The Quick and Dirty Guide to Making Student Work Groups

I’m not a big fan of group work, but sometimes it’s a necessary evil – labs, research projects, discussion groups and the like.  The minute you speak the work “group”, students ask if they can make their own groups, which means of course they want to get into groups with their friends, which of course means very little work will get done.  And, of course, the perfect educator (me?  Ha ha!) would hand-tailor the groups for the perfect students (my students?  Ha ha!) – a perfect blend of motivated, high-performing students who were perfectly willing to help the motivated but lower-performing students for maximum work and optimum learning.

Unfortunately, in the real world where you and I live, things are not perfect.  Students are absent, some students aren’t motivated, and high-performing and low-performing are relative concepts.  But even in the real world, I want to homogenize my groups so each group contains students at varying levels.  As much as I would like to be able to prepare group assignments ahead of time, one or two absent students on the day of the group results in a frenzy of last-minute juggling of group assignments.

Here’s how I do student groups on the fly:  my grading software (GradeQuick) allows me to sort students by rank.  I can sort by overall score or by score on an individual assignment.  (You could also do this manually if you don’t have software that lets you sort students this way.  Just list the students in order from high score to low score.)  The day before a lab, for example, I will sort the class by rank and print out a roster that is sorted from high score to low score.  The only other thing I have to do beforehand is decide how big the groups are going to be.

The next day, I take out my roster.  Draw a line through any student who is absent.  Next, divide the group size into the number of students to calculate the number of groups.  For example, if I’m going to divide 24 students into groups of 3, I will end up with 8 groups.  Starting at the top of the roster, I count out the first 8 students and draw a line, then count out the next 8 students and draw another line.  Now it’s time to assign the students.

Sort by rank, exclude absent students, then divide into groups

Sort by rank, exclude absent students, then divide into groups

Start at the top and assign the first 8 students to groups 1 – 8.  I print a roster with blank boxes, so I just write the numbers in the first box after the student’s name.  Next, I want to assign the lowest-performing students to groups with the highest-performing students, so I start at the BOTTOM of the list.  The lowest student will be assigned to group 1; the second-lowest to group 2; and so on until the bottom eight students are assigned to groups.  With the students in the middle group, I also start at the bottom  and assign groups.  If I need to fine-tune assignments (kids who don’t get along, too many friends in one group, etc.), it doesn’t take that long to rearrange the groupings.

It’s not the perfect method; it’s not the ideal method.  The good thing is, it usually works.

Tomorrow’s the big day!

Another summer break has rattled to a stop.  Tomorrow is the first day back for teachers, with four days of pre-school before the kids come back next Monday.  Lots of changes in my department – we had two teachers leave and one teacher reassigned within the school. One of the teachers that left went out-of-county.  It was easy to see the effect of losing our step increases and having no real raises for three or four years – his new position pays over $8000 more per year based on his years of experience.  The other teacher went west to become an administrator.  I think he said that even if he had taken a teaching position in his new state, he would have received a substantial pay increase.

We have three new science teachers and, more exciting to me, they’re all hired and ready to go.  This is the first year in probably three years that we will be fully staffed on the first day.  Last year was definitely the low point – we had three positions vacant at the beginning of the year.  One was filled about three weeks into the school year, but the other two were not filled until 6 weeks into the first quarter.

One of the vacant positions was for a biology teacher.  For the last 7 years, I’ve basically been the lead teacher for regular biology.  It’s not a formal mentoring relationship, and there was certainly no extra pay for doing that, but I would always share everything I had on my Flash Drive of Doom – PowerPoints, worksheets, quizzes, labs, tests . . . EVERYTHING you would need to teach regular biology and then some.

