Building Models to Help Others

The sixth graders are a few weeks into their introductory unit on Physics and simple machines and after reading an inspiring article about a middle school student that invented a low cost braille printer for the blind, the sixth graders have focused their efforts on their understanding of simple machines by building an inclined plane that serves as a handicapped accessibility ramp. I think this is a dynamite application of connecting skills to life and fostering one of our expected school-wide learning results: respect for all.

One groups data collection using controlled experiments to identify relationships.

One groups data collection using controlled experiments to identify relationships.

Ramp Designing and Testing Within Constraints

There are number of design constraints that make this quite challenging. For starters, the parameters of the design is that ramp complies with the American with Disabilities act, which stipulates that handicapped accessible ramps have an actual mechanical advantage of at least 12 and be 1 meter wide. To add to the challenge, the space is small, 12 meters by 12 meters which does not allow a long, straight ramp to be built. Groups have been collaborating to share 3D models before prototype building and testing.

One group's model using "play with chrome"

One group’s model using “play with chrome”

A student cuts sections of her ramp for testing.

A student cuts sections of her ramp for testing.

 

A finished version of a student's ramp complying with the ADA.

A finished version of a student’s ramp complying with the ADA.

Enter Next Generation Science Standards

Our school’s science curriculum is taking steps to adopt Next Generation Science Standards which will be implemented in the coming 2-3 years. I took a course in using these standards in the science classroom last spring, and they’re really interesting. The emphasis with them, is that there is more of an focus on design, product testing and application of skills on authentic learning tasks. They aim to engender innovation, cyclical design thinking, creativity, learning from mistakes and promoting persistance. Here are some for our unit that relate to engineering design:

 

NGSS: Science Performance Expectations(2013), NGSS: MS Engineering Design, MS.Engineering Design
  1. Define the criteria and constraints of a design problem with sufficient precision to ensure a successful solution, taking into account relevant scientific principles and potential impacts on people and the natural environment that may limit possible solutions.
  1. Evaluate competing design solutions using a systematic process to determine how well they meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.
  1. Analyze data from tests to determine similarities and differences among several design solutions to identify the best characteristics of each that can be combined into a new solution to better meet the criteria for success.
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Grade 7 Tells Digital Stories with Puppet Pals

The seventh graders just finished their digital story for chemistry. Working in groups, they all identified an element that they wanted to work on and created a presentation on it to inform other that was infused with script writing and story telling elements they’ve been working on in language arts class.

Below is a sample from Giao and Lee Yang but I encourage all parents to visit the grade 7 blogroll to find your child and encourage them to tell you about their stories. Some questions that you could ask your child to help guide the process:

  • What are valance electrons and how many can an atom have? 
  • What is the difference between ionic and covalent bonding? 
  • How is the periodic table of elements organized? 

 

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Parent Teacher Conferences

It was such a pleasure seeing so many returning parents and meeting new ones on Thursday and Friday last week during parent teacher conference. I met with 79 different sets of parents and didn’t have a moments rest!

In addition to saying “thanks” for coming out and supporting developing your child’s interest in science, I did want want to summarise some key realisations from our time together because many parents did have some “ah-ha” moments and if you didn’t have the chance to meet with me, I hope to convey these to help acquaint you with some reporting.

1.) Many grades have comments for review. A number of parents didn’t know that a numerical score might have some key information behind it.

A "9" out of "15" but how was the student evaluated and what explains their score?

A “9″ out of “15″ but how was the student evaluated and what explains their score?

For example, above is a quick screenshot of a student’s evaluation on powerschool. However, I think it’s important not only to email grades and comments to the students, but to paste them into powerschool so you as a parent can help identify areas that your child could work on.

Clicking on the "9" reveals descriptive comments and a request to resubmit higher quality work.

Clicking on the “9″ reveals descriptive comments and a request to resubmit higher quality work.

 

2.) Help focus on comments, not grades for learning. It’s easy to focus on a grade, but it often becomes a challenge to reduce a huge learning activity down to a letter grade or a number. Working with rubrics, two different students could show different understandings but have the same score on a project after rubric categories are added up. Encourage your child to show you work that they’ve done in class and ask them if they understand the comments that were given to them so that can apply that to what they’ve learned.

Descriptive comments after an argumentative writing piece in science.

Descriptive comments after an argumentative writing piece in science.

 

3.) Grades are not cumulative. I was pleased to see so much improvement in so many students through formative assessments (quizzes) and labs over time. However, if your child might feel a little sad about a low mark early in the semester, please know that every semester is a fresh start.

