Out with the old, in with the new?

I am about to graduate and become a new teacher. Is it a good idea to use lesson plans that are handed to me and maybe need to be tweaked or is it better to write brand new lesson plans each year?
—G., Florida

Since I never had an entire class comprehend 100% of what I taught, I always made changes to my courses.
The most important thing, in my opinion, is to reflect on everything you do! You need to have a real willingness to learn and change in order to make things work in your classroom.

You do not need to create everything from scratch! There are a lot of bright and intelligent people out there producing great resources. You should make decisions about resources in this order:

  1. If you find or are given a resource that, after thorough review, fits perfectly to what you want to accomplish in your classroom, then use it unmodified.
  2. If you find a great-looking resource that doesn’t quite fit, then modify it.
  3. If you can’t find a great resource— make your own.

Most of your lessons, obviously, will revolve around modifying something out there.

After your lesson reflect and re-evaluate everything you used and the impact it had on your students. Make modifications as necessary. Don’t beat yourself up if a lesson bombs…just figure out why it did and do something about it.

Hope this helps!


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The ‘M’ in STEM

“Mathematics is a tool that is key to understanding science.”

NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

How many? How soon? How big? How much more? These questions are of vital importance in young children’s lives and may be part of their science explorations and later investigations. “Using mathematics and computational thinking” is one of the practices described in Appendix F—Science and Engineering Practices in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

“Mathematical and computational thinking in K–2 builds on prior experience and progresses to recognizing that mathematics can be used to describe the natural and designed world(s).

  • Decide when to use qualitative vs. quantitative data.
  • Use counting and numbers to identify and describe patterns in the natural and designed world(s).
  • Describe, measure, and/or compare quantitative attributes of different objects and display the data using simple graphs.
  • Use quantitative data to compare two alternative solutions to a problem.”

-Appendix F—Science and Engineering Practices in the Next Generation Science Standards

We can use online resources on mathematical and computational thinking in early childhood to become more familiar with, and strengthen our own understanding of, math topics and ideas.  Continue reading …

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folder icon  Safety

Power Tool Safety in Science Labs

The use of power tools, such as table saws, drill presses, and miter saws, is becoming more common in science and STEM laboratories. All power tools have special mechanical and non-mechanical safety hazards that can result in injuries, including abrasions, burns, and fractures. This blog post describes machine-guarding safety protocols that schools need to develop to minimize such safety hazards.

Why machine guards matter

Machine guards are fixed, interlocked, or adjustable physical barriers critical to protecting their operators and those working in the surrounding area from hazards. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), machine guarding prevents such safety hazards as rotating parts, flying chips, and sparks.

Types of hazards

Machine operators should be mindful of the following hazards before using a machine or power tool.

Operation points are locations where the machine bends, bores, cuts, or shapes the stock being fed through the machine.

Hazardous movements are machine parts with rotating, reciprocating (up-down motions), and transverse motions (materials moving in a continuous line).

Pinch/shear points are parts of a machine where a body part or clothing could be caught between a moving machine part and a stationary object such as a belt, cam, connecting rods, or other source of energy transmission.

Non-mechanical hazards include chips, flying splinters, splashes, or sparks that are created while the machine is operating. Continue reading …

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I Can’t, in My Heart, Go Back to Our Old Curriculum

That was my response this week at our middle school science staff meeting.  We’ve spent the last two school years exploring the new Michigan standards (which are identical to NGSS) and trying out units from different curriculum programs.  While the pace has seemed excruciatingly slow at times, it’s been necessary to allow everyone to learn, grow, and come to consensus.  Which is where we were at this week – we’ve all agreed to pilot the two finalists in the first semester next school year, and then go back to our old curriculum while we prepare for full launch of the selected NGSS curriculum in the fall of 2019.

But I can’t do it.  I can’t ever go back.

For the past two years, I’ve been pilot-teaching the Mi-STAR (mi-star.mtu.edu) NGSS-aligned curriculum – in a 5E structure, with phenomena, modeling, arguing from evidence, and coming to consensus to evaluate and solve local problems, with engineering integrated in every unit – and it has become my joy.  While the teaching world reels with pay cuts and privatization and standardized testing and teacher shortages, making me frustrated and worried for our profession – I can still close my door, and have my joy.

