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.

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.

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: https://www6.discountschoolsupply.com/Product/ProductDetail.aspx?product=3359

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.