Why I don't teach lab safety the first week of school... and other back to school science teacher tips
It's almost time for me to start planning out my first week of school (yes it's crazy, I go back end of July). When I first started teaching, I spent the first week reviewing the syllabus, class rules, and (duh duh duh duhhhhh) spent time reviewing all the lab safety procedures. It just felt like the responsible science teacher thing to do. What I soon realized is the students were just plain bored... or nervous about finding their next class.... or thinking about who has the same lunch period as them... but they were NOT memorizing all those nice lab safety rules I was so carefully explaining. They are also reviewing rules in almost every other class and the chances of them remembering what you said those first few days are slim. So I decided to throw the "let's front-load all the rules that they will forget anyway" out the window and find more exciting activities for that first week.
I know some of you science teachers reading this are thinking "But I have to review rules the first week, because they need to sign a lab safety contract!" Yes, they do. (And if you don't have one handy, I recommend Flinn Science's contracts which you can download free here.) But is it really necessary the first few days? Here is my main argument on why you are wasting your time: Why are you teaching students to wear goggles and keep scalpels pointed down during dissections if you aren't actually getting to the dissection until April? Or why are you teaching them the proper way to carry and store a microscope when the microscopes don't come out of the cupboard until your cells unit in December? Students will just forget, and you will have to review the rules all over again anyway. Instead, wait until you get to the lab and then review the necessary rules. As far as the contract goes, have students read through it during class or at home with a parent and sign it. If they have any questions feel free to discuss them, but don't waste too much time on it. Here are a few ideas to do instead:
As much as we would love to have our lessons end 30 seconds before the bell rings, it rarely happens. Even if it does work out perfectly in 1st hour, 2nd hour is a completely different group of students and the lesson might require more or less time. It sometimes happens that the lesson is over and I still have 5 minutes left of class. It drives me crazy when students try and wait by the door! If you are a science teacher, here is a great idea to fill those last 5 minutes.
There is a show on science channel called Outrageous Acts of Science. During the show they show video clips and have scientists explain the science behind the video. The videos are all about 2 minutes long and fun for students to watch. Go to youtube.com and type in "Outrageous Acts of Science" in the search bar. You will get a ton of results. Pick out a few that are interesting. Then, head over to keepvid.com and copy the youtube URL into the keepvid site. I like this website because it allows you to download youtube videos and save them to your computer. That way you don't have to worry about commercials or streaming/buffering issues.
Another fun youtube channel is from Steve Spangler and is called "Sick Science." Click here to view the youtube channel. It shows simple science experiments and allows the students to brainstorm why they happened. It is great to have students discuss why they think something is happening and not just have it explained to them.
If you have some of these videos already picked out and ready to go, it will save you time later. I think you will find these clips are way more valuable than the students trying to sit on their phones or wait by the door. Any other ideas you use for those last 5 minutes? Drop them in the comments!
If you couldn't already tell by the name of my blog and TpT store, I really enjoy looking at and collecting rocks and fossils. My house and classroom are full of them! Many kids might tell you rocks are stupid, but you'd be surprised how interested they get when you leave them out for them to touch and handle. While many schools might have rock and fossil kits with many small samples, I personally prefer to have large samples for them to handle. I like larger samples for 2 reasons. 1- students are more interested in large samples, and 2- they are harder for students to stick in their pockets and walk away with. When I used to use the small kits samples seemed to disappear- especially the shark tooth fossils!
Now that I teach biology I don't get to dive into rocks much, but I definitely bust out the fossils during my geologic time unit. I want students to be able to touch and handle the fossils, but also be gentle with them. When I put the fossils out at each station, I put them on dissection mats. That way when students set them down it minimizes any damage. I also like choosing some fossils that the students won't recognize. It really makes them think about what type of fossil it is and where it lived. You can click on the slideshow images below to see which samples I used this year.
In my TpT store I have editable lab templates for both rock classification and fossil identification. You can customize them for the samples that you have available to you. Check them out by CLICKING HERE.
This is one lab that you don't want to miss! It's easy, the materials are inexpensive (you probably already have them at home), and it ties together multiple concepts. Winner!
In this lab, students will analyze a pedigree of a fictitious family. In the introduction, students read that "Jon and Sue Smith" were in a car accident and need a blood transfusion. The hospital asks family members to donate, but students will need to figure out which family members are able to successfully donate. To complete this lab, students will need to understand blood types, punnett squares, and pedigrees. Its a great end-of-the-unit lab when you are finished with genetics.
One piece of feedback I have gotten from my TpT store is that this lab can take a while to set up. I'm here to give you some tips to save you set up AND clean up time.
Teaching English language learner (ELL) students is not for the faint of heart. In my teaching career, I have always had ELL students trickled throughout my classes. This year is the first year that I have had a biology class made up of entirely all ELL students. They vary in their English speaking abilities; some can speak it decently well and others moved here from Mexico only a few months ago. My main focus had to shift from being a biology teacher to being an English teacher and sprinkle in some fun science content. It has been really fun to work with them, giggle with them as they use English phrases incorrectly, and hear them giggle at me as I try and speak Spanish.
