Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

The 5E Model: Does it still relate to cognitive principles for the current classroom?

Thursday, February 25th, 2016

AUTHOR: Cynthia Holcomb, Education Specialist: Elementary Science

The 5E Model, originally designed for science instruction, describes a teaching sequence for specific units and individual lessons. The Biological Science Curriculum Study, a team led by Principal Investigator Roger Bybee, developed an instructional model for constructivism using the terms Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, and Evaluate in 1987.

How can we assure that a model developed almost 30 years ago will be effective for the students we teach today? A recently released report, The Science of Learning summarizes the cognitive science related to how students learn. Let’s look at the principles from that report applied to the components of the 5E Model.


The first E, Engage, is what we use to “hook” students, to capture their attention, to get them interested in the topic. This is a quick activity and may include an anecdote, a cartoon, a short video clip, a demonstration, or a thought-provoking question. Without citing research, I think we can all agree that getting students interested in learning is a valuable classroom practice.


But what about Explore? This stage provides students with an chance to build their own understanding. The students have the opportunity to get directly involved with phenomena and materials. They work together in teams, build a set of common experiences which prompts sharing and communicating, and start building background for new content. The teacher acts as a facilitator rather than an instructor at this stage, since the purpose is for STUDENTS to find new connections.

The Science of Learning Report states that “a well-sequenced curriculum is important to ensure that students have the prior knowledge they need to master new ideas.” This means that teachers should provide students with opportunities to build background knowledge needed for understanding new content. In essence, the Explore stage is still a valid and valuable part of instructional sequence.


Explain is the stage at which learners begin to communicate what they have learned. Communication occurs between peers, with the teacher, and through the reflective process. The teacher now takes on a more active role by helping students make connections and clarifying misconceptions.

The Science of Learning Report explains that, in order to help students focus on the meaning of content, we need to assign tasks that require explanations, determine causes and effects, and require students to meaningfully organize material. In a nutshell, this step reinforces the Explain stage through specific examples of student tasks.


The purpose for the Elaborate stage is to allow students to use their new knowledge and continue to explore its implications. At this stage students expand on the concepts they have learned, make connections to other related concepts, and apply their understandings to the world around them in new ways.

The Science of Learning Report explains that a carefully sequenced curriculum can build student knowledge over the course of a school career, enabling students to solve increasingly complex problems. When students have the opportunity to transfer a set of learned skills or content to a new situation instead of keeping the learned information in isolation, they are able to take on more challenging problems. This building of connections is at the heart of the Elaborate stage, and reinforces the power of giving students opportunities to apply what they have learned rather than just memorize and recall information.


The Evaluate stage is designed for both students and teachers to determine how much learning and understanding has taken place. Evaluation and assessment can occur at all points along the continuum of the instructional process. Some of the tools that assist in this diagnostic process are rubrics, teacher observation, student interviews, portfolios, and project and problem-based learning products.

In Texas, we often think of STAAR as the high-stakes evaluation piece. But in The Science of Learning Report, findings encourage teachers to also use low- or no-stakes quizzes in class to evaluate the learning process. Effective feedback is often essential to acquiring new knowledge and skills, and a low-stakes evaluation can help students see in which areas they need assistance without the pressure of a major exam.

So there you have it — a model from the 1980s reviewed under the lens of a 2015 study. While the 5E Model was developed during the era of shoulder pads, big hair, and New Wave music, its sequence is still a powerful approach for instructional delivery of cognitive principles in the current classroom.


Deans for Impact (2015). The Science of Learning. Austin, TX: Deans for Impact.


Teaching Science in the Early Childhood Classroom

Thursday, February 25th, 2016

AUTHOR: Aliza Rivera, Early Childhood Specialist

I can remember when the idea of teaching science to a room full of 4 year-olds terrified me. My fear often led to science activities that were either “safe,” not messy, or often underdeveloped. Students tended to overlook my science center and it was not utilized enough by my young students. I can even recall a memory where I encouraged my students to look, but not touch. Sound familiar? You are not the only one.

Leo F. Buscaglia states, “It is paradoxical that many educators and parents still differentiate between a time for learning and a time for play without seeing the vital connection between them.” For the longest time I was in denial of the idea that young children already come to school with an innate sense of natural curiosity about the world and how it works. I had to work on my ability to understand the different ways that young children play. I often had to stop what I was doing, listen to what my students were saying and reflect on their subsequent actions through the different play opportunities planned throughout the day. By doing this, I came to understand and conquer my fear of teaching science. I found that my fear was based on a personal struggle of not understanding how play activities connected with content knowledge and how they could come to support young children’s learning of science naturally through play.

Realizing that science is everywhere and that it can be integrated into the curriculum in a variety of ways, I began to develop a deeper understanding of essential scientific ideas rather than a superficial acquaintance of isolated facts. I embraced the opportunity in allowing my young students with sufficient time to develop a deeper understanding for the world around them.  When I began to allow more time for my students to explore, it provided me with the opportunity to observe the capacity to which the play became more complex.  When I engaged in play with my students, I began to understand the opportunities in which to question the understanding of my student’s thinking patterns and to acknowledge the different content areas they were experiencing.  When my students demonstrated to me a variety of skills that could be seen universally across content areas, then I introduced additional materials that supported my student’s’ natural sense of inquiry.

