Comment Codes

From Shannon Andrews(@andrewsshannon2) “I remember reading on Fawn Nguyen’s (@fawnpnguyen) website Finding Ways that she grades using a highlighter.  During the Principles to Actions math chat, Frank McGowan (@frankmcgowa) talked about using comment codes.  Instead of writing the same questions and comments on EVERY SINGLE PAPER, Frank attaches a code to each comment or question. I believe he collaborated with his English Department on this.  Then when the assignment is returned, he gives them a reflection sheet which includes the codes.

So here is how I applied the same idea in my class this weekend as I was grading.  Frank, maybe you can offer your insights as well.”

This post is an attempt to provide my beginning use of comment codes. Any ideas are appreciated! Comment Codes are something that I’ve begun working with this year. My hope behind the trial was:

  1. avoid writing the same comment on many different papers,
  2. reduce time in providing comments to students, and
  3. (most importantly) shift the burden of analyzing work and finding errors to students.

Credit for this idea comes from the post on Pragmatic Education titled: What if you marked every book, every lesson? In this post, Joe Kirby (@joe__kirby), describes making with icons or numbers.

As I begin looking over student work, I begin writing comment codes. On a student’s page, the code is placed inside a hexagon (bad move on my part – all assessments have been returned and I’ve no copies. Sorry!). Student work is returned with a reflection sheet that asks them to process their work. I’m still working on the format of this and any ideas are much appreciated.

Types of comments (In general, I tend to pose questions in the attempt to guide students):

  1. Error check – In many cases, students are doing great mathematics/science but need to look back over their work.
  2. Expansion of ideas / connection to evidence: A big theme is communication. Are students explaining their ideas? When available, is evidence being used?
  3. Basic understanding: sometimes a student might need a quick reminder or prompt. Is it notation (i.e. using absolute value symbols)?

Using comment codes to plan future lessons: I think there is a lot of potential in recording these comments linked to assessments/topics. On one hand, it’s easy to note the numbers that are being regularly written down. Hey! That’s a class issue. On the other hand, in a following year, the comment codes can be looked at when planning the unit and asking what were the typical areas of challenge for students.

Below are examples of comment codes used from a math and a science assessment.


Comment Codes in Math

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Comment Codes in Science

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Time (January trial)

Time. That elusive yet constant part of our lives that often slips on by. Teachers (and likely most others) constantly say that the one thing we want more of is time. Time to plan. Time for feedback. Time for this and time for that. It’s constant, so how can I better work with it.

The hope with this post is to trial becoming a better scheduler. Yep, I’ve read multiple times that those folks that are truly effective take the time to plan out their schedules. Why haven’t I? I start to and then the sneaky feeling of a schedule running my life sneaks in and I abandon. It’s my schedule! I’m running it. So, I’m giving it another shot and am writing it down here to push myself through the three weeks of January. Does planning out the week give me benefits?


I see myself having three large blocks: before school, during and after. Some of this time is set (classes and meetings) while others can be managed.

Juggle the commitments (not a priority list…)

  1. Family – Priority time for my wonderful wife and two crazy munchkins. They’ve hit 4 and want to play!
  2. Exercise – Will I get myself back to pre-ACL #2 condition? Who knows but unless I start moving nothing is going to happen. It’s almost been 1 year since the second diagnosis.
  3. Students – they need feedback
  4. Teacher Practice – I’ve committed to the MTBOS January blogging challenge as a way to revive my writing. Plus, I need to spend more time reflecting and also observing others.
  5. Science Meeting Time
  6. Math Meeting Time
  7. Classroom, paperwork & the catch-up – Whether or not I like it, this sneaks up on me. So, I’ll try to bundle it all in one place.
  8. Week Plan & Parents – Time is needed to plan out the following week. Also, I like to send out weekly emails to parents to let them know what is happening in class.
  9. Planning time – Ready or not, here they come. I better be planned.

