Acting out the nitrogen cycle

I’ve always found the nitrogen cycle to be one of those concepts that students find difficult to understand. Not only are there so many unfamiliar terms and ideas (denitrifying bacteria, nitrogen fixation, different types of ammonia, etc), but students often think that the nitrogen cycle is linear, that all nitrogen atoms go around the cycle step by step. I often hear questions like “Where does the nitrogen cycle start?”

To challenge this misconception, I decided to play the nitrogen cycle game with my Year 9s this year. I first saw this activity in action from my student teacher, Smriti Mediratta, who is now a temporary teacher in my faculty. She adapted the activity from a range of websites such as this one.  All you have to do is to place station signs that show reservoirs of nitrogen and place 1 dice on each sign. Students then role play a nitrogen atom and follow the instructions on each sign. On their nitrogen cycle journey, they fill out a worksheet to show where they went in each step and how they got there.

Note that these resources have been created by Smriti so hat tip to her 🙂

During the activity, I heard one group say “We are going to soil again. We are always going to soil!” From this and the class discussion afterwards, it was evident that students understood that the nitrogen cycle is non-linear; that some nitrogen atoms might never go to all reservoirs and just go from one to another.

20140516-181617.jpg

I also found this activity to be effective in allowing students to physically act out the nitrogen cycle, which makes it more memorable than just reading a text and looking at a a diagram. If you are a science teacher, I highly recommend trying this activity with your students.

Running to read, write, listen and speak

Literacy in science has always been a huge focus for me. Not only is literacy a priority area for our school, but I like to be educating my students so they are young scientists and there’s nothing more important to a scientist than to be able to understand and communicate their ideas clearly.

I personally find reading and writing to be the easiest to integrate into high school science. However, listening and speaking are a little harder for me to embed. Just a few days ago I remembered a strategy called running dictation which I learnt from an English as a Second Language consultant a few years ago.

Running dictation is a game that students play in groups to practise their reading, writing, listening and speaking skills. The teacher puts a short passage somewhere in the classroom (in my case it was a passage on the atmosphere). Each group of students selects a reader and the rest are writers. The readers in each group need to run (or in my classroom, walk very fast as I don’t want any injures) to the passage, read it silently to themselves, remember as much as possible, run back to their team, recite what they remember to their team and the rest of the team writes it down. The first team that gets everything correct (the words, spelling, punctuation, etc) wins. You might think it’s a noisy game but because each team doesn’t want the others to hear and steal their work, they work very quietly. I did this with Year 8s the other day and they absolutely loved it. I like how it allows students the opportunities to work together as a team and speak about science.

Year 8 students in a running dictation activity

Year 8 students in a running dictation activity

I know running dictation isn’t new but I haven’t seen it used in science classes so I’d thought this blog might give other science teachers some ideas for literacy. I find that running dictation allows students to read, write listen and speak science in a fun way. It’s gets them up and moving and doesn’t make literacy seem like a drag like it sometimes is.

In future lessons I’m going to try some of these other ideas for running dictation to make it more challenging for my students.

Formative assessment with hexagons

Formative assessment is something I’ve been putting a lot more emphasis on over the past few years. I’m so sick of just relying of end-of-topic exams to gauge what students have learnt. I want my students to continuously question how they are going and make changes to their learning accordingly. This is one of the reasons that my faculty has embarked on a Structured Observed Learning Outcomes (SOLO) journey this year. One of the ways that many teachers using SOLO use to assess student learning is with SOLO hexagons.

SOLO hexagons involves the major concepts or ideas from a topic to be placed individually onto hexagons. Students then work individually or in groups to connect the hexagon concepts together and they must justify why they have made these connections. It is the justification where both the teacher and the student can assess the student’s learning. It is how students have connected the hexagons and their justification of WHY they have done it that way that allows their learning and thinking to then be assessed using the SOLO taxonomy (or not; the hexagon activity still works with no understanding of SOLO).

Here’s a video showing one way of using the SOLO hexagons in a UK science class.

Here’s an explanation of how to use SOLO hexagons from the SOLO guru, Pam Hooke.

I changed the hexagon activity slightly to suit the needs of my students. The picture shows the instructions that my students received.

instructions for hexagon activity

And here are the hexagons my students used (note that the hexagons were pre-cut for students and placed into zip lock bags with the above instruction card). My students worked in groups of 2 to 4. I used the SOLO hexagon generator to create the hexagons.

Here’s some samples of the hexagons my students made.

20140406-140303.jpg

20140406-140251.jpg

20140406-140235.jpg

Some things I noticed was that:

  • My students were all fantastic at explaining each hexagon concept
  • Some groups connected all the nervous system concepts and the endocrine system concepts together, showing they had an understanding that the nervous system and endocrine system worked together. However all the groups had the immune system concepts separate altogether. I did spend a lot of class time making it explicit that the nervous system and the endocrine system work together to control and coordinate the body. And while the students’ project was to make a fact sheet about how a particular disease/health issue affected the nervous system and the endocrine system, they seem to think that the immune system works on its own and is completely separate from the other systems.