These observable skills included:

  • exploring objects, materials, and events
  • asking questions
  • making observations
  • engaging in simple investigations
  • describing (including shape, size, number), comparing, sorting, classifying and ordering
  • recording observations by using words, pictures, charts and graphs
  • working collaboratively with others
  • sharing and discussing ideas
  • listening to new perspectives (Hamlin & Wisneski, 2012)

Teachers, just like myself, who utilized inquiry and science in the early childhood classroom came to the realization that it built a natural pathway that allowed them to understand and value the thinking processes of the young learner. In doing so, they used their students’ thinking processes as learning experiences in helping guide their students to uncover explanations that were closer to a scientific idea than simply learning through isolated facts (Hamlin & Wisneski, 2012)  Developing inquiry in an early childhood classroom can transform a class from a collection of individuals into a community of learners that openly share their interpretations of the natural world around them (Worth & Grollman, 2003). Research has shown that such learning experiences can help children reform and refine their theories and explanations—to learn how to think through their ideas, to take risks and ask additional questions, and to reconsider their ideas on the basis of others’ views (Vygotsky, 1962).

Science is part of our everyday lives. How can teachers use play as opportunities to engage young learners in scientific inquiry? The key is in the types of experiences teachers create for young learners and how well they support children during play. Fostering a young child’s natural sense of inquiry is essentially building a strong foundation for the ongoing development of many cognitive skills across content areas (Worth & Grollman, 2003).


Hamlin, M., & Wisneski, D. B. (2012, May). Supporting the Scientific Thinking and Inquiry of Toddlers and Preschoolers through Play. Young Children, 67(3), 82-88.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1986). Thought and Language. Cambridge, M.A.: The MIT Press.

Worth, Karen & Grollman, Sharon. (2003). Worms, shadows, and whirlpools: Science in the early childhood classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Rubrics: Out of the clinic and in to the classroom

Friday, November 2nd, 2012

Jennifer Jordan-Kaszuba, Secondary Science Specialist

As a science educator, I find it interesting when a process used in science transitions to the mainstream.  So when I discovered that rubrics were originally used to classify diseases and have only been part of the educational lexicon since the 1970s, I had to check this out.  I found some diseases are not diagnosed based on a rubric, but are straightforward tests as we might expect.  You either have the bacteria that causes strep throat or you don’t.  This is analogous to a multiple-choice exam: you either get the correct answer or you don’t.  But some diseases and disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis, are diagnosed based on a set of criteria and a point system. (Just so you know, if more than 10 joints are involved and at least one of those is a small joint, you get more points, which in this case is not a good thing and means you are moving toward a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis.)  In order for doctors to make an objective diagnosis and to ensure that everyone agrees on a diagnosis, they use rubrics.  Rubrics are used in the classroom for similar reasons.


How can rubrics be used?

Rubrics are used in the classroom to evaluate performance assessments so that students are judged as objectively as possible.  Rubrics should also be used for student goal setting and self-assessment (Kingore, 2007).  Students should be provided a copy of the rubric at the same time an assignment is given so they can set a goal for the grade they want to achieve. Students can self-assess their progress during the time given for creation, and before submission of their finished product, to compare their performance to their own goal.


What makes a rubric different from a checklist?

Rubrics are not just checklists listing requirements for assignments.  Instead, rubrics provide descriptors of performance at various levels for a learning task.  Rubrics include information regarding the expected quality of the work in addition to the quantity.  Rubrics provide students and teachers alike with a scoring guide distinguishing exceptional work from satisfactory work, as well as satisfactory work from unsatisfactory work.  Providing students with clear expectations allows them to assume responsibility for their own learning and performance.


How do I create a rubric?

Ideally a rubric already exists that you can modify to fit your need. (Try searching the Internet for the topic you will be teaching and include the word rubric. There were 731,000 + results for the search “Element Project Rubric.”) Although you don’t always need to start from scratch, let’s assume you are starting anew.  There are multiple types of rubrics, including generic and task specific.  A generic rubric is one which can be applied across a range of different tasks: for example, a rubric that judges an oral presentation regardless of the content of the presentation.  Task-specific rubrics are just that, specific to the project or task the students are being asked to complete.  You can combine a generic rubric with a task-specific one as needed.  For example, if students were being asked to complete an element project and present to the class about their element, we could use a generic rubric for the oral performance portion and a task-specific rubric to ensure they include all of the information about their element that is required.

