Saturday, September 24, 2011

Teacher Notes

Once upon a time, the thought of creating a huge lesson plan replete with extensive teacher notes was overwhelming to me. Notes were sacrificed in favor of developing and copying actual classroom activities. What I didn't realize as a novice teacher was that a simple text editor (like TextEdit, NotePad, or Google Docs) could be the perfect tool for creating detailed teacher notes with relative ease.

The trick to great teacher notes is not to try to write them before a lesson, but to write them as the lesson unfolds. Sure, you need to have a rough outline of learning goals, activities, assessments, etc. before you run the actual lesson, but trying to write down every tiny detail beforehand is impossible and stressful.

This is where the simple text editor comes to the rescue. On the day(s) of the lesson, have the text editor open on your computer. Use it to make notes throughout the course of your day as the lesson unfolds class by class. Don't worry about fancy editing—this is a simple text document. You want to capture the rich flow of information from your classroom as it happens "live." By the end of the day, you will have a wealth of information about the lesson that you never thought possible, including questions you asked, questions students asked, materials/resources you used, things that worked well, things that need to be tweaked/changes, things to remember for next year.

Capture every moment that you can (when you can) during class and add it to the text editor. Doesn't matter if they are quick little jots… Doesn't matter if you miss a few things… Doesn't matter if they are free-form and disorganized… The point is the process. If you've thought that creating teacher notes for your lessons is an impossible task, this method will make the process much simpler and much more organic.

Save these notes from year to year, organize them as you go along, and update them as you reteach a lesson. Keep a list of which file of notes goes with which lesson in a table document. Before you know it, you will have a rich history of your personal teaching expertise (which you might someday share with the rest of the world).


Learning Goal: What are the safety expectations in science?

Science Safety Contracts

  • what should the safety rules for our science classroom be?
  • have students brainstorm their top 3 science safety rules and share
  • type shared responses on big screen
  • hand out and go over Science Safety Contracts 
  • have students take quick Science Safety Quiz 
  • have students sign class safety contract sheet
  • show "Carol" safety poster and discuss
  • collect class safety contract signature sheets
  • homework: parent signature on safety contracts

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Power of Inquiry

There were less than five minutes left in class, yet three students asked me if they could use Excel to create a graph from their experimental data. Many other students would have looked at the clock and begun stealthily packing up their binders for the day, but these students wanted to graph their results. My answer was a no-brainer, "Go for it! You can do it!" And in those few remaining minutes they worked up an excellent pie graph showing their results.

Investigating the Rates
of Heating and Cooling
This is the kind of awesome, independent learning that makes my day. I promote an inquiry-based classroom where students are in charge of their destiny. I do not spoon-feed answers to my students, but challenge them to forge their own paths of learning and take charge of their own education. To me, creating and encouraging independent learners is the noblest goal of any teacher. Teachers as facilitators and cheerleaders, who provide the resources and scaffolds to enable students to blaze their own trail.

I was so proud of these three students that day. They epitomized all that great learning should be in every classroom, every day.

Some students and parents may balk at my approach. "Why won't you just tell me the answer?" is an oft-heard question, especially in the beginning of each school year. But slowly, with encouragement and cajoling, I wean students off their dependence on quick, easy answers in favor of deeper thinking, problem-solving, and meaningful learning. I realize I may not be every student's favorite teacher at that moment when I ask them to do and think for themselves, but given our challenging times and complex world, how could I expect less?

The National Science Education Standards (1996) define the fundamental abilities of inquiry as follows:
  • Identify questions that can be answered through scientific investigations.
  • Design and conduct a scientific investigation.
  • Use appropriate tools and techniques to gather, analyze, and interpret data.
  • Develop descriptions, explanations, predictions, and models using evidence.
  • Think critically and logically to make the relationships between evidence and explanations.
  • Recognize and analyze alternative explanations and predictions.
  • Communicate scientific procedures and explanations.
  • Use mathematics in all aspects of scientific inquiry.

In its official position statement on scientific inquiry, the National Science Teachers Association "recommends that all K–16 teachers embrace scientific inquiry and is committed to helping educators make it the centerpiece of the science classroom. The use of scientific inquiry will help ensure that students develop a deep understanding of science and scientific inquiry."

These are the standards toward which I strive...

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Analyzing Local Weather Data

These days, there are numerous sources and tools on the internet that provide access to live weather data, which can be used to practice and refine data interpretation skills. In our school district, data interpretation is one of the essential middle level science learnings:
"Students can interpret, analyze, and evaluate data and recognize bias in order to formulate logical conclusions."
ASOS: the National Weather Service's
automated weather observing network
The National Weather Service provides a plethora of weather data that is ideal for use in the classroom. In my last post, I talked about hurricane data. In this post, I'd like to explore local weather data.