I am joyful about the potential for NGSS curricula to change the world for our kids.  The ever elusive goals of leveling the playing field, closing the achievement gap, reaching all learners, is happening, right now, in my classroom.

My school is economically and racially diverse.  Located in an affluent community that borders one of the highest poverty neighborhoods in the country, we are a rich mixture.  Our lower income, minority kids, like their peers in every state, have often been “left behind.”  Until now.  And I’m positively joyful about it.

An NGSS-aligned curriculum like Mi-STAR starts each unit with a real-life, locally relevant problem, and none of my kids know the answer.  It doesn’t matter if they’ve traveled the world and can master college texts, or if they rarely leave their block and struggle to read at grade level.  Even learning disabilities aren’t barriers any more, because all of my kids can problem-solve in this unit structure.  All of my kids can ask good questions for our bubble maps.  All of them can uncover concepts in labs and activities, share their findings, connect them to the problem, and then apply their new skills and knowledge in another context.   All of them can use criteria and constraints, and optimize, and reason like engineers.  Even my cognitively impaired kids are learning with a little scaffolding from our incredible special ed teachers.   The typical compliance behaviors, like turning in homework on time, outlining chapters, and memorizing flashcards for tests, are no longer the focus of our classroom.  And my kids are thriving.

I’ve done a little action research, and here’s what I see:  while my at-risk kids’ pre-test scores are very low, their post-test scores are well within the range of the class average.   The minority kids in my heterogeneous classes have post-test scores nearly equal to my homogeneous honors class.  We’re literally leveling the playing field and closing the gap.  This works!  NGSS really works!

Which is why I can’t ever go back.  In an academic world full of stress, teaching NGSS has become my joy.

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What a Misplaced Mattress Teaches Kids About Scientific Push and Pull Forces

Good morning! Time to head out the door and start the day.

Wait. What’s that thing up there in the tree? It’s … a bed. And it’s hanging upside down.


How did that happen?

So Begins a Delightful Mystery

Curious students will have fun solving the mystery in Kristel Pushes and Pulls. NSTA author Morris McCormick’s eBooks+ Kids Enhanced E-book combines engaging, full-color graphics with dynamic enhancements and interactive features for students to learn, share, and explore. Animations, simulations, and video bring content to life, while pop-up review questions and special notes help underscore the most crucial points of knowledge.

This interactive e-book takes students through a day in Kristel’s life, one in which she explores push and pull forces. Students seek answers to questions such as how forces cause objects to change position or move different distances, as well as change speed and direction. Each of Kristel’s normal, every-day activities, such as eating breakfast, cleaning her room or playing soccer, become opportunities for students to figure out just how that bed came to land on the tree in her front yard.

Real-Life Content (and Context)

McCormick, who has been an elementary school educator in the Los Angeles School District for well over a decade, used his professional as well as personal expertise to form the book’s content. His daughter served as the inspiration for Kristel, the lead character. Observing how his own children engage with technology at home, as well as his students in the classroom, McCormick knew that a good story needed to be embedded within this engaging teaching tool to encourage kids to want to explore it.   Continue reading …

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Wild Spirits: Measuring Life and Death with the Pasco Wireless CO2 sensor

A student once asked me why if carbon dioxide is so much heavier than air, how come the lower atmosphere doesn’t become thick with CO2 and kill everything?

“Umm, well…because it…umm…doesn’t?”

The student then asked if I was going to was going to answer her question with another question? Which of course is also a question. So how many questions are we up to now?

Anyway, before we all panic and run to higher ground, let’s stem the fear with the simple answer that convection (wind) and diffusion (mixing) keep the CO2 concentration in check and evenly distributed. But first, some history before moving on to measuring CO2.

Amazingly, the identification of carbon dioxide as a discrete substance was first reported a full two years before Sir Isaac Newton was born. In fact Galileo still had two good years of research left in his bones before taking his final break.