 

4.) Wednesday’s “Tutorial” is very under-utilised. Our advisory program has carved out a 30 minute time slot on Wednesdays for students to meet with teachers about projects, assignments or missing work. So far, I’ve had very few students in sixth grade take advantage of this. If you notice that your child has a piece of work that they’d like to discuss in person, encourage them to come and visit during that designated “help” time.

5.) Our Class Blog has a “Translation Widget”. Some students who were translating for their parents recalled that they had received emails and links to our classroom blog, but were unable to understand the content as they were not native english speakers. On the right side, is a translation widget that you can access in order to translate a post to Vietnamese or Korean.

Select your language and it will translate the entire site.

Select your language and it will translate the entire site.

If you could not meet with me over the last two days and would still like to make an appointment, please write me an email to schedule a time. Once again, thanks for your time and support!

Sincerely,

Gary Johnston

MS Science Teacher

gjohnston@ssis.edu.vn

 

 

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Cultural Stories!

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Summative Labs: Diversity of Life

The sixth graders have just had their first “summative lab”. Summative labs are tests of a students experimental design skills which is the ability to design, carry out and draw conclusions from an experiment. I typically administer summative labs in the fall and spring to help students identify growth over time and some summative labs are done in order to gain a better understanding of scientific concepts. For our lab today, the three questions that students had to choose from were:

Are snails more active in pairs or alone?

Does music have an effect on snail behavior? 

Is microscopic life more active in bright or low light conditions?

The kids said they had a fun time and one parent even commented that her son was excited to come to school today and experiment with organisms! All three questions focused around the stimulus response. Below is what this looks like in action:


After the holiday, we’ll be having parent teacher conferences. If you have specific questions related to science assignments on powerschool, I’d be more than happy to walk you through them on Thursday, October 23rd or Friday October 24th.

Thanks for your support!

Gary Johnston

MS Science Teacher

Saigon South International School

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Grade 6 Gets Microscopic!

The sixth graders have started investigating some of the various kingdoms that are microscopic in life. On Monday, we investigated “Bacteria” and had our first investigations with the microscopes. See some images below:

The students have also been starting to use “Google Drawings”. Drawings are a great collaborative tool that allows to you import images, write and scribble. This is a fantastic tool for the science classroom and observations that we make. See one student’s example below:

 

A student makes observation on a Google Drawings.

A student makes observation on a Google Drawings.

 

Students:

  1. How was your experience of using the microscope? 

 

Parents:

  1. Ask your child questions about bacteria. Check out the slideshow above to help guide you and them!
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Grade 7 Argues about the Benefits of Chemistry, Explores Bonding

Argumentative Writing

The 7th graders have had their first major assessment in science class. This was not a multiple choice test or lab, but actually a writing piece on the question:

“Has Chemistry and atomic theory been more beneficial or destructive force for humans?” 

Having read a number of articles and generated ideas on this subject, students took a “stance” on the above question and applied their argumentative writing skills to the task. The underlying educational standards were as follows:

  • A. Materials’ properties determine their use. New materials can improve the quality of life. However, their development and production often raise social, economic, and environmental issues that require analyses of the risks and benefits.
  • Communicate and defend the results of scientific investigations using logical arguments and connections with the known body of scientific information.
  • A. New disciplines of science emerge as older disciplines interface into an integrated study of the natural world. As the body of scientific knowledge grows, the boundaries between individual disciplines diminish.

Obviously, an essay is ideal and also fits in nicely to our school-wide initiative of writing across all the disciplines. Feel free to explore your child’s writing at our grade 7 blogroll link here!

Peer Review

Although writing is important, I feel the aspect of publishing and peer review is often neglected. Rather than just writing for the “teacher” or merely to get a grade, I think writing becomes purposeful when sharing with peers and opening up to peer review as actual scientists and writers to. Expect to see commentary after our major works that end up being published on the blogs such as this:

Students give each other warm and cool feedback about their work.

Students give each other warm and cool feedback about their work.

Bonding

The class continues to learn about atoms, bonding and the periodic table. See some pictures below to join in the fun!

 

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Grade 6 Jumps into Classification

For our second and third lessons on “Diversity of Life”, students have been learning about how the myriad of living things on this planet has developed a need for classification. Students have been learning about the levels of classification of living things and practicing building a taxonomic key as if they were biologists.

Students practice classifying organisms and identifying the scientific name (genus and species)

Students practice classifying organisms and identifying the scientific name (genus and species)

 

A groups product of a taxonomic key, used to differentiate life forms based on observable traits.

