Thursday, July 19, 2018

I'm NOT going paperless. Here's Why...



I should start by saying that I consider myself a somewhat tech-savvy teacher.  I embrace new technology and I am often the first in my building to experiment with the latest digital learning tool.  However, last school year I noticed that digital technology seemed to be taking over my classroom.  I started to reflect on my digital teaching practices more closely and I’ve decided that I will not be going completely paperless in my classroom.  Here’s why…

Information Processing

The pencil to paper connection is vital in the note-taking process.  When note-taking in my classroom, I want to encourage students to be processing information not just receiving information. Swiping an iPad or pecking away on Chrome book just isn’t the same as processing and organizing information on paper. Take this study where participants took notes using laptops and others used pen and paper.   Students who used digital notes did not perform as well on conceptual questions compared to those using pen and paper.


Meet in the Middle Tip… Structure lessons so that students can take notes on paper- including doodle notes and other visual note-taking techniques.  Allow students some class time to take photos of the key ideas in their notes using their phones at the end of the lesson to share on a digital classroom platform (such as Schoology). 

Screen Time

Kids (and adults) are glued to screens more than ever before.  Pediatricians have recommendations for limiting screen time for young children, but there aren’t any hard and fast rules for teens and young adults.  Ask any parent if they think their child needs more screen time and you can guess what they will say!  This article points out the health consequences of looking at screens for hours each day.

I recently offered my classes a choice between a digital project and a paper poster-style project.  I was shocked when nearly all of my students chose the later.  What was their reason? “We use computers in every class almost every day.   It’s more fun to work on paper since we don’t get to do that in other classes.”  This led me to my plan book where I started calculating how much time kids were plugged in during my class.  Let’s just say it was eye opening!  Now, I shoot for around 30% or less of screen time during class each week.

Meet in the Middle Tips… Swap screens for sketches.  Try incorporating more opportunities for students to create their own visuals to support their understanding.  Try having kids find images online that support their own notes and pictures.  For example, have students search for a 3 x 5 diagram that shows the topic being learning such as layers of the atmosphere or the process of photosynthesis.  Set criteria and a time limit for searching. Then have students use the images to improve their paper notes.  
-       Trace or copy the diagram to improve memory.
-       Print the image and then annotate around the diagram with labels and connections to the lesson.

Effective vs. Easy

Not all use of classroom technology is effective; some of it is just easier.  In our everyday lives we often use tech to streamline our work and improve productivity, but if you look closely at how devices are used in the classroom- you might be surprised to find out that often times more technology does not equate to more learning.  An friend of mine once said, “Just because kids are quiet and behaving, doesn’t mean they are learning.”  This is solid advice for new teachers who might see digital learning as an easy way to manage behavior.

Meet in the Middle Tip… Try being more critical of your tech use and willing to unplug or revise when a digital approach doesn’t significantly improve instruction.  Refining your use of devices in planning will allow you to best balance student exposure to both tactile and digital versions of your subject content.  The SAMR model created by Dr. Ruben Puentedura is a helpful tool for evaluating your digital teaching resources.   Great teachers are self-critical, always looking to refine and improve their practice.  This article gives 8 examples of transforming lessons through the SAMR model.

    Digital Disconnect

A vast majority of secondary students communicate digitally with their peers.  This article gives some shocking stats about social media use and makes some interesting points about the impact of social media on social skills. Students need time to develop appropriate face-to-face social skills. The classroom is an ideal place to model respectful interpersonal skills and if we fill our periods with digital learning, we are taking away from valuable time needed for face-to-face discourse practice.


Meet in the Middle Tip… Collaborative use of technology allows students to work in teams for digital learning activities.   We need to be careful not to isolate students with devices, but instead use instructional technology to bring students together.  Sharing devices and having students collaborate in person during a digital project can provide the best of both worlds.  Consider the importance of verbal communication skills during a job interview or while problem solving on the job.  Teaching our students how to articulate their ideas clearly (in person) will certainly serve them well in the real world! 