Now, 378 years later, carbon dioxide is a not just a proportion of our atmosphere, but potentially an indicator of the health of our one-and-only planet.  Our current concentration of CO2 is 405 ppm or parts per million. Estimates of pre-industrial levels of CO2 are around 280 meaning there has been a substantial and statistically significant increase in the global CO2 level. Continue reading …

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Kindergarten Citizen Scientists: Taking Action to Save the Earth

My kindergarten students recently became citizen scientists as they investigated their big questions about the natural world around them. The snow finally melted, the critters have made their appearance, and the plants are beginning to bloom. It’s early May, and Spring has finally arrived—not a moment too soon. Our class has been out walking on our school trails, observing the signs of life that finally have appeared!

Continue reading …

Posted in Next Generation Science Standards | 4 Responses

How much to teach?

I am a student teacher in a kindergarten class and I have been struggling with focusing on laying the foundation for my students. But how much is too little? How much is too much for students at such an emergent level? —Y., Arizona


This is something teachers in all grades grapple with! The first person I would go to is your cooperating teacher and other kindergarten teachers. They have taught this curriculum and should have a good idea of the expectations and will likely fill your repertoire with all kinds of strategies they have used. Next, look at the curriculum support documents. There should be activities, lessons, and assessment strategies that have been identified or created by the department of education to help you out. Check out your state’s science teachers’ association for their resources. Develop a professional development plan in which you attend and participate in as many opportunities to learn, network, and share ideas about your curriculum.

Your students probably have diverse backgrounds and abilities. Don’t be too afraid to over-estimate your students. It is probably better to back track to simpler stuff than underestimate your students’ comprehension of the content.

Foremost, reflect on everything you do and make self-assessments by asking yourself: Are my students getting this? How do I know? And, regardless of whether the lesson worked well or not, How can I teach this differently? From your reflections, you can create informal and formal assessments that will help guide you and determine your students’ understanding.

Hope this helps!

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Ed News: AZ Science Educators Raise Alarms About Revised K-12 Standards

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This week in education news, should STEM evolve in STEAM; North Carolina teacher rally for increased teacher pay and education spending; Chicago will invest $75 million to renovate the high school science labs; new middle school genetics and genealogy curriculum will be featured in the National Science Foundation’s STEM for All Video Showcase; and Artificial Intelligence’s progression has been evolving at unbelievable speeds.

Science Educators Raise Alarms About Revised K-12 Standards

The standards for teaching Science, and History, to Arizona school kids are undergoing their first revisions in more than a decade. A committee of 100 educators, parents and community members hammered out the Science document in a year-long process. But the Department of Education made unexpected last-minute changes, shifting from big ideas to vocabulary words and watering down the concept of evolution. Read the article featured on KNAU.org.

Is STEM Better Off As STEAM?

Should STEM evolve into STEAM? Bringing up the STEM versus STEAM debate to 100 people might elicit 30 different reactions. Supplementing the hard sciences with art may seem like a simple matter, but there are several well-reasoned arguments for and against STEAM. Read the article featured in Engineering 360.

Continue reading …

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Finding Professional Balance

What can we do to better support our teachers in ways such as development to help decrease the burnout rate?
—I., Connecticut

Teacher burnout is a world-wide phenomenon. My predecessor, Mary Bigelow, addressed this issue a couple of years ago (https://goo.gl/PS4HWJ) but it merits continued discussion. I’ve maintained that strategies for avoiding or mitigating burnout should be part of teacher education, but most educators don’t receive any formal training in these strategies.

I tried to focus on the things in my control and kept my highest priority—the happiness of my family and myself— in mind. I wouldn’t have been any good to my family, or my students, had I burnt out.

You are not alone
Confide in friends, family and colleagues about what you’re facing. Teachers associations will likely have phone lines and councillors for you to contact. There is no stigma to admitting you need help. Also watch your colleagues for signs of burnout.

Work hard, but not stupid
Look at how you work and set some realistic goals. Modify your assessment strategies to reduce grading. Drop some voluntary committees, coaching or supervision no matter how much you like it. Try arriving a little earlier or staying later on some days to prepare and grade while preserving other evenings and weekends for you and your family.

Incorporate wellness into your life
Is your diet (reasonably) healthy? Do you have any exercise routines? Don’t dwell on things you can’t control and look at positive things you are accomplishing. Take up or revisit a hobby. You are no good to anyone if you are sick so take time off to address your health.

Take care of yourselves, people!


Photo Credit:  Firesam! via Flickr

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