Skills you should have by now

It’s the end of June. We’ve been in a worldwide pandemic for more than 3 months. You should have mastered these skills by now:

  1. Wearing a mask. It helps protect you and it helps protect others. It’s not rocket science, but the sooner we all stop passing the virus around, the sooner we can return to life as we knew it. Cover your nose and mouth.
This is how you do it. Key points to notice: nose and mouth are covered. Eyes are not.

2. Mute yourself when you’re not talking on Zoom and unmute yourself when you are talking. Come on, folks. This is now a basic life skill. Figure it out.

What’s making you crazy this month?

Photo cred: original photo and license

3 Great Science Podcasts

When I’m going for a jog or cooking dinner or sewing masks, I like to listen to podcasts. I have a bunch of favorites, but the 3 I want to talk about today are really super for science teachers. They provide great content that I can always find ways to incorporate into my lessons.

  • 60 Second Science by Scientific American – Almost daily, this podcast delivers something newsworthy in less than a minute. Nice to keep up on science news, but also nice to peruse the archives for specific topics.
  • Science Rules! with Bill Nye – Everyone’s perennial favorite science teacher, Bill Nye brings in experts on many fields to answer the questions that listeners ask. Episodes drop irregularly but average about once a week. The last few months have been dedicated to the science of coronavirus but scroll back in the archives for in depth discussions on topics as varied as regeneration, memory, Einstein, vitamins, GMOs, and a ton of others, all told in the user friendly approachable style Bill Nye is famous for.
  • Science vs – This is my new favorite. Host Wendy Zukerman is very entertaining as she examines a topic every week and presents data on both sides of the issue before drawing a conclusion. Like Bill Nye, this podcast dedicated a few months to coronavirus coverage but the archives include topics like police shootings, DNA kits, getting more sleep, 5G, vaping and vaccines.

Try them out and let me know what you think!

Climate Change in Middle School Science

New Jersey is the first state in our Nation to incorporate climate change into its K-12 learning standards. Effective for the 2021-22 school year, the new standards apply to Health/PE, Science, Social Studies, Technology, Visual/Performing Arts, and World Languages. Here are some tools to incorporate climate change into your middle school science curriculum to incorporate the new climate change standards.

School districts, some still working remotely, have  until September, 2021, to incorporate this change into their curricula.

Of course, most middle school science teachers are already teaching climate change as some component of their curriculum. I talk about climate change in my decomposition unit because decaying organisms release carbon dioxide and methane, both of which are greenhouse gases. I’ve also taught climate change as a stand-alone unit. This year, that stand-alone climate change unit was followed by a quick lesson an alternative/renewable energy and then a series of hyperdocs on petroleum and renewable energy sources

Scientific literacy and the ability to think critically about items in the news is an important component of being a contributing member of society and it often falls to middle school science teachers to begin to build those skills. Climate change sometimes falls into the category of politically dividing and your students may have their own charged opinions about the issues based on what they believe.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is credited with saying “Science is true whether you believe it or not.” It’s our job to make sure that students learn to separate science from opinion. When I’ve heard students say they “don’t believe in climate change,” I’ve responded, “It’s not like the tooth fairy.” Believing isn’t what’s important – understanding climate change is what matters here. Incorporating climate change into middle school curricula will help build the understanding that students can use to separate fact from opinion.

In anticipation of this curricular change I imagine we’re all going to be looking for hands-on climate change activities. I’ll race you to Pinterest!

Tips and tricks to incorporate climate change standards into middle school science curricula

Solar System Travel Brochure

Before you go on a vacation, you need to know about the place you’re going, right? You need to know what kind of weather to expect, what the accommodations are, what activities there are to do. Get students hooked on learning about the solar system by telling them they’re going to take a vacation to another planet.

Now, they need to learn about the planets. This could be research-based or whole class lecture or group work.

And once you’ve got them excited about the planets, have them pick the one that’s most interesting to them. Let them tell you why – is it the rings? Is it the moons? The storms or the thick atmosphere? Then, let them convince you to go there on vacation. Encourage them to use all the creativity they can – maybe there is a rollercoaster in the craters of Mercury or an excursion to Enceladus.


With this assessment, a teacher can see how well a student understands the characteristics of one planet. But, possibly more importantly, a teacher can measure how well a student can apply what they’ve learned about a planet to a new situation, which might be more revealing about the student’s skills. As an added bonus, this assessment adds in some core content standards as well 🙂

What do you think about this assessment? Would it work for your students?