A glance – early morning

Wake-Up Time: 4:00 am

Plan for the day: 4:15 – 5:15

Coffee prep and enjoyment with my sweetie and any little munchkin that swings on down the stairs. 5:15 – 6

6 – 7 on

  • MWF: Get ready / help get the girls going / breakfasts
  • TH: Masters’ Swim @ school

@ School

7:15 – 8:00 Class time / planning

8 – 3:20 School Day. My school has a wacky schedule. It runs off a 6-day cycle (the part I like about this is that I see students at different times of the day) and has different schedules on different days of the 5-day week. Each day, I have a full block off and an “enrichment” block as well. This time can be juggled and I’m using the following categories for the full block time:

  • Students x 2 (2 blocks to account for feedback, comments, etc.)
  • Teacher Practice – I’m making the commitment to write about my practice and to observe other teachers.
  • Self – It’s a balance right and I’m fortunate that my school understands the need to balance work with wellness. Why is it that  one of the first things schools “throw out” when funding/time is cut is PE and one of the first things many people ditch when pressed is exercise? So, one block for exercise.
  • Room, Plan & Parents – plan for the coming week, write an email to parents and put my room into order

The “enrichment”/short blocks – In a 6 day cycle, two are reserved for Math Collaboration and two for Science Collaboration. The other two will be left open heading into my “plan” phase. For example, the one “empty” for the coming week has been taken for a parent meeting.

After school

Our joke is that curfew is at 5:00 pm. One of the benefits of living abroad is that we can get great help. I’m not quite sure how we would have survived without this. As such, we need to be home at 5:00 and that gives me a bit over an hour free. This will be scheduled weekly.

5 – 7:30/8  Cook dinner, play with the kids, read to the kids, eat, get the kids ready and off to bed

8 – 8:45

  • MW – Run with the pooch. She needs the exercise too. It’s cold and dark right not in Beijing hoping I’ll push this one through.
  • TH – Projects (that family calendar is way over due) + Blogging
  • F – sit back, the week is done

Reflections – weekly check-ins to review and look forward

1/17: All goals were not met. There – get that out of the way. At the same time, I enjoyed having more of a blueprint for the week.

  • Scheduling in the “Teacher Practice” time. I dropped in on a fellow teacher for a half hour. Last semester, we often talked about beginning to observe but never started. This was a good beginning. I spent some more time in my practice block writing a blog and looking over articles. Time well spent. This week – I would like to find another teacher to sit in on. The act of being in another class was nice and several tangential ideas popped into my head as I observed. I also saw many students that I had last year. Bonus!
  • Exercise – definitely up! This is mixed though. I made both swim days but did not get in the runs / gym time that I wanted. The pooch was one reason. We got out on the Monday night and she started limping so we turned around early. My block time was bumped for good collaboration with another teacher so that was a positive reason. This week, I’m going for the swimming again and the night time runs without the pooch (she’s still hurting a bit). Unfortunately, this week there is a team meeting during the afternoon block off so I’ll get no “me” time during the day. Trying to bump an exercise block after school.
  • Plan & Parents – This is a good use of the last block on Friday when I don’t have students. I got out a parent letter and began looking forward to the schedule of next week. I’m working with stream tables for the first time and am trying to modify the tables for a better outfall. Coming week – maintain though try to get fully through the next week’s plan by the end of the day.
  • Students – Reports were due. New units started. This time was definitely snapped up. I have a few students in greater need. How can I better hone in on their levels of understanding and what they need in the classroom?
  • Math Collaboration time – Take the time before to have clear goals. Essential. There is a better feeling of the meeting if you have a structure.
  • Science Collaboration time – Wow, this new unit has lots of standards dangling from it. Too much?

This week…

  • Garden order a must! Mother nature is not waiting for me.
  • Vocabulary – put structures into place for students to work with vocabulary of this new unit.
  • Exercise – the knee isn’t waiting. Strengthen! Try to kick of a Thursday Masters’ Track Afternoon
  • Student friendly rubrics for units need to be polished off.
  • Calendar Project – finish it up!
  • Blogging Initiative – Week 2 (idea for post – beginning with the mathematical practices)
  • Home Blog – this blog has received no love for a long time. Start writing more.

Semester 1 Survey

A few fortunate weeks in Thailand with the family was simply a great holiday gift. With the calendar ticking away, it’s time to gear up for the second semester and this begins with a look back over student feedback at the end of the first. What information did they provide to me about themselves and the classes?

Note – This year was a bit of a change in that I returned to teaching math and science. I have two groups of students for these core classes and the subject alternates daily.

Not surprising is the mix – students are so varied! What some like, others detest. What some need more of, others think is too much. Where is that sweet spot? How do I weave in enough practices for each student without them feeling bogged down?

First – bed times. Am I surprised as to how late these students are going to bed? The majority are heading to bed at 9:30 or later.  