But how do we know what is required?  This is what we must first determine.  Start by listing all the aspects of the assigned task that will be assessed.  Look at the TEKS to determine the content and/or skills that need to be included.  Next, take your list and determine which of these are non-negotiable.  For example, an element project might include basic properties of the element, history of the discovery of the element, current uses of the element, a model, a poster and a sample of the element.  However, the student who researches uranium will not be likely to provide a sample, so that component may have to be eliminated from the list.  Basic properties, the history of the element, and current uses of the element may be non-negotiables, while the delivery method of poster versus a PowerPoint could be negotiable, with students deciding on their delivery method.  Once we have a list of the components we want to include as non-negotiables, we must prioritize and select the 3-5 elements that define a quality performance.

Next we must decide how many performance levels to use and how to define them.  According to the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA) at the University of Minnesota, an even number of performance levels is preferable so that the middle level does not become a catch all.  Having an even number of levels forces you to make a decision about quality and place it above or below average.  Let’s use four levels and call them Exemplary, Excellent, Acceptable and Unacceptable.  For ease in tracking points numerically, we will number them 4, 3, 2, and 1.  If desired, you can also have a “not attempted” category worth 0 points.  Next, we need to look at each of our components individually and define the performance at each level.  Start with the highest level (Exemplary) and determine what is required.  For example, we might expect a student to include basic properties including atomic weight, atomic number, phase at standard temperature and pressure and number of valence electrons.  Our excellent category might state that three out of the four are included; acceptable might be two out of four; and unacceptable might be one out of four.  This example is straightforward but demonstrates that the difference between a 4 and a 3 should be the same as a difference between a 2 and a 1.

Once you have written all of your statements, revisit them and make sure all of the desired components are addressed in each level.  This is the ideal time to discuss your performance task and rubric with a co-worker, even if they are not in the same subject area, to quality check for clarity.  Another way to evaluate your rubric is to carry out the task yourself and see where you would rank on each criterion; this will help you reevaluate and strengthen your criteria as necessary.  Once you have created and used a rubric with your students, reflect back and make changes to strengthen the rubric for the following task or year.

Some questions to ask yourself as you create rubrics include:

  • Does my rubric reflect performance at different levels of achievement?
  • Are the criteria for each level specific enough that students know what is expected of them?  Are descriptors worded so they are examples of what to do to achieve a given level?
  • Will I, as the teacher, be able to objectively grade this assignment?
  • Should one criterion be weighted more given the TEKS being addressed?
  • Do I need to differentiate the rubric for different levels of learners?
  • Does my rubric fit on one page to avoid intimidating students?




Evaluation Process: Rubrics, Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition, (accessed October 8, 2012).


The 2010 ACR-AULAR classification criteria for rheumatoid arthritis, American College of Rheumatology,, (accessed October 8, 2012).

Exploring Integration in Elementary Curriculum, Part 2

Friday, November 2nd, 2012

Author:  Lori Reemts – Education Specialist: Elementary Generalist


Part 1 of this series focused on laying the foundation and seeking common language when referring to integration. There are as many ways to connect and integrate ideas as there are ideas themselves.  By defining differences between Curriculum Integration, which can be found described on documents and the like, and Instructional Integration, which can be artfully woven into the course of learning over time, we are able to identify what we can control and how that influences student success in our classroom. This series focuses on these choices: Instructional Integration.

As promised, this installment continues the conversation and begins the process of identifying key points of intersection within the curriculum by exploring two key ideas: Direct Connection and Purposeful Awareness.

There are times when different subject areas align with one another through TEKS that are directly linked. Meaningful links may be found in a direct relationship between two concepts, such as money in Math with the economics in Social Studies.  A direct connection might also be found within the language or concept of the Student Expectations themselves. Consider the 3rd Grade standards below.



Earth and Space. The student knows that Earth consists of natural resources and its surface is constantly changing.  The student is expected to:

3.7b       investigate rapid changes in the Earth’s surface such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and landslides

3.7c        identify and compare different landforms, including mountains, hills, valleys, and plains


Social Studies

Geography. The student understands how humans adapt to variations in the physical environment.   The student is expected to:

3.4c        describe the effects of physical processes such as volcanoes, hurricanes, and earthquakes in shaping the landscape

3.4a        describe and explain variations in the physical environment, including climate, landforms, natural resources, and natural hazards


Direct (Explicit) Support

As a third grade teacher looking at any one content area it may be easy to miss. However, a third grade teacher looking across content areas should be able to identify two direct connections within the above sets of TEKS.  In third grade, students investigate rapid changes to the Earth’s surface (Science) and the effects these changes have (Social Studies).  These do not need to be separate and isolated ideas, nor should they be.  Looking at the other pair of standards listed, another direct connection between studying landforms in Science and landforms in Social Studies is easily identified.  These are connections found no further than the TEKS themselves and points of intersection that teachers can use not only to save themselves the time spent in isolated planning, but also to make authentic and meaningful content  connections in a way that benefits all learners.