Last year was a Perfect Storm of disaster, though, because it was the first year for new textbooks.  Different textbook, different publisher, different author.  This meant that all of my presentations and worksheets were useless.  Plus we biology teachers were pretty scattered – I had 2 sections, the other two “old” guys had 2 sections.  We had a teacher just returning from a 10-year hiatus, and she had 1 section.  The open position had 3 sections of biology.  As the “lead”, I got stuck making lesson plans for the long-term substitute teacher that was covering that position.  Now I was a sub before I started teaching, so I know it’s a thankless job.  But this guy was 80+ years old, and he VERY grudgingly agreed to take the long-term sub position until a teacher could be hired.  (Side conversation contributing to the Perfect Storm:  the school district was waiting to see whether the schools would have to comply with the state class-size restrictions, so they refused to hire anyone until the ruling came in . . . in late September.  Yeah.)

Every day, I had to write out detailed lesson plans for the sub, give him a flash drive with any presentations on it, make copies of any worksheets he needed, and prep any labs.  Now I’m not a write-out-a-full-lesson-plan kind of teacher.  At best, I have a skeleton outline of every activity I’m going to do,  and a stack of folders with any handouts.  Oh, and remember that “new textbook” thing?  That meant every presentation had to be made from scratch (ish – the publisher provided PPT files, but they were only semi-usable for various reasons).  We had to figure out what supplemental materials we wanted to use, and how to use them.  Writing out the detailed lesson plans was so time consuming that I quickly fell behind on my own preparation – grading, prepping for my AP Environmental class, making copies for my own classes.

By the time the principal hired teachers to fill the vacant spots, there were quite a few burned-out teachers in the department.  (And I wasn’t even one of the ones that was teaching a 6th period.)  Luckily, the teachers the principal hired were amazing – great team players, great classroom skills, great science teachers.  I guess it worked out well in the end, but it was a little hairy getting to that point.

So I am extremely relieved to know that even though we will have three new teachers tomorrow, at least they’re already hired.

Science Anchor Charts – Non-fiction Text Structures

This year marks the first year that I have to demonstrate that I am teaching the Common Core standards for science literacy.  After reading over the standards, I’m pretty sure it’s something I’ve been doing over the last few years anyway.  Now it just has to be explicit that students are reading and analyzing at the appropriate level.

The previous principal at my school strongly encouraged all of us teachers to complete our Reading Endorsements.  I completed my endorsement a few years ago, and feel like it was worthwhile.  It gave me a lot of strategies to help students understand a sometimes-difficult science course.  I remember reading an article recently that proposed that many students read non-fiction the same way they read fiction:  they start at the beginning and read straight through.  They don’t stop to look up unfamiliar words (and, honestly, in science students encounter a lot of unfamiliar words), they don’t look at the diagrams and pictures, they don’t read the captions, and they don’t stop to ask themselves.  By reading their science textbooks in a fiction-like manner, is it any wonder that they don’t learn much from their reading?  This is especially true of my biology students.  Many of them are barely reading at grade level (10th grade), and a too-large number are still reading at middle school levels.  About 1/3 to 1/2 of my students are ESE, meaning they may have other learning issues that make it doubly hard for them to make solid meaning out of what they are reading.

Thanks to Pinterest, I learned about anchor charts over the summer.  Even though many of them are geared to an elementary school audience, I can see the value of using them when I essentially have to teach or re-teach non-fiction reading skills.  I found an example that had been pinned and repinned, which means that I have not been able to find the original poster so I can properly credit my source.

I’m the first to admit my handwriting, while neat, isn’t beautiful, so I found a font I liked and printed out my headings (150-size font, in case you’re interested).  I traced around the letters onto my posterboard, then used pencil to follow the indentations. Image


But outlining was pretty tedious, so I decided to just cut out the rest of the headings and glue them onto the anchor chart.  Then I copied samples of each of the text features from our current textbook and added them to my poster.  Finally, I wrote a description of each text feature.  When we get back to school for pre-school teacher work days, I’m going to have the poster laminated so it lasts longer.


I haven’t really started lesson planning for school yet, but the ideas are bubbling around in my brain.  This will most likely be a lesson in the first week or two of school, when we usually cover basic science skills such as scientific method, graphing, and lab safety.  The textbook publisher didn’t make a textbook scavenger hunt for this book, but I may do that to help the kids get familiar with these nonfiction text structures.

