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Knowing how to introduce CER (Claim, Evidence, Reasoning) writing in science classes has become more important than ever. Of course, we all want our students to be good science writers. The NGSS and CCLS have made it imperative that we directly teach this skill and that we continue it all year long.

Introduce CER as a Stand-Alone Lesson

I’ve tried teaching CER in two different ways: incorporating it into my existing lessons, for example in a lab write-up, or teaching it as a stand-alone lesson.

I had the most success with the majority of my students by teaching it as a stand-alone lesson. Investing a class period or more into teaching this skill had the effect of showcasing its importance to the students. Not only that, since we were all focused on the same concept it was much easier for me to help students that were struggling.

Introduce CER early in the school year since this is a skill they will need to practice often. I wait until the students are feeling more comfortable and I’ve established some rapport with them. I want them to feel at ease in asking for help if they need it.

Introduce CER with lots of practice!

If students have a good working knowledge of hypotheses then they don’t usually have too much difficulty with the Claim part of writing CERs. Since the claim is just “the answer to a question,” students tend to have a good grasp of this part. As the year goes on, I tend to give them text or diagrams where the claim may not be so obvious.

Typically, text evidence is also not very difficult for the majority of students. Those with poor reading skills will of course have a harder time with this. For those students, Cornell notes can help them to sort out some of the keywords and context clues that they need to look for.

I like to have students highlight the evidence in their text, especially during the early practice stages. Doing this makes it much easier for them when they go back to write their reasoning statements.

When the evidence is presented as a data table, chart, graph, or diagram some students have a bit more difficulty finding evidence. Telling them to find a specific number of evidences sometimes helps. For example, I usually tell my students that if they have a data table, 2 pieces would be the minimum and 3 is better.

They need to be able to interpret graphs and diagrams in order to pick out the evidence to support the claim. As a class, have students read the captions, talk about the diagram and pick out key parts … show them that they need to look at ALL of it in order to understand it and pick out evidence.

The reasoning part is where I find that students tend to have the most trouble. They find it difficult to apply scientific principles (which many of them may not even understand) to the evidence they have. For this reason, I like to give them a few “sentence starters” to help them get started.

Starters such as “Based on the evidence we can conclude that ….” or “The reason I believe ______ is ______” can jump-start their thinking processes to help them connect the evidence to the claim.

I created a Powerpoint lesson and made a set of notes/practice to go along with it. It takes about a class period (mine are 42 minutes). It starts off with a really cute Youtube video of a commercial where a little girl tells us her father is an alien! It’s a fun way to introduce Claims and Evidence. At the end of the practice is a section where I ask them to “Pull It All Together” and write the Claim, Evidence and Reasoning from a single data table. Sometimes I assign this as homework if we run out of time.

As we work through the lesson, I have students work on the practice parts right in class, while I circulate around and provide help as needed. Then I like to call on students to share what they’ve done. Then they keep the sheets in their binders to look back at when necessary.

Here’s the product if you’d like to check it out at my store.

Introduction to CER

Keep an eye out for updates because I plan on creating CERs for many different biology topics! They will be great to use for exit tickets, formative assessments, quizzes or sub plans.

How do you teach CER in your classroom? We’d love to hear your ideas!

Happy Teaching!

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Engage Your Students With Interesting Informational Text Articles

how to use informational text

I love using informational text articles in my classes. I rarely ever use a textbook, even though I have them. There are just so many interesting images and animations online that I much prefer to use technology in my instruction.

Finding interesting articles at the right reading level isn’t always easy though. My students find reading and analyzing a bit easier when they have actual paper to work with, so I like to find text articles that I can print out. That way, we can work together to highlight, underline, circle, and annotate to our hearts’ content!

These articles coordinate very well with Cornell notes. Read my blog post on how I use Cornell notes in my classroom. Sometimes I input the questions into the notes myself. Other times I write an essential question or “big idea” focus at the top of the note sheet and have students take notes based on that. These are also easy to differentiate for different classes or even individual students within a class.

What Can You Do With Text Articles?

  • One thing that I like to do with a class of low readers is to number each paragraph in the article before xeroxing. Then I group my students and assign each group one or two paragraphs to read. They’ll highlight the main idea, pick out one or two unfamiliar vocabulary terms, define the terms, and write a question that can be answered from their reading onto a sticky note.
  • The sticky note then goes up on our “parking lot.”
  • As they’re working I circulate around and make sure each group is on track. When they’re finished, each group goes up to our document camera in order of their paragraphs and shares all of their information with the rest of the class. This allows the whole class to get the gist of an article and makes it easier for lower readers to understand.
  • Each group then goes up to the parking lot to see if they can pick out the question that goes with each paragraph. I’ve found that it encourages the groups to write higher-order questions because they like to try to stump their classmates!
  • Another idea is to write some comprehension, or “detailed reading” questions to go with the text article. Again, these can be differentiated according to your groups’ abilities. They can work in pairs or individually to complete them.
  • I also like to do some sort of vocabulary activity with these articles. It’s usually something where they use context clues to predict the meanings of the words (I usually pick out the terms initially) and then define them to see how close they came in their predictions. Then I have them add any other unfamiliar terms of their choosing and do the same thing.
  • Some articles lend themselves well to having students draw. For example, they can draw timelines, sequential diagrams, bar graphs, cycles … in science especially this type of activity can really help students’ understanding.

I’ve often resorted to writing my own articles because I couldn’t find anything engaging at the reading levels that I needed. I found that I REALLY enjoyed doing this! So there’s a new product line taking shape in my Teachers Pay Teachers store providing fun, engaging informational text articles. I’m writing them on interesting animals, with some cool details that will help to hook your students.

These articles include activities including vocabulary work, comprehension questions, and extension activities. I put a fun QR code in each one that links to a short Youtube video (I also included the URL) with some questions that are answered from the video.

As of this writing I have 3 written … one on pistol shrimp, one on vampire bats and one on monarch butterflies. I’m particularly proud of these!

If you’d like to check these out, click the image below to see the one on Migrating Monarchs.

monarch butterfly informational text article

If you try any of these ideas, or have some that you’d like to share with us, please comment below. We’d love to hear from you!

Happy Teaching!

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What Are The Benefits of Cornell Notes?

Have You Ever Used Cornell Notes With Your Students?

Getting my students to take notes … GOOD notes … was a struggle sometimes. Cornell notes were a huge help for them in terms of reading comprehension. In fact, they made such an impact that I made a template that I could use whenever I needed it. I’m giving it away in this article!

For Powerpoint presentations or other lectures, I always provided notesheets for my students. They were basically Cloze notes, but I added lots of diagrams, small coloring activities and writing prompts to them. So they were pretty interactive and I didn’t usually have issues with my kids taking notes during class.

However, when it came to trying to take notes from informational text sources, it was a different story. The students had a hugely difficult time picking out important information and knowing what to record.

Or, if I asked them to highlight important information they’d end up highlighting the whole page! Very pretty, but not real useful for studying.

An Accidental Discovery

I discovered how helpful Cornell notes could be one day totally by accident. I had to leave school early unexpectedly one day and needed an easy lesson plan for my last class of the day. Freshmen … with a sub … last period of the day. I knew I needed something engaging but yet I still wanted to make good use of my class time.

I found an article about our current topic online, and xeroxed enough copies for my class. Then I quickly took a piece of looseleaf paper and drew a Cornell notes template on it. I wrote 3 questions in the left sidebar that they would be able to answer from the reading.

When I got back the next day I looked over the Cornell notes that the sub had collected. I was really pleased to see how well the students had done with answering the questions. They were able to pick out the pertinent information from the article.

The sub had left me a note saying that the class went well and the kids had no trouble completing the assignment. I was really astonished because this class was full of IEPs and 504s … one student had a second grade reading level!

I couldn’t help wondering if I’d accidentally stumbled on a way to help my kids read a science information article and pick out what I wanted them to know.

The Benefits of Cornell Notes

For those who might not be familiar with Cornell notes, they are a specific note-taking system designed by a Cornell University professor back in the 1950s. He wanted a way for students to take concise notes that they could then go back and add memory joggers, diagrams or questions to help them review.

cornell notes

Divide a piece of notebook paper into two columns, one narrow one and then the main, wide column. Students take notes in the wide column. Then, immediately afterwards or later on, students go back and write questions that are answered by the notes, adding drawings, vocabulary … anything that will help them understand and remember the notes.

When I made my notes for my sub plan, I modified the idea. In the narrow left-hand column I wrote questions that I wanted students to answer or explanations that I wanted them to write down.

Normally in an assignment like this, I would insist on complete sentences. But in this case, since these were supposed to be NOTES, I left directions that students could use bullets, numbers, or check marks where appropriate to jot down their answers.

I think that simple change helped the students to write more complete answers. They were able to look at the question and find keywords and context clues to help them find the information in the text. Then they could write down the answers in NOTE form.

When these are used in the traditional way, Cornell notes are a way to take notes quickly. Students have been shown to retain the information better when taking notes this way.

More Uses

Once I discovered this happy accident, I started using these notes more and more.

I wanted to get my lower level kids to the point where they could actually use these the “right” way. I chose some lower reading level articles and filled in the notes in the main column myself … just enough to get them started. But I left the question area blank.

Then the kids read the article and fleshed out the main notes.

The students then worked in pairs to go back and read the notes to see if they could figure out what the questions would be. They may not have been worded the way I would have worded them, but the kids did a pretty darn good job at figuring out what they were taking notes on!

I modeled how to read a text and then use this method of note-taking too … one of the many uses of my document camera!

Cornell notes were so successful for my students that I started using them a lot. They really seemed to help with reading comprehension and the kids got better at note-taking. I didn’t abandon my interactive Cloze notes, but I used the Cornell notes a lot for informational texts. The kids even started using them on their own!

And it was a great motivator for students to take good notes when I would occasionally allow them to use the notes on a quiz!

Grab My Free Template!

So here’s the free template I mentioned earlier. It’s totally editable so that you can type whatever you want into it. Or you can always print it out and write in it by hand. I hope you find it as useful as my students and I have!

If you try it out I’d LOVE to hear what you think of it! How did you use it? Please let us all know in the comments below!

Happy Teaching!

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Exciting New Features of Nearpod!

In my last post, I talked about Nearpod and how it’s such a great app to use for blended learning activities. Today we’ll be discussing some other features of Nearpod and how it can open up new ways of student-centered learning.

Nearpod does have a lot of great features in the free version. But if you’re willing to spend a little bit of money (as of this writing $12/month) for the Gold version, you can add several rich opportunities to engage your students. And by the way … I am in no way affiliated with Nearpod. I just love this app!

When you click the Create button, you get 3 options, each of which have several other options. As you can see above, there are some fairly “typical” options for content such as slides, slideshows, videos, etc. But then there are options for Nearpod 3D, which has some very cool images that students can manipulate.

More Features of Nearpod

virtual field trip

Nearpod also offers virtual field trips in the paid version. You can do a search and find just about any place you’re looking for. For example, I typed in “coral reef” and got multiple options. I chose the New Caledonia coral reef as seen above. The image is moveable in 360 degrees in the Nearpod preview.

I have used these field trips as writing prompts or exit tickets. I also love them just to give my kids a bit more of a world view.

When creating a lesson you have an option to click “Web Content.” This allows you to add the URL of a website you’d like your kids to go to, perhaps to do some background reading or to do a simulation.

The third option when creating a lesson is to “Add Activity.” Here are the options for activities you can add.

So this is where you would add questions, quizzes, polls, etc. Draw It works great if your students have iPads … think cell labeling!

The Memory Test works like the card game Concentration and is a fun way of helping kids learn vocabulary, or match an image with a label.

If you’d like to give Nearpod a try, it’s very easy to use and the staff is approachable. There’s also a lot of training on the site to help you get the most out of using it and creating your lessons.

I think this app is just fantastic for blended learning or flipped classrooms. There are just so many ways to engage students!

Let me know if you’ve used Nearpod! What do you like the most!

Happy Teaching!

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Why I Love Nearpod for Blended Learning

Nearpod is an amazing app for blended learning lessons, whether you’re experienced in blended learning or just getting started.

If you’re not familiar with it, Nearpod is a browser-based app that lets your students interact with your lessons. You can upload Powerpoints or start making lessons from scratch on the website. There are also hundreds of teacher-made lessons right there on the site that you can purchase. Many of them are also free.