Purposeful Awareness

While not as overtly apparent as Direct Support, the use of Purposeful Awareness is key in applying knowledge and skills to new and novel situations.  These transferrable skills are the very things we seek to build in our students so that they continue to grow and learn throughout their lives while being productive and contributing citizens in the process.  Furthermore, it is precisely this type of thinking that STAAR requires as well.  This type of thinking is more difficult to “teach”, as it must be consistently modeled and practiced using a myriad of examples and scenarios. The beauty of employing Purposeful Awareness lies in the world of possibilities and potential connections that exist within students’ minds. There is no reason that the teacher need be the expert in the room as the goal is to expand student thinking beyond what may be easily apparent or written on a worksheet.  Purposeful Awareness may often come through the use of vocabulary in new contexts to strengthen the comprehension of the language.  Other areas such as big ideas, (i.e. human impact, conservation), relationships, and skills also provide breeding ground for cross-content connections.  Consider the following vocabulary words as examples.



– A standard concept and vocabulary term in Science, this term can apply in other contexts with very little change to the working definition.  To understand the concept is to be able to apply it to new and novel situations.

– Language Arts:  interdependent characters, parts of speech, cause/effect relationships

– Social Studies: global economics, countries, opposing sides of conflict, money

– Math: sides of an equation, factors/multiples



– Basic definition in science: an animal that cannot produce its own food and eats plants and other animals (as opposed to a producer–which makes its own food)

– Basic definition in Social Studies: A consumer is a person who buys and uses goods and services. A producer is a person who makes goods or provides services.

– “to consume”


There are obvious differences when applying these example concepts in different content areas but the core meaning remains the same.  It is the context which changes. Too often we label concepts as “terms” to be used in a particular class or within a particular scheduled part of the day.  Although we have the best of vocabulary intentions, we may inadvertently silo language in such a way that students are not readily and easily applying concepts across areas. A student identifying a word as a “science word” may easily not be able to transfer the actual comprehension of that word/concept when viewing it in a new context.  Whether units occur during the same grading period or not, using Purposeful Awareness keeps these connections alive, albeit in smaller chunks than stand-alone units.  When working in the social studies context of “consumer,” for example, we need to purposefully connect back (or forward) and point out the similarity to other areas.


Well-placed questions and quick tie-ins are another way to utilize Purposeful Awareness. Consider the following example. As a teacher you may be introducing the accomplishments and contributions of various citizens in Social Studies. This is actually a standard in all levels of Social Studies. One such person may be Robert Fulton, credited with inventing the first operational steamboat. This invention opened the waters of the Mississippi, which in turn had great impact on the U.S. economy and growth of the day.  During instruction, the teacher may ask questions such as those that follow.


  • What type of landform is the Mississippi River? River
  • Is it salt or fresh water? Fresh
  • What landform is created when it meets the ocean? Delta
  • What Earth processes are at play and shape the earth? Weathering, erosion, deposition


The kinds of questions enable the student to concentrate on the Social Studies message at hand, while simultaneously connecting it with concepts from science. This is done in a low-intrusive manner requiring nothing more than planned questions to tie things together. Often the best approach to these connections is simply to plan to ask the students how things may connect to one another.  Something as basic as “How does this ______ in our current unit connect with _______, our previous unit?” can be very effective in forcing students to think beyond what is in front of them and to remember previous concepts in the process.  There is always a connection to be made.


This process takes time. A solid knowledge of the TEKS, or a consistent referral to them, remains, as always, the starting point.  While everyone has the ability to see connections, some people may seem to see them more quickly or more easily.  While we desperately seek these points of intersection, it seems we have somehow trained ourselves not to.  Of the two techniques listed here, begin with seeking Direct Support within the standards themselves.  From there, be comfortable opening your mind to what may be less obvious.  The more this is practiced the easier it becomes.  Don’t be afraid to bring your students into this thinking journey with you. It can actually be quite fun when taken together!


The next installment will focus on the area of skill building.  All of the core content areas, health and technology standards include similar skills.  When we view these as a whole, in addition to the student and the learning day, we are able to better capitalize on the intent of the standards while fostering deep and critical thinking for ourselves and our students.

Writing in the Science Class: Lab Conclusions

Friday, August 24th, 2012

Author: Kristen Hillert, Secondary Science Specialist


Conclusions are a powerful way to assess students’ mastery of the objectives of lab investigations.  But how do you teach students to write conclusions?  Here, science teachers can learn from our colleagues in the English department.

Although scientific writing is a unique style with a set of rules different from the writing students traditionally do in English classes, strategies used to teach writing work across genres.  Before asking students to turn in their first lab report, try one of these strategies and see if the writing of your students improves.

  • Mentor text. Show students examples of what a “good” lab conclusion looks like.
  • For younger students, this might mean writing a few examples yourself or sharing student conclusions from the previous years.
  • Older students should see real examples of conclusions from peer reviewed journal articles.
  • Students could do a gallery walk around the room reading the sample mentor texts and making observations about what they all have in common.
  • Finally, students use their observations about the structure of a strong conclusion to guide their own writing.
    • Sentence Stems. Help students know how to start the conclusion by suggesting sentence stems they can use.
    • _________ was used to _________ in this lab.
    • The data shows the relationship between _________ and _________ is _________because_________.
    • The evidence for _________ was that _________.
      • Class Examples.  Type up conclusions written by your own students (be sure to keep them anonymous!) and share them with the students to evaluate.
      • Mix examples of strong and weak conclusions (no more 10 total).
      • Review the examples one at a time.
      • Have students identify the strength(s)/weakness(es) of each conclusion.
      • Have students work together to generalize their comments and form them into a checklist they can use to evaluate their own conclusions before submitting them to you.

Lab investigations are an important part of science throughout all grade levels.  The conclusion is the part of the lab report that allows students to assimilate the information gained from the hands on-experiences with the theory of the content.  Empowering students to fully express all they have learned through the investigation will not only improve their understanding of the content as they work through all the ideas as they write them out, but it also provides you, the teacher, an excellent form of evaluation of mastery.

To learn more about how to incorporate writing into your science class, check out the TRC Modules: Writing in Science in Project Share.  They’re free and a great resource for creative ideas of teaching through writing!

Exploring Integration in Elementary Curriculum, Part 1

Friday, August 24th, 2012

Author:  Lori Reemts, Elementary Generalist


There is a place where the learning process, fueled by pure motivation, engages everyone in the room and authentically integrates critical thinking with content concepts. This place operates beyond barriers, perceived or otherwise, and capitalizes on the efficient and effective use of talent and time.

Although this may sound unattainable to some, the reality is that this place can often be found within our own instructional choices.   Of course we, as professionals, operate within larger systems and, of course, these systems each have their own issues, but when it comes right down to it the largest influencer and indicator of student success is the classroom teacher. (Stronge,  2010)  While respect should be given to the realities of life and teaching in today’s world, it is imperative to acknowledge and appreciate that educators do not have a simple or easy task;  it benefits no one to dwell on daily challenges when our energies could better be spent upon enacting change in our own classrooms.  Educators everywhere collectively cry out for the path and the simple answer to integration.  The goal of this series is to focus on this desire and suggestions for steps toward accomplishing this as we journey to this place we so covet.

In this first installment, it may be an excellent time to try to define “integration” so that our conversations center on similar ideas and starting points.  Believe it or not there are many variations in how we use this word which are quite dependent upon the person using the term and in what context.  Obvious historical examples exist referring to actual student integration during the Civil Rights movement, but in this context we are referring to skills and concepts addressed  in our classrooms.  The term itself has been thrown around for a number of years and has recently regained momentum; unfortunately for some, it has become a symbolic “buzz word” without substance.

Humphreys (1981) offers a basic definition: “An integrated study is one which children broadly explore knowledge in various subjects related to certain aspects of their environment.”  That is a wonderful academic definition of integration but let’s get to the practicality of the concept. Curriculum itself is the relationship between three main components: the written curriculum, the taught curriculum, and the tested curriculum.   Ideally this triad operates in balance and responds to each of the other sections.  The written curriculum would be that which we find on our documents. Components such as scope and sequence, vertical alignment, and unit guides exist to help teachers identify and define the “what,” the student expectations.  While important, this written curriculum exists and is effective only when brought to life through the taught curriculum, or instruction. This speaks to the art of teaching. These are the two areas with which to begin the conversation.  As written curriculum is built from the state standards, it is dependent upon those standards. Content area standards do change and not at the same time.  Aligning and integrating them within a written curriculum, therefore, takes time and may be at a slower pace than the call for it would like it to be.  One must know and understand the separate content areas’ requirements in order to accomplish the task of integrating them effectively.  This is not to say it cannot be done, but the reality is that written curriculum, as dynamic and living a document as it may be, is not equipped to change on a daily basis when classroom teachers must make instructional choices and connections, nor could it and remain credible and consistent.  What, then, is a teacher to do?

We turn to instructional integration.  This is where educators can capitalize on the information a written curriculum provides to them by seeking commonalities.  Learning does not occur on a bell schedule or subject shift during the day. Children and adults alike learn throughout the course of experiences rather than isolated skills or facts.  By embracing this continuous learning idea, even when operating on a much-needed school schedule, we can build transferrable skills in a more effective manner rather than feeling the need to “close out” Subject 1 in order to begin Subject 2.  These same real-life skills can be found within every content area as can almost endless content/concept connections. The key to locating these areas lies in working toward a core and solid understanding of what the most recent and required student expectations actually communicate.

Our next conversation will continue with this idea and explore how to use the required state standards and other information found within our written curriculum in order to effectively utilize and maximize the integration potential.

Humphreys, Alan, Thomas Post, and Arthur Ellis. Interdisciplinary Methods, A Thematic Approach. Santa Monica:

Goodyear, 1981.

Stronge, James. Effective Teachers = Student Achievement: What the Research Says. Larchmont: Eye on Education, 2010.

Science Notebooks: A Reflection of Progress

Friday, August 24th, 2012

Author: D’Anna Pynes, Elementary Science Specialist


It is that time of year again: new school supplies and a fresh start.  Students and parents may come to you wondering how they are going to use those school supplies and excited to fill those pages.  Before your students begin writing in their science notebooks, today may be a good day to reflect on how those notebooks will be best utilized, not only as a place to record data and understandings, but as a record of student progress of scientific skills throughout the year.