Orlando, here I come!

I’m very excited to be attending the College Board’s AP Annual Conference this year!  My department chair and I both went to the conference last year in San Francisco.  I learned so much – who ever thought that I would be excited about attending an hour-long seminar on El Nino/La Nina?  But it was one of those subjects where I wasn’t very confident in my knowledge, and that probably came across to my students in my AP Environmental Science class.  After attending the seminar at the APAC, I felt like I did a much better job of explaining El Nino and La Nina to my students in a way they understood.

If you teach AP courses and have never attended an Annual Conference, I recommend going.  The down side:  it ain’t cheap!  Registration and hotel and travel adds up to over $1000.  I am amazingly lucky in that my principal is happy to use a portion of the AP money that the school receives to pay for teachers to attend the conference.  Last year he paid for four of us to travel (my DC and I, and two of the foreign language teachers) to San Francisco.  I probably would not have asked to attend this year again, except for the fact that this conference is just 3 hours up the road from me.  I was actually surprised that more teachers from my school didn’t ask to attend since it’s so close.

The College Board AP Annual Conference in Orlando, FL




One reason it’s so helpful is in the opportunity to talk with other AP teachers.  I’m the only person teaching AP Environmental at my school.  Occasionally on a PD day, my school district will hold an AP Roundtable so all the AP teachers can work together and share ideas.  At the APAC, there are many APES teachers from all over the US and all over the world, so it offers a lot of different perspectives on teaching APES.  Last year I came away with so many lesson ideas and resources that it took me a long time to sort through them.

One of the workshops this year is on Climate Change and Global Warming.  These topics make up 10-15% of the Topic Outline for AP Environmental, so it’s crucial for me to understand these concepts.  I expect to learn a lot!  I also can’t wait to attend the session on flipping prelabs.  If you aren’t familiar with flipping, it is the process of using students’ out-of-class time (aka homework) to have them learn some of the basic concepts.  Many teachers use podcasts or videos (a la Khan Academy, but usually recording their own lessons) to introduce content.  Class time is then freed up to answer questions, discuss in more detail, or, in this case, have students come in to the lab PREPARED to do the lab.

I’m not taking my laptop with me, so I’ll update when I return.  Now I’ve got to go pack!

Update to Classroom Pets (part one)

At the end of the school year, I was not sure what to do with my moth eggs.  None of them had hatched yet.  I was pretty sure I didn’t want to take them home, since the idea of having stinging caterpillars crawling all over my patio sounded like a bad idea.  I thought about propping the door of the habitat open and setting it underneath one of the trees outside my classroom.  However, I figured when the mowing crew came through, that would be the end of both the habitat AND any residents.  Instead, I carefully picked all the moth eggs out of the habitat and set them at the base of a tree along the back fence at school.  If nothing else, I will be increasing the local population of Automeris io lilith.

The pillbugs came home with me.  Right now, the tank is sitting on my patio, awaiting transfer to a new habitat.  I need to transfer them because apparently the ants and cockroaches in my classroom (EWWWWWWW!) decided that they would like to share the tank with the pillbugs.  Transferring the pillbugs means I have to make a new habitat in a clean tank, then individually pick out the pillbugs and put them in the new tank.  Fun times.

It’s a steep learning curve

Don’t you just hate it when you’re all gung-ho for a project, and hurdles keep jumping up in your way?  I’m very enthusiastic about flipping my AP Environmental Science class this year.  With that class, there’s so much material to cover that the pacing is brutal, and I feel like I don’t have enough time to cover it in the depth my students need.  I love the idea of posting lectures online so students have the baseline information coming in to class.  This will let me use class time to discuss, to do labs, and let them develop their critical thinking skills.

The first lecture topic I picked to flip is The Tragedy of the Commons.  TOC is a very common theme in environmental science.  In a nutshell, TOC says that if we rely on human conscience to not overexploit limited resources, then we will run out of those resources.  Basically, humans can’t be trusted to preserve assets that they want to use.  Thus, the only way to protect common assets is to either allow private ownership, create voluntary agreements to limit use, or to designate the government the authority to limit use and penalize those who overuse.

