Sunday, September 20, 2015

Depth of Knowledge in Science

As I move from teaching fourth grade to teaching sixth grade, I've noticed a great deal of overlap between the two curriculums*. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as so many of the big concepts are really important. However, knowing what kids learned in fourth grade is leading me to try to delve more deeply in sixth.

In the first few weeks of school, I reorganized an existing activity to add more depth. Originally, the activity was a standard water cycle model. You can see them in the photo to the right. The original activity had students identify the evaporation and condensation going on in the model.

How could I ratchet up the thinking in this activity? I decided to explore the word model. What is a model in science, and what is the role of a model? Both our PA standards and the NGSS place an emphasis on the creation and analysis of models in science class. However, not many traditional curricular materials for elementary school engage students in exploring the worth of a model.

So then, after we made the models, we didn't stop at looking for examples of condensation and evidence of evaporation. Instead, I asked the students:

Is this a useful model of the water cycle? Why or why not?

Students referred back to the water cycle diagrams that we had made together and worked in groups to discuss. It was beautiful to observe! Best of all, there was wide disagreement. Most of the disagreement had to do with the way that we set up the models on the windowsill--the models that were closer to the window had much more condensation that the windows that did not.

Some other models had been bumped and had blue water droplets clinging to the sides. "When it evaporates, it should be clear, right?" one student asked. "So why is it blue?" This led to a discussion of a model that is so fragile that a slight bump can change the results. "If someone who didn't know about evaporation looked at it, they might think that the water evaporated blue!" a student said.

The task also required students to refer back to their resources about the water cycle. "Would there be transpiration in this model?" one student asked her group. "There wouldn't, right? Because there are no plants." In another group, peers corrected a student's misconception about groundwater. "The water on the bottom is the groundwater because it's on the ground," she said. Group members went back to the diagram to talk about why they thought the water represented surface water instead.

The writing prompt was a straightforward introduction to science argumentation, as I provided students with a claim that they could use as their topic sentence. Some students wanted to write more than a paragraph, while others stuck with a simple explanation. This will give me great information about where they are with science writing so that I can plan instruction from this point.

For a busy teacher, re-making existing activities to involve deeper levels of thinking is a great way to build from an existing curriculum. What activities have you improved upon?

You can find the writing prompt and activity in Watersheds, Wetlands, and Water Resources: Texts and Activities over at TpT.

*I like "curriculums" instead of "curricula" because I think it's fussy to apply Latin-based rules to modern words. It's an acceptable plural here.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Flipping Lessons with Frolyc

In the early weeks of the school year, I admit to loving the computer lab. Not only is it equipped with great Macbooks for student use, but it is also air-conditioned! The cool air is a welcome respite from the heat and humidity of August and September.

Last week, I experimented with flipping a lesson. Instead of me standing up and teaching all students at once, I wanted to give them the flexibility to move through a lesson at their own pace. While they worked in the cool comfort of the computer lab, I could work one-on-one with students to complete our beginning of the year assessments.

Frolyc is the perfect tool for creating a flipped lesson. I can put all of the text, videos, and activities that I want students to use in one easy place. Even though my students don't all have computers at home, they still need to learn how to work through online content and learn from these kinds of lessons.

I started out by creating my classrooms. No need for student e-mail addresses or lengthy forms--I just had to type in student first names. Each student receives an individual code that they use to access their activities.

Next, I created my lesson through the authoring tool on Frolyc. We are working on story elements with a focus on protagonist, antagonist, and parts of a plot. I used a "Multimedia Text" activity to combine an image, a video from YouTube, and text. This is what it looked like on student computers:

I couldn't find a great video for parts of the plot diagram, so I adapted a few slides from a PowerPoint that I have already made (Story Elements) and did a screencast using QuickTime. Then I posted it to YouTube so that I could embed it in the next page of the Frolyc activity. (link to video)

The kids found it very amusing to listen to me! Even better, though, they had full control of stopping and starting the video. "Can we watch it again? I don't really remember all of the words," one student said. "Of course!" I replied. This is one advantage of a video!

After the video, students read a story, and then answered sequencing and multiple choice questions. These questions required students to apply the vocabulary that they had learned in previous pages. Some kids realized that they had to go back and reread, which was a great lesson for them.

 The lesson ended with a drawing activity. Kids enjoyed interacting with the drawing tool, and I loved watching the collaboration bloom--"How do you add a text box?"--and "How do I draw instead of erasing?"

I'm planning to continue creating flipped lessons for students in the weeks to come. These lessons are great for introducing vocabulary and helping students to experience content.

You can find the full activity here if you would like to try it out with your students.