On a daily, monthly, and yearly basis, the National Weather Service records and archives basic weather data such as temperature, pressure, wind, precipitation, etc. In most places across the United States, there is more than 100 years worth of data in the climate archives—all of this data is accessible online. This data can be used in the classroom to analyze local patterns and trends.

To access the National Weather Service climate data:

  1. Go to
  2. Type your zip code into the Local Forecast box in the top left corner
  3. On the next page, select the link to your local National Weather Service office in the top left corner—it looks like "NWS Denver-Boulder CO"
  4. On the next page, look for the Climate section along the left panel and select the Local link. 

From here, you and your students have access to all of the local climate data and records. One of the reports I use with my students is the "Climatological Summary Month-to-Date," which provides a table of the current month's daily weather statistics. Each day during one month, we start our science class by pulling up this page and recording the previous day's high temperature, low temperature, and precipitation in our own data tables. At the end of the month, we graph, summarize, and analyze the data. Students reflect on the following questions:

  • What was the average high temperature for the month?
  • What was the average low temperature for the month?
  • What was the total precipitation for the month?
  • How much warmer or colder than normal was this month?
  • How much wetter or drier than normal was this month?
  • Based on the data, how would you summarize this month's weather?
  • Were there any notable or unusual weather events this month?
  • Were there any record weather events this month?

We should seek every opportunity to bring authentic data into the classroom to promote scientific literacy and help students make real world connections. One of my favorite quotes that bears repeating (often):
"If you're scientifically literate, the world looks very different to you, and that understanding empowers you..." —Neil deGrasse Tyson, Astrophysicist
The National Weather Service is but one of the many science organizations that publishes useful data online. I will discuss others in future posts...

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Data Interpretation and Hurricane Tracking

Hurricane season always provides an authentic opportunity to learn about the process of science. These days, there are numerous sources and tools on the internet that provide access to live weather data, which can be used to practice and refine data interpretation skills. In our school district, data interpretation is one of the essential middle level science learnings:
"Students can interpret, analyze, and evaluate data and recognize bias in order to formulate logical conclusions."
This past week, Hurricane Irene struck the eastern United States, causing major flooding and destruction in many areas. A plethora of science instruments—land-based, sea-based, plane-based, and satellite-based—monitored Irene's vital signs as it trekked across the planet and affected millions of humans. These instruments captured a wealth of data and images that can be used in the classroom to help students better understand hurricanes as well as reinforce how science works.

Hurricane Irene, Doppler Radar Animation,
courtesy of the Weather Underground
Precipitation data from land-based Doppler radars is one of the types of information collected during a hurricane. Doppler radars produce colorful images and animations that can be used to stimulate student conversations about science—sort of a digital dissection. During Hurricane Irene, I captured a Doppler radar animation centered around the hours when the cyclone first made landfall on the outer banks of North Carolina (click the image to the right to view the animation). The animation loop provides enough information to discuss and infer basic weather variables such as tropical cyclone circulation, forward storm motion, wind speed, wind direction, precipitation rates and amounts, and more. (Details for capturing a Doppler animation loop are at the end of this post.)

When using images and animations, I ask students three main questions:
  1. What do you see? (observations) 
  2. How do you know? (evidence) 
  3. What can you infer? (interpretation) 
I have students practice the "What do you see?" and "How do you know?" questions first as small table groups, then share the "What can you infer?" question as a whole class. During the table discussions, I circulate around the classroom as a background observer and facilitator—listening to their conversations, asking clarifying questions, and nudging everyone in the group to participate equitably. There are no right or wrong answers during these small table discussions; it is an opportunity for students to hone their science skills. This activity empowers students to have authentic peer conversations about real science data, a basic "process of science" principle. Additionally, this activity allows students to practice their powers of observation and interpretation together in preparation for hands-on lab experiments in which they will need to collect and interpret their own data.

Capturing a Doppler Animation Loop

There are numerous sources of weather information on the internet, but my favorite is the Weather Underground. Their maps, graphics, and animations are well-designed, easy-to-read, colorful, accessible, and appropriately scientific, which makes them an ideal source for the science classroom.

To capture a Doppler animation loop, do the following:
  • Go to the Weather Underground website, and of course bookmark/favorite it for future use.
  • Select the Radar link under the Maps & Radar tab on the main page.
  • Select one of the Doppler radar sites (indicated by + symbols) closest to the area of interest.
  • To generate an animated loop on the radar page, adjust the Radar Controls on the right side of the page, then click the Update Radar Map button. For Hurricane Irene, I modified the Animate Frames box to 40, and the Frame Delay to medium, while leaving the other options at their default settings.
  • Once the full animation loads, select the View/Save This Image link at the bottom of the loop to display the animation on a separate web page. Then, save a copy of the animation to your computer (usually File-->Save As…). This animation can be replayed on your favorite web browser for later classroom use.