From this activity we discussed their SOLO levels of understanding and how they can use their hexagon connections to see whether they were at a unistructural level, multistructural level, relational level or extended abstract level. Most students concluded they were at a relational level for most concepts and some thought they were extended abstract for some parts of the topic.

The SOLO hexagon activity is definitely something I will use again with my students. Now that they have done it once, the next time will run even better. Feedback from students was that they enjoyed talking about science with each other and that they learnt a lot from each other just by listening to what others had to say about each concept.

 

Giving students a say in their homework

This is probably not new but this term I’m trialling a different way of doing homework with Year 9s.

I try to make homework so it doesn’t become a workload burden for myself and my students. A lot of my students have extra-curricular activities like sport and I have had quite a few parent phone calls raising the concern between balancing their family lives and homework. I’ve also had the issue of different access to resources from home. A lot of my students love doing homework activities online, but not all of my students have internet access. To create a set of online homework activities and then another set of offline activities, for all four of my classes became too labour-intensive that there was very low return-of-investment.

So this term I’m doing something different with Year 9s. They will be given a choice in what kinds of homework they want to. The topic is on the nervous system, endocrine system and immune system.

I’ve made sure there are activities that are quite basic (like completing a table) to activities that are higher-order that require the creation of products like video. I’ve also made sure that students can choose HOW they complete their homework. They can do things electronically or on paper.

Not sure how this will go, but is worth trying. I’d love your thoughts on this, whether you’re a student, parent, teacher or anyone else.

Watch this space for updates 🙂

Creating a classroom community

Today was the first day where all students were back at school. I had my first lesson with most of my classes today. I never launch into content in the first day. I like to get to know my students first. This year however I want to go further than that and kick off the year by allowing my students to get to know each other as learners. Many of my students know each other socially, but not how they like to learn.

While I don’t have any hard data, I’ve always had the inkling that high student achievement not only depends on individual students, but how the whole class works as a group. My higher-performing classes are where individual students apply themselves more but they also get along with each other and help each other. These classes have a sense of community. Each student has a sense of belonging. They work as a team. I want this for all my classes by design, not by random luck.

So this year I used the first lesson to kick start the establishment of a class community. Students did two activities: (1) Getting to know you as a learner in 3-2-1 and (2) My perfect classroom to learn in …

Getting to know you as a learner in 3-2-1

Students paired up and interviewed each other on 3 of their favourite things about science, 2 things they find hard about science and 1 thing they want the teacher to know to help them learn the best that they can.

For larger classes, I asked some students to share their responses and then collected their interview sheets to look at later. For smaller classes, all students shared their responses and they were tallied so that students can see what they have in common with other students in terms of learning. Here’s an example from my Year 11 Senior Science class.

photo of tallied results of 3-2-1 activity

My perfect classroom to learn in …

This activity is used to establish classroom expectations where all students get a say. In pairs students brainstorm what their perfect classroom is like. In their perfect classroom what are they doing as students? What are other students doing? What is the teacher doing? All responses are collated on the board and classroom expectations are established.

photo of perfect classroom results from year 11

I know some teachers will think this is a ‘soft’ approach and that I should lay down the law instead and let students know who is boss. But I much prefer this way. I really want to focus on developing positive learning relationships amongst students as I strongly believe this will lead to better learning and achievement.

 

My 4 goals for 2014

an image of two people drawing targets

In New South Wales, Australia, the 2014 school year is just about to start so I thought I’d share with you my 4 professional goals for 2014.

Goal #1 – Keeping science real

2013 was the year where I started the journey of connecting my students with current, practising Australian scientists. This was a response to our students’ survey responses that they did not know many careers or jobs that science can lead them to. They also did not know what scientists actually do. Many students have accountants, tradespeople, bankers, etc within their families or family friends but students often do not have exposure to scientists in their everyday lives (ask a student to name a scientist and they’ll still tell you Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein; they rarely name a living scientist). We wanted to make science real in the sense that we can put real people’s faces to what the students learn in the classroom. So in 2013 our school connected with Scientists and Mathematicians in Schools, where we are now partnered with scientist Melina Georgousakis. Melina has already spoken to our Year 8s and 9s on her journey to becoming a scientist, what she does in her job and explained how the immune system and vaccinations work (that’s her area of expertise). In our end-of-topic survey, a lot of our year 9s listed Melina’s visit as the best activity of the topic. In their words the best part of the topic was “when the lady came in to talk about vaccines”. In 2014 we have plans for our Year 12 Biology students to work with Melina when they explore the immune system more deeply.

