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Thursday, January 24, 2013

My Favorite New Toy!

I have a confession to make......

......when I use a PowerPoint presentation in my classroom, I love to use a lot of animations.....

Okay, I have said it!

I recently got a feedback from one of my buyers suggesting that I remove all of the animations from my PowerPoint presentations.  He wanted all the items on a slide to be visible at one time.  But I couldn't disagree more!  I only want my students to see what I want them to see at any given point in my lesson.  I do not include a lot of moving parts (as you see here), but I do limit the amount of information the student can see.  As I am teaching, I want the student to focus ONLY on what I am currently teaching.  When it is time to move one, then a few clicks gets the students to the next point in my lesson.  This prevents the student from simply copying from the PowerPoint without listening to the explanation.  If the student can only see one sentence at a time, then that is all they can copy!  I get to determine when they should write more information in their notes.

So, now I am getting to the point of this blog post.  I, too, was a prisoner to my computer.  I like to walk around and pace while I am teaching.  This is hard to do if you have to constantly click from your computer keyboard to get to the next PowerPoint slide.

The solution?  Buy a clicker!  I recently bought the  

"Kensington 33374 Wireless Presenter with Laser Pointerto use with my computer.  It has changed my life!  I cannot say enough good things about this product!  It is so simple to use.  Simply insert the receiver into a USB port on your computer and you are ready to go.  Not only can you click through your PowerPoint with ease, but it also has a laser pointer that can be used to direct your student's attention to a particular part of a slide.  The receiver is inserted at the base of the unit for easy storage.

The cost was around $40, but it may be the best money I have ever spent.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Can I Make Protists More Interesting For My Students?

When a biology teacher says to the class, "Today we are going to start our unit on the algae, followed by a unit on the protozoa,"  the collective groan from the class can be deafening.  Nothing can be worse to a high school kid than studying algae!  Well..... maybe studying the fungi is worse, but not by much!  

My solution?  Excitement!!  I must be a real science nerd, but I really, really like teaching this topic.  And when I get excited, my students (mostly) get excited, too.

The Protista Kingdom contains all organisms that cannot be classified as fungi, true plants or animals.  The range and variety of organisms in this kingdom is huge!  Some protists  are more closely related to plants, fungi, or animals than they are to other protists.  Biologists cannot agree on how to classify these organisms, and some scientists have now split the Protista Kingdom into as many as 20 different kingdoms.  The term "protist" is still used as a convenient way to refer to eukaryotes that are neither plants, animals, or fungi.

This school year, I wanted to give my unit on protists a little extra punch.  I wanted to make it as visual as possible, so I put together a brand new PowerPoint presentation that covers both the algae and the protozoans.  Wow!  It ended up being 99 slides long with handouts for my students of 19 pages.  I did break this up into two units of study, though.  I first covered the algae and gave a unit test on just algae, followed by a unit on protozoans.  

I packed the PowerPoint with color and as many cool photographs as possible.  

Once taught, this is material that needs reinforcement if I expect my students to remember it on test day.  I made a second PowerPoint that is just slide after slide of review questions.  My high school students like review games, so I put them into small groups and made a contest of it.  I would project a question and each group would take a turn at the answer until the question had been answered correctly.  I kept score and awarded a box of Little Debbie Santa Claus Brownies to the winning group.

And finally, we finished it all up with a lab on the living protists.  My students love to watch anything that moves under a microscope.  I purchased a culture of Paramecium, Euglena, Amoeba, Diatoms, Spirogyra, Volvox, and Stentor (my personal favorite!) Oddly enough, my students really enjoyed a mixed culture of 6 algae that came with a dichotomous key.  They had to find the 6 different algae in the culture and name them using dichotomous classification key.

All in all, the unit on Protists was not as bad as it seemed at first.  Most students escaped unharmed.

Monday, January 14, 2013

New Blog: Creativity in the Common Core Classroom

I would like to give a shout-out to a great new blog!

As you can see, this blog is called Creativity in the Common Core Classroom, and is written by two amazing and talented teachers, Brian and Eric.  Their purpose?  To maintain a vibrant, dynamic, meaningful and fun learning environment while meeting the new Common Core Standards.

Each Friday, this blog features free products that you can download and use in your classrooms that meet the common core standards.  The free resources are divided into grade levels:  K-2, 3-5, and 6-12. I am extremely honored to be the first featured teacher in the 6-12 grade level section.  Be sure to check in each Friday for a new set of free teaching materials that are common core aligned.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Lab: Making Coacervates

Two activities in one:  
A guided lab activity plus a student designed lab activity!

I just tried this lab for the first time this year.  And I liked it so much that I will definitely use it again next year!

Each school year I make myself try new and different activities.  The idea of this lab has been around for a long time, and when I  finished teaching my unit on "The Origin of Life on Earth" I though I would give this lab a try. The lab is called "Making Coacervates."

What are coacervates? Coacervates are simply droplets that are composed of molecules of different types.  Coacervates are not alive, but they do share some of the same characteristics as those found in living cells.  Because of this, many scientists have hypothesized that structures similar to coacervates may have been the precursors to the first living cells.  Although the origin of life has not been duplicated in the laboratory, it is very simple to observe the formation of coacervates.  This activity was a thought-provoking one for my students.  They clearly were able to see, using a microscope, how it is possible for molecules to come together to form cell-like structures.

This lab kills two birds with one stone!  The first part of my lab was a guided lab activity.  The students followed a lab procedure that I gave them to test the effect of different pH levels on the formation of coacervates.  But the second day of the lab packed a much bigger punch!!  I assigned each lab group a different variable to test.  The group had to form a hypothesis and then design a lab to test their hypothesis.  For example, some groups had to test the effect of temperature on coacervate formation, while other groups tested the effect of changing solution concentrations on the formation of coacervates.  

Six different variables were tested by the students.  At the conclusion of their experiment, each student group had to make a very short report to the class discussing the results they obtained.  This is a time consuming activity, but it is time well spent!  Common Core standards are demanding that science students spend more time in analysis, problem solving activities.  

I am particularly proud of my 5-page handout that I designed for my students to use as they designed their experiment.  I required them to form a hypothesis, write a procedure that would gather quantitative data, design a control for the experiment, describe their experimental and control groups, graph their data, form a conclusion, and much more.

Materials needed:     Glass test tube with cap, Graduated cylinders, Gelatin solution (protein), Gum Arabic (carbohydrate),  Glass stirring rod, pH paper,  .1M HCl solution, Dropping pipets, Microscope, Test tube rack,  and Microscope slides. Additional materials are needed for the student designed experiments.

What are the pros and cons of this lab?

Pros include:

  • Students gained a better understanding of coacervates and how they might have formed in the seas on early Earth.
  • Materials list is simple and inexpensive.
  • Teaching students how to design and carry out a controlled experiment is a MUST in the science classrooms of today.
Cons include:
  • This lab takes a bit of time.  Students completed the guided activity in one class period, they wrote and designed their experiment in a second class period, and they carried out their experiment in a third lab period.  Some parts of the lab report had to be completed as a homework assignment.
  • The coacervates are very easy to find under the microscope, but they are difficult to count.  The student has to scan the entire slide and count the number of coacervates that were formed.  This is a source of error.
This lab was used as a conclusion to my unit on "The Origin of Life." Some of the materials I used to teach this unit can be found here: