Category Archives: Science Instruction

Three Tips for Throwing a Solar Eclipse Viewing Party for Your Students.

I’m sure that by now, you’ve heard that on August 21st, a total solar eclipse will cut a path across all of North America for the first time in over 100 years, haven’t you?

That’s HUGE, y’all.

While eclipses — including total solar eclipses — aren’t all that uncommon, because the path of a total solar eclipse is so narrow, they are typically visible to less than one HALF of ONE percent of the earth’s surface.

What does that mean for educators?

If you have ANY students on your campus on August 21st, you’ve GOT to take some time to teach them a thing or two about eclipses.  And if you are ANYWHERE in the path of the eclipse, you’ve GOT to get your kids outside to see the eclipse as it happens.

Want some help pulling some plans together?  Here are a few ideas to get you started:

You’ve got to buy approved solar eclipse viewers NOW:  It won’t come as any surprise  that looking directly at the sun for any prolonged length of time can cause significant damage to your eyes — so if you plan to watch the eclipse at all, you need to buy solar eclipse glasses that are certified as safe for solar viewing.

There’s two hitches here.  First, there are tons of companies selling knockoff glasses that LOOK safe, but haven’t been certified as safe.  Second, companies making eclipse viewers are rapidly selling out, as most of America gets in on the excitement of a once in a lifetime event.

Viewers aren’t terrible expensive.  You can get them for somewhere between $1.50 and $3.00 a pair, depending on how many you plan to order.  But ONLY order them from companies that are reputable and certified.

You can find a list of reputable vendors here on the American Astronomical Society’s website.  And you can find a list of vendors who’s lenses have been certified as safe by NASA on their eclipse safety website.

Give kids chances to practice making scientific observations:  Solar eclipses are awesome opportunities for students to practice their scientific observational skills.  Not only will the moon slowly block parts of the sun from view, temperatures and amounts of light drop, shadows cast by objects become darker and more clearly defined, reflections of the eclipse can be seen in the shadows cast by light passing through the branches of trees, and the behaviors of animals — who are confused by the early onset of night time — change.

Consider asking students to make systematic observations of these changes throughout the observational period.  Being deliberate about observations, spotting changes over time, and keeping careful records of just what is being observed are core practices of successful scientists.

Here’s the observation sheet that I’ll be asking my students to fill out.

Don’t forget to incorporate some social studies instruction into your viewing party:  One of the lessons that I always like to teach to my students is that early civilizations were just as curious about the natural events happening in the world around them as we are — but they didn’t have access to the tools and technologies necessary to fully understand those events!  That led to some interesting explanations for natural events.

Take solar eclipses for an example:  People in India believed that a headless demon named Rahu was swallowing the sun during an eclipse — but because he was headless, the sun would fall right out of the back of his throat every time that he swallowed it!  Similarly, the Chinese believed that a Celestial dragon was swallowing the sun and the Norse believed that wolves were chasing and eating the sun during an eclipse.

Because all cultures knew about the importance of the sun, eclipses were a source of great fear for them — and in many places, residents would pour out into the streets to try to save the sun from attack by those mythical creatures.  They’d scream at the sky, bang pots and pans, shoot arrows and even fire cannons in an attempt to save the sun from attack.

Why not teach kids about that mythology?  Here’s a great National Geographic bit with some of the best myths from around the world.

And better yet, why not have your students develop their OWN chant designed to save the sun from attack on eclipse day?  Maybe consider modeling it after the haka chants used by the Maori people of New Zealand to scare away perceived enemies?  YouTube is full of great videos of the New Zealand rugby team dropping hakas on opponents before games.

And then, have your kids drop their own hakas during your eclipse viewing party.

How much fun would THAT be?!

They can learn a bit about mythology, understand the connections between mythology and early scientific understandings of natural events, and have a heck of a good time all at once shouting at the sky together!

Whatever you do, DON’T miss out on this once in a lifetime chance to experience one of our universe’s most remarkable events. Science is about observing the world — so get your kids outside and learn together. 



Tool Review: Blendspace by TES Teach

One of the challenges of teaching science to sixth graders is that many of the most common lab procedures and processes are new to them.  Everything from identifying constants and variables to using lab equipment properly can lead to a slew of questions and slow groups to a steady crawl.

That’s why I started tinkering with Blendspace — a digital tool that makes it possible for users to create a landing page filled with content that users can consume.  I figured that if I could point students to one site that could answer all of their questions, lab time would be more manageable for me and more productive for my kids.

