Grade 7 Learns about Watersheds

Grade 7 has been learning about watersheds. Below is our first mapping activity wherein students had to map a watershed from their home environment by indicating:

  • Divides: Mountain, Ridges, Hills
  • Tributaries: Streams that flow into larger rivers

Google maps will come in handy for our study and allow us to add multiple layers of information for analysis.

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Grade 6 Builds a Distillation Apparatus

The sixth graders have just finished building a distillation apparatus for our unit on chemistry. I’ve documented the process in a movie below. The students have uploaded their work to their blogs for reference.

Have a great spring break!


Students: Write a Short Paragraph on the Following:

  1. Do you think your device worked well enough to be considered for mass scale production? (Give examples)
  2. Do you think it’s easier to purify water, or to keep it clean? Why?
  3. How can countries grow and prosper without degrading the environment?
  4. How has this project made you think about water and our resources?
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Grade 6 Summative Lab: Does Food Coloring Mix Faster in Hot or Cold Water?

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Student Lab: Does food coloring spread faster in hot or cold water?



How does temperature of water (independent variable) affect the time it takes to mix food coloring (dependent variable)?


If  water is hotter (planned change in independent variable),

then the food coloring will mix faster (predicted change in dependent variable).

I think the food coloring will mix faster in cold water (restate relationship above),

because I know that the hotter it is, the molecules will be spread more apart, and so it would be easier for the food coloring to mix in with the water.


Method of Management and/or Measurement

Independent (Manipulated)


Temperature of water

The heat in degrees; using a thermometer.




The time it takes

using a timer

Controlled (Constant)


1. amount of water

using the measuring cup

2. amount of drops

using the droplet thing (I forgot what it was called)

3. Beaker


Materials List:





1.)     Hot Water (I didn’t do the exact temperature, but you should be able to feel whether it’s hot or cold)

50 ml

4.) 100 ml Beaker


2.)     Cold Water

50 ml



3.)     Food Coloring

1 drop (for each)



1.  Get the two beakers. Fill one beaker with cold water, and the other one with hot. Fill with 50ml each.

2. Do the hot beaker first. Put one drop in it and time it.

3. Record the Data.

4. Now do the same to the beakers with what you did with the hot one.

5. Record and Compare



My hypothesis was supported because as I said, if the molecules are farther apart (which means that they are hotter) It would be easier for the Food Coloring to mix in and make the process faster. The Data shows that the food coloring mixed faster than the cold water by around 20 seconds, concluding that hot water mixes with food coloring faster than cold water. As I said earlier, I think the process of using heat, makes it faster because the way the molecules are, it would be easier to mix in. As for the cold water, if you make it too cold, it would turn into a solid, and the molecules of solids don’t mix.


I think the biggest weakness in this specific lab, is that when I was doing the cold water, my table ran out of food coloring, so I had to use a different food coloring from another table, and the dropper was a different size, so 1) the density might be different and 2) the amount I tried to put as equal as possible might not be equal. I didn’t measure the temperature, because I thought that it wasn’t necessary. Another weakness that relates to how I took the data, I started the timer a little late twice, but I don’t think it’s a big problem because it was only around 2 seconds late each. I still could’ve been more aware of timing it. If there are any strengths in this lab, it would be (I think. Correct me if I’m wrong) the fact that I can still label my variables, and I think that I had logic in my hypothesis (FIY: I got the molecule idea from watching one of those videos where the guy changes the temperature of solids, liquids, and gasses).

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Grade 7 Explores Tissues

The seventh graders had their first test of the semester and it was, a dissection. We had a debate about the moral imperative of dissection and whether they are helpful or hurtful. Following this, we had our first lab wherein students performed a dissection on a chicken wing in order to identify tendons, ligaments, bones and cartilage.

The students were quite engaged, although some opted out to be observers rather than actual dissectors.

Students: Choose one of the questions below to reflect on:

  1. What were your impressions/reflections of our “chicken wing” lab?
  2. What is you stance on the morals of dissection as a learning method?
  3. Write as if you were the chicken!