Next up was a look into classroom community. For me, this is an important aspect. My ideal is a class where all students feel super supported by each other and myself. It’s a constant work in progress. I would love to always see “rarely”. The other class was similar. In one class, there is still quite a bit of work cut-out to develop a strong community. A teaching partner and I have been spending more time on team-building games, conversations and supportive comments to build this community. More in store for 2016!

A couple of the written responses that lined up with “rarely” include:

  • Well, I don’t really enjoy math, it can be confusing to me and I don’t like calculating numbers.
  • I’m not that interested in math and someone of the questions are hard for me. I don’t understand a lot of the questions.

Take-away: I need to reach-out more to those students who are not interested and not enjoying things. It was also interesting tracking the comments to find that these students were the ones the least interested in math talks. They want more projects and less discourse.

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I find it interesting that some of the “rarely” answers fell off as the questions shifted a bit.

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How do you learn? I try to often vary types of learning experiences in my class and asked a series of questions on how they learn best. Again, results from the two classes were fairly similar.

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So, do I take it that my students just love learning and that most ways work for the majority? Reading a text book began trending more towards an unsuccessful way as well as at-home projects. Classroom conversations have a good group at the “3”  but I hope to continue working on that. Text-book reading and at-home projects took little time over the semester and the possible message is that work at home (in general) is not one that students appreciate. I’ve almost phased out most homework and will continue. It’s almost gone!

Here are the results that I feel the best about! I am so happy that students feel that they can ask questions and get support. Now, I need to keep reaching out to those students who feel that math/science is not for them.

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Progress in Science – in general students feel that they are making progress and are challenged. Up next is a step into geology. Typically students are split in their interest  and challenge of this topic though I love teaching it – one of my science favs!

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What would you like to see more of in science?

  • Group Conversations
  • Using concepts in real-life situations
  • -Labs and teacher explanations/classical teaching
    -More challenges
  • I would like to do more of experimenting because it can help you understand better and also it will not be boring.
  • More projects, because I learn best when I put my skills into real life problems.
  • We could do more labs, but also watch more videos. I usually learn better while watching a video or doing a lab, than just reading a textbook. When doing a lab, I’ll also collect evidence to help support or refute claims.
  • I think we should have more reading materials since this way makes it easier for me to understand.
  • I think we should do more labs in class to help us understand concepts and get that ‘ahah’ moment when we finally put things together and understand it rather than as a fact.
  • Putting the information we learned into one model (ex. the review for science test hexagons or food to fuel online model)
    Watching science videos
  • -I think having more lab experiments help me learn and it’s also fun!
    -Group discussions and class discussions both are really helpful to me in science.
    -When Mr. Frank introduces a new topic, I think he should add in more examples of the thing. For example, carbohydrates: we know that glucose is the simplest form of carbohydrate, but what others are carbohydrates? I think this will make me have a clearer image of the object.
  • Have time to work and research by ourselves. If there is a time where we have to understand a new science word or a new concept, then maybe there can be time for ourselves to look for the new information. Sometimes, the teacher can offer us a good website or can introduce a small video to keep us going.
  • I would like to watch more videos. No matter how disgusting they are, they really help me learn about what happens and I get a bigger idea of the subject. I really liked that video we watched about food traveling through a baby’s body because it helped me see and understand the digestive system more well.

In science, what would you like to see less  of?

  • Labs (funny the things that end up on both lists)
  • The things i want us to do less of is sitting in the chair and just talking.
  • Less reviewing by talking, and more activities.
  • I think we should do more activities and less class conversations because most of the time, I don’t really understand what the others are talking about and it gets kind of confusing.
  • I wish we could cut down on online simulations, since I think it kind of takes away from the hands-on experience.
  • TESTS! They make me really stressed and sometimes that affects how I learn.

How about math? From the comments, some of the students are not feeling fully challenged.

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Student math comments:

  • I would like us to do more of problems where we work as a group, because I think that in math, I work better in a group.
  • Similar to science, each class is varied and there a an array of activities to do each day, so I think there isn’t anything that we should do more of since it’s already a huge variety.
  • More activities to help us understand the concepts, and longer time to understand them before the test comes.
  • I would like to have more worksheets in class to work on independently.
  • I would like us to do more of teacher talking and explaining.
    -Math practices/worksheets.
  • Last year, my math teacher used to do this thing to teach us new concepts. He would use the smart board and without saying anything, would try to teach us the concept through his drawings. While he was drawing, we were allowed to think out loud about what he was doing. With him doing those drawings, I used to learn more quickly because I am a visual learner. It helped me improve a lot in math in 6th grade.

Institute #1: MSIS

Last weekend, I joined several math teachers on a trip to Shanghai. We began a series of “institutes” that will span the next two years. The Math Specialist in International Schools (MSIS) seems to be a great opportunity to talk with other math teachers, think about my practice and find ways to improve. Presented by Erma Anderson and Steve Leinwand, the weekend focused on developing number sense and a progression through the Common Core standards.

On the first day, we spent most of the time discussing systems in the early primary years. With two girls in preK-3, my attention was grabbed as the importance of thinking more in terms of age instead of grade was repeated. I can only hope that the journeys of my daughters will be full of active exploration, manipulating models and discourse.

Rich mathematical tasks quickly became the focus of the institute. Students must engage with mathematics by grappling with problems, developing solutions, revising strategies and talking about their thinking. Have I been giving enough space for all of this to happen? My personal bank of resources has grown over the years but I soon realized how small shifts in my presentation of tasks can give massive dividends in the end.

Ease into the problem. “What do you notice?”

Build excitement. “What do you wonder?”

Turn the keys over. “What is the question?”

Invest the activated minds. “What is a value that you know is too high?”

Build skills of estimation. “What is a value that you know is too low?”

But don’t simply ask and be satisfied. Question. Have students explain their thinking. Over and over and over. This is a great way to review concepts and flush out activities. “Excuse me. You said that the object is 3D. What do you mean by 3D?”

“I’m not sure that I understand. Can you tell me more about the dimensions? The units? the…”

Finally, primed minds are released to tear the problem apart. But continue to push. Convince me. Show me. (Yep, that means providing multiple representations.) Explain.

The take home for me was to slow down and question. I need to do a better job to anticipate the reaction of students and be ready for targeted follow-up questions. How does this look? After more than a decade of teaching, I’m ready to consider creating a presentation a la .ppt. So far, I’ve done more hopping into the rich task through a video, image or description but I think that I’ve lost many opportunities in the set-up. I need to slow things down, expect communicate and question more.

The opposite bookend is equally important: presentation of the solution. My work is cut-out for me. I need to expand upon my own strategies of math talks related to solutions and student thoughts. The work of students should be more directed in the deepening of understanding and demonstration of new strategies.

Typically not one to slowly invest, my first class after the weekend focused on a rich task nestled inside a presentation. I posed probing questions to responses that I often would not at and move on. We took more time setting up the problem but the conservations were rich. When it was time to start work, the class erupted in a flurry of activity. The debrief was also richer as again I focused on asking for more explanations and stopped accepting values/comments without being convinced by the student.

A final thought: How can I shift more of my class to better scaffolded, rich tasks?

On the last day of the institute, we sat down in grade-level groups. This was the first time that I had worked with this group of teachers. In fact, introductions were the first order of business. We were then asked to put-it-into-practice: create a lesson. In a relatively short amount of time, we identified a rich task aligned with our goal and designed a scaffolded plan to work with students. What if more collaboration / professional development times were spent this way…

Unit Reflection: Force and Motion

This post is a letter I sent out to parents in advance of conferences. It provides some student feedback on the recent unit.


I hope that everyone is doing well on this rainy day. I apologize for the late email. Unfortunately, with my recent surgery (Thanks for all of your support!), I’ve been a bit behind. Parent-teacher conferences are this Thursday and Friday and I am excited to have a full schedule. With this in mind, please help me keep to the 10 minute appointment. If you would like, please feel free to bring your student to the conference.

Over the last two days, students received a detailed progress report that summarized their performance on the recent Force and Motion unit. I look forward to talking to you about your student’s progress over the term. As a general statement, I can say that I am overwhelmed by the improvement in the classes of students ability to explain science concepts and connect ideas. The year progressed from students adjusting to higher expectations of explaining their thoughts to improving on these skills. At the end of this quarter, students will walk out ready for 8th grade science.

Thanks for all of your support in this process! 

Reflections: As an educator, I strongly believe that reflection is essential to learning. I have had students reflect on their performance and will share this with you during conferences. You will also be given your student’s design work on the most recent project.

Students also reflected on the past unit and below I am sharing this information. Thanks again for your time and I look forward to talking with you over the next few days.

Questions 1-3: Understanding of daily activities, performance levels and the grading system. As you will see in the graphics, the vast majority of students have a good to strong understanding of these topics. My goal is to have no student at a “poor” understanding and will continue to working with students who voice their confusion. An important part of being a learner is for students to voice this concern. Students were also given the opportunity to provide feedback if they had a poor understanding.

Student comments:

  • I think that we should take notes and talk more during class. It will help and keep us informed, the overall expectation is that we are engaged and have a full on discussion. I feel that I was distracted by others during class, I would like to be more engaged and have more knowledge of what are upcoming check-ups are. [Aah, the balance of giving enough hands-on time and enough discussion time. I’m working on this. I hear ya!]
  • I think that i sort of don’t understand some of the things that we learned. I did not really understand some of the words because i didn’t learn it before but now i sort of do understand after i search it up on the computer or ask my friends. I think that i didn’t really know much and i wanted to learn it so i don’t get left behind. I understood some things but i didn’t understand some others. [Vocabulary – I need to do more work on solidifying this base.]
  • Science is hard but it seems like I’m doing okay-ish. But like..[yep…]

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Questions 4-8: As a science learner…Again, I am generally quite pleased with the feedback as students responded that either most of the time or consistently, they were understanding, challenged, offered a range of experiences, engaged and had a safe space to build ideas. No students responded “Never” though a few responded “Rarely” in each category. My biggest concern of the “Rarely” answers is under the category of a “Safe space.” Unfortunately, no comments were provided that indicated what was meant by this ranking.

Some student comments:

  • I wasn’t quite sure of certain things but it was hard to ask a question because i didn’t know what to begin with [This is a tricky one. I want my students to ask questions as it’s difficult to gauge some if they do not. I appreciate this student’s voice in saying the he/she does not know where to begin asking. More formative assessment? I’m looking for more ways to bring out the voices of those who are often not heard.]
  • Sometimes I wasn’t really sure about Newton’s three laws of motion. I tend to get it mixed up so I don’t really talk in most of the conversations. [For many students, and those ELLs for sure, there are a lot of new terms and connections. It’s the double challenge to build understanding of a new concept when many students do not have a background base of words draw from and/or do not understand the differences between words that they think are synonyms.]

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Questions 9-11: Understanding of concepts…The following questions pleased me the most. All students increased their understanding of the content with the majority indicating a large increase.

Student Comments: In this unit, two major projects were worked on. In one (Zip Line), students worked in groups. In the second (Hyperloop), students worked individually though had a few critique / sharing sessions. It is interesting for me to see the comments regarding student preferences.

  • I think i liked it more, because we got to build things ourself. Instead of sharing the work which sometimes sucks since sometimes everyone wants to do the same thing. And because i liked seeing the eggs splat onto the floor… I can’t deny that was pretty funny.
  • I learned a lot such as momentum and crumple zone and this helped my egg container to survive. Also compared to the zip line challenge the Hyper loop egg drop challenge required lots of individual thinking which I think will later help me a lot in the future. I think this challenge was pretty successful for me.
  • I chose the Hyperloop because the zip line challenge was very messy and I didn’t know what to do sometimes or the instructions were vague.
  • Because during the Hyperloop unit, I felt like I concentrated more, because after a while I understood a good process of learning. Also, it was fun, building the egg containers, and learning. Even though the zip line was just as fun, I understood more during the Hyperloop unit because I felt like before doing the experiments I learnt more, and had more knowledge before going into the experiments.
  • By studying mass and velocity, combined known as momentum, we had the chance to expand our knowledge by making an actual design based on science.
    I liked the zip line challenge more, because I got to work in a group. When you’re working by yourself, you get less done.
  • During the Hyperloop egg drop challenge, my final design was different from my third design because there was so little time, and so much to be done. The Hyperloop egg drop challenge was also very hard for me, because ‘crumple zones’ were completely foreign to me. It was hard for my designs to just stick together, and with the time limit and all, it was just too challenging for me.
  • The zip line challenge was fun to do with the group, but then the work wasn’t evenly distributed so some people were doing all the work and others were doing none. The Hyperloop egg drop challenge was more fun because I got to make several designs and actually build it myself.
  • I feel like I learned more by doing by myself rather than in group and I also feel like I could be creative than the zip line challenge for the egg and the final drop was fun so I chose Hyperloop egg drop challenge.
  • because you could build things on your own without other’s opinions get in the way
  • It definitely challenged me more and it seemed more hands-on than the zip line challenge. The constraints of time made everything way more exciting and gave me sort of the drive to complete the design.
  • because I felt like I was able to actually do something rather than floating around at the sides of the group, like during the zip line challenge. The hyperloop challenge was fun itself, and I feel like I learned more about Newton and his Laws of Motion than I did with the group zip line challenge. I was also free to create and use my own ideas and thoughts. I feel like everyone was having fun.
  • I Really Enjoyed The Zip-line Project Since We Got To Work In Groups and Share Opinions on Ideas and Ways to Make The Zip-Line.
  • The Zip Line Challenge was my favourite because there was a chance to work in a group and share our understanding. Every team member gave their own opinion of each meaning. Everyone in science has their strengths and weaknesses, so the ones that had strengths on a specific topic would share their understanding with the rest, making everyone have strengths in all areas of science learnt.
  • The Zip-Line was fun really fun, first of all. I learned about about friction and action. I think testing the zip line was a challenging process too, you might mess up in anyway, and that is how i learned from it. For the egg drop project, I didn’t really like it, because the material was hard to reduce the momentum, so it was a critical chance that you success.
  • Through the design cycle, I got to look at my mistakes and improve it in my next design which gave me a better understanding. (Yes!)
  • The design cycle didn’t help that much because the time wasn’t enough to get the container built well. There should also be more class time discussions to share ideas so everyone could know how their design could be improved.[Yes, I agree. I’m working on that balance of work time / talk time.]
  • There’s a lot of hands-on work, applying skills, and I think that’s the best way to learn and understand, through doing it yourself.
  • Challenges and problems along the way, along with success helps a lot.
  • If your first design and testing did not go well. You had a second chance to try again with a completely new design
  • This design cycle helped me a lot. Exchanging ideas with other classmates was helpful, because it helped me realize what I needed to change. The failure analysis made me (partially) realize what I needed to change in my design.
  • I thought my device was perfect but it failed so i still have some problems.
  • It was a good idea because we could go through making new and better designs and showing them to other people to see what they can help us improve and change. It was also good because we could talk to people and use some of their ideas to make our design better. I liked how we had a failure test so we could remake our design for the final test to make it better. [Note: This time the failure test was under “smaller” conditions. Next time, make similar to final testing criteria.]
  • Well, I figured out that white glue does not ever dry in 20 minutes and your project will be an utter failure if you depend on it. And that rubber bands will be your savior. The design circle helped though through the analysis worksheets by guiding me towards thinking, “Why?” and it was good.
  • It helped me to go back and think. Then modify what i did wrong. and kept on improving.

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Zip Lines (Attempt at the NGSS weave)


This post is a reflection of a recent unit focusing on force and motion. A first attempt was made to incorporate multiple threads of the NGSS standards in this unit. As always, some things went well, some were surprising and I’m left with a lot of work to do. What did the students say at the end?

Student voices from a reflection…

  • It was really fun. I got to do a lot. The design was most fun. Data taking least fun.
  • Even though it was kind of fun, it was frustrating because we had to change our design to make it better.
  • I like working as a group and I also like making and building things even though we had some trouble. I really liked working as a group and building the zip line.
  • Mass trials had interesting results and allowed us to learn from them.
  • I’m originally not interested in science stuff, but a zip line sounded a little bit interesting.
  • I got to see how inertia, friction and other forces work in real life rather than pictures.
  • I’m not really into design but it was pretty fun and interesting.
  • It was helpful to have other references such as readings and the science games we played at class.
  • It was fascinating how science can be linked to the most random things.
  • I’ve never been really interested about zip lines but I think it was pretty cool that we got to build our own zip lines and test them with eggs.
  • The zip line project helped me learn concepts of force and motion because it was a model that provided evidence for the things we learned in class.
  • It was kind of boring testing over and over again, but when we got what we wanted, I was pleased.
  • My interest level was so-so because it was very hard and it’s really hard to get 5 seconds.


  • The zip line didn’t really seem to connect with force and motion.
  • While getting the zip line done was OK, it took long and every time we came back we had to redo the entire thing because we couldn’t leave it as it was at the end of the day.
  • Give a little more instruction.
  • Give better materials (for example, better eggs (what? where do I find those), line, etc
  • Give more “short” discussions in class to understand more.
  • More different things to do.
  • My interest level was low because the same procedure was repeated again and again.
  • I wasn’t committed as I didn’t think the project was applying, it took a while.
  • Make it more interesting by giving groups different times to match or different materials.
  • More time. More reminders. More instructions.
  • It was rather challenging and repetitive.
  • We should have worked more with varying mass.
  • My group spent too much time on designing the zip line that we didn’t really think about force and motion.

NGSS Targets:

  1. Content: MS-PS2-2; Plan an investigation to provide evidence that the change in an object’s motion depends on the sum of the forces on the object and the mass of the object. (Emphasis is on balanced (Newton’s First Law) and unbalanced forces in a system, qualitative comparisons of forces, mass and changes in motion (Newton’s Second Law), frame of reference, and specification of units.)
  2. Cross Cutting: Stability & Change – Explanations of stability and change in natural or designed systems can be constructed by examining the changes over time and forces at different scales
  3. Practices: Planning and Carrying Out Investigations

Kick-off:  Students returned from winter break with an immediate design challenge:  In 25 minutes, how close to 4 seconds can you make  a “passenger” travel your zip line?


  • ~2 meters of fishing line
  • Six (6) washers
  • One (1) paper clip
  • Meter stick
  • Tape

A lot of energy filled the room as students worked within a time constraint. By the end of class, groups had zip lines working and most were within a half second or so of the 4 second requirement. We then took a few days getting a feel of motion by walking graphs linked to Vernier Go!Motion detectors. Students got a kick out of matching graphs and I was impressed with their ability to begin describing relationships between position-v-time graphs and velocity-v-time graphs. Being able to connect their movements to these graphs is extremely helpful and a point that I need to continue returning to as I work with students. We then shifted back to zip lines and students began working on a project to design/build/test a zip line and harness that would carry an egg approximately 3 meters in 5 seconds.

Project time vs Concept time

I struggle with finding that balance between being deliberate regarding discussion of ideas and giving students adequate time to tinker, problem solve, fail and continue. This time, I experimented with small group mini-lessons. Breaking the class into thirds (both students and time), I took one group of students to have conversations about specific topics such as inertia.

  • The pros – I had small groups of students. This allowed more space for each student to have a voice. Conversations started between students and I could help with questions that arose and students felt as if they had my complete attention (they did!). In general, I found that it was nice to be able to gauge student understanding and shift conversations with small groups as necessary.
  • The cons – Wow! That was repetitive! Before, I might have done the same mini-lesson once per class and now I tripled the number of times talking about the same topic. In addition, I had to trust that students were moving their project forward and independently making progress.
  • The verdict – Though more tiring, the investment of time in giving small mini-lessons was well worth it. The voices of quieter students were heard and I was able to better connect with each student. The nature of the task at hand kept groups focused so I do not feel that there was much off-task behavior. However, I think that groups progressed at a slower rate that caught up to us at the end of the unit. Looking forward, I need to provide more intermediate check-ins for students. These would be dates that parts of the project need to be completed by as some groups got bogged down and took a lot of time to make progress. As one student wrote, “More time. More reminders. More instructions.”

Another student wrote, “Give more “short” discussions in class to understand more.” and this sentiment was echoed by a few others. I take it to mean that they appreciated the time and is a technique to continue experimenting with in the future.


1. Procedures

How do I take comments such as “My interest level was low because the same procedure was repeated again and again.” or “It was challenging but repetitive”? Taking adequate amounts of data is repetitive. A nice thing about the zip line is that a target goal of 5 seconds made data collection quick. Students were encouraged to focus on multiple trials and collect adequate amounts of data. Repetitive, yes it likely seemed that way to some students, though I enjoyed reading, “It was kind of boring testing over and over again, but when we got what we wanted, I was pleased.

My students need a lot of work on procedures and this was evident as multiple drafts were written and the frustration rose in both the students and myself. They need more help in looking towards the end point and realizing the type of data to collect. There was a common groan as groups realized that creating a position vs time graph required more data points than the end of the zip line. Looking forward, I plan to use procedures from this unit as models that we can learn from and improve on.

2. Practices – design thinking

A student wrote that, “Even though it was kind of fun, it was frustrating because we had to change our design to make it better.” This is an area that I was pleasantly surprised with at the end. I encouraged students to make multiple drafts of their designs with the idea that testing and close observation would allow them to find weaknesses they could improve upon. However, I was not deliberate about it. Towards the end of project, I attended a great workshop at the Taipei American School regarding engineering in the classroom. A teacher described that she has stops in her class. Work comes to a halt and current design ideas are documented. This is something that I will “steal” with thanks in the future.


During the workshop, it was also mentioned that at the beginning of a design process, students in groups are scattered across the room. The purpose is to give each student a start so that they are individually committed and come forth with their own ideas.

By chance, I did this with one of my classes and the results were much better. Groups began with three or four ideas to merge into a new design.