Need to see a sample of Blendspace in action?  Check out this one, covering important information for a lab we are currently completing:

Each tile on the Blendspace represents a piece of content that will help students to successfully complete their lab.  Students can work through the space in order from beginning to end by hitting the “Play” button at the top of the screen OR they can click on the icons in the bottom right hand corner of each tile to explore individual resources answering specific questions.

Creating my Blendspace was a breeze.

After planning out all the content that I thought my students would need in order to successfully complete our lab, I sat behind my cell phone camera to record and upload my videos directly to YouTube.  Adding those same videos to Blendspace tiles was a one-click process.  The other content — links to online tutorials or videos, links to individual Google Docs, text-based slides sharing directions and/or information — were just as easy to add.

Putting this Blendspace together — recording videos, organizing content, adding tiles, making a short link with Bitly — probably took about 90 minutes from start to finish.  That’s TOTALLY worth it if it helps students to answer their own questions during our labs AND if I plan to use the same lab in future years.  Better yet, my Blendspace will help other teachers on my learning team who are teaching the same lab — saving everyone a ton of time and energy.

I see potential in Blendspace because it’s a tool that solves a specific problem for me.

Providing students with recorded directions and organized sets of materials for every lab promotes independence and frees me up to interact more meaningfully with the kids in my classroom.

Whaddya’ think?


Related Radical Reads:

Tool Review: Screencastify

Tool Review:  Google Expeditions

Tool Review: Edpuzzle

Making Room for Uncertainty in the Required Curriculum

Poking through my feed reader this morning, I stumbled across a Mindshift KQED article that I think every educator ought to read.

Titled How to Spark Curiosity in Children through Embracing Uncertainty, it makes a simple argument:  Instruction centered on facts that have already been settled fails today’s students.  “Without insight into the holes in our knowledge,” author Linda Flanagan writes, “students mistakenly believe that some subjects are closed. They lose humility and curiosity in the face of this conceit.”

Slide - Scientific Discovery

I worry about that argument because I’m held accountable for teaching a massive curriculum that is slam-packed full of settled facts.

While I believe in the importance of developing students who are willing to grope and probe and poke their way through moments of uncertainty — who are as comfortable NOT knowing as they are with having the right answers — the simple truth is that facilitating experiences that allow students to wrestle with uncertainty takes time that I just don’t have.  If moments of genuine discovery are going to make their way into my classroom, something has to give — and that ‘something’ is going to end up being content that is currently listed in my ‘required’ curriculum.

And THAT’s what drives me nuts about being a classroom teacher in today’s world.

There’s a constant tension between what we SAY we want our students to know and be able to do and what we LIST as priorities in our mandated pacing guides.  Almost twenty years into the 21st Century, we continue give lip service to the importance of things like creativity, communication, collaboration and critical thinking, but we create no real space for that kind of content in our school, district and/or state curricula guides.  Worse yet, we do nothing to assess those skills.  Instead, we are still holding students and schools accountable for nothing more than the mastery of settled facts.

That has to change.  Plain and simple.



Related Radical Reads:

How Testing Will Change What I Teach Next Year.

Walking Moral Tightropes ISN’T a Reform Strategy

Bulldozing the Forests

Update: Using Remind to Share Nonfiction Reading with Students

Last week, I shared a plan here on the Radical to introduce students to high interest nonfiction reading using Remind — a service that allows teachers to send updates to students and parents by text, email or app.  If I could send out links to really cool science current events once a day, I reckoned, I might just succeed in my quixotic quest to make nonfiction cool to middle schoolers.

While I’ve only been sending links for a week now, I’m pretty sure that my plan is going to be successful.  Here are five reasons why:

43 families have signed up to receive messages:  I’ve got a team of 100 students this year.  That means almost half of our team showed an interest in receiving cool science content for no other reason than cool science content can be fun to read.  For me, that’s 43 opportunities every single day to turn students on to a genre of reading that they may otherwise have ignored.

Parents and students are signing up together:  It might just be a function of Remind’s requirement that kids under 13 submit a parent’s email address when signing up, but there are several parent/student pairs in my Remind audience.  That has HUGE potential to facilitate conversations about science content at home.  If “hey, did you see that article Mr. Ferriter sent out today?” becomes a more common phrase in the homes of my students, then everybody wins.

Parents are taking advantage of opportunities to enjoy science with their students:  One of the most popular current events that I sent out this week was about the Perseid Meteor Shower that happened on Wednesday and Thursday.  I encouraged my subscribers to take advantage of this chance to see one of nature’s coolest phenomena.  Two kids came in and told me that they’d set alarms for midnight, gotten up in the middle of the night with their moms and dads, laid picnic blankets down in the back yard, and watched the skies together for a while.  How awesome is THAT?

