Collaborative Vocabulary

One of the hallmarks of high school biology is the firehose of new vocabulary words. If you’ve taught biology, you’ve probably heard someone say “it’s like learning a new language!” and it probably seems like that to a high school student who opens the textbook and sees a list of 20-odd vocabulary words in a chapter. (For example, in Chapter 11 of the textbook we use – Miller & Levine – there are 28 vocabulary words on the topic of cell division.)

On rare occasions, though, students will encounter familiar words that they remember from elementary or middle school. When this happens, learning the vocabulary is more like activating prior knowledge. Rather than send students to the textbook to look up definitions, it’s the perfect opportunity to use retrieval practice to help students remember what the vocabulary words mean.

One of the few units in high school biology where this happens is the ecology/ecosystems unit. In my experience, middle school science classes do a great job of exposing students to the terms that explain the relationships between different organisms in an ecosystem. When I showed my students a list of words, all of them knew, for example, what a carnivore ate. There were a few new terms, but even some of those words could be paired with vocabulary words students already knew. If students knew what a producer was, it was easy to connect the word “autotroph” to it.

I projected the vocabulary list on the board and had students work with a partner to define each term and write that definition in their notebooks. *Bonus – students use their own words to explain the meaning rather than mindlessly copying the textbook definition!* While they were working together, I could circulate in the room and listen for misconceptions, and help out groups that were stuck. Once I could see that the groups were done, we regathered for a whole class discussion of what the words meant. I asked students to give me their definitions for the words they knew, then explained the meaning of words they were seeing for the first time, such as “trophic level.”

Quick Take: avoid “glue hands” with Tap n Glue Caps

Hands down, Tap n Glue caps are some of the best tools out there if you’re using interactive notebooks in class. (I don’t receive any financial compensation or benefit for recommending these, I’m just a longtime fan.) I’d say the main market for these is with elementary teachers, but trust me, a teenager’s fascination with making “glue hands” is still a thing.

Love these things! Picture credit:

Before I started using Tap n Glue caps, I went through most of a gallon bottle of school glue in a semester. If it wasn’t “glue hands”, it was also students covering every square inch of their paper with glue. My promises of “five dots of glue will hold your paper in”, accompanied with a visual of me holding my notebook by one cover and shaking it vigorously, fell on deaf ears. With these caps, most of the time my students will use just five dots of glue, mainly because they don’t have the patience to apply glue repeatedly.

I do have a few tips that I’ve figured out over time:

  • When you first put the caps on the glue bottles, smear some petroleum jelly on the threads of the glue bottle. This will make it much easier to unscrew the caps later.
  • As glue is dispensed, it will create a vacuum and collapse the sides of the glue bottle. Every once in a while, unscrew the cap enough to allow air back inside the bottle. (You can squeeze the sides of the bottle if you’re impatient like me.)
  • Sometimes you will have a real comedian who thinks it’s hilarious to unscrew the cap just enough so that when the next unsuspecting user squeezes the bottle, the cap pops off and leaves a puddle of glue all over their paper. You can either train your students to check the cap before using it, or occasionally tighten the caps yourself.
  • I do assembly line refills from a gallon jug of glue.
  • Some of your kids will gladly volunteer to pick off the dried glue “scabs” from every bottle within reach. Otherwise, remind students that they’ll need to scrape the dried glue off the tip before any glue will come out.

You will probably have to train your students how to use the Tap n Glue caps. They’re used to unscrewing the top of a normal glue cap, so this is a little different. To use the caps, hold the glue bottle upside down with the tip of the Tap n Glue cap touching the paper. Press down on the glue bottle (the cap is spring-loaded) and squeeze gently to release one (yes, just one!) drop of glue. The more you squeeze, the bigger the drop of glue.

I hope you like these little nuggets as much as I do!

Quick take: Commit and Toss Formative Assessment Technique

One of my goals for this school year is to increase the amount of formative assessment as a way to check for my students’ understanding. When I saw a package deal at NSTA for Page Keeley’s Science Formative Assessment books, I pounced! Such a deal for 125 formative assessment techniques. I am slowly working my way through the books and figuring out how to incorporate more of them into my instruction.

Page Keeley’s Science Formative Assessment 2-book set – highly recommend!

The first one I used was “Commit and Toss”. During the previous class, we had looked at The Biology Corner’s The Lesson of the Kaibab, a case study looking at the impact of population size on ecosystem resources. Part of the case study addressed how removing the deer’s predators caused the deer population to skyrocket, leading to depletion of the deer’s food sources. Students made a graph tracking the population size of the Kaibab deer herd before the predator removal, after the removal, and later, after the predators were reintroduced. For this formative assessment, I used the prompt “Was the Forest Service’s plan [to remove predators] successful?” and asked students to commit to an answer and justify it.

The key part of Commit and Toss is that students do not write their names on their response. This reduces any stress to have the “right” answer, or to be embarrassed about sharing their answer to the whole class. I gave my students a few minutes to write out a response, then gathered them in a circle. I gave the instruction, “Okay, now crumple your paper into a ball”, then had them turn around so their backs faced the inside of the circle, and drop their crumpled paper into the center. (The book says have students toss their papers, but I have some rambunctious ninth graders and I could easily imagine what THAT would look like!) To mix things up a little more, I had students collect a paper ball from the center, and then we repeated the over-the-shoulder drop again.

After the second round, students opened their paper and silently read their response. I then sorted the responses into 3 groups: Yes the program was successful; No the program was not successful; and The program was kinda successful. Each group took a minute to review the responses and choose one or two responses that they felt had the best justification for the answer. Then I had each group share those responses to the whole class. When the group shared, I had them start with “The papers we got said . . . ” to disconnect the student from the answer so they didn’t have any attachment to whether the answer was right or not.

Overall, I loved the Commit and Toss technique. It was a quick way to check in with how students processed the information in the case study and how well they understood the cause-and-effect link between the removal of predators and the deer population size. The other thing I appreciated was that my students got to hear their classmates’ reasoning for whether the Forest Service program was successful or not. Immediately following the Commit and Toss exercise, I had students write a brief reflection in their notebooks about what they learned from this case study.