If you would like to try to create your own flipped lesson, here is a story that you can use--for free! This retelling of "Stone Soup", told from multiple points of view, can be used for teaching about theme and point of view.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Using Real Data in the Classroom

I love teaching sixth grade! It is so wonderful to have the same students that I taught in fourth. The first few days of school had a totally different feel--I knew the kids, they knew me, so we could get to the fun stuff really fast.

Science has been especially fun. I wanted to get right into the learning. The more years I teach, the more frustrated I am by "Preparing for Science" units. I feel like we spend time naming the tools that we could spend USING the tools!

Instead, we jumped right into the real process skills and real science. I have pages and pages of data from our bird feeder observations of the last few years. Fourth graders liked to keep the data, but never worked much with analyzing it.

There are two kinds of lesson planning to me. One kind is the clear, cut-and-dried lesson planning of curriculum designers: Teacher will do x, students will do y, a known quantity of learning will ensue.

But my favorite kind of lesson planning is the fuzzy lesson planning. It's "fuzzy" not because of a lack of teacher preparation, but because of the multitude of possibility in student responses. I can't picture exactly how the lesson will turn out, but I bring all of my knowledge and experience in the lesson to bear.

First steps: Looking at data
As students entered class on the first day of science, I let them sit where they like. After some quick introductions I handed out the data and gave directions. Papers flew about as kids looked at the numbers. I walked around to listen (and to show bird pictures as requested.)

Kids wasted no time in looking at the observations, which was great to see. Because they had chosen their groups, I could make some social observations of my own, always good to start with at the beginning of the year!

Organizing the data
After they looked at the basics, students had to come up with a way to organize the data. This is a way that fourth graders and sixth graders are so different: The sixth graders jumped right into making tally charts.

But what were they tallying? Data sheets included dates, kinds of birds, weather, student name, and behavior notes. What kinds of information would students tally? Luckily, it varied across the classes--just what I wanted to see! Many groups tried to find a link between weather and bird types seen. Some went for the simple "Number of birds seen"--a safe and productive choice. One group tallied data related to the student-observers, making a list of all of the students who had recorded observations and tallying how many times each name appeared.

Knowing what to tally, and realizing that there are multiple possibilities, is a huge science process skill. And yet it is one that is never explored during those "Preparing for Science" units. The cooperation that I observed was also fascinating. Students figured out that they needed to keep track of which papers they had tallied, and which they hadn't--and they also figured out ways to split up the workload to keep everyone engaged. Again, these aren't skills that usually show up in traditional science units!

Displaying Data
I told students that they could have access to any paper in the classroom to display their data. This got them up and moving and looking around for supplies! I loved watching how some groups used graph paper and others used construction paper. Some groups looked for rulers to make straight lines.

I helped a few groups to create graphs using the NCES Create a Graph site. This site is one of the best for science instruction--instant graphs! Kids still have to do lots of thinking, though, and they worked together to create titles, figure out what to put on the x-axis and the y-axis, and work through the numbers.

The question of incomplete data came up frequently. There were a lot of bird observation pages that just weren't finished--it was time for recess, we were leaving the room, etc. (Several of the unfinished pages were mine. Oops!) What is the effect of incomplete data? Kids were passionate as they complained about how "annoying" it was to see so many pages that didn't have everything filled out. I only hope that they remember this annoyance when they have data charts to complete this year!

There was also the question of overlapping data. On the observation sheet, a recorder could check off weather conditions like "warm", "frigid", "cloudy", "cool", "sunny", and so forth. But some of these weather conditions could overlap--a day can be warm and cloudy, or frigid and sunny. The students who tried to link weather conditions to kinds of birds seen found this overlap frustrating and it really kept them from seeing clear patterns.

Questions to Consider

This fuzzy lesson revealed a great deal to me about the students, and helped my plans for the upcoming year to come into focus. They showed some great cooperation working in groups, which reinforces my instinct to build in as many collaborative activities as possible.

Once data is displayed, there will be more opportunities for questioning and learning. Each group had a different set of bird observations with the dates marked. None of the groups noticed that the dates were significant for the kinds of birds seen, as they didn't compare information across groups. (For example, juncos are heavily represented in the January/February data, but not at all in September.)

Once all of the charts are displayed in the hall, will kids notice this? Will they see that different groups came up with different information, and wonder why? What will I do if this happens? What will I do if this doesn't?

Next Steps
I really hope that students will be able to come up with a new data collection tool. What learning can they take from this lesson to apply to future data collection? I've added a digital thermometer to the window...hopefully someone will pick up on this hint that we have to record the exact temperature!

I was glad that I did this lesson, because it helped me to learn more about my students. A fuzzy lesson can be daunting to undertake, but the rewards can be far greater than any worksheet.