Nearpod is free to use, and in my experience you can do just about anything you might want to do with the free version. There is also a Gold level that gives you a few added extras.

So What Can Nearpod Do?

Let me answer that by showing you one of my Nearpod lessons. As you can see, this one is a review of our Photosynthesis/Cell Respiration unit.

I did a Google image search to find an image that I liked and used it for the background of the title slide. You can also put backgrounds on the content slides, but sometimes I find that makes it too “busy.”

Notice a couple of things … first, this is a Preview, found in my Nearpod Library. I can check it and edit it from here. Second, notice on the bottom where it says Live Lesson and Student-Paced. This is one of the features that makes it so amazing for Blended Learning.

You can do this as a whole class, which is one of my fave ways to use it. When you click on Live Lesson, Nearpod generates a code that your students simply input. That gets all of them “in” your lesson. Then, YOU control the pace of the lesson! I would use my iPad for this so I could walk around and help kids or manage issues. My iPad controls STUDENTS’ screens! How cool is that?

Here is a shot of the first slide. It’s just a simple multiple choice question. The beauty of Nearpod, though, is that as students choose the answers on their device, I see their choices in real time! That feature makes it so easy to differentiate a lesson, or to see where students are having problems.

nearpod lesson

As you can see in the pic below, you can also add short answer questions. Students just type in their answers, hit ENTER, and you as the teacher can see their answers … very helpful! And you can also share examples of great student answers to the whole class. I was amazed at how much my freshmen would say “Is my answer good enough to share?” It was a great little motivator!

nearpod lesson

You can also do these as student-paced lessons by choosing that option at the bottom. They can be embedded in Google Classroom or a website, or sent via email or by text message so that students can do them as individual assignments. You still get individual reports on answers too.

But this is where Nearpod is so great as a Blended Learning app. You can set this up as a student-paced lesson in a station in your room, maybe with a few chromebooks or iPads, or even a single computer. It can be part of a Station Rotation lesson or as a review for students who are struggling.

I’ve used some of my Nearpod lessons as extension activities, too, for those students who are early finishers or who have a good grasp of the material. The possibilities really are endless.

My next post will showcase more ideas for using Nearpod and also show you some of the other types of lessons you can build! Stay tuned!

Have you used Nearpod yet? Do you have some great tips and tricks? Please share them!

Happy Teaching!

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6 Reasons Why I Love My Document Camera!

I Love Using a Document Camera in My Science Classroom!

One of the tools that I couldn’t live without is my document camera. I really love how it makes my teaching life so much easier and how it helps make resources and content more available for my students.

I admit that I was a bit slow to jump on the “document camera bandwagon.” When it was first demonstrated to us, it was used to show textbook sections. Since I rarely use a textbook at first I couldn’t really see how it would be useful in my teaching.

When I first started using interactive notebooks I realized that I would need a way to show my pages to students, since I kept a notebook right along with them. So that summer I asked our IT guy for one. I started using it along with our notebooks and from that point on I was hooked! The best part was that I was able to do a lot more with it than I had originally thought.

document camera

This is the document camera that I use in my classroom.

1. Use the document camera for close reading activities.

I had a lot of students with 504s and IEPs in my classes, especially over the last 10 years. Many of them had pretty poor reading skills.

The document camera was a perfect tool to do close reading activities as a group.

Make sure each student has highlighters. We all used the same colors for our activities. Then I’d place my article under the doc cam and would model the close reading which would usually focus on one or two specific skills.

For example, one day we’d use the blue highlighter to highlight the main ideas in each article. Or we’d preview by looking at the comprehension questions first and then read while highlighting possible answers or evidence.

I loved showing students how to annotate an article to help them understand it. Thinking out loud while showing it under the doc cam was a great way to help students start practicing this skill.

2. Use the document camera for notes and drawings.

Sometimes I found that certain types of content lent itself better to being shown under the document camera than as a Powerpoint … anything where there drawings and/or labeling.

My kids tended to be more engaged when I used the document camera to “give notes.” I would write the information on the notesheets under the doc cam while discussing the information and they would copy it into their own notesheets.

Drawings were fun with the doc cam! Everyone had colored pencils and highlighters at their tables so it was easy to say, “ok everyone, grab red, blue and black colored pencils. We’re gonna draw a glucose molecule.” Drawing cells, labeling organelles, cell membranes … all of these were fun and much easier using the document camera.