2014 will also be the year where I want to utilise social media and technology to connect students with scientists, not just in Australia but from around the world. In 2013 social media led me to connect with a postgraduate student called Ash from the University of Technology, Sydney, where he came to the school and spoke to Year 8s about his work with sharks (Year 8s were learning about the role of sharks in the ecosystem and how removing sharks as apex predators impact on the ecosystem). We also connected with Dr Mel Thompson from Deakin University and Dr Karl via Skype. In 2014 I am hoping to expand to using Twitter to connect with my students with scientists. I want to create a class Twitter account for my students and connect with scientists on Twitter. There’s so many of them such as @realscientists and Dr Cameron Webb.

Goal #2 – Embed science communication into my teaching

I was very privileged to be involved in the UTS Summer School this year where I worked with Christy, a former Questacon presenter (a science communicator who does science shows for children). She re-emphasised to me the importance of designing learning that drives students’ curiosity and create learning experiences that are memorable. One of my biggest gripes with science education is that it uses flash-bang experiments inappropriately. You hear lots of students say they just want to do pracs. You hear a lot of teachers say that all students want to do are pracs. A lot of the times I think showy experiments are wasted at school as they only serve as entertainment. Christy re-emphasised to me that showy experiments need to be set up in a way that drives students to want to know the science WHY something has happened and the journey to understanding they experience must be memorable. This can mean turning explanations into stories, plays, musical items.

One of the ideas I have this year is to have a science communication project where students work in small groups and become science communicators themselves where they design and perform an act that explains a scientific concept. If I could I’d like to make this a cross-curricular project with Drama.

Goal #3 – Making learning, thinking and understanding visible

This year is where our faculty applies the Structured Observed Learning Framework (SOLO) for all students in Year 9. We have used this year’s implementation of the new syllabus for the Australian Curriculum as a drive for this change. See this previous post for more details. The challenge (not so much a goal) will be to evaluate the impact on student learning.

Goal #4 – A better work/life balance

Over the last few years I realise that looking after yourself is a one of the most important jobs for teachers. After reading this post on 10 tips for slowing down, I really want to make sure that my entire faculty’s wellbeing is well looked after this year. I tend to be someone who doesn’t know when to stop. I feel guilty when I’m not doing work related to school. When I’m relaxing it feels like I’m doing some kind of injustice to my students’ education. I love my job but I’m no use to my students if I burn out. From the post on 10 tips for slowing down, I want to make these changes:

  • Allocate time to opening and closing meetings

Schools are such busy places that many teachers schedule meetings right on bell times so that we are rushing from one place to another. This year I want meetings where people are now running from their classrooms, crashing down and then expected to immediately adjust their mindframes. I’m hoping that simple things like having meetings start 5-10 minutes after the bell will avoid that rush feeling that make people stress.

  • Make time to eat

Eating recess and lunch is my other goal for wellbeing this year. While this seems self-explanatory, I know many teachers don’t eat, or sit down, or even visit the bathroom during school hours because there’s just so much to do. I’m not sure how successful I’ll be at this but this year I want to reduce the number of times where I eat my sandwich while driving home.

A story in 2 minutes – a multimedia activity for all subjects

My principal shared this video with me today. It’s called Our Story in 2 Minutes. The video summarises the Earth’s history from the Big Bang till now in two minutes.

This inspired me to come up with some similar story-in-2-minutes activities where students can create a video using images only to represent the development of an event. It doesn’t even have to be two minutes. It can be one minute, three minutes, however long you and your students like. A video of images can be made to sequence the events in the evolution of life on Earth, the development of our current understanding of the universe, development of the cell theory, development of our understanding of genetics … the list goes on and on and it can be used in subjects other than science.

What I like about this activity is that it’s simple and yet allows students to create and engage in deep learning that extends from a subject area and even be part of a cross-KLA activity. It’s simple for both students and teachers as it involves searching and selecting images that represents certain ideas and events and then inserting the images into a video-editing program such as Windows Movie Maker or even PowerPoint. Technology tools that don’t require a high level of technical expertise from either teachers or students and are available to most students. The activity is also simple in the sense that it does not have to take long, which can be a good activity to suggest to teachers who are concerned about being pressed for time.

To create stories in 2 minutes also allow students the opportunity to learn about digital citizenship. Can students use any images pulled from the web? Do they have to search for creative commons images? How do they acknowledge the source of images? This activity is not only about the content of a subject area.

Finally creating stories in 2 minutes can be adapted into project-based learning or provide an opportunity to create a product that can be shared with a public audience beyond the classroom. Creating a story in 2 minutes require students to first understand the content, select and justify appropriate images that best represent the content and sequence them in a logical order. It allows students to apply higher order thinking skills.

I teach in Sydney, Australia so my school year is starting in about a week’s time. I will be definitely using the story-in-2-minutes concept this year.

What will you use it for?