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Middle School Science Gears Up for Second Semester

Dear SSIS Parents,

Welcome back! I hope you all had a great holiday and both you and your children are feeling rested. I’m feeling pretty humbled to attend Google teacher academy last December before the holiday and have already started integrating some of the new tools I’ve learned there into my teaching practice.

Since we’re in our second week back, I’d like to appraise you of some of these new changes and how they’ll impact teaching and learning in the science classroom.

  • Better Digital Tools for Assessing and Giving Feedback on Student Learning. As you may have noticed from first semester, I take a lot of pride in delivering and assessing the science curriculum. I’ve learned some new tools that will create more personalized feedback following quizzes, labs and projects. This translates to your child receiving more specific feedback through the use of scripts based on assessment data and allow for students to be informed to any areas they need to improve. Like first semester though, I will continue to use ‘powerschool’ to indicate grades and may put a note on an assignment if it is incomplete and can be resubmitted.
  • Going Paperless. I was a little nervous about this one but I’ve learned about some tools that will ensure that all students have a digital copy of documents or labs. This ensures a number of things: they won’t get lost, they’ll always be able to access them, and I can always check on student progress in real time. Still, we have used scratch paper and post-it notes for formative activities and will continue to do so.
  • Moving From Pearson to Online Resources. With so much internet content out there, I am able to look at the curriculum guides and find media (videos, articles) that will shorten the time students spend doing science homework. Although one might think “more is better” if it takes half the time and students learn the same concepts, I owe it to them to simplify learning. Students will still have access to Pearson online and check out text books from the curriculum office as needed.
  • Student Blogs as Journals. Obviously, I am a fan of blogging. Since we have moved paperless and students are creating so much digital media, I’m having them use their blog as one big reflective journal that chronicles their learning throughout a unit. Rather than have a number of blog posts, they’ll have just 1, with embedded media they’ve created to help them learn, hyperlinks to labs and so on.

There you have it. If you have any questions or would like to schedule an appointment, don’t hesitate to call or write me.

Most Sincerely,

Gary Johnston

Middle School Science Teacher
Saigon South International School
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
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The Simple Machines of Ancient Egypt

The sixth graders have finished up their unit on “Simple Machines”. The study of simple machines is the study of entry level physics, and the sixth grade team and I worked to develop an integrated unit as grade 6 is learning about ancient Egypt in humanities class.


Following this, the students combined creativity and fun to make “Rube Goldberg Machines”. See one groups contraption below!


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Grade 7 Learns Electrical Energy with the “Mars Rover”

On the first day of our unit on electricity three weeks ago, Mrs. Uemura and I told the students the following prompt:

“You and your group members are on a mission to Mars. Your job is to build a remote controlled rover to perform a task like collect soil from the planet, deliver a payload to a colony of explorers, or do a search and rescue. Our learning of electricity and your understanding of it will be vital to learning how to accomplish this task.”


And so it began. Not only a project based, but a problem based approach to learning with the end goal in mind from day 1. My partner and I used this backwards design approach and developed a short unit on electricity with an engineering component and tech tools for designing circuits (Google Drawings) and formative assessments after lessons (Google Forms for quizzes and Infuse Learning for post lesson evaluation) Lori Uemura, being the flipped classroom guru of our school was kind enough to make and record presentations with video lectures for our students which we both used to “front load” learning before the students came into class. When they did, they didn’t practice lighting up light bulbs on chintzy circuit boards, they made a circuit that was vital to their project and powered one of their electric motors.

Presenting circuits for peer review

I came in with a different angle. I gathered the materials and developed a project rubric and was in charge of assessments.Working together, Lori and I were able to cut the work load in half and make better quality presentations and better quality assessments. Our standards were pretty loose and didn’t specify all of the electrical components that we needed to use, so we thought we should just focus on the basic parts that would be useful for this given task. As this was our first time teaching this unit, we would reflect afterward on changes for next year.

Soldering components

Soldering components

Gamification Enters

Once students had the content and skills, they were able to synthesize what they learned and apply it to this creative endeavor. Our technology assessments allowed us to intervene and help groups that were struggling to stay on task and the authenticity of the problem made it more compelling to the students. I was inspired by Sal Khan’s use of data and Paul Anderson’s approach to playing and being creative for real learning. Although I supplied all of the electrical components, tape and balsa wood for the frame, students still needed to supply their own wheels. Students peppered me with questions such as “What should I use as wheels?” to which I inquired: “What material do you want your wheels to be made out of?” and “What’s your ideal diameter considering the diameter of the motor?”

Putting on Wheels

Suddenly, math becomes relevant. Students start connecting the perimeter of the frame with an increase to wheelbase and the fact that a larger frame may not be the best. They dispute whether metal or plastic wheels would be better and wrestle with the best way to attach them to the metal axles. How is this all gamification might you ask? I believe it meets meets many of requirements that advocates of gamification argue are essential for real world learning. The first is persistence. Students learn by trial and error how a circuit works and trouble shoot their wiring and circuitry. There was also a progress report as indicated by rubrics which could have been “badges”. Finally, each student has a unique skill set such as technical skills, leadership or steady hands. James Paul Gee and Jane McGonigal discuss how such tasks are springboards for adult learning communities where skill sets are developed, marketed and sold.


What We Learned

My teaching partner and I learned so much through this project, and as groups settle into the last stage of their project, I think of the following things and how we can improve upon them next year:

  1. It helps to have volunteers. We didn’t anticipate the number of problems that groups would have and despite ample demonstrations (and perhaps deliberately leaving some things vague) we were often barraged for help. Mr. Hunt and Mr. Minh were a big help every day along the way.
  2. Persistence grows when the end is in sight. I noticed that some groups were close to desperation early on but once they got started and invested their time and effort into the project, re-motivating them was something we had to do less and less.
  3. Struggle is essential to learning. So often did I get asked a question to which would ask the group a redirecting question to really get them thinking about the task. This frustrated many groups, hoping I would simply give them “the answer” or show them “how to do it”. To quote Fredrick Douglass: “Without struggle, there is no progress”.
  4. Young adults don’t approach a task the same as educated adults. When our students started, some groups did a better job of collectively sharing opinions and ideas. Some just had an alpha student that charged ahead with directions. It was important to coach the students through the group working process to ensure that all members were involved.

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Writing Permeates into Science

Some of you may notice that we are doing more writing than usual in science lately. Although writing in science is essential for communicating clear procedures, we are starting to do more writing in science as a supplement to improving writing here at SSIS and that means writing across the curriculum.

Writing across the curriculum means that all teachers are teachers of writing. As a grade 6 team, we are using our school’s MAP test data to identify areas in student writing that we can develop, so we’re using a unified approach in our teams to develop these areas. Here are some recent examples.

Writing across the curriculum

Writing across the curriculum

1.) Writing to justify a stance. (Argumentation) I developed this writing warm up as a means to justify any issue. In this case, an image is inserted and students (working together) write a dialogue which supports opposing points of view. In this example, two students debate over which pulley makes work easier.

2.) Essay Reorganization (Sequencing) This is an activity to help students understand how ideas and sentences flow. I took an essay and reorganized it with the sentences out of order. In this case, I have the story of how Archimedes moved a ship with his hand! Students that chose this activity really develop and practice their skills of sequencing and writing with chronological order.

Expect to see more and more writing activities to serve as warm ups or debriefs following activities. Although I usually give students choices, sometimes I may pull some students aside to recommend activities for them, as their data picture may have indicated a particular skill they need to work on. Whatever their paths, we will take a team-wide approach to developing these essential skills and make use of standardized test data to tailor a learning plan that is unique to each student and helps them achieve their full potential as writers.




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Grade 6 Learns about Forces!

The sixth graders have been learning about forces and motion. Most recently, they have been learning about forces and collecting data on how machines make work easier. The “Lever” has been the primary focus of data collection, but we will get into inclined planes later this week.

They also had their first cooperative quiz which was used to help them review. To the students, I ask:

1.) Did you like the cooperative aspect of this activity? Why or why not?

2.) Did this help or hurt group communication?

3.) Is this “copying” or what questions does this give you regarding “fairness”?

4.) Did this help you learn?

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