I also realized that some students are quite skilled at making diagrams of design ideas though most are not. I’m flagging this need for a back-to-school start next year. Make processes such as diagramming critical to the classroom at the beginning of the year!


Force and motion provides a good avenue to discuss concepts of stability and change. We discussed. But, not much else was done. This is an area that I would love to receive more guidance on. What are good tools, methods, and ideas to strongly connect students to these core concepts?


During the middle of the project, I hit a bit of a wall. I felt that students were not making enough progress and that too much was simply not working well. Then, I had a long weekend at the conference at TAS. A weekend talking about the design process in schools recharged my batteries and I returned ready for a new look. Project pieces were coming together and students were making strong connections to force and motion concepts. I do think that I need to be more deliberate in how the three strands are brought together. Mini-lessons were provided on concepts at a bit of expense on writing procedures and designing data tables. The procedural components fell more to revisions on a page and short conversations. Is that enough? I’m not sure at the moment.

It was a first time physically writing down the three (content, cross-cutting, practice) goals at the top of my unit plan and that made a positive direction. We made progress in tackling an engineering challenge through design while also expanding our content base. I’m encouraged while also wanting to find a way to get more feedback from others also working in this direction.

Student Feedback – Challenges

As the quarter wraps up, I asked students to complete a brief reflection that will be shared with their parents during upcoming conferences. Typically, I end units/quarters up with surveys through Google Drive. Unfortunately, current internet connectivity has left this great tool a bit unreliable. I’m still hoping to find a way to get more in-depth feedback from students. Here’s a start!

Feedback questions:

  1. Describe an activity or series of activities that you enjoyed in science this term. As you describe the activity, please explain what made this enjoyable.
  1. Describe work that has been challenging for you. Please describe both the work itself and explain why it was challenging.
  1. How can Mr. Frank help you with your challenges?
  1. How can your parents help you with your challenges?
  1. What is your primary science goal for the rest of the semester?
  1. What are three things you will do to achieve this goal?

Student responses & observations:

Q1: Throughout the quarter, students have so far had two large experiences. The first was the creation of an ecosystem column that we’ve returned to a few times to collect data. The second was a series of investigations designed to collect evidence to support the claim that Yeast is a living organism. Some of the investigations were observational in nature and some were designed by students. At the end, there was quite a bit of processing to pull together evidence. I found it interesting to note the distinction between students who found each project enjoyable. Typically, students who have been more engaged found the yeast investigations more enjoyable whereas more passive students generally wrote that they enjoyed the ecosystem column more and several wrote because it was more crafty.

Q2: Challenges – student responses:

  • Writing the yeast lab summary was a bit challenging because I was not used to the style and format of writing like a scientist. I often had to reread what I wrote and make it third person instead of the first person perspective.
  • I think was has been most challenging for me is writing scientifically. Because when writing my science report, I took a long time to try to make it good and I still thought it could use some improvement. I think scientific writing is hard for me because sometimes I have trouble writing my exact thoughts into words and making it sound OK.
  • I think the challenging parts are recording observations.
  • I thought working in a group of people who don’t really don’t work was challenging because sometimes when we really need to do something they might just be messing around doing other things.
  • I am used to writing in first person, so it’s kind of hard to change it.
  • Sometimes, when you ask questions what you are asking isn’t very clear.
  • I don’t understand some instructions and some words, so I can’t do good work in that activity.
  • Sometimes, what is the most challenging thing for me is distractions.
  • Writing the science report about yeast was challenging, because I’m not used to putting evidence in my writing, or using science words.
  • I was afraid to make a mistake.
  • I know group work is vital for us but sometimes it gets a little frustrating.

Q3: Help with Challenges – student responses:

  • I think if a group is having trouble, he should come over and give us some clues without giving the answer away.
  • Have more practices sheets with answer keys.
  • Let us get more used to the style of writing.
  • Give us some reading assignments to read from the textbook to see how other people write.
  • Explain experiments a bit more because I sometimes don’t know what the experiment is about.
  • Give me an example of a good report.
  • Give us reviews.
  • It has been challenging to identify the dependent variable. It makes me confused every time.
  • Speak a little slower.
  • I realize that I need to overcome my problem with working with others.

Q3: Parent help with Challenges – student responses:

  • I think it is really great that parents help. My dad asks me every day what I did in science today.
  • Practice with me if I’m confused and do homework with me.
  • I can talk to my parents about what I did in science everyday, and they can ask me questions about the experience to make me think more about it.