What I want to do is make a PowerPoint presentation that I can annotate with my Mobi interactive tablet, record video of me expanding on the topics on the slides (because the slides are very sparse in terms of text), combine those two things and make a vodcast.  The vodcast will be uploaded to a website (Youtube, or maybe my school district’s server) so students can view the video and take notes on it.

Made the PowerPoint (on my Windows laptop).  Wrote the script (by hand.  I’m such a Luddite.).  Tried to download the software so I can use the Mobi pad with my Mac laptop.  Nope.  My school-district-issued Mac won’t play nice with the software.  Crap.  Look at downloading the Screencast-O-Matic software onto my Mac laptop.  Nope.  The free version apparently isn’t available for Mac.

There’s got to be a way!  I gave up in frustration yesterday, but got a lead to check out today.  I have to see if my version of iMovie has the picture-in-picture function.  If so, I can use my Windows laptop with the Mobi pad to annotate my PowerPoint and do a screen capture (possibly with a trial version of Camtasia Studio).  I can record my video with my handy-dandy Flip camera, then cobble the two together.  Seems like an indirect way of getting to my goal.

Crossing my fingers.

Classroom Pets (part one)

I spent quite a few years resisting the idea of classroom pets.  I mean, let’s face it, I have three kids, one husband and two dogs at home.  I don’t need something else to take care of!  Over time, my colleagues have had classroom pets – fish, turtles, lizards and, infamously, snakes (there’s a whole blog post in itself).  And, even though they’re teenagers, there’s a constant clamor from the students:  “Miss, why don’t you get a (insert “simple” critter here)?”

I need low-maintenance.  I can barely keep plants alive.  I would feel guilty if I allowed a poor defenseless critter to die just because it had the misfortune to be in my classroom.

A couple of years ago, I hit upon the perfect low-maintenance classroom pet.  I went to a workshop for AP Environmental Science.  The leader had us do a lab using pillbugs to demonstrate animal behavior.  The leader had flown in from another state, and had no interest in packing up the pillbugs for his return trip, so he offered them to the participants.  Surprisingly (NOT), no one else wanted the pillbugs, so I took them and set up a habitat.  I’ll post another time about my pillbugs.

A couple of weeks ago, some students brought one of my colleagues a moth the students had found.  In a turn of events I still don’t understand, I ended up with this moth.  I didn’t even know what kind of moth it was.  It set in a jar in my classroom all day.  Honestly, my original intention was to get through the day, then release the moth outside my back door as soon as all the students left.  I soon felt guilty, though, that my colleague had entrusted this moth to me.  The least I could do was find out what kind of moth it was and make sure it could survive in the wild.  And make sure it wasn’t an invasive species – as much as I harp on my students about not releasing invasive species into the wild, I’d hate to be a hypocrite on the matter, even unintentionally.


This is my moth friend.  I spent a few minutes on Google Images and quickly determined that this moth is a female Automeris io lilith, a species common in the southeastern US.  Cool!  But what do I have to feed it?  A little more research showed that the adult moths don’t eat – their function is basically to reproduce.  I had no idea whether this moth had mated before she was captured, but I decided to set up a habitat anyway.  The packrat from whom I inherited my classroom left a screened cage (oops, forgot to take a picture of that), so I added some paper towels, some branches from a tree outside my classroom, and some leaves.

This week I checked on my moth and saw . .  EGGS!  I am such a science nerd that this was cause for much excitement!  She has been laying eggs throughout the course of the week in little clumps.  I suspect she was laying them on the screen on the sides of the cage, but they were falling to the bottom of the cage.


I had students research how long it would take for the eggs to hatch.  If the 15-20 days estimate is correct, we might get to see some caterpillars before school lets out for the summer.  That will lead to my next dilemma – the instars for Automeris io lilith sting.  Bad idea for the classroom!  Since this species is native, I will probably find a nice area outside and release them and let nature take its course.

If you want more information about Automeris io lilith, here is where I found most of my information: