New Unit, New Attitude

We’ve started “Cells and Systems” in grade 8 Science. This year I am moving towards an inquiry based classroom, and am keeping the focus less on quizzes and exams. In the first few months we have been concentrating on Scientific Inquiry and communicating results, specifically lab reports and the format that is expected at IHS. The first day of this unit we did an activity based on a blog entry I read by Shelly Wright. Students were given elastic bands and Popsicle sticks and told to build the tallest free-standing tower they could. After prizes were awarded to the team with the tallest tower students were encouraged to build again after changing one of their materials for either elastic bands or BBQ skewers. After the lab we discussed variables. Students handed in exit passes where they identified the fixed, manipulated and responding variable from the tower building. Most of my 75 students showed me they understood the concepts on their exit passes. There were 6 or 7 who didn’t get it so I talked to all of them and made sure they got it. If was a great way to start the unit.

We have already used the microscopes twice, once in my classroom and once in the bio lab because it had such cool specimens. I had 3 stations set up with microscopes and prepared specimens and one with the materials to make your own lab (including snakeskin from the snake that lives in the bio lab.) I had 4 stations with a range of specimens. These stations had titles like energy, protection and reproduction and at each I asked a question.

At the start of the lab students were given a printed lab report, and I explained that at each station they were to draw two sketches and write one sentence about what they saw. At the conclusion of the lab they had to ask two questions based on what they had seen. I had planned that the lab report would be a summative activity so that I could move on knowing students could prepare a lab report. I thought they’d do well, and I could shift the focus from the mechanics to the content. I was floored when in the first two classes, almost half of the students failed to draw the sketches or write a sentence for most of the stations. I have some students who aren’t the strongest writers, so thought asking for sketched and written responses would work well for everyone. It was hard for me to not just assume they were all lazy and could not follow instructions.

My response, after some thought, to the poor quality of the lab reports is far from my knee jerk reaction to contact parents and complain about the quality of the work their children are doing. On Monday I have planned a hands-on cell making activity planned for those who have demonstrated that they can prepare a lab report. I feel confident they will complete the written part of the activity well enough to demonstrate that they know the parts of the cell and understand the differences between plant and animal cells.

Those who got less than 50% on their last lab report will be working in the library. They have a worksheet to complete about cells which will demonstrate that they know the parts of the cell and the difference between animal and plant cells. They also have an assignment about proper lab report format. There is another lab due on Monday, so they have the opportunity to demonstrate they can prepare a lab report immediately, if they hand in the lab report on time.

I feel that this outcome puts the focus where it should be. On the students and their ability to participate and contribute effectively in class. Until they are able to do so, I will have to prepare two different activities for my classes. I am not letting them hold us back, I am trying to give them they support they need, and I can’t wait for them to join us so we can all move forward together.

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