Cheers to the End of the Year! (The end-of-year reflection assignment I used to end on a positive note)

Wow, I did not expect to be away from blogging for that long. But you know what happened. The transition to remote learning was swift – my school went from “we’re making a plan just in case” to “oooh, you have two days to prepare and then we go live” in the space of a week or so. We also went from “we’ll be back on campus after spring break” to “we might be back by May 1” to “this is how the rest of the school year is going to go”. So many ups and downs – I described it to a colleague as a rollercoaster of excitement as the car climbed the hill and started down, to the depths of despair as the “fun” wore off, and then the plateau of resignation as we were grinding through to the end.

But I don’t want to dwell on that experience. I wanted to find a way to end the school year on a positive note. We wouldn’t be able to do the usual final project and presentation; final exams were essentially canceled. We were told that all assessments had to be complete by the next-to-last class, so there was one final class session looming ahead. What could I do with my class that could keep them engaged when they knew there were no more grades to be doled out?

I read a blog post that talked about end of the year reflections, but now for the life of me I cannot find that post! (I thought it was one of my usual reads, but I have searched my Feedly teaching folder high and low and didn’t find it.)

That post pointed me in two specific directions that I incorporated into a final assignment. The first direction was Dave Stuart Jr.’s blog post on Pop-Up Toasts. Dave Stuart’s blog is one of my usual reads, so I’d probably seen this and had it in the back of my mind. In his blog post, he lists a few prompts that he gives students. He has them do a quick writing assignment, then has students fine-tune their toasts by working with a partner. Finally, each student shares their toast with the whole class.

The second direction was an End-of-the-Year choice board of prompts created by Teach in the Peach. The choice board included great, thought-provoking prompts for students to reflect on areas of growth.

Obviously I had to make a few modifications, since everyone was working remotely, and we only had one Zoom meeting per week for each class. I selected nine different prompts. I made one addition to the prompt to encourage (aka FORCE) my students to write more. I know my students – if the prompt said “My favorite lab/activity/lesson from biology class this year was . . . “, I would have gotten a lot of one or two word answers. So for many of the prompts, I added “because . . .” to the end of the prompt. I wanted to know WHY it was their favorite activity!

A week before the final class, I went over the assignment and the prompts. First, each student had to choose three prompts and write a brief reflection. I didn’t want a folder full of private reflections, though, so they had to post their reflection in a discussion post I set up in Schoology. I made them separate their reflections, so each one was a separate post. Second, each student had to respond to three of their classmates’ reflections.

I didn’t know what to expect – I didn’t know whether students were so burnt out and demoralized from the remote learning experience that they would focus on the negative, or if they would blow off the assignment because they knew it wouldn’t really change their grade much.

As I started reading their posts, though, I was gratified to see that they took the assignment seriously. Their reflections? *hand on heart* So amazing.

Not gonna lie, I copy/pasted so many of their responses into a spreadsheet for those days when I need a little pick-me-up. I’m also planning to make a slideshow of responses to the most popular prompt: “The top piece of advice I would give to next year’s biology students is . . .” so I can share it with next year’s students at the beginning of the school year. If we start the year with in-person teaching (*fingers crossed*), I will have it running on the screen as they come in on the first day of class.

On the last day of class, once everyone was logged in to Zoom, I put students in pairs and had them go to a breakout room to practice their toasts. When we came back together in the main session, I randomly called on students and had them share their toasts. They were thoughtful and funny and really great with each other. After everyone had shared, I made my own toast to them. I acknowledged the community they had built in their classes, the grace and grit they showed in shifting to remote learning, and their all-around fantasticness.

I’m glad for the people who inspired me to do this activity – unknown blogger that started the ball rolling, Dave Stuart Jr, and Teach in the Peach. It was a positive way to finish up a really weird teaching year.

Wow, what a school year that was!