If you have utilized science notebooks in your class over the years, how would you rate yourself in terms of implementation?  What will you continue and what do you plan to do differently this year?  How will you take your entries to the next level as you continue to improve in your implementation and raise expectations?

We often review student entries to look at student mastery of a scientific concept.  We may even reflect on how student thinking has changed from the beginning of the concept to assessment time.  And while topics change throughout the year and we may ask the students to go back through their notebook to think about what all they have learned or prepare for those summative evaluations, how often do we ask them to reflect on how the skills they have used from the first day in class to the last have changed over the year?

Scientific Investigation and Reasoning Standards


The Scientific Investigation and Reasoning standards found at the beginning of your TEKS should be embedded in your teaching practices throughout the academic year.  These are the skills scientists use to develop understandings of scientific concepts, and should be how your students record information they learn throughout the year.

Safe Practices and Equipment. We usually teach students safe and responsible practices in the lab at the beginning of the year.  Students may record how they will stay safe in the lab and glue in a safety contract after the Table of Contents in order to reference safety procedures later in the year.  As teachers we ensure our students are following safe practices before and during investigations, but how often do we go back and ask students to reflect on safe practices in their notebook?  At the beginning of a lab, we could ask students to record what safety equipment they will be using for a particular investigation and if there are any special procedures to follow.  If we do this over the year, students will have a record of the different safety equipment they have learned to use over the year and when it is appropriate to use certain equipment, such as aprons, protective eyewear or gloves. 

Scientific Method and Equipment. When we complete classroom investigations, our notebook entries usually fit into this category.  We ask students to record questions and procedures, record observations and communicate conclusions.  When recorded in one place over the year, this becomes a portfolio of how the student has progressed in these skills over the year.  If you ask students to write their own questions, how has their level of questioning changed?  How much detail has been added to their observations? What vocabulary are they using?  To what depth are they communicating their understandings and conclusions?  Do they make connections to previous investigations? 

Additionally, over the year we give our students different strategies for recording observations and collecting data.  As students become more proficient, we may ask the student to identify the best way to record information from their investigation.  If different graphic organizers have been used, students may begin connecting certain representations to different types of data.

As with safety equipment, we should also ask our students to record what types of tools or models they used to complete their investigations.  Again, over time, this will serve as a record for students to associate equipment with different types of investigations or concepts.

Critical Thinking and Problem Solving:

Asking students to reflect on not only their findings, but also on past and current scientific research and findings is essential to the classroom.  As teachers, we should stay up-to-date on current events related to our content so we can teach our students how to find current information and analyze others’ explanations at their level of understanding.  As content fits naturally into our teaching, we must allow our students time to consider differing opinions (past and present) and evaluate explanations to the best of their ability using website or newspaper articles, clips from news reports, marketing material or journal articles.  Of course, you must always comply with your school or district policies regarding student internet use and social media policies.

In addition to critiquing scientific explanations, students should also learn about the contributions different scientists have made in their field of study and careers students could pursue.  The student science notebook can be a great place for students to keep notes of important people and their contributions.  The Social Studies TEKS related to your grade or a team member who teaches social studies is a great place to begin when looking for influential people in the area of science.

Planning Your Year


The beginning of the year is a great place to consider your professional and classroom goals.  It is a chance for us to improve and refine approaches from the previous year, but we do not have to improve and refine everything at once! What practices will you continue? What will you add?  Document in your weekly plans what process skill(s) your students will use in their notebook, identify a highlighted skill as an objective for your students and give yourself a reward each time you meet your goal.

Planning with the Process Skills in Mind

For help with planning purposeful integration into your daily lesson plans, please visit our free online course Integrating Process Skills with Content Standards in Science (Workshop # FA1224556 for elementary teachers and FA1223557 for secondary teachers).  These modules are designed for you to complete in a collaborative setting and will give you and your team tools to help focus planning sessions and find natural points of integration where process and content standards meet.

If you have never set up a science notebook for your classroom or you are looking for tips on how to get started, check out our online course Utilizing Science Notebooks: The Basics, Workshop # FA1224472.  Here, you will receive directions on how to organize notebooks and ideas to help you determine notebook entries.

Access any of these courses through ESC Region XIII’s E-Campus.



Suggested Resources

B. Campbell & L. Fulton, Science Notebooks: Writing about Inquiry.  Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2003.

FOSS (n.d.).  Science Notebooks in Middle School.  The Regents of the University of California,  Accessed August 15, 2012.

B. R. Fulwiler, Writing in Science: How to Scaffold Instruction to Support Learning. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2007).

J. Gilbert, & M. Kotelman, (2005).  Five good reasons to use science notebooks: Key understandings about science notebooks maximize learning for all students,

M. P. Klentschy, “Science Notebook Essentials: A Guide to Effective Notebook Components,” Science and Children.  43(3) (2005), 24-27,

K. Maracarelli, Teaching science with interactive notebooks.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2010.

L. Norton-Meier, B. Hand, L. Hockenberry, & K. Wise.  Questions, Claims, and Evidence: The Important Place of Argument in Children’s Science Writing.  Arlington, VA: National Science Teachers Association, 2008.

Science Notebooks in K12 Classrooms,


TEKS Referenced / TEKS Based Resource Calibration

Monday, February 13th, 2012

There is so much “stuff” here …what do I use?

I don’t seem to have any “stuff” to use…what do I buy?

Money to spend this year?  Budgets to create for next year?

These are but a few questions heard in meetings, hallways, teacher lounges and the like.  Sometimes the sheer volume of materials to wade through is overwhelming while other times it may feel as if there just isn’t any resource to be found.  This may differ from content to content and even differ from unit to unit within any given content.  If you have ever felt as though you are simply racing against time and the system itself to “fit it all in” or as though you are spinning your wheels because students seem to “have it” only to just as easily have “lost it” over any given time frame, perhaps simplifying the instructional decision process by simply targeting the intent of the TEKS will help.  Admittedly this is far easier said than done, but wouldn’t we all love it if at the end of day we had a base of solid “go to” resources absent of ambiguity and rich with potential?  As the practice becomes second-nature, arguably an art form, we are able to focus our time and energy on each of our students with confidence that we are covering appropriate content and at the appropriate cognitive levels for our students.

Certainly we can launch an in-depth study of works by Robert Marzano, Mike Schmoker, and others noteworthy in their field…but really?  Do we all have that kind of time?  Although their work on defining Standards-based vs. Standards-referenced education serves as wonderful appetizers to full blown educational debate, when push comes to shove we are in our classrooms with our students each day and we make countless instructional decisions fueled solely by the intent to help and serve our children in their journey.  Part of the beauty of teaching is keeping hold of an eclectic set of items and resources because you just never know when or if you can use it again. Part of the danger of teaching is keeping hold of an eclectic set of items and resources and pulling from this comfort zone regardless of assignment or how many years have passed.  Admit it: there is a purple mimeograph copy somewhere in your files.   It may even be entitled something very similar to something you currently teach.  Does that make it the best instructional choice?

Consider this:  TEKS based vs. TEKS Referenced Materials.  Has a ring to it, doesn’t it?  If we focus on TEKS based materials in our original or main instruction we are then able to support and supplement with TEKS referenced and additional TEKS based items.  After all, we teach children, not subjects.

TEKS based:  resources tightly aligned with the content and cognitive level of the standards

  •  Example: A lesson addressing Science TEKS student expectation 2.7c focuses on distinguishing natural vs. manmade resources; combine this with Scientific Investigation and Reasoning TEKS student expectation 2.2d where students record and organize this information using pictures, numbers, and words within their science notebooks (TEKS 2.4a).

TEKS referenced:  resources loosely aligned with the direct standards but support the overall understanding of the concept; they may be considered “in the same ball park.”

  • Example:  In addition to reading non-fiction text on natural vs. manmade resources, a guided                         reading group explores a fictional leveled-reader short story in which the characters choose resources to gather and build a class project.

We would not rely on the TEKS referenced story to address the TEKS directly or to support student experiential learning, but we would choose this title to help support and solidify the idea of choosing and using resources which in turn helps the overall conceptual learning related to the standards.

One final word of caution:  sometimes less is more.  Let’s suppose that you begin your elementary unit on life cycles and you have come across a poster that you believe includes your grade level’s standards.   All six of the elementary grade levels contain TEKS related to life cycles.  For argument’s sake we will take the role of a 4th grade teacher covering 4.10c: explore, illustrate, and compare life cycles in living organisms such as butterflies, beetles, radishes, or lima beans.  Does the poster below support this student expectation in the TEKS?


image found, February 2012 at  

One could argue that the basic information is indeed found within this poster (content).  Of course just having a poster doesn’t elicit the required cognitive level of the standard and that would have to be incorporated into the lesson itself, but take another look at the content.  Sometimes resources are lacking content but other times, as in this case, they contain too much content and the original intent is lost for many students.  The extraneous information can easily muddy the water for many students.

What is the moral of our story? When considering resources, whether to utilize for TEKS based instruction or to purchase for future use, one must consider three questions:

1. Does the content align to the TEKS?

  • (Consider: TEKS based or TEKS referenced. This impacts how you would use the resource.)

2. Is the student cognitive level at the depth and complexity required in the TEKS?

  • (Consider: Are there means to combine a content student expectation in the TEKS with a process skill or other skills-based TEKS to increase the rigor?)

3.  If the answer to Question 1 and/or Question 2 is no, then you must ask if a small adjustment or tweak (resource calibration) could be made relatively easily to calibrate the resource to the standards.

  • No?  Then it is time to “retire” or share this resource with another grade level or course, if appropriate.  By the end of the unit, you will have streamlined your toolkit and saved time in the long run.