A groups product of a taxonomic key, used to differentiate life forms based on observable traits.

Another fun activity which two classes did on Thursday was the “Tully Monster Classification” challenge wherein students had to classify a mystery organism!

 

 

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Grade 7 Learns about the Properties of Metals

The seventh graders have been learning about metals and how the periodic table of elements is organized. Here is one of the resources that the class has been using that can found on our moodle page:

On Wednesday, the students performed some experiments on Copper and Carbon to determine which physical properties each of them had with regards to ductility, flexibility, electrical and thermal conductivity. This was our first individual lab, although students worked in groups. The basis of the lab is how the properties of materials determine their use.

In the coming weeks, we’ll be learning about the periodic table of the elements and our guiding question:

“How is the periodic table of the elements organized?”

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News from The Science Classroom-Atoms, Life, Powerschool and Literacy

Areas of Focus

The sixth and seventh graders have moved on from the scientific method and have started to investigate atomic theory and what it means to be alive. Seventh graders have started investigating this by differentiating their own interests by either building models of atoms to understand atomic theory, or researching past atomic models such as Rutherford’s, Bohr’s, Dalton’s or Thomson’s model. The sixth graders have been learning about what it means it means to be “alive” by learning about what all living things have in common regardless of their shape or size.

 

 

Checking in with “Powerschool”

A parent asked me a great question at back to school night: “How often should I check Powerschool?”. Which is a great question. I recommend checking powerschool once every two weeks to see your child’s progress, however, if you sense your child is struggling, I would check every week. I have a very good grasp of our curriculum and try to make our learning activities and curriculum as transparent as possible. I encourage parents and students to click on assignment descriptions for more information.

Clicking on any assignment's description will show you an overview of the learning activity, essential questions that guided the question, learning standards, and assessment type.

Clicking on any assignment’s description will show you an overview of the learning activity, essential questions that guided the question, learning standards, and assessment type.

 

Grade Distortion-Common Worries Early in the Semester

Early on in the semester with only a few assignments, there is a lot of “grade distortion”. Grade distortion is caused by one or two low grades on an assignment and the difference of one or two points may cause a student’s grade to be very low. I assess assignments at time of submission, but if they are incomplete at the time of submission, I usually indicate this as a note within the assignment on powerschool and encourage students to resubmit this. Students also need some help navigating this within powerschool and usually see their academic standing rise after completing their “best” work.

Clicking on the number reveals:"I think you're off to a good start, but I disagree with your conclusions. You said the beans got smaller, but bean number 3 got quite a bit longer. So how can you make the conclusion that you did? Also, you said the beans got smaller, but you said in the volume question that the volumes got bigger! Be sure that you actually look at the data that you collect and make conclusions with it rather than one errant measurement. Finally, your sentences are only 1 sentence without much substance. Care to resubmit?"

Clicking on the number “9″ above reveals:”I think you’re off to a good start, but I disagree with your conclusions. You said the beans got smaller, but bean number 3 got quite a bit longer. So how can you make the conclusion that you did? Also, you said the beans got smaller, but you said in the volume question that the volumes got bigger! Be sure that you actually look at the data that you collect and make conclusions with it rather than one errant measurement. Finally, your sentences are only 1 sentence without much substance. Care to resubmit?”

 

I also send mass emails out to students asking them to submit their best work and encourage them to make amendments, but having a parent walk them through accessing this information is the first step towards having the child do it independently. Some parents have expressed concerned about their child’s academics by merely looking at the letter grade and not clicking for more specific information about assignments. If a student is struggling, it’s usually due to missing or incomplete work. Please assist your child with locating this information. As most assignments are on Google docs, they can just send me the link afterwards or come in during the morning or during tutorial time on Wednesday. Sixth graders usually need a lot of support to develop these “student skills” but they do develop in time with a good support network.

Formative assessments (day to day work) are reported for reference so a student knows their strengths and weaknesses when they go back to review previous work.

Formative assessments (day to day work) are reported for reference so a student knows their strengths and weaknesses when they go back to review previous work.

Literacy Activities

One of our whole-school initiative is on improving literacy (reading and writing) and because of this, you’ll see more language arts activities permeate into all classes. I firmly believe that improving writing is a task not done by merely the language arts teacher, but by all teachers. Expect to see argumentative and persuasive writing permeate into science and quick formative activities like “Tell a Friend” as you see below:

If you have any questions about any of the above, feel free to contact me by email. Have a great weekend!

Sincerely,

Gary R. Johnston

MS Science Teacher

Saigon South International School

gjohnston@ssis.edu.vn

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