Using formative assessment for individualized instruction

As part of the unit on Natural Selection and Evolution, I use antibiotic-resistant bacteria as an example of evolution that we have been able to see and measure in real time. At this point in the year, we haven’t talked much about bacteria, so my students don’t have a lot of background knowledge about them. The past couple of years, my bio colleagues and I have used the Antibiotic Sensitivity lab to give students a hands-on experience of working with bacteria, agar plates, and antibiotic disks. (If you haven’t done this lab before, both Flinn Scientific and Carolina have kits that give you everything you need.)

Students read the results of their lab about 24 hours after they plate the bacteria. They have to look for and measure any zone of inhibition around the antibiotic disks that they placed on the agar. From this, they have to conclude whether the antibiotic is effective against the bacteria.

Students measure the diameter of the zone of inhibition

I did not have students prepare a formal lab report for this assignment. Instead, there were a few targeted questions asking about how they know if the bacteria is resistant to an antibiotic, and how they would determine which antibiotic is most effective against the bacteria. I was looking for evidence that students understood that if an antibiotic is effective against bacteria, there will be a clear zone of inhibition around the disk where the bacteria were killed. If the bacteria was resistant to the antibiotic, then there would be no zone of inhibition around the disk.

Within the first few assignments I started grading, I quickly saw that students were reversing the two results. It was one of those “ooooh dear” moments, so I started spot-checking answers across all of my classes to see if it was a fluke (I was crossing my fingers!), or if there was a real pattern emerging. Sure enough, a significant number of students thought that if there was a zone of inhibition, that meant the bacteria were “resisting” that antibiotic.

Ooooooops. Double oops, when I considered the fact that there were questions on the upcoming test that assessed this concept. But I was also running out of time – there was only one class period before the test. At first I thought that I would reteach the concept to the whole class, although that would take away time that I had planned to give them for review. Thankfully, the lightbulb went on and I realized I could do a quick spot check to figure out which students did not understand. Then I could pull them aside for some one-on-one review.

I teach at a 1:1 school, so I knew I could use a Google form for quick answers. I started with a photo of a bacterial plate with five antibiotic disks on it, showing a range of zones of inhibition. I edited the photo to number each disk. I wrote four brief questions: (1) which antibiotic is the bacteria resistant to (they could choose as many as they wanted); (2) if the bacteria are resistant to an antibiotic, what will you see on the petri dish (short answer); (3) which antibiotic is the most effective against the bacteria (multiple choice – they could only choose one); and (4) explain how you know which antibiotic is most effective against the bacteria (short answer).

I had students fill out the Google form at the very beginning of class. After everybody had submitted their responses, I could quickly see who understood and who did not.

I also exported the data to a Google sheet so I could identify which students answered incorrectly. (I set the form to automatically collect their email address.) For those students, I had a paper copy of the image I used. I went to each student individually and went over the answers to make sure they had the correct information. They got an annotated copy of the correct answers to put in their notebooks so they can refer to it when they are studying for their test.

The best things about this were that I could find out exactly who needed help, and that it only took a few minutes of class time to find out the information!

Smelly Balloons – introducing cell membranes and permeability

Oh. My. Goodness. This is one of my favorite activities for introducing cell membranes and diffusion! The original idea is from Flinn Scientific, but the “lab” provided only the barest outlines of what you could do with this activity. This activity is FUN but definitely needed a little supplementing to make it more educational. I used the activity as a standalone for several years, but a couple of years ago I beefed up the analysis with a worksheet.

So first, let me tell you the fun part. You take latex balloons and fill each one with a little bit of flavoring extracts. Students try to identify what each smell is – it’s always entertaining to watch them sniff the balloon and argue with each other what it smells like.

I have a stockpile of four or five different flavor extracts so I can change them up. Try to use ones that smell distinct from each other – lemon and lime smell very similar. Word of caution, though – I used maple extract one time. Do not recommend . . . unless you want your classroom to smell like pancakes for a few days. Whew, that smell LINGERS! I use four balloons per class and tape them at different places around the room.

You can reuse balloons if you have back-to-back classes, because the smell will still be strong enough. However, I like to make fresh balloons in front of the students so they can see that I’m putting the extract inside of the balloon. It leads to a great discussion – “You saw me put the liquid INSIDE, so explain how you can smell it outside of the balloon!” – that they would miss out on if you just gave them a pre-prepared balloon. And occasionally we get the unintentional comedy when I let go of the blown-up balloon before I’ve tied it in a knot.