Remember, we all have favored lessons, resources, and vendors.  Companies and non-profits may even provide a correlation document aligning our state standards to their product.  For example, textbook publishers assign TEKS throughout the publication. As professional educators, there is no substitute for evaluating and calibrating resources before we use them.

Of course we know that things are much easier to say than to do in real time, but this practice can easily become second-nature and prove invaluable when designing lessons.  Want more information or practice evaluating and calibrating a variety of resource types?  Region XIII has offered several professional learning sessions doing just that; keep an eye on E-Campus, join the content list-servs, or request a visit from a specialist to learn more.


Making Connections: Points of Instructional Integration and Skill Building

Monday, December 12th, 2011

Our goal as educators is that our students grow into productive citizens with a wealth of skills to draw from. We want to foster learning so that students are critical thinkers and problem solvers who are able to make connections and apply their learning in new and novel situations. The TEKS call for critical thinking, problem solving, and making connections. STAAR calls for critical thinking, problem solving, and making connections. Life calls for critical thinking, problem solving, and making connections.  This necessitates that our instruction include and build critical thinking, problem solving, and making opportunities for students to make connections.

In modern education, we are under more and more time constraints with fewer resources. We often feel we are trying to do it all and it seems there just is not enough time. It is easy at times  to become focused on the pure content within our grade level or subject matter, and forget that the skills we wish to build are transferrable skills that apply to all content and simply may look slightly different based upon the context.

As a result, we sometimes find ourselves and our lessons looking somewhat like a solved Rubik’s cube. Although within this particular game, getting all colors onto one side and isolated from the rest of the colors indicates you have “solved” the puzzle; in education this represents ideas, skills, and learning in isolation.

We want students to be able to operate within all of the colors and, in fact, NEED students to be able to operate in a more integrated fashion for STAAR and beyond.

Consider the term interdependence for a moment. What does it mean?

A dictionary definition would be “a relation between its members such that each is mutually dependent on the others.”  For students understanding content and their world, such a definition means nothing and holds little relevance. We learn about interdependence within Science. In fact, this is a key concept in science.  For example, the entire understanding of food chains relates to this idea among many others. Students may build an understanding of this vocabulary word within the Science context and examples, but can they apply it outside of these specifics?

  •  What might “interdependence” look like within Language Arts?

Characters are often interdependent. 

  • What might “interdependence” look like within Social Studies?

Countries in time of war and peace are interdependent upon each other. Economic systems, global economics, are interdependent upon one another.         

  • What might “interdependence” look like within Math?

Concepts such as part/part/whole and balanced equations include ideas of dependence and interdependence.

Would it be better to build on the idea in its entirety with multiple examples in order to assure students can transfer and apply knowledge or would it be best to know this term simply through a dictionary definition, a specific example such as a food chain, or within a specific content? Even if the word is introduced as a new vocabulary term in science, we want and need students to have word study skills that might enable them to determine what this unfamiliar word means, especially within multiple contexts.

That is one specific example with the intention of planting the seed for making connections and continuing learning throughout the day rather than in isolated periods of time or content.

Aligning TEKS to TEKS, side by side can be a daunting process when one considers the number of standards Texas has and how little time there is within a given day.  However, there are a few manageable ideas to begin to take the first small step(s) toward integrated learning throughout the day.  By doing so educators are able to “shave” time off of discreet stand-alone lessons and students are able to see connections and apply their learning across content and contexts.  These processes have the potential to increase efficiency and effectiveness by capitalizing what already exists within the TEKS and conceptual connections.

Within lesson design, we must look for opportunities to make connections and build skills across content.

1. Look across content units within the same time period: big ideas/concepts.

Are there opportunities for direct and explicit support or purposeful awareness or both?  For example, in 3rd grade Science your landforms unit may be within the same time frame as the Social Studies unit on landforms.  This is direct explicit support.  Or perhaps you teach English in 7th grade and the Texas History class covers political change in Texas as a result of the Civil War.  Through resource choice, instruction can support purposeful awareness and support the overall connections and learning associated with the Texas political climate without actually directly teaching the Social Studies TEKS within the English classroom.

2. Focus on transferrable skills across content and context:  TEKS skills strands

Every content has a skills strand, or skills-based student expectations, embedded within the course TEKS.  These are the very skills needed to approach and access content in order to make connections and increase comprehension.  Focusing on the skills across the course of the day rather than “period to period,” regardless of the content, builds practice and repetition and therefore increases skill levels.  For example, if we consider the 3rd grade TEKS and the skills embedded, we can identify basic skill categories, including data collection, analysis, inferring, forming conclusions, and problem-solving.   Similar skills found within these and other categories can be found in Language Arts, Math, Science, Social Studies, Health, and Technology Applications.  Learning effective data collection across content areas allows the students to see the skill applied within different contexts and in new and novel situations, resulting in deeper and broader understanding.

In the end it is the student who ultimately benefits from this direct explicit support and purposeful awareness.  We know the brain is wired for making connections.  By asking where there are opportunities to make connections and build skills during the lesson design process, we make more efficient use of our time while increasing the overall effectiveness of our instruction.