Conversations about the current events I’m sharing are becoming more and more common at school:  One of my favorite parts of my efforts is that putting the SAME high interest content in front of my kids is starting to stimulate interesting conversations at school.  Every single day, I’ve had kids approach me with questions and reactions to the article that I shared — and as soon as the conversation gets started, other students join in.  When was the last time that impromptu thought groups around science content broke out in your hallways?

I’m stealing minutes from my students:  I decided early on that I was going to send out my daily current event during times when I KNOW my students are sitting on busses, stuck in the carpool line, or waiting for class to start at the beginning of the day.  My hunch was that kids would be more likely to read the articles I was sending if they arrived when my kids had “nothing better” to do.

That hunch turned out to be a good one.

My proof?  A student named Lanie came up to me early in the week and said, “Your plan worked, Mr. Ferriter.  I was bored in the car this morning and then my phone buzzed.  It was your article.  I read it.”That’s important, y’all:  If we can turn some of the time that kids spend behind screens into time that they spend wrestling with interesting ideas, we tap into the cognitive surplus that Clay Shirky described way back in 2010.

The best part of this entire project is that it hasn’t required ANY additional time and energy from me.  I already read interesting science current events on a daily basis AND scheduling messages through Remind is a two-tap process through my cell phone or web browser.  There’s a TON of extra value in those two taps, that’s for sure.

Once we get further into the school year, I’ll survey my students and families about our project to capture their reactions.  I’ll share those findings here.



Related Radical Reads:

Using Remind to Share Nonfiction Content with Students

Teaching Nonfiction Reading Skills in Science Classrooms

Are You Looking to Buy a Boy a Book for Christmas?



Teaching Common Core Thinking Skills in Science Class [LESSON]

Over the past several months, I’ve been working to figure out how to best integrate the Common Core State Standards into my sixth grade science classroom.  Given the literacy-heavy nature of the Common Core, integrating the new standards into science classes can be pretty darn intimidating for most of us non-language-arts folks.

A book that I’ve embraced, though, has made the process easier and more approachable.

Titled How to Teach Thinking Skills Within the Common Core, it argues that all teachers can make contributions to student mastery of the Common Core by systematically introducing students to the kinds of thinking skills that are scattered throughout the new curriculum.  Look closely at any of the standards and you’ll see that students are asked to analyze, synthesize, compare and contrast, and evaluate time and again — and analyzing, synthesizing, comparing and contrasting and evaluating can happen in every single class, every single day.

So what I’ve started to do is develop lessons that give students to practice these skills on a regular basis in my science class. Here are two examples:

Determining the Best Way to Build a Pizza Box Oven

As a part of our required science curriculum, students have to learn about the Law of Conservation of Energy — or the notion that energy is never created or destroyed, it just changes forms.  To demonstrate this concept in action, we made pizza box ovens to cook S’mores right before Thanksgiving.  My primary goal was to help students recognize that light energy can be converted into heat energy.

To jack the Common Core value of this lesson, I borrowed a strategy from How to Teach Thinking Skills Within the Common Core and taught my students a systematic process for making a determination.  You can see the handout I used for the lesson here.  You can see student responses to the handout here and here.

Evaluating Pizza Box Ovens

When our pizza box ovens were complete, we took some time to evaluate the effectiveness of our design.  Not only is this a good practice that science teachers often use in their classrooms, it is a thinking skill that students are expected to master as a part of the Common Core — and it is a thinking skill outlined in How to Teach Thinking Skills Within the Common Core.

You can see the handout that I used to guide the students through a more formal set of steps for evaluating here.  You can see student responses to the handout here and here.

What I like the best about the strategies outlined in How to Teach Thinking Skills Within the Common Core is that I’m already teaching these kinds of skills in the science classroom.  Determining and evaluating have always played a role in the work that I do with kids.  If a first step towards integrating the Common Core into my science classroom is as easy as working to show my students a more formalized process to tackle these skills, then I’m in.


Semi-snarky Author’s Note: In the interest of full disclosure, you should know that How To Teach Thinking Skills in the Common Core is a Solution Tree title and I am a Solution Tree author.  Could be a conflict of interest, right?  Maybe I’m just recommending the book because I want to push profits into the corporate maw?

They didn’t make me write this post, though.   Nobody makes me do anything — except for my 4 year old daughter and sometimes my wife.

If you reckon that I’m biased, then don’t use the free lessons I’ve just given you!


Related Radical Reads:

What Role Should Standards Play in Your Teaching? [SLIDE]

Teaching Nonfiction Reading Skills in the Science Classroom [LESSON]