I added a second procedure that rounds out the idea of semi-permeability of cell membranes. I add two or three stations with a scale and some water balloons. I’ve recorded the mass of the water balloons ahead of time, and students have to weigh the water balloon and record the initial and final mass. (OK, full disclosure here: sometimes I have to fudge this a little bit. I tape a weigh boat to the scale, because if the balloon is sitting at a different location on the weigh plate, the mass will be different. And to be honest, if I forgot to do this ahead of time, I’ll weigh the balloon right before class and pretend I did it much earlier.)

After students have complete both of those activities, we have a discussion about why the extract molecules “escaped” but the water molecules didn’t. If they’re having trouble with an explanation, I project a photo of latex under an electron microscope so they can see that what seems like a solid sheet of material actually has spaces between the molecules. That leads into a discussion of the relative sizes of the extract molecules and water molecules.

The final step is for students to complete an analogy map. They have to explicitly compare the balloon to a cell membrane, the flavor extract to small molecules, and the water to large molecules.

This activity is a great way to introduce students to cell membranes and permeability, as a lead-in to discussing osmosis and diffusion. It doesn’t take much time to set up, and it’s enough of a discrepant event to get students thinking. Plus, it’s very memorable to students – you can refer back to it later when they have to think through diffusion, facilitated diffusion and osmosis, and even active transport.

Before-During-After Drawings – Helping students differentiate between diffusion, osmosis, and active transport

Students seem to have difficulty sorting through the different types of cell transport, because it’s such an abstract concept. Even after reading the textbook, taking notes, and doing different activities, my students didn’t understand the difference between diffusion, osmosis, and active transport. I created a handout for my students to use as part of our review for the test that had them visually explain what was happening during each process.

The basic format is one of the formative assessments Paige Keeley sets out in her book, Science Formative Assessment (volume 2). She calls them “B-D-A Drawings”. Rather than do each process separately, I created one document to compare the three processes. It was a spur-of-the-moment creation, so I hand-drew the drawings for the “before” panels. One benefit of giving students the “before” drawings is that they’re all using the same basic shapes for solute and water, and the same number of molecules, and I can set it up to guide them toward what their “during” and “after” drawings will contain.

Students got this basic template, with the “before” drawings

I did a jigsaw activity for this handout – I counted off students as 1, 2, or 3, then put each number at a separate table. Each table was assigned one drawing to complete. As each table worked on their drawings, I circulated through the room to answer questions they had, or to ask groups questions to prompt them to think about what would happen for their assigned process. When the group working on diffusion seemed stuck, I did a quick demo with a beaker of water and some food coloring. The osmosis group had the right idea about water moving (instead of solutes), but when I saw that their drawings did not change the water level, I asked them what would happen to the water level on each side.

Students used their science notebooks to help them think through their processes. It took them about 5-10 minutes to discuss what they thought would happen and draw the “during” and “after” diagrams. It also prompted a good discussion about equilibrium – how it would be different for each process, and how the active transport process wouldn’t reach equilibrium.

After each group had completed their set of diagrams, I regrouped students so there was one person with each diagram at a table group. Each student had to explain their diagrams to their tablemates and answer any questions. After each student had explained their process, students had to complete the diagrams for the two processes they didn’t have.

My answer key – oops, forgot to take pictures of student samples!

Overall, this activity gave students a visual explanation of the differences between diffusion, osmosis, and active transport. With larger classes, you could create multiple groups for each process to keep group size small enough to keep students focused on the work.

Quick Takes: Reviewing with Tarsia puzzles

If you haven’t heard of Tarsia puzzles, they are kind of like jigsaw puzzles and kind of like a matching game. They remind me a lot of Triominoes – that game with triangular pieces with numbers on each side, and you have to match numbers to create a big triangle.