Looking Forward...


As I approach a new school year I plan to continue being the same tech-savvy teacher I’ve always been, but to also approach digital learning with a more critical eye.  It is vital that the instructional tasks I use to teach students about science are not only engaging, but also effective in developing both digital and tactile problem solving skills.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash
Photo by Helloquence on Unsplash

Sunday, May 6, 2018

5 Ways to Teach Doodle Note Skills

I’m going to start with a classroom fail, which is the main inspiration for this post. For as long as I can remember I’ve always been a visual note-taker.  When my 11th grade ELA teacher required an outline for a paper, I created a storyboard instead.  I doodled my way through undergraduate and graduate school and it definitely served me well.  So when I started teaching middle school science, I assumed my 6th graders would surely take to doodle notes quickly.  I mean, it seems SO much easier than more traditional note-taking formats right? Not...so...fast.  I'll never forget that biotic and abiotic factor lesson plan where it was clear that not a single student had visual notes that even remotely matched the learning goal! (Thank goodness that was not my walk-in observation day!)  Long story short...I learned by experience that (most) kids need a lot of scaffolding to become quality doodle note-takers.  

Here are 5 Strategies to Build Doodle Notes Skills in your class:


Guess my Doodle Game
Students pick a word from the current unit you are studying.  Using a post-it or small piece of scrap paper, they draw a picture that does NOT have any words. (I set a timer for 2 minutes.) Next, students circulate and share their doodles with the goal of having other students accurately guess their doodle word! For each correct guess, they put a tally on their post-it.  (I set a timer for 3 minutes for this because I usually use it to review before starting a lesson OR as an exit strategy at the end of a lesson.)



When kids get back to their seats I say "stand if at least 1 student guessed the vocab word that matched your doodle." 2? 3?  I keep going until only few kids remain standing.  As a class we give these "Doodle Champions" a round of applause!


Doodle Icons
Show students some well-known icons. For example, power button, volume, shopping cart and ask them what they mean. You can also have kids brainstorm icons they know from games and other electronic activities. After establishing the value of even simple drawings to activate memory, allow time for students to doodle small icon icons next to the words on their existing vocabulary list.  (I give the vocabulary words and definitions at the start of the unit for students to reference throughout.)  


Doodle Breaks
I’ve talked about these before, but they are worth mentioning again. Doodle breaks provide a brain break and an opportunity to connect with content. I find these are best for my most reluctant doodlers because whiteboard drawings are temporary and kids like that it easy to erase errors.  They can be used on the spot during any lesson to add doodle note practice to any topic.  Simply prompt students to stop what they are doing and using a whiteboard doodle a picture that represents the key concept or learning goal for the day.  These draws are also a valuable form of formative assessment and often help me pace my lesson based on student understanding.


DIY Doodle
I tried this recently and the response from my students was really awesome. Pick an image that relates to the main ideas of your lesson.  For example, atomic structure.  Instead of providing a picture or having all kids copy the same one from the board, charge students with the challenge of selecting a quality diagram to draw and label in their notes.   I like to have science magazines, a variety of books and a few pre-selected internet links ready to help kids stay focused.  This strategy puts students in the driver seat during note-taking which has proven benefits for understanding and retention of knowledge. After using this method with my class, almost every student had an atom diagram that was far better than notes students took during previous years when I had them copy my picture or label a pre-printed version.  What a great reminder of the power of student ownership in the learning process!