I had a humbling experience today in class that reminded me of a previous experience that happened a few years ago. This year since I have all my ELL students together, I’ve often used google translate to translate some of the vocabulary so they can read the definitions in both English and Spanish. I usually try and ask the Spanish teacher next door to proofread the Spanish and make sure it’s grammatically correct. This can be tricky in science, especially when words like “organic” mean very different things if you are in chemistry class opposed to biology class. Today I didn’t have time to get my notes proofread so I just crossed my fingers and went with it. As we were taking notes, I asked one of my students if the Spanish translation made sense. Our conversation went something like this:
Me: “Does that translation made sense? Is it correct?”
Student: “I don’t know, I don’t read Spanish very good.”
Me: “You can speak it but not read it? Didn’t you learn to read Spanish when you were little?”
Me: “When your parents started teaching you to read, didn’t you use books that were in Spanish?”
Student: “I didn’t learn to read until I was in kindergarten.”
Me: “Ok, well don’t you have Spanish books around the house that you’ve read as you’ve gotten older?”
Student: “The only book in the house is the bible.”
It made me sad to think these students didn’t read at home with their parents growing up. I remember looking forward to bedtime so I could read Junie B. Jones with my Mom. Books were all over the house, something I took for granted. Let me be clear- I’m not in any way suggesting these parents failed their child in some way by not reading with them. Many parents are just doing the best they can to get food on the table. Today’s experience reminded me of something that happened in my first few years of teaching middle school. We were finishing up our body systems unit and I was going to do a frog dissection with my 6th graders. I had permission slips sent home in both English and Spanish, since some parents opt out of having their child dissect for personal or religious reasons. Picture a very tired and cranky teacher at the end of the week, trying to collect 150 permission slips. I was calling on students that still hadn’t returned their forms and got to one particular student… let’s call him Jason.
Me: “Jason, do you have your permission slip?”
Me: (getting frustrated) “You’ve had a week! I really need it returned.”
Jason: “My Mom can’t read it.”
Me: (starting to raise my voice) “I sent it home in both English AND Spanish!”
Jason: (practically yelling) “MY MOM CAN’T READ!”
Now picture that tired and cranky teacher looking like she got slapped in the face. I wanted to sit down at my desk, cover my face and cry. I felt like the most insensitive teacher in the world. My heart broke for this kid. I didn’t just feel bad because I had lost patience, but because at such a young age he would have the responsibility for helping his parents read and fill out important paperwork. His 7 years of education was probably more than his parents had completed. It made me look at my job in a whole new light. It also made me so grateful for the education I was given. I’m so glad I remembered that experience today.
So to all you ELL teachers out there, remember- YOU MATTER! When you are having days where you feel like your students aren’t learning English as fast as they should, remember that they might not have had the same opportunities you had. They are doing the best they can. You have a hard but rewarding job and are making a huge difference in their life. 10 years from now those students might not remember that one awesome lab you did, but they will remember the kind teacher who for an entire year helped them learn English.
It's April. Sigh. If you live in the US, you are likely experiencing testing season. Between ACT, SAT, and state exams, it seems like the entire month is taken. Kids are burned out and teachers just want to start teaching again. Students have to be quiet when they finish testing which can be a struggle no matter which age group you teach. If your school is like mine, students aren't allowed to be anywhere near their phones when they are done testing. As much as I would love to see them whip out their favorite book, the last thing many of them want to do is read when they just finished a 3 hour test. Here are some ideas to keep them quiet until everyone else is finished testing:
1. Print out sudoku pages. The first few times I did this I realized many students had never done a sudoku puzzle before, so you might need to teach them. But your left-brained students will have fun working on them! You can print them for free by clicking here.
2. Word Searches- Check out this website where you can print pre-made word searches or even create your own.
3. Coloring Pages- This is my personal favorite stress-relief activity. I love printing out Mandala images and letting my creativity run wild. You can find free ones here, or I've even seen books of them at the dollar store. You can just buy a book and make copies for your students.
4. Extreme Dot-to-Dot- These will take your students quite a bit of time! Unfortunately I haven't found free ones online that are very good, but the books are inexpensive on amazon's website (just search for extreme dot to dot). I have one that I make copies from and the kids love figuring out what the image is.
5. ABC Books- I know this sounds a little elementary, but middle school students enjoy it. Give students 14 pages of paper, have them fold in half, and staple on the edge like a book. Have them write one letter of the alphabet on each page. Then, they have to choose a vocabulary word that is specific to your content area, write the definition, and make a picture. Since I teach science, they might choose acid for A, biotic for B, catalyst for C, etc. It is a great way to brush up on vocabulary from the year.