Tarsia is the brainchild of Hermitech Laboratory, and is software that will create customized card sort activities. I think it was originally created for math teachers, but it can easily be adapted (with some workarounds) for any content area. (One caveat: there is no Mac option for the program – I’m lucky to have access to both Mac and Windows computers, so if I want to make a Tarsia, I make it on my home computer and save it as a PDF to print at work.)

The Tarsia software has a variety of geometric shapes to use – triangles, hexagons, rectangles, etc. – and make a puzzle with between 17 and 30 paired expressions. There’s a standard version, where the outside edges are left blank so students can easily find the borders, and an extended version, where there are unpaired phrases on the outside edges so it’s more challenging to figure out the borders.

To make a Tarsia puzzle, you create a list of paired words or expressions. (The software also allows you to insert images, but I haven’t tried that yet.) The major limitation for the paired words is space – since the software was originally created for math, there’s only room for a few characters. Once you get more than about 20 characters, the print size and spacing between words gets so small it’s difficult to read. Not as much of a problem if you are creating tabletop-sized pieces for students to use. However, if you want to use them for student notebook activities, you’re reducing the size of the puzzle by a decent amount, making it very hard for students to read the text. I’ve used a blank template and handwritten the paired phrases if I’m worried about legibility (or if I’m at work and want to make the puzzle).

Handwritten phrases in a blank template

Once you created your paired phrases, the software creates pages with scrambled puzzle pieces. There are usually 2 or 3 pages of shapes, so what I do is print them out and reduce the size of the images until I can fit all of the pieces onto one sheet of copy paper.

A one-page Tarsia handout for student notebooks. (See what I mean about legibility?)

When I give students this one-page handout, they cut apart the pieces and then have to create the completed puzzle, matching words and phrases. A word of caution: it takes students a loooooong time to complete the puzzle. I usually have them work in pairs, with the understanding that each student needs to have a completed puzzle in their notebook. I have a completed puzzle in my notebook to use as an answer key, so I can easily check student work. I also have a photo of a completed puzzle that I can project on the board so everyone can check their own puzzle.

The answer key – a completed puzzle!

This activity is great for reviewing vocabulary and basic factual information. Obviously with the size limitation, it isn’t great for more in-depth information. I plan to experiment with using images in a puzzle – I think that would be great for a beginning-of-the-year practice for lab tools, especially the different kinds of glassware.

Red light, yellow light, green light! Using a Learning Objectives “Traffic Light” to have students self-evaluate knowledge

As we get closer to the end of a unit, with the test date looming in sight, students start wondering “What’s going to be on the test?” Of course, they start off by asking (demanding?) if I’m going to give them a study guide. Side note: I occasionally probe what they mean by “study guide” by asking them what kind of study guides they received in middle school. It varied – some got a problem sheet, some got a list of questions that ended up being the same questions they saw on the test. Very few students reported being taught how to make their own study guides.

One of the strategies I learned when I participated in the Academy for Excellence in Biology Teaching (through the Stanford Center to Support Excellence in Teaching) was the “Traffic Light”. The Traffic Light is a list of learning objectives in a grid format. This is the third year of using Traffic Lights as study guides for our classes – although the details have morphed a little bit over time, the basic format remains the same.

I use Excel to create the traffic light because it’s easy to make the grid and reformat as needed. The goal is to fit the traffic light on one page. Each learning objective gets its own line in the sheet, in the center column of the grid. Over time, our Traffic Light handouts have gotten bigger, mostly because we’ve gotten more detailed in the information our learning objective contains. We want students to know exactly what they need to learn. The right column is blank so students can write in their own information. The left column is blank, and that’s where the “traffic light” tag comes into play. I instruct students to read the learning objective and evaluate how well they know or understand the content of the learning objective. They fill in the left column with either red, yellow, or green: “Red light” means they don’t understand that concept at all; “Yellow light” means they know something about it, but don’t feel especially confident that they understand it; and “Green light” means they are 100% sure they understand that concept.

At first, I found that students wanted to impress (or maybe distract) me, so they would give themselves lots of green lights. Now I remind them that the traffic light is just for them, and that I might not ever see it, so it’s important for them to be honest with themselves about how well they understand. If I’m working one-on-one with a student during office hours, I can ask them questions about a particular learning objective to draw out how well they understand the content, and help them determine where they really fall on the learning spectrum.

Once a student has completed the traffic light, I point out that they’ve just prioritized what they need to study for the test. Spend the most time on the red light material, fill in the missing parts on the yellow light material, but don’t forget to review the green light material as well.

Not exactly red/yellow/green, but this student has evaluated what they know

Students use the right column in a few different ways. Some of them will go through their notebook and write which pages or activities relate to each learning goal. That way they know which notebook pages to study. I also remind them to look at the labs we’ve done, since those won’t be in their notebooks. Some students jot down notes or summaries in the right column, using it for retrieval practice of what they know. After they finish, they can go back through their notebooks to fill in the blanks or correct misconceptions. A lot of these students will also use the traffic light as a jumping off point to make a more detailed study guide for themselves.

Using the Traffic Light to summarize what they know

Up to now, we’ve created the Traffic Light as a retrospective view – once we’ve created the unit test, we make the Traffic Light to focus students specifically on what they need to know for the test. For example, if I taught how temperature, pH, and substrate concentration affect the rate of enzyme reaction, but the test question only assesses temperature, then the learning objective will focus students on just temperature. On the one hand, students feel like they aren’t “wasting their time” (minor eyeroll here) studying information that won’t be on the test. On the other hand, I don’t want to create the impression that some of the concepts taught weren’t “important enough” to be on the test. I’m sure the truth falls somewhere in between those two extremes, but sometimes it feels like we’re aiming for fewer student complaints. Ideally, I would like to use the Traffic Light as a prospective view by introducing it at the beginning of a unit so students can track their progress as they learn. It would be more of a roadmap for the unit so students can see where we’re going from the beginning of the unit.

Teaching students how to identify parts of an experiment

One thing I’ve noticed over the past few years is that my students (9th graders) have a hard time figuring out the different components of an experiment. This leads to difficulty in writing a hypothesis, knowing how to graph their data, and ultimately, in writing a scientific conclusion in their lab reports.

When I was looking for review materials at the end of our first unit, I found a worksheet to help with this issue. The worksheet gave a description of an experiment, and asked students to identify the independent variables, dependent variables and constants, describe the control and experimental groups, and write a proposed hypothesis. (Of course, I looked at so many websites to find this that I now can’t remember the actual source of this worksheet.) I had my students do the review worksheet, and it seemed to help them.

After the activity, my colleague (we both teach multiple sections of on-level biology) had a brilliant idea – why don’t we continue to use this format for the labs we do in class? Sometimes the obvious solution is right in front of your eyes!

Now we’ve revamped our prelab activities to have students methodically identify the different parts of the experiment they’ll be doing. The handout goes in their notebook, but you could just as easily have students handwrite the information in their notebooks to save paper.

The worksheet starts with a brief explanation of what they will be doing in the lab. We make sure the explanation contains enough information that students CAN identify all the parts of the experiment. Below the explanation is space to write. For example, we did a simple osmosis/dialysis tube lab. The worksheet we used is below:

Student sample for the osmosis lab

Students work together in their lab groups to identify all of the parts. While they’re working, I circulate through the room, listening for misconceptions and answering questions.

Since we started using this process, students have become more adept at understanding the different components of an experiment, as well as being able to watch for the results they expect (as opposed to trying to figure it out after the fact). When it’s time to graph their data, they can easily identify which variable goes on each axis, so I’ve seen much better graphs this semester. In addition, when they write their lab reports, it much easier for them to transfer the information from this worksheet.

Big Ideas About Experimental Design – An Interactive Activity

It feels obligatory to start off the school year with a lesson on The Scientific Method, which exists in the mind of students as a Thing. For many students, it’s a rigid, lockstep slog through a mythical world of how scientists work. And by the time they get to high school, they’ve definitely heard it several times.

Rather than spend a lot of time rehashing what they already knew, I wanted to tease out the important parts of experimental design in a more interactive manner. I also wanted to get my students up and moving around the classroom and getting to know each other.

Predictably, when I asked my students “How many of you have studied ‘the scientific method’ (and yes, I used air quotes)?” a good 90% of them raised their hands. I’m sure they thought I was going to launch into the usual scientific method lesson.

I’d prepared sheets of butcher paper ahead of time with four prompts written at the top: Hypothesis, Variables & constants, How to write the procedure, and Types of data. I put each piece of butcher paper at a separate table group and gave each student a pad of sticky notes. The instructions I gave them were to write down anything they knew about their prompt and stick it to the paper. I asked them to use a separate sticky note for each idea. Once they started writing, I gave them a few minutes to get all their ideas down on paper.

After a few minutes, I had groups rotate to another table (with their sticky notes). At the new table, I asked the groups to read the new prompt, read the ideas that were already on the paper, and add any new ideas to the paper. They could also correct any ideas that they thought were incorrect. We repeated this process until each group had visited all four tables.

Once they returned to their original group, I gave them a few minutes to read all of the ideas for their prompt. Then I asked each group to share with the class what they thought were the main ideas for their prompt. As they summarized, I wrote down all their ideas on the board. If I thought a group was missing something important, I first asked them a question to see if they could come up with the answer, then opened the question to the whole class if they couldn’t.

Since this was the second day of class, my students hadn’t brought in their notebooks yet. Rather than have them copy these notes, I created a handout for them to glue in once we got the notebooks set up. I collected the Big Ideas from all of my classes and compiled them into one handout that I called “Big Ideas About Experimental Design”.

All in all, this was a painless way to find out what students already knew about designing a scientific experiment. Although this doesn’t include everything, it created a launching pad to get the class started on our scientific explorations.

Teaching basic graphing skills

One of the first lessons I teach each year is graphing. Now I don’t know about you, but for my students (9th grade), everything is a bar graph. EVERYTHING. I don’t know where this idea gets embedded in their brains, but it’s probably one of the hardest habits to break. I start early, reinforce it often, and grade consistently throughout the year. And, what do you know, by the end of last year, all of my students were using the appropriate type of graph!

For my biology students (regular level, 9th graders), I keep it simple. I’m only going to teach them to differentiate between line graphs, bar graphs, and pie charts. I’m teaching them the foundation and leaving it to other teachers (their math or future science teachers) to get more detailed, with concepts like scatterplots, lines of best fit, error bars, etc.

I’ve always taught scientific graphing, even before I was fully immersed in NGSS, but seeing how this fit into the Crosscutting Concepts (I’m going to abbreviate it as CCC from here) just reinforces the importance of graphing. The best fit of graphing in to the CCC is in Patterns, Cause and Effect, and Scale, Proportion and Quantity. (In addition, NSTA has prepared a great matrix of the CCC.) In the Grades 6-8 Patterns section, the matrix explicitly says that “graphs . . . can be used to identify patterns in data.” A well-plotted graph can show the relationship between a manipulated/independent variable and the responding/dependent variable. From there, students can infer cause and effect.

I have students take notes on graphing on a foldable that gets glued in their notebooks. During the presentation, we discuss what a “good” graph includes, and when to use each kind of graph.

Graphing foldable for student note-taking

There are a couple of useful acronyms that I give my students to help them remember how to properly graph their data. The first is “DRY MIX” – “DRY” means that the Dependent/Responding variable goes on the Y-axis, and “MIX” means that the Manipulated/Independent variable goes on the X-axis. I like this acronym because some textbooks or teachers will use the terms manipulated and responding to refer to variables, while others will use independent and dependent, so this acronym covers both of those bases.

The second acronym I give my students is “TAILS”. I wish I remembered where I first found this acronym, because it is so useful!