3. Make videos with the document camera!

This is something that not a lot of people realize you can do. It’s easy to make videos with your document camera, as long as yours has that capability. I think most of the newer ones do.

There were multiple ways I used my own videos in my classroom. One of the best things I did was to start making lab introduction videos. These were invaluable to both me and my students. If someone was absent, it was so much easier to have them watch the intro video than to find time after school to explain to them what they’d missed. They could watch it on their own and come in knowing what to do.

Here’s a lab video that I made for our “Letter e” microscope lab. I did the wet mount demo right under the document camera and then went through what they’d need to know and do. Very effective!

I also made videos when I knew I’d be having a sub. Here in NY we have lab classes that are separate from our daily classes. The labs meet every other day. So if I had to be out there were 2 lab classes that had to be covered, and I hated to leave “busy work.”

Making videos to explain class and lab was immeasurably helpful on those days. The kids had no excuse to not know what to do!

4. Use the document camera to review.

Document cameras are a great review tool! I love to use it to go over homework, practice problems, Constructed Response Questions, CERs, etc. Being able to “show” my thinking, to point out things on diagrams, and to write answers together makes it so much easier to keep everyone engaged. I feel very strongly that it helps a great deal with understanding.

5. Let students show their work.

Whenever we did group work or POGILs, I would have the students come up to the document camera and show their work.

They knew ahead of time that they would all be responsible for this, so I never had a problem getting kids to come up. A lot of them actually like doing it!

This also works very well for jigsaw-type activities where groups of students are each responsible for a specific part of the whole activity. Having the groups show their work under the doc cam holds each group accountable and makes it easier for them to share with other groups.

6. Use the document camera to show randomness in your actions.

In my last post I talked about some cool ways to use index cards in the classroom. I firmly believe that showing transparency in this way goes a long way toward establishing rapport with students and a sense of fairness in your classroom.

Unfortunately, some students don’t have a lot of reasons to trust adults, so even a little thing like this can help.

Do you use a document camera in your class? Do you have any other ways to use one? Please share!

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Index Cards Became One of My Biggest Helps

Simple index cards. Who would ever think that this simple tool would become one of my most-used teaching strategies?

If you’ve been teaching for any time at all, you know how easy it is to get caught up in the “new stuff” … new technology, new standards, new administrative requirements. And the list goes on.

In some ways, I’m pretty old-school and traditional. I still use a paper planbook because I just  HAVE to see things laid out that way. I still believe in holding students accountable for their actions. Yet I’m pretty much one of the first ones in our district to try new teaching strategies and new technology.

But the longer I teach, the more ways I find to use index cards in my classroom. And the more I appreciate how much this simple tool helps me and my students.

So here’s a list of 5 ways that I’ve used index cards in my classroom.

1. Use index cards to help with seating charts.

At the beginning of the year, I seat students alphabetically to help me learn their names quickly. And that works for the first couple of weeks. But then as they start to get more comfortable it tends to start getting more noisy since sometimes students end up being placed near their friends. I have tables in my room which I arrange in L-shapes, so it makes it easy to do group work, but also to chat!

So I change my seating charts fairly often. First I chart them out on paper. It takes a surprisingly long time to do this when you have several students that you don’t want seated next to each other … classrooms are only so big!

I used to assign new seats by telling students when they walked into class where their seats were. But often this would lead to “Ugh, I have to sit next to HER?” Because I was standing there apparently they thought it was ok to question my arrangement.

But one time I decided to use my name cards BEFORE class and just place their cards at their new seats.  As I greeted my students in the hall I told them to find their name at their new seat.

What a difference that simple change made! As I entered the room, there were no arguments or rude comments. For some reason, seeing their name cards at their seat made it feel more “official” to them and they just accepted it. I very rarely hear any kind of negativity now when I change my seating.

index cards classroom use

Use different colors for different classes!

2. Use index cards for random responses.

This is probably a well-known use of index cards, but for some reason I didn’t start doing this until well into my career. But what a difference it made!

At the beginning of the school year I write each student’s name on a 3 x 5 index card. I use different colors for each class for quick recognition.