6. Write a thank-you note- Since teacher appreciation day is coming up, sometimes I have my students pick their favorite teacher at school and write them a thank you note. Then I have the notes delivered on teacher appreciation day. It will truly brighten those teacher's day to read them!
7. Hidden Pictures- Remember the hidden pictures in the highlights magazines when you were little? Well you can print them! Head over to highlights website and print off a few. Are they intended for little kids? Yes. Will your secondary students still love them? Yes.
8. Crossword Puzzles- Here is a website that has pre-made puzzles, or check out this site where you can make your own.
9. Metal Mind Teasers- This one isn't my favorite only because it makes a little noise. If you head to a local dollar store, you will probably find the little metal puzzles that students have to separate by twisting and turning the pieces. Some students manage to do them quietly, but a few like to make it an ordeal, so be careful on who you hand them to.
And last but not least.....
10. Sleep- If your school allows it, let that tired kid put their head down. Seriously. Studies show that teenagers don't get nearly as much sleep as they should. After a 3 hour test, let that brain rest.
Any other fun ideas to keep kids quiet after testing? Drop them in the comments!
Do you have some awesome coworkers? I do. My students have been preparing for a debate on GMO's that was going to take place after school. We needed judges that would be willing to stay late and score them on their performance. We got 3 volunteers without hesitation that were willing to stay at school until 8pm... That's a 13 hour work day! Anyway, I made this little printable that I taped around a box of Andes mints to give to each of the judges. It wasn't expensive and a little gesture goes a long way! Make someone's day and download it for free by clicking on the link below!
Have you heard these statements before?
"Why are we doing writing, this isn't English class!"
"Why are we doing math, this isn't math class!"
Believe it or not, in science class we integrate almost all of the content areas. The key to this integration is making the learning interesting so you don't hear the complaints. This year I am teaching a biology class of all English language learner students. I not only have to worry about teaching the students science concepts and vocabulary, but also getting them to read and write proficiently so they can pass the state language exam. It's a lot of pressure! I decided one way to get students to write more in my class was to give them fun writing prompts. I came up with 10 prompts per quarter, and would assign them periodically for homework the night BEFORE the concept was taught. Why before? I didn't want to read regurgitated class notes. I really wanted the students to think critically about the science concept and be able to assess their background knowledge. I gave students a grade for completing the homework assignment, but didn't grade them on the accuracy of the content knowledge. It is also a great way to uncover misconceptions and address them throughout the lesson. As I started using these prompts I saw my student's writing skills improve and vocabulary increase.
I not only created writing prompts for biology, but for many science content areas. Check out a freebie from each content area before you buy!
Every teacher has that one unit they don't like to teach. For me, it was cells. Having taught every grade from 6th to 12th, it seemed like no matter how hard I tried, the same thing happened every year. I taught organelles, students memorized them for a test, and then completely forgot about them. Later when I taught mitosis and would ask "Hey, remember centrioles?" I would get blank stares. But what was even more frustrating was the fact that students just didn't get how organelles worked together. I tried everything I found on the internet. I tried the "cell is like a factory" analogies. I tried to have students make cell models out of clay or food. I had them make posters. I even had them write me a "tour through the cell" book (inspired by the magic school bus). And guess what? None of it really worked. Sure, students would come in with really cool jello models and beatiful posters, but if I asked "How do the endoplasmic reticulum and golgi work together?"..... more blank stares.
After 9 years of teaching cells, I was ready to cry. Then one day I was venting to a professor at a local university and he said he had his students group their flashcards together and lay them out like dominoes. Inspiration hit! Why couldn't I have my students link them together like puzzle pieces? I immediately got to work.
I made a list of all the organelles my students needed to know. I decided to make 2 versions of the activity since I teach multiple levels of biology. In the first version (picture on left), I linked two organelles together, and students would have to write out the relationship between them on the connecting puzzle piece. To make it harder for my honors students, I would have them figure out which organelles go together on their own (picture on right).
For the second version, I had students lay them out on butcher paper and connect as many puzzle pieces as possible. They called me over to check before gluing. What was great about this activity was that every group had a different final product, but all of them had correct answers. By the end of the activity (it took them 2 class periods) they had a much greater understanding of which organelles worked directly together and why. (Insert happy dance here). Students also took pictures of their posters and used them as a study tool before the test. So if you were as frustrated as me, kiss your cell factory goodbye and check out my lesson plan HERE.
I love when I find a new website or online activity I want my students to try. Our students are growing up in a technology reliant generation, and as teachers we need to tap into their interests and strengths. But every time I go to the computer lab, it seems like some kids whiz through the activity I want them to complete, and other students are constantly calling me over for help and don't finish by the time the bell rings. The students that finish early inevitably end up on facebook or youtube as soon as your back is turned.
Becca of Science Rocks
Hi, I'm Becca! I've been teaching science for 10 years at both the middle and high school levels.