My class at Berkeley High School is an introductory 9th grade course. I start my year with a unit on the scientific method and experimental design. Here’s how it goes.

If you want to jump to a list of all the handouts mentioned in this unit, click here.

Day 1, Wednesday, 9/2

I don’t know where I learned this, but I’m a believer in the “First Two Minutes, First Two Days, First Two Weeks” idea of starting school. If all of those time periods go well, you’ll have a much better chance of success during the rest of the year.

As I organize these time periods, I’m working on communicating a few key things to my new students:

  • Structure: my classroom will be a safe, organized place.
  • Warmth: I’m a nice guy. I’m working to support you. My success is your success. 
  • Interest in my students: I want to know who you are. 
  • Enthusiasm for biology
  • Importance of carefully following my directions.

Here’s the play by play

The first two minutes! Students come in. I project a seating chart, and ask each student to fill out a 3X5 notecard with contact information.

00_opening notecard

Note that you can find the card image above on this pdf that I made from the powerpoint. You can get the powerpoint file (and all the rest of the handouts described below) from my TeachersPayTeachers store.

As they finish, I ask them to look over the syllabus handout.

The first two minutes have been clear and very structured. It might sound very old school, but you’re not going to teach much biology unless you establish your authority right away. That’s what my first two minutes have done.

While they’re filling out their notecards and/or reading the syllabus, I set up my next activity. I’ve written out about 17 sentences that relate to key ideas in biology.

Before class, I’ve cut these into strips, and then cut every sentence in half. Based on the number of students I have, I pull out the right number of sentences, mix up the sentence fragments, and distribute one fragment to each student.

Once that’s done, I welcome students to class, and give a little (2-3 minute) talk about how amazing biology is, how much I love it, why I teach it.

We read aloud the top 1/2 of the syllabus/course description handout. This gives me an opportunity to explain my four class rules

These rules are not only in this handout, but on two very visible places on the front and side walls of the classroom. The rules are

  1. Be respectful
  2. Focus on Safety
  3. Pay Attention
  4. Try Your Best

I say a little bit about what following these rules looks like. And then I give them instructions for our sentence matching activity (see above). Here are the instructions. I project them via powerpoint.

  1. You have half of a sentence. Someone else has the other half.
  2. Here’s your job:
    1. Start meeting (and learning the names of) your classmates
    2. Find the person who has the other half of your sentence.
  3. Greet someone, say your name, see if you have a match.
    1. If no, say “it was nice to meet you, [name]” and find someone else.
    2. If yes, go line up on the west side of the room, and find out two interesting thing your partner did during the summer so you can introduce him/her to the rest of the class.

After all the students have found their match and are arrayed around the room, I have them introduce themselves to the class. I say a few brief words about each sentence.

Students return to their seats when we’re done (with instructions about how to return the sentence fragments so that I don’t have to remake them every year).

We read a bit more from the syllabus. Then we set up our first experiment, which involves germinating radish seeds by sprouting them on paper towels inside a sandwich bag.

Here are the instructions (projected via my LCD projector: they’re in the powerpoint).

  1. Work with your table partner
  2. Use a sharpie to write your names (1st and last), and class period on the plastic bag.
  3. Take the paper towel. Fold it in quarters (small enough to fit in the baggie)
  4. Put the paper towel in the bag.
  5. Saturate the paper towel with water
  6. Put four radish seedlings between the bag and the paper towel.
  7. Fold back the top of the bag so air can get in (Don’t seal it)
  8. Bring the bags to the green tray on the side of the room.
  9. Reassemble your kit and return it to the side table

By the way, this activity was inspired by my colleague Nick Plescac, who teaches just upstairs from me.

If there’s any time left, I use it by introducing myself to the students. I do this by showing them a picture of myself when I was 15 years old, and talk a bit about my background. Any time after that, we read more of the syllabus. Homework: have their parents fill out the contact form on the handout.

Day 2: Thursday, 9/3/15

So, I’m wanting another carefully structured day (because now we’re in the second day of “Two Minutes, Two Days, Two Weeks”).

Here’s what I do.

To start class, every day, I have a “Do Now” which I call a Catalyst (and, of course, I use this as an opportunity to explain what a catalyst is). I project this Catalyst on screen (it’s in the unit powerpoint). Students complete one everyday using this handout.

I follow this by explaining to students how we’ll set up our 3 ring binders. I teach with lots of handouts, and 3 ring binder competence is essential for success in my class.

Now we start the first lesson of this unit: the scientific method. To get their interest, I show them a clip of the Charlie Charlie video that became a viral sensation on youtube. The students watch. After watching, I have them discuss, with their table partners, how they could scientifically test the reality of Charlie. I briefly have students share their opinions.

I do sharing through random drawings of the notecards I had the students make up the day before. In Berkeley, these are known as “Equity Cards.” I’m not rigid about this: I call on kids, and sometimes I take volunteers. Sometimes I let kids shout-out. I almost always precede a cold-call with a partner share and lots of wait time. I never use questions to ding kids for discipline.

I’m also carefully training students about how to do a partner share. My template for this is the four Ls: look listen, lean in, low voice (which I think were developed by Kate Kinsella). Also, I use a triple chime to get the students attention, and work to emphasize the importance of them being silent and attentive by the 3rd chime.

As I get responses about Charlie, Charlie, I’m not telling students if they’re right or wrong. Instead, I’m communicating that 1) this is a place where you get to talk with a partner. 2) This is a place where your teacher is going to make it safe for you to talk to the class. 3) This is a classroom where you’re going to get called on, so you should pay attention.

We follow this with a reading about what science is and what science isn’t, inspired by a curriculum developed at the University of Indiana. I’m using this reading to teach the content, but also to teach the technique of interacting with text through circling key terms, underlining definitions and phrases of particular interest, and then making marginal annotations using “They Say” (left column) and “I say (right column). I very carefully model for the students how to do this, using Gradual Release of Responsibility (which we’re also very big on at Berkeley High School).

That reading usually takes us right to the end of the period.

Day 3: Friday, 9/4/15

Class always starts with a catalyst (see the powerpoint file to see which one).

We follow this with students forming groups of four, and agreeing on a method to test Charlie Charlie (using the results of their discussion from yesterday: see above). This also gives me an opportunity to talk about how to work in groups of four (how you sit, talk, make eye contact, etc.) I also make sure that every student knows the name of every other student in the group.

Supplies for this are simple: A piece of paper. Two pencils. I give the students about 10 minutes to agree on their procedure, run about 5 trials, and then to record their data in a data table. There’s a fair amount of shrieking (“The pencil moved!), but when we share out, there’s an overwhelming consensus that creating repeatable observations of Charlie, Charlie is very hard to do. Another superstition debunked!

Then a brief talk about how seeds work, and the difference between qualitative and quantitative observations. We use this handout to start observing the growth of our radish seedlings (planted on day 1: see above for instructions). All you need in terms of supplies are metric rulers. To model the drawings and teach the content, I put the handout on a document camera, hooked up to my LCD projector (I know that I’m lucky to teach in a resource-rich school).

In Berkeley, we always start school the Wednesday before Labor day. Since we’re heading for a three day weekend, you have to do two things with your radish seedlings.

  1. Seal the plastic bags so that they don’t dry out and die. At the same time, make sure that the paper towels are damp, but not dripping wet (because that will stunt the seedlings’ growth).
  2. Use a Sharpie to mark 1/2 the bags with a black dot. Unbelievably, students NEVER notice this (but you should still try to make the dot unobtrusive). Take the ones that you’ve marked with a dot and store those away from light, in a closet. The other half you keep on a light tray or by a windowsill.

Day 4: Tuesday, 9/8/15

Warmly welcome your students back from their 3 day weekend. Remember that you’re still in those crucial first two weeks. You’re communicating warmth and command.

We finish reading the handout we started the previous week. In both of my classes, we just had to do the last section (what science is not).

We’re going to take about 10 minutes to do our radish seedling observations (see above).

Day 5: Weds, 9/9/15

I use this handout, along with my powerpoint, to teach about the scientific method and experimental design. It takes the whole period to do about the 1st page. Here’s a teacher’s version with the answers (only for the 1st page)

Day 6, Thursday, 9/10/15

I use my on-line tutorial on the scientific method to consolidate the learning from yesterday. I have access to a class set of Chromebooks. Students work in pairs to complete the activities and this handout (but no one completes the entire handout on this first day).

