An injection of observation

In my previous school, I spent a lot of time outside with my students. We took a weekly field study within our local environment and had a couple of extended trips as well. Simply by being outside a day a week brought students in tune with the happenings around them – students understood the meaning of a impermeable layer from winter days in the Pacific Northwest! For the last two years, I have taught a more traditional class and have spent less time outside – maybe the hordes of mosquitoes help. Check out the local variety and wonder if it’s better to stay indoors. As a result, I feel as if my students are not in sync with their environment.

Image taken from

I enjoy reading Science Teacher because of his consistent appeal for having kids first notice what’s around them. This was a primary focus of mine and I need to bring it back.

I see students every other day for 90 minutes and am thinking about dedicating the first 30 minutes of my Life Science (grades 6&7) class to observations and patterns of local systems. Project ideas I have for students involve the following:

Class Data – students will update tables and graphs to find patterns of Earth systems

  • Sun: rise, set, hours of daylight
  • Moon Phase
  • Rainfall in the last 24 hours
  • Dew Point
  • % Humidity
  • Temperature

Anything else?

Individual Projects – Semester 1

  • Microscope Drawings of Plant and Animal using a Compound Microscope + a Dissecting Microscope
  • Outdoor Plant observation – find a plant outside and track its change through the year through drawings or photographs, qualitative observations and quantitative observations. Create a documentary regarding how the plant changed over the course of the year.
  • What section of a branch adds length? I’ve found interesting thoughts on this one and want students to find a way to collect data over a year to answer this question.
  • Others…

Individual Projects – Semester 2

  • Continue with the observations of a plant and culminate with a gallery of each student’s design that shows the changes of their plant over the year.
  • Plant adaptations – Go looking for similarities and differences. Leaves, seeds, leaf arrangements, flowers, etc.
  • Life Cycle of Plants – we will spend time in the garden so students can take a plant from seed to flower
  • Drawings of layers of the forest
  • Different ecosystems around campus
  • Others…

My initial ideas are to have 4 out of 5 days in a 2-week cycle begin with this focused exploration. Students will have a certain number of tasks that need to be completed by the end of a quarter. Tasks may take them to the microscope corner or outside to observe. Some may need to research weather data or new concepts while others sketch. A secondary hope is that it provides me time to check in with students and catch those up who are struggling.

The fifth day? I hope to do a read aloud for 20 minutes. Are there any suggestions?


Making learning easier + more difficult

It’s clean up time. Before getting on the plane and heading home to the Pacific Northwest after a two year hiatus, I want to process what students have to say.

Using “forms” in gDrive makes for an easy survey but I haven’t yet found the best questions. I try a mixture of set-answers and free response questions. While the visuals from set-answers provide a quick glance into the group’s habits and patterns, the free responses give me comments to chew on. This year’s version…

A new pair of questions that I stumbled across somewhere but can’t remember where are “What does Frank do to make learning easier for you?” and “What  does Frank do to make learning more difficult for you?”

Let’s start with the good – what do I need to keep on doing next year…

  • Students who bought into the standards-based grading system and took advantage of additional assessments outside of class time voiced their appreciation. 
    • “Frank makes us reassess each time if we don’t get a concept right which helps us learn the concepts better.”
    • “Giving us regular assessments and giving us feedback about what we need to do in order to learn more.”
    • I was impressed by the students who transitioned to being in charge of their learning. While the final grade stayed important to them, several students really upped their efforts in learning concepts. I need to improve on feedback.
  • Several students mentioned the class webpage as a good resource. During the year, I tried to move towards posting class objectives, questions, class flow and additional resources online. I need to continue to give students a place to help review and find more information. In another part of the survey, 75% of students indicated that the web page is visited at least weekly. How do I capture the rest?
  • Inquiry and hands-on activities are always a winner. I need to continue making class active and work on “being less helpful”.
Alright, what do I need to work on….
  • “to return reassessments faster, and to have more chance in class” I recently read a post (aah! I can’t remember who) where someone wrote about the words we use and how “reassessment” can be slightly misleading. I have used the term this year but will shift to” student-initiated assessment”. I’m finding the importance of being more deliberate in my practice and word choice. Regarding the student’s comment, I agree. This year I did a good job of returning full class assessments but at times student-initiated assessments took time. I’m not good at keeping track of paper and I see students every other day. It’s not a good excuse but sometimes I get into a class and forget the pile of papers waiting to be returned. Work on it.
  • Sometimes, there are too little discussions.” Reality check for me. I really try to put the talking on students but at least some don’t think I’m doing this well. I have already ordered a set of whiteboards for next year and plan to use those to facilitate discussion.
  • “His grading system” Comments along this vein were quite common. I’m still processing my first go at SBG and will write something up soon. The interesting note is the general mixing up of learning and a grade. It appears that for many of my students if their desired final grade was difficult to obtain then learning was difficult. I need to work on ways to help students understand differences.
A few comments that I see as positives though were not likely written as such:
  • “Frank makes learning harder by telling us to explain the math problem or how does it work.”  My initial reflection of the SBG year is how clearly it showed me that students are accustomed to regurgitating information. When deliberately pushed for more, many struggle to make connections and describe ideas.
  • “He doesn’t answer the questions we ask he replies with a question, which makes learning more difficult but it allows us to think about it more.”  Be less helpful…


How often do we set aside time to honor students as they travel along their academic pathway? Not being an elementary teacher, I may be wrong, but I would like to think that each year there is some process of honoring the students of the class as they finish out the year. Do other event happen during the course of the year? As students move into middle school, the fragmentation of their education often begins. Focus moves towards mastery of content and students see different teachers for different subjects. Events that bring students together to celebrate what they have done take more planning and may disappear. School doesn’t have to be this way, but it often is.

Celebrations are important. Culminating events after a unit of learning are important because students are provided the opportunity to look back and see what they have done. Parent involvement in these events take the letters off of a report card and give parents a view into the work of their students. Units with a culminating event in mind often require   quality work by students. Their work is polished and individualized to showcase abilities in addition to academic goals. Artwork, dramatic presentations, explanations of concepts are various avenues for students.

What about academic milestones? Emphasis has been placed on completing elementary, middle and high school. These finishing points need to be a time for students to showcase both their time in the respective academic setting and who they currently are. Many students take on hobbies and interests during middle school that define who they are but may not show up in the classroom. It took an evening around a campfire during a class trip to realize that a reticent student was actually an amazing human drum machine. So, how can a culminating ceremony at the end of middle school be designed to honor the talents of students while moving them forward to the next level of their academic journey?

A few ideas…

  • Center the event around students – it’s about them, right?
    • Does the ceremony capture the heritages of students involved?
    • Are student passions represented? This may vary year to year but there always seems to be students who play music, act or have artwork.
    • Who is speaking? Do students address their peers and the audience? Do students from the “next level” provide nuggets of wisdom?
    • Are photographs taken from the “journey” shown? I’m always amazed as to how much a student changes from 6th to 8th grade. What are key steps along the way that capture this process?
  • Is there a symbolic movement to the next “level”? This may be more challenging in some schools but schools that cover a range of academic levels should be able to do something meaningful.
  • Parents and meaningful adults – how are these people involved? They are the support system of students and also need to sit back and smile, laugh and cherish the memories of the past years.
  • Academic achievements – each student has achieved in some way or another. How can portfolios (or other items) be collected and displayed to recognize be