fifth grade (matter and energy), moving into earth science (energy resources/natural resources), and ending with a unit on weather, climate, and global warming/climate change.  Then in sixth grade, they would begin by taking a broad view of life science through the study of ecology, move into biodiversity, and end with a focus on biology (organisms, life cycles, adaptation, anatomy, etc.).  Additionally, I plan to include a “citizen scientist” project and/or a service learning component. With this approach, I would still meet all the standards I am required to over the course of two years, but students would have time to reach deeper depths of complexity and understanding.

Anyway, I will be posting my unit plans on the blog as I complete them, but in the mean time, check out the new lesson planner I created —

NGSS Lesson - Navy Chevron.pdf (Original)
NGSS Lesson Template

While the other lesson plan templates I have made focused on Common Core State Standards and 21st Century Skills, this template is designed for lessons that align with the NGSS.  There are spaces to checkmark which Science and Engineering Practices students are developing and also which Crosscutting Concepts are to be incorporated into the lesson.  It also has room to record the Disciplinary Core Ideas that the lesson will address, as well as the Performance Expectations students are working toward mastering.  On the second page, there are spaces for you to record your lesson’s Warm Up, Instruction, Activity, and Assessment.

I plan to create more designs for this template, utilizing different colors and patterns.  Do you have any designs you would really want to see? I am always up for suggestions!

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:

 photo 11e6068c-59ce-4282-8e34-8d8a1829c05a.jpg

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!

Earth Cookie photo IMG_4145.jpg

Chocolate Chip Coal Mining photo IMG_4135.jpg

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!
What are three ways we can minimize the impact of coal mining and use on the environment? photo IMG_4155.jpg
What are three ways we can minimize the impact of coal mining and use on the environment?
Curriculum & Planning, Education, Language Arts, Middle School

Teaching Characterization and Inferential Thinking

There are many ways to teach characterization, and I don’t claim to be an expert. Nevertheless, I would like to share with you some of the approaches and resources I have found successful.  This past year, I was teaching at an inner-city school in Charlotte, North Carolina.  While many of my eighth grade students were aware of the general meaning of characterization – the way an author provides information about characters – my students generally just brushed the surface of texts they encountered. They focused on the direct characterization and ignored the many other ways authors characterize their characters.

Authors can indirectly provide information about their characters through:

  • actions
  • speech/dialogue
  • appearance/physical descriptions
  • thoughts
  • others’ reactions to the character. has a great PDF printout on direct characterization, as well as a mnemonic to help students remember these methods. Click on the image to access the PDF.

characterization, mnemonic device, teaching tools,
taken from

Anyway, my students were, for the most part, relying too much on direct characterization and ignoring the wealth of information provided indirectly.  To address this, I devoted a day to studying indirect characterization in action.

I took an excerpt from To Kill A Mockingbird, specifically the testimony of Mayella Ewell as she was questioned by Atticus.  The excerpt, from Chapters 16 and 17 I believe (though please don’t quote me on that!), contained so many examples of indirect characterization – it was wonderful. To help students learn to identify these examples, I created an “It Says // I Say” chart on the SmartBoard that we worked through as we read the text in class.

I started by providing students with the examples from the book, asking them to infer something about that character based on the quotes I pulled.

characterization, inference skills,
I scaffolded this task by first providing the quotes and inferences, with the goal of moving toward student independence.

As we worked through the text, I asked students to provide more of the information, as well as utilized Quick Chat breaks to maintain student engagement.

quick chat, technology in education, student discussion

After we had worked through the many examples of characterization I pulled from the text, asking students to provide inferences about the characters, I asked students to go back through the examples they had recorded in their notes and identify which method of characterization the author was using.

Being able to infer information from a text, to make meaning from what is not directly stated,  to create their own ideas from information provided — that is SUCH an important skill and I found the “It Says / I Say” chart a good way to get students thinking.  By highlighting these important quotes that otherwise students would have likely skimmed over, they developed a greater understanding of the text and the characters involved.  This led to the eventual discussion of whether Mayella Ewell was telling the truth — though we had not read any other part of the book, students were able to form an opinion on the question based on the characterization of Mayella – particularly her speech and actions, the information provided directly by the author, and other characters’ responses to her.  Students were able to defend their positions by referencing specific information in the text – another skill so important to achieving success in high school and college.

assessment, bloom's taxonomy, creation

After completing an activity like the one I described above, how can you tell if students have mastered the concept?  One unique way I came across was the idea of Facebook imitation pages.  Instead of writing a long report on characterization, students can creatively demonstrate their knowledge through the creation of Facebook pages for their characters.  I have used this tactic in my own classes, and it is definitely a way to improve student engagement.

I came across this idea after I entering my first full-time Language Arts teaching position mid-year, when the previous teacher abruptly quit. At the time, students had just finished the novel To Kill A Mockingbird and were working on a project called “Farcebook.” The teacher had purchased large posters on which a Facebook template had been created for students to record information about characters from the novel. I absolutely loved the idea.

That said, I was working at a private school and the pay was (and still is) mediocre. With an apartment, pets, student loans, and the prospect of a long, pay-free summer, I could not justify spending that much of my own money on posters I could not reuse. So instead of purchasing a set of these large posters from an online company or mail-order magazine, I created my own Facebook imitation page that I called

facebook, book report, lessons, alternative book reports, literature projects, characterization

CharacterBook contains space for students to record basic information, status updates, friends list, causes list, group memberships, photo albums and wall recordings. This PDF file contains two pages that may be printed back to back or simply stapled. If you have access to a poster printer, the document can also be enlarged.

I have personally used this as an alternative book report project, as well as have adapted it for biographies of any individual or characters — including saints (for a Religion class) and presidents (for Social Studies). When I use this worksheet, I ask students to base their profile page entirely on facts drawn from the novel or other resource. For example, students may be asked to cite an exchange of dialogue that reveals how a character feels about a particular group or cause before listing that group/cause on their profile page. This helps to meet Common Core Standards and increase student accountability and reliance on the original text.

How do you teach characterization?