Critique-a-Doodle
Learning from "what not to do" seems to work well with upper grade students.  Create some examples on the board of some different quality doodles.  I also save some photos of student doodles (names removed) from year to year for students to look at.   I try to regularly stress with my students the value of “academic doodles” vs “distractive doodles” so when I do this mini-lesson, my students have long been hearing about quality doodles.  I suggest having your students look at a few doodle samples (good, bad, average) and then share their ideas to create a class list of what makes a quality “academic doodle.”   I'm frequently surprised by what criteria kids come up with! (Here are some responses)
  • Simple
  • Clear and easy to study from
  • Neat but doesn’t have to be perfect
  • Labels are helpful
  • Use pencil lightly then darken and embellish as you go
  • Relates to the topic or brings attention to important details
  • Helps you study or recall the information 

There are many strategies to use to improve visual literacy and visual note-taking in our classrooms.  These strategies along with pre-organized doodle notes help provide foundational skills that serve to ready students for independent doodle-note taking! 



Wednesday, February 21, 2018

NGSS Models in the Classroom: Reflections and Revisions

NGSS Models in the Classroom: Representations, Reflections, And Revisions:
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In the science community, models can be physical, conceptual, or mathematical. They are representations of more complex systems that are often used to make predictions. Models may be simplified versions of systems, but little about them is simple.
In the Next Generation Science Standard (NGSS) classroom, models are ways for students to express their understandings of phenomenon. When they are effectively incorporated into the classroom, students engage in higher-level thinking.
Models In The NGSS Classroom
A typical “model” assignment in a science class might be to create a scaled enlargement of a cell. However, such a diagram mostly reinforces vocabulary. In the NGSS classroom, models should explain and show relationships.
Students might be asked to create a model of what effects the sun has on comets when they are pulled into the inner solar system, how a tsunami is formed, or the impact of a new species on an existing ecosystem. This computerized video model from NASA shows Thermohaline Circulation, or the Great Ocean Conveyor Belt. A complex animation such as this one would be difficult for students to create, but it can be used as an example for students of what how a complex system can be represented.
Using Models For Scientific Thinking
In the NGSS classroom, the emphasis should not be on the model itself, but should be on the process of its creation. It is important to let go of control and let your students THINK through their models....even when they are not 100% correct. (This was the hard part for me.)

This means that students might create models based on what they think they know about a phenomena. Then, after discussions with each other or learning activities, they reflect on the effectiveness of their model and make revisions. Through this process, students engage in scientific thinking. They develop their models by considering variables, data, and evidence, and they use their observations to further develop their models.

During this forces activity, students were given ping pong balls, golf balls, spring scales, rubber bands of different sizes, meter sticks and a thick cardboard piece with a u-shaped cutout and nails (see photo). As a springboard for learning about Newton's 2nd Law, they were asked to create a model that proved that force, mass and acceleration are related.
Note:  Like all new classroom activities- it is trial and error! I learned that cardboard is not strong enough.  I'm going to need to make a wood version for next time since the nails loosened after too much use! 


When kids are given supplies, a goal and then unstructured time to develop their ideas, amazing learning happens! As I walked around I could clearly tell who had background knowledge on the topic, I could tell who needed some prompting and who might just need some extra time to "play" with the materials before "AH HA!" coming to a conclusion. It was really different than traditional modeling (like the model of a cell that I made in 7th grade) but there was SO much thinking and learning that I could barely keep up with each group's developments.
Talk to your students about models! Dalton, Thomson, Rutherford, and Bohr all contributed models of atomic structure. Each subsequent model incorporated new discoveries into the next atomic model. These scientists are the perfect “models” for using models in the NGSS classroom, where errors become the motivation for new investigations and the unknown becomes an impetus for discovery.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Metacognition in the Middle School Classroom

Metacognition in the Middle School Classroom


Middle school kids are learning all the time, whether or not they want to admit it.  So when Emmett’s mom asks what he learned in science and he says, “Nothing,” she knows that response is not representative of what actually have happened that day. However, like many middle-schoolers, it may be what Emmett actually perceives!

Helping our students know what they know is critical in middle school.  

Activating students’ prior knowledge is  one step in the educational process that serves many functions in instruction, but is particularly helpful in guiding the adolescent mind towards monitoring the learning process.
Activating Prior Knowledge
Children learn through new experiences that contradict prior knowledge. Therefore, it is important to help students identify their previous understandings before helping them reach new ones. When students must identify what they know about a topic, they JUMP-start the process of learning.  With “what do I know?” comes “what don’t I know?,” a question that prompts curiosity. 

In science, the “unknown” is particularly powerful, as it leads to investigation and discovery!


Using Prior Knowledge In Instruction


We used to think activating prior knowledge served mainly the teacher, as a means of collecting data to inform pacing and content instruction.  Now we know that if we can activate students’ prior knowledge, they are more likely to become a self-regulating learner.  
According to this 2018 article, metacognition is a skill that sets our higher-performing students apart from their peers. When they think about their thinking, they reach impactful understandings about their own learning processes. Once students can identify what they know about a topic, leading them to “how” they know it is a natural next step that leads them to higher achievement.
Strategies for Activating Prior Knowledge in The Upper Grades


The Next Generation Science Standards emphasize the use of phenomena in teaching science content.   This strategy involves students USING science knowledge to explain events in the natural and design world.  Although it can be tempting to explain the "answer" to students, resist the urge!  When students are given opportunities to wrestle through challenging content, they are much more in tune with their own learning! I used this density bottle demonstration on the first day we started our unit.  Students were SO engaged and really wanted to know WHY the beads don't mix, separate to top and bottom and then slowly move to the middle.  They left class wanting more!  As we learned about density over the next week, students began to say Ah Ha!  I know!!!  






Puzzles are a quick way to get students "thinking about their thinking".  They automatically tap into background knowledge and begin constructing a visual on which to add new learning.  Have you ever started a lesson with a puzzle?  



On the first day of our Great Lakes Ecology Unit, I gave each pair of students (smaller groups work best for puzzles) a map of the Great Lakes that was cut into puzzle pieces.  Their task was to put the puzzles together and if time permitted discuss what they already knew about the region.  This can be done with any science diagram and is a sure-fire way to engage kids from the start!  (Be sure to save the pieces in plastic bags to use year after year!) 


Students take time to build on old knowledge and construct new knowledge.   Classroom visuals help remind students of their progress and review essential concepts along the way.  I've found that keeping visuals out for multiple days (sometimes weeks) helps kids with the process.  Here is a visual I used when we are exploring the difference between mass and volume.  



We pass these 2L bottles around so that students can feel the difference in their mass and see the similarity of their volume.  As we work through the unit I keep them on my front table as a reference for when kids are struggling.  Returning back to this visual is helpful as students construct their knowledge of physical properties of matter. 


If we want students to think about their thinking, then we have to engage them in the process.  (Every student, not just the few kids who always raise their hands.)  

    Photo by Munpa Gallery on Unsplash

Try starting a lesson with 3-5 "vote with your feet" statements.  Here's how it works: 

Tell students to listen closely to your statement.  For example:  "There are over 100 different kinds of atoms." If they think it is true they should stand by the door.  If they think it is false they should stand by the windows.  If they aren't sure YET (YET...stress the YET!) they should stand by the board.  Remind students they must move silently.  Once students have made their choices, I have them quietly go back to their seats.  Yup....I DO NOT TELL THEM THE RIGHT ANSWER!  This is key for having middle school kids monitor their own learning.  Kids are naturally curious and will want to know if they are "right."  I tell them "I'm so glad you are curious!  You will know the right answer by the end of the lesson!"



We often use games for review and reinforcement, but they can be a powerful way to tap into prior knowledge at the start of a lesson.  Splat is a low-prep, 5 minute vocabulary engagement game.  Start by picking 10 or so words that relate to your learning goal.  Write the words on the board or on cards that students spread on their tables. Read aloud the definition or a description.  Students compete to be the first one to "splat" the word.  Here is a picture of doing this on the board with fly-swatters, but I really like to also have ALL kids participating at their desks too (minus the swatters of course).  



Looking for more ideas for activating prior knowledge?  Here are some free materials to get you started:

Ecosystem Splat Directions (free download)


Join up for more middle school instruction ideas:

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Monday, January 8, 2018

The Power of Visual Note-taking



Photo by Neven Krcmarek on Unsplash

Notes are a necessary part of science instruction in middle school. Maybe you have students fill in note-taking sheets that you have typed up, or maybe they add their thoughts to print-outs of PowerPoint slides. Some teachers teach outlining so that students can gather and sort content as they read, using textbook headings as their guides.
You know it’s important to prepare them for notetaking they might need to do in high school. But, it’s time to ask yourself: are the note-taking strategies I’m teaching useful for my students?
For some teachers, the answer could be yes. Some students will do well with fill-in-the-blanks or outlines or print-outs of slides. But don’t confuse students being able to accurately complete notes with their true internalization of class material, and just because students can DO notes in these more traditional formats doesn’t mean there isn’t a more effective note-taking strategy for them.
If you’ve started to question note-taking in your middle school classroom, either because you’re wondering if they really “get it” or because you think there might be a better way, then consider trying visual note-taking with your students.
What Is Visual Note-taking?
Let’s start with what visual note-taking is NOT. It’s not students writing down bullet points while they read. It’s not students waiting for “answers” for filling-in-the-blanks with important terms while you lecture or go through a presentation. It’s not even students writing a sentence or two to reflect on what they’ve learned.

Visual note-taking IS a note-taking strategy that involves no words, or a few words arranged visually instead of in the narrative formats we’re used to.
Essentially, students draw pictures to build understanding. This could be illustrations, concept maps, graphics, or maybe even doodles and abstract representations of concepts.
Doodling as a thinking tool gained recognition in a 2014 article by the Wall Street Journal. The study cited in the article explains that doodling can help people maintain focus and retain information. The same could be said of drawing pictures of concepts instead of taking notes in written form.

The idea behind visual note-taking is that students are representing important ideas instead of simply writing them down. This requires making connections between concepts, an important skill for middle school students to practice.
For example:
If students are learning about photosynthesis, drawing the process can take the place of writing a chronological explanation of how photosynthesis works. Through pictures of the sun, plants, soil, water, oxygen, and carbon dioxide, students reinforce that these terms are the most important to the photosynthesis process.
Here students created visual notes in teams for photosynthesis, before writing about recording their notes on paper.

There are other forms visual note-taking could take.
Here are some examples:
Narrated Art
After students have drawn a picture of a concept or process, they can record narrative to go along with it. While there is audio narration, students still don’t need to use words in the notes themselves. They can look at and listen to their notes later, instead of just re-reading them.  You've probably had students create short movies in your classroom, but what if they used movie-making to craft their notes? Can students use iPads to create paper-less visual notes? 
Concept Maps
Concept maps might be closest to what we might consider traditional note-taking, in that it involves some words. However, unlike outlines or other forms of written notes, concept maps stress the relationships between concepts. Words and pictures are arranged on the page based on how they relate to each other. Note-takers use arrows, images, and colors to reinforce ideas and show connections.

Visual Interpretations of Abstract Concepts
Drawing a volcano or galaxy or cell is easy. But what about concepts like “gravity” or “scientific method” or “climate”? The way students draw these terms can shed a lot of light on their understandings and challenge them to think critically about what might before have just been a written definition to a vocabulary word.
To Sum Up Visual Note-taking
Anytime we can engage students in critical thinking, we’ve done something right as teachers. Traditional note-taking doesn’t do this for students, because usually it just involves copying definitions or summarizing events.
If we can extend higher level thinking to note-taking, we help our students learn how to effectively process important information.
In middle school, students are at just the right age to learn a note-taking technique that can benefit them for years. They’re creative, invested, and eager to try new things.
Photo by William Iven on Unsplash

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