Day 7: Friday, 9/11/15

We spend about 1/2 of the period with students getting their final data points from their radish seedlings. Before they get their measurements I need to

  1. Let them know that they’ve been doing an experiment, and how they can tell if their seedling was growing in the dark or not (remember that this was just set up as an observation. I didn’t tell the students so that I could teach them about the idea of single-blind and double-blind experiments, even though that design wasn’t necessary here).  Before class, to aid this process, I take a sharpie and make my unobtrusive black dot into a fairly massive black dot that no-one can miss.
  2. Train them how to enter the data on a class spreadsheet. This spreadsheet is a google doc, and I use about 5 chromebooks as data entry stations. The data entry is fairly trivial, but these are 9th graders, and they, in general, need careful guidance. Since I can’t share the google doc, please look at this pdf of the spreadsheet. I’ve put the actual .xls file on my teacherspayteachers store.

After all the data is in, it’s very important, however, to give students a minute to look over the data, to make sure that they put their data in the right place (which I do by projecting the Google Spreadsheet on screen using an LCD projector). You’ll probably have to do some cutting and pasting on the fly.

Once the data is in, you can start to record class averages and graph the data. I use this handout to do this.

Day 8: Monday, 9/14

For personal reasons, I was out on this day. I had my students continue their work on the scientific method handout.

Day 9: Tuesday, 9/15

We complete the process of graphing and then interpreting the data from radish seedlings. The interpretation takes a lot of scaffolding and support. 

Day 10: Weds, 9/16/15

Today’s our last day for new material about the scientific method. I use this handout to cover the distinction between theory and hypothesis.

Day 11, Thurs, 9/17/15

In preparation for our first quiz, I give the students this review sheet. I’m going to sound a little defensive here, but it’s the first quiz. Berkeley High has a huge achievement gap to begin with, and my goal is for students to have an successful, confidence building experience. The task is mostly memorization. 

If I’d been more on my game, I would have given them the review sheet a few days earlier…

Students work in pairs to study. I also give them access to our Chromebooks, because it’s the last day we’re going to use them to finish up my Scientific Method Tutorial. They can, of course, access the material 24/7.

Day 12, Friday, 9/18/15

I walk students through the process of handing in the material/worksheets in their three ring binders. This leads to the most perfunctory kind of grading, but I haven’t figured out how to skip this and make students take classwork seriously. I have the students evaluate their own work using this sheet before handing it in to me. I still, of course, have to grade the students work, but this is 1) a valuable life skill, and 2) a method to get them to be a little bit more conscious of the quality of their work before handing it in.

Once that’s done, I give the students the quiz. They can use the time after they finish to complete any missing assignments before handing in their notebook packets.

Unit One is done. Now I just have to do some grading….

List of Handouts in this Unit, with links to editable files

You can get editable Microsoft Word, Powerpoint, or Excel versions of everything below at my TeachersPayTeachers Store .

  1. pdf of the unit powerpoint. Get the editable PowerPoint version (on TeachersPayTeachers)
  2. Course syllabus handout.  Editable Word version (on TeachersPayTeachers)
  3. 17 sentences that relate to key ideas in biology (for the sentence matching activity). Editable Word version (on TeachersPayTeachers)
  4. Sign of my four class rules (and the four L’s for partner sharing). Editable Word version (on TeachersPayTeachers)
  5. Daily Catalyst handout.Editable Word version (on TeachersPayTeachers)
  6. What science is and what science isn’t.  Editable Word version (on TeachersPayTeachers)
  7. Radish Seedling Growth Observation handout Editable Word version (on TeachersPayTeachers)
  8. Scientific Method and Experimental Design handout (student version). Here’s the teacher’s version with the answers (only for the 1st page). Editable Word version (on TeachersPayTeachers)
  9. Student handout for the sciencemusicvideos on-line scientific method tutorial. Editable Word version (on TeachersPayTeachers)
  10. pdf of the spreadsheet to model data collection from the radish seedling in dark and light experiment.Editable Excel version (on TeachersPayTeachers)
  11. Student handout for graphing and interpreting data from our radish seedling in dark and light experiment.  Editable Word version (on TeachersPayTeachers)
  12. Theory and hypothesis. Editable Word version (on TeachersPayTeachers)
  13. Unit review sheet. Editable Word version on  (on TeachersPayTeachers)   
  14. Notebook self evaluation sheet. Editable Word version (on TeachersPayTeachers)