  • T stands for Title – I teach my students that their title should explain the relationship between the independent variable the the dependent variable. (I ask them to make a title that explicitly states the relationship – if they’re at a total loss, I give them a standard template of “Effect of -IV- on -DV-“.)
  • A stands for Axes – this incorporates the DRY MIX acronym to make sure the variables are on the correct axes.
  • I stands for Intervals – the number intervals on the axes should be evenly spaced.
  • L stands for Labels – the axes should be labeled with the variable and units, and there must be a key/legend if there are multiple lines or categories.
  • S stands for Scale – I tell students that their graph should take up as much space on the graph paper as possible, usually at least 2/3 or 3/4 of the space. No teeny-tiny graphs, and no graphs that go outside the boundaries of the grid (which means don’t draw your own lines at the top or right of the grid).

At the bottom of the foldable, I explain when each type of graph is appropriate. With line graphs, I struggled with how to explain it to students in a general enough way that they got it. “Tracking continuous changes in the independent variable” was confusing and not exactly correct. When I looked at the CCC, the light finally came on – a line graph is used to show the cause and effect relationship between the variables. To state it as a question, “As the scientist changes the independent variable, how does that affect the dependent variable?” I will still keep the “continuous data” part of it to help students see that if there is a continuum of the units for the independent variable, then a line graph is the best choice.

The categories of the TAILS acronym get incorporated into a 10-point grading rubric (which I won’t post because it’s not my own work product). Students get a copy of the grading rubric at the beginning of the year, and it is glued into the reference section of their science notebook. I also made a mini-rubric summary (just the categories and point values) that I print out – when I grade, I can just circle the point awarded for each category. I staple the mini-rubric to their paper so students can see where they lost points.

What I noticed last year was that by explicitly teaching graphing skills AND consistently using the graph grading rubric all year, students quickly developed their graphing skills. Most students were graphing at the 9.5-10 point level by the end of the first semester. The biggest challenges seemed to be in crafting a graph title, and in figuring out the intervals on the axes. By the end of the school year, when students were crunching data for their final projects, every student was using the appropriate graph for their data, and was correctly graphing their data.

Quick Takes: Fill-in-the-blank review races

I love a good Kahoot as much as the next teacher, but they do have their limitations. Sometimes I want a review activity that has a little more conceptual heft. And sometimes I need to mix things up so it’s not “all Kahoots all day”. I’ve used cloze reading activities in the past, so it was an easy pivot to make them into a review activity.

A good starting place to make a cloze reading activity is the supplemental materials that are commonly published with textbooks.* The book we use, Biology by Miller and Levine, includes summaries of each textbook section. I adapt those by using the parts of the section we covered, and then add information from other activities (including labs or class notes). Once you have the basic text, you strategically replace words or phrases with blanks. Many times, I will remove a vocabulary word but also add some context clues so students have to understand the meaning of the vocabulary word to correctly fill in the blank.

You can use a cloze reading activity at any point in an instructional unit, but I like to save them for review days. By that time, we’ve covered the content through reading, note-taking, labs, and formative assessments. Using the cloze reading is a form of retrieval practice. As I tell my students, “The information is in your brain already, you just have to teach your brain how to find it.”

And of course, kids love review games. I pair students, usually with their table partner, and have them set their notebooks on the table for easy access. I set this review up as a race – partners work together to fill in the blanks, and the first group to correctly complete the reading gets a prize. (I usually give prizes to second place winners as well.) By working with a partner, students who are less confident in their knowledge still have a good shot at winning.

I hand out the reading by placing it face-down in front of each group, telling students to leave the paper face down until I get all of them handed out. And then it’s “Ready . . . Set . . . GO!” While they’re furiously working, I am at my desk with the answer key. As a group finishes, they come up and I mark any blanks that are incorrect and send them back to keep working. If multiple groups are finished, they form a line at my desk so I can check their papers in order.

Once winners are declared, I project the answer key – all students are expected to complete a reading worksheet and glue it in their notebook. I also ask students to reflect on how well they knew the answers and use that reflection to plan their study time. I can also take questions to clarify any knowledge gaps or misunderstandings.

In my experience with this review activity, all students are engaged to the very end. And it only takes ten minutes, so I can do other review activities during the same class period. I also send a blank copy (and the answer key) to our Center for Student Success so the teachers there can use it to review with students who have a CSS period (supported study hall).

*I can’t include a sample, since the worksheets I make are derived in large part from copyrighted textbook materials.