I use these pretty much every day in some way. After I take attendance in each class I quickly pull out the names of absent students. And then I shuffle the remaining cards and just start pulling them when I ask questions. Having their names come up randomly shows that I’m not “picking on” anyone in particular. It also shows that everyone is accountable for the concepts being taught.

When we’re doing group work I walk around with the cards. The kids know that if I just randomly pull a card and that person is on task, they’ll get a Jolly Rancher! Hey, I’m not above bribery if it helps with learning and engagement!

3. Use index cards to set up random groupings.

I do a lot of collaborative groups and station work in my classes. Index cards are invaluable for setting up groups.

If I want to set the groups up myself, the cards are a great visual to have as I do that. It’s easy to move the cards around on my desk as I figure out the groupings.

Sometimes I want the groups to be random. In that case I’ll use the cards in class so the students can see that it’s truly random. For example, if I want to have 5 groups, I pull 5 cards randomly and just set them in a row in front of me. Sometimes I do this under my document camera. (Click here to see other cool ways I use my document camera!) I just continue randomly pulling cards and adding them to each group. It’s almost like setting up a solitaire game!

As crazy as it sounds, when I do random groups this way there’s never any argument or disagreements. The kids accept their groupings a lot better this way.

4. Use index cards as response cards.

Response cards are a great way to see what all of your students are thinking, not just the loud ones.

I have sets of multiple choice and True/False response cards for my classroom. They live in the supply baskets on the student tables. So it’s a very quick thing for me to tell the kids to grab the MC cards and let’s review.

I use these in lots of different ways. Sometimes I’ll project MC questions on my screen and have the kids hold up their answers. Other times students work in groups and I ask the manager to hold up the group answer.

The True/False cards are great to use for class discussion starters. To do this, just make a statement that might be controversial and ask kids to hold up the card that matches their opinion. (Obviously I don’t use topics that might cause issues. Topics that I use are usually bioethical in nature.)

Then I have all the “trues” move to one side of the room and the “falses” to the other side and we have an informal debate.

5. Use blank index cards as exit tickets.

Exit tickets are great formative assessments. Blank index cards are an easy way to do these.

I set the blank cards out for students to pick up as they enter the room. This saves me time near the end of class since I don’t have to pass anything out. In the last 5 minutes or so of class I project the exit question on the screen and simply have the kids answer the question or perform the short task on the cards and turn them in before they leave.

They’re also very quick to look over later to see where the students are in regard to the lesson. I don’t grade these but I do pass them back quickly the next day so that we can discuss the exit question and they can see if they got it right or not.

Do you use index cards in your classroom? If you have some different ways of using them we’d love to hear about them! Comment below!

Happy Teaching!

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This Duckweed Inquiry Lab is Fun and Engaging!

There’s a huge push to move toward more inquiry biology labs. I’m glad for that, because it’s definitely more interesting for students and teachers both.

It’s a win-win situation when you can run a biology inquiry lab that is engaging and also uses easy-to-find materials and isn’t very complicated. I like using simple living organisms when I can. Early in the school year, when we’re working on scientific method, I like to use this Duckweed Inquiry Lab.

If you’re not familiar with duckweed (Lemna minor), it’s a small, aquatic plant commonly found in ponds and lakes. It’s often seen floating on the surface of the water.

duckweed inquiry lab

Duckweed as typically seen in a pond

It serves as a food source for certain ducks and insects and is a good indicator of water quality. It’s a really neat little plant!

Starting the Investigation

I started this out with my students by having them do short web search to find out some information about duckweed. They learn about how it grows, what conditions it likes and why it’s useful for research.

The next step is for the teams to start planning out their experiment. I gave them a class period to get this done. Students filled out a recording sheet where they learned how to count their duckweed plants, make some observations, and brainstorm some variables they might test.

I’m always a bit surprised during this part of the lab. My students usually test pretty well on the scientific method and seem to understand it. But when it comes to actually implementing a science inquiry they get totally lost. I guess this is one of the reasons for the new NGSS!

They tend to have difficulties in coming up with suitable hypotheses … meaning ones that are measurable. They seemingly forget that they need a control, and they often want to just dump in lemon juice or salt into their poor duckweed!

So I’m typically kept pretty busy circulating and answering questions and doing check-ins with each of the teams. I collect their recording sheets at the end of class, not to grade them but to look them over to make sure they’re finally all on the right track.

Setting Up Our Duckweed Labs

The next day, we go over some last minute details and I reiterate some of the points they need to keep in mind. Then they start their set ups! It’s really enjoyable watching them work together and they seem to really have fun with this part.

I typically have them take data for 10 days. I give them about 5 minutes at the beginning of class to check their containers, take some notes and pictures and refill the water if necessary. Of course, weekends are an issue. I do tell them that if they want to come in on weekends to check, I’ll gladly come and let them in the building … so far no-one has taken me up on that!

biology inquiry lab

Learning to count duckweed!

I encourage them to take pictures with their phones each day.  At the end of the inquiry lab they’ll compose a formal lab report and I like to have them use some of the pictures they’ve taken in the reports.

Speaking of the lab reports … the students collaborate on Google Drive to write their reports. I really like doing it this way because it allows me to see who did what work. I give them the option of using a Doc or Slides to complete their report and everyone in the group gets the same grade. (There are exceptions to this, of course … if someone really did nothing then I certainly wouldn’t penalize the whole group). But for the most part, they all distribute the work pretty evenly.

All in all, this is a fun lab that both the students and I enjoyed. It really gives them a taste for scientific work and it’s simple to set up. There’s good practice at the end with the lab reports, too.

If this is something you might be interested in, I do have this up in my store. Click the image below to go check it out.

Biology Inquiry Lab

If you give this a try I’d LOVE to hear how it goes for you! Do you have any other fun inquiry labs you’ve tried? We’d love to hear about them!

Happy Teaching!

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I Switched to Interactive Binders

In my last post I talked about why I ditched interactive notebooks. Today I’d like to talk about why I switched to interactive binders and how I used them.

As I said in the last post, I loved the idea of interactive notebooks. So even though the actual notebooks didn’t work for me and my students, I wasn’t ready to give up on the idea.

I have always had my students keep an organized 3-ring binder. I’d give them colorful sticky tabs to divide all the new units (they loved it when I handed these out!) and they were able to utilize them effectively for the most part. It occurred to me that maybe I could combine my binders with the idea of an interactive notebook.

So Interactive Binders were born!

How I Use Interactive Binders in Class

I incorporated many of the same interactive notebook ideas into my binders. We had a Table of Contents (ToC), we numbered all of the ITEMS (not pages) and there were lots of opportunities for interactivity. The difference was that we weren’t spending time cutting and taping our materials. The students would simply pick up their hole-punched materials when they walked in.

Interactive BInder Table of Contents

Our Table of Contents … BIN stands for BInder Item Number

As a class warm-up, I put a Powerpoint slide on my Smartboard with instructions for the students to place the work in their binders with the ToC title, date, and BIN, or Binder Item Number. Kids would come in, pick up their materials, sit down and start filling out their Table of Contents with the information on the board. Since we were inserting pages as we went along I had few to no issues of students numbering items incorrectly. That in itself was a major improvement over the notebooks!

Switching to interactive binders solved all of the problems I had encountered with the notebooks. We were still able to do all of the interactive types of activities that we had done with notebooks. For example, if I wanted students to do some kind of ouput work I just made sure there was a blank page facing them on the left. If we did a foldable, they just glued it to piece of paper and inserted it that way.

I also kept a Master Binder. This was great for students who were absent and also helped some others keep their binders more organized.  When it was getting close to the time that I would grade their binders, many kids used mine to make sure theirs were up to date and labeled correctly.

I graded the binders once per marking period. I had a separate grading category for them in our school grading system … they counted for 15% of their grade. It wasn’t as hard to grade them as you might think … I have an excellent rubric for them and I would only collect one class at a time so that I wasn’t overwhelmed. Since I couldn’t take all of those binders home with me, it meant spending some time after school, but I found that once I got into the flow of the rubric the grading went pretty quickly.

I’ve added a product in my (growing) Teachers Pay Teachers store about how to get started with Interactive Binders. It’s quickly becoming one of my best sellers! Just click the image below to check it out in my store.

Interactive BInders - Alternative to Interactive Notebooks

The product contains a Powerpoint that you can use with students to help them set up their binders, the grading rubric, and the Table of Contents form. I’ve also included detailed teacher suggestions to help you get started.

Do you have an alternative to interactive notebooks? Share with us!

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Why I Ditched Interactive Notebooks

Consider today’s post a confession of why I ditched interactive notebooks.

Unless you’ve been teaching under a rock, you’ve probably heard of interactive notebooks, or INBs. They’re a pretty hot educational trend right now, and I don’t see that ending any time soon.

I LOVE the idea of INBs … the coloring, the foldables, the input and output pages designed to help students think and internalize more. It makes sense to me that teaching and learning this way would be effective and engaging.

I tried INBs in my classroom about 5 years ago. They weren’t quite all the rage then as they are now, and I was the only teacher in my small district to attempt them. I spent the summer researching, planning and prepping. I got lots of materials ready for my first unit, Scientific Method, and started making my own notebook as a master copy.

I bought plastic baskets at Dollar Tree for each of the tables in my room and filled them with colored pencils, glue sticks, scissors, tape and highlighters. I bought 5 red plastic milk crates (one for each of my classes) and set them up. I wanted my kids to leave their INBs in the classroom most of the time, unless they needed them at home for a specific reason such as studying for a test. My students are Freshmen, and in my experience most of them are totally unorganized and I envisioned them losing their notebooks during the first month of school.

I was so excited to get started with these!

We spent the first few days of class getting the notebooks set up. I talked about how this was going to be their “textbook” for the year and how helpful it was going to be to them. I showed them the baskets on their tables and hoped that they’d take ownership of the supplies and use them well.

why i ditched interactive notebooks

Problems Start to Arise

Within a few days, issues were arising. Some of the kids were way faster than others at cutting and pasting. They saw the cutting at the beginning of class as more social time than class time and I had difficulty enforcing a time limit. Moving on after 5 minutes like I said I would wasn’t really conducive to effective teaching when a third of the class wasn’t done gluing their sheets in. All that meant was that I’d then spend the rest of class helping them play catch up.

Some of my girls really bought into the INBs. They loved the artsy aspect of it and spent time keeping their notebooks neat and up-to-date. Most of the boys, on the other hand … well, lets just say that they were NOT invested in their INBs at all. I started finding broken colored pencils on my floor after certain classes left. Some students were using the scotch tape to tape the pencils together in bunches! I’d been teaching for about 25 years at that point and didn’t really have discipline issues in class, but this sort of thing was bothersome and was becoming expensive.

I wasn’t ready to give up though. By now we were into the second marking period and I was looking for ways to modify. I realized that I was behind in my lessons compared to the previous year, and I attributed that to the lost time spent cutting and taping. So I purchased a paper cutter for my classroom. I spent my own time after school trimming all of the inserts for the notebooks so that all the kids would have to do is tape them to the appropriate page. It added to my prep time and did seem to save us a little bit of time each day.

There were other issues as well. I did not foresee the problem that some kids would have in numbering their pages correctly. If their pages weren’t numbered right, then when they were instructed to tape something to a specific page, hands went up with “I already have something on that page!” It made it difficult for me to do spot-checks of notebooks since I couldn’t just pick a certain page to check and expect to see the same thing on all of the notebooks.

Even with all of the issues, though, I would have stuck with it if I truly saw an increase in learning. Unfortunately, I saw the opposite effect. The scores on my unit tests were lower than the previous year and more students were failing the tests. I did some soul-searching and decided to stop the INBs in the middle of the third marking period. I simply told the kids that the notebooks weren’t really working out as well as I’d hoped and that I wanted to go back to regular binders and notes, along with our usual class activities. The relief in the room was palpable!

So we finished out the year in a more “traditional” way. I’m happy to say that my Regents test scores at the end of the year were on par with previous years. I was happy that my students hadn’t shown any decline in learning after all was said and done.

Now with all of that being said, I’m not trying to discourage anyone from using INBs in their classroom! I wanted to share this so that other teachers may also realize that they’re not for every teacher in every classroom. A lot depends on the kinds of students you have and what you’re teaching.

So … that’s why I ditched interactive notebooks. Kind of! If you’d like to know what I use instead, click here to find out!

Have you tried INBs in your classroom? We’d love to hear your experiences!

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