As extra practice, try a magic picture reveal digital worksheet! As students get more answers correct, the pixels of the picture are revealed one by one. Very engaging, and easy to implement digitally! Watch a preview video of the solar system magic picture reveal digital worksheet here.

Decomposition Unit Plan for Middle School Science

A lot of what we teach in middle school science – carbon cycle, soil formation, recycling of matter, nitrogen cycle – relates to decomposition. Here are a few good ideas to implement in your decomposition unit plan in your middle school science classroom.

It helps to start the year with a brief unit explaining how things decompose and how that fits into the ecosystem.

I teach it from 2 different angles – compost and detective work.

My students have no idea what compost is. We’re a suburban upper middle class school district. Perhaps they have a tomato plant or two in their garden, but compost is foreign to them. So I start the year with some facts about compost. Let’s see how much you know.

Turns out every one of those statements is true. (TBH I was a little surprised about the masking tape.)

Once you have them hooked on compost, use some informational text to help them learn more. I use a “newspaper” type of text coupled with some guiding questions.

Middle schoolers love gore, and I indulge them a little in my decomposition unit plan. We talk about what happens to the human body, or any animal, when it decomposes and how detectives use the predictability of decay to determine the time of death. I show them a slide show that is (disappointingly, to them) devoid of photos of decaying bodies and then ask them to imagine how a detective can use this information. Then they use what they’ve learned to complete a creative writing task.

Continue to press on with an experiment. You know the one – you put various compostable objects and some that aren’t compostable into zipper bags and then check them out every few weeks to see how they change. Every middle schooler loves to watch things decompose. Include this lab in your middle school decomposition unit plan and your kids will love it!

Finally, wrap it all up with ties to the carbon cycle (and global warming) and the nitrogen cycle.

If you’re interested in seeing more about this unit, check it out in my TpT store here!

Learn how to start a compost pile on my blog by clicking here.

Top 3 Coronavirus TED Talks

We’ve been bombarded with the news and anyone with an television,radio, or computer has probably had all they can take about Coronavirus. TED offers a few interesting pieces of information that I haven’t seen anywhere else so I thought I’d share them with you.

Social distancing, closed gyms, salons and restaurants, face masks – how long will it go on? Alex Rosenthal offers some advice in When is a pandemic over? The pandemic continues, he asserts, until herd immunity is achieved. The 3 strategies he discusses – Race through it, Delay and vaccinate, and Coordinate and crush – offer different scenarios but Rosenthal suggests that Delay and vaccinate is the slow and steady approach that will result in the fewest deaths and in the greatest achievement in scientific knowledge to prevent future pandemics.

A virus detection network to stop the next pandemic offers some hope that this won’t happen again if we learn the lessons we need to learn from the pandemic now. Detection of viruses quickly coupled with connecting with other health care providers throughout the world offers the ability to coordinate systems and empowers health care workers.

Finally, Which is better: soap or hand sanitizer? offers a little insight into how to keep yourself from getting infected.

If watching the news cycle through the frightening things causes you distress, these three TED talks might give you the information you need without all the panic.

14 Ways to Differentiate Instruction

I know you won’t be shocked to hear me say that every student is different. They have different background knowledge, different experiences, different skill sets, different processing speed, different interests, and different interpersonal skills. Expecting every student to respond to every assignment in the same way isn’t responsible pedagogy.

Here are 14 easy ways to differentiate instruction so that every student has access to the skills and content you’re trying to teach:

  1. Choice boards. A choice board is usually a 9 box grid with 9 different activities, all that teach or measure the same skill but approach it with a different modality. For example, a choice board may include a creative writing task, an expository writing task, a video task, a Q&A task, a creative arts task, a research task, and possibly even a musical or food-related task. Choice boards are great when assessing knowledge is more important than skills. For example, you want students to tell you the important characteristics of the desert rather than demonstrate that they can use a topic sentence correctly.
  1. Scaffolding. In a scaffolded assignment, students at different readiness levels receive different assignments. The assignments may differ in expectations and rubric, or they may differ in the amount of guidance or hints provided. Scaffolding is tricky – students become aware that their assignment is “different” and sometimes that leads to discomfort.
  2. Heterogeneous Grouping. Assignments can be differentiated by skill level or by interest simply by putting students into groups. Pairing a higher level student with a lower level student helps them both, although in different ways. Pairing a student who is very good at writing with a student who is strong in math helps them both. Forming heterogeneous groups according to interest provides the opportunity for everyone to learn.
  3. Homogeneous Grouping. In some situations, it makes sense to put the strong students together or to put all of the students who are good at art together. This especially works when assignments offer students choice – the good writers will create something written and the good artists will create something visual. It also works well when scaffolding – you can adjust the expectations and the amount of guidance according to the group dynamics.
  4. Self Pace. Allowing students to work at their own pace helps build responsibility and work ethic. At the beginning of a practice session, provide students with a checklist or flow chart of what they need to do. A simple example: “Complete questions #1-5 then check your work. If you get 100%, move on to questions 6-10. If you get any questions wrong, come see me.”
  5. Mini-Lessons. It’s not unusual to hear me say in my classroom “Everyone who got #3 wrong, join me at the table in the back,” or “I’m reteaching this concept in 5 minutes if you want to join me.” No judgement, just an opportunity to re-teach a skill to particular students who need it. This works best during an activity in which students are determining their own pace.
  6. Stations or Task Cards. Stations can combine many of the above techniques. In a station activity, students rotate between different physical locations in the classroom. Perhaps at one station they watch a video, then the read an article, then they complete a worksheet, then they do a hands on experiment, then they listen to a mini lesson from you. The best station activities are ones that allow students to rotate through the stations in any order, allowing you to group students and scaffold according to need.
  7. Flash Cards. Quizlet, Quizziz, and Boom cards are digital flash cards that students can use to practice skills or content at their own pace.
  1. Deliver instruction using varying modalities. Use lots of visuals, videos, and graphics but also use music and opportunities for students to draw or act. If you don’t want to use a choice board to let them choose their own modality, then switch up the modality you’re using so that every student has a chance to be most comfortable with your teaching style.
  2. Use your Room. The physical arrangement and decorations/displays in your classroom can help every child access knowledge. Arrange desks and place students in the place that works best for them. Use anchor charts and displays that appeal to different learning styles.
  3. Tech. There are many websites that allow for differentiated instruction and assessment. Here’s a link to a pretty well curated selection.
  4. Game Based Learning. My favorite differentiation technique is to use games in the clasroom. Students love them, and a well designed game will reach every child at their ability level.
  5. Breakouts or escape rooms. There is no limit to the amount of ways you can use a breakout or a virtual escape room in your classroom. I’ve used them to introduce new content, as review lessons, as day-before-a-break-and-I-don’t-want-to-start-something-new, getting to know you activities, and end of year activities. They’re great in person with locked boxes and puzzles, and they’re also great virtually with a completely digital product.
  6. Flipped Classroom. Have students complete the notes at home and use class time to reinforce and practice.

No doubt that differentiation is absolutely key. How do you use it in your classroom? What’s your best tip to add to this list?


When the kids don’t have school

In parts of the US, schools have closed for the summer, and teachers have breathed a sigh of relief. For many, the act of balancing their own children with the demands of teaching remotely is nearly impossible.

There are many “plans” being suggested for what happens to school in September. One plan I’ve heard of that brings chills up my spine is “alternate day.” In this plan, half of the students in a school will attend on “A” day and receive remote instruction by their teachers on “B” day. The other half of the students will attend on “B” day and be instructed remotely on “A” day. Of course, this means teachers are in school both A days and B days, managing students in person and remotely at the same time. I don’t know if that plan will fly – if there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that education bureaucracy reveals guidelines at the last possible moment.

Aside from the fact that this is twice as much work for the teachers, it also brings to question what teachers do about their own children who are, presumably, attending school only half the time. Who supervises these children when their parents are at work?

I can lose sleep imagining all of the ways September can be bad, and I’m grateful that I’m not the one making these tough decisions.

If you need to take time off from work to care for your children because your children are home due to school or daycare closures because of Coronavirus, there is a Federal plan in place to help you. It’s called Families First Coronavirus Response Act and it provides emergency paid leave for people who need time off for this reason. It is available until the end of 2020, although it’s forseeable that it will be extended if the stay at home orders continue, and provides 2/3 of your normal pay, up to $200 per day, for up to 12 weeks. Additionally, the 12 weeks don’t need to be taken all at once but can be taken on an hour by hour basis.

If you need to apply for federal relief to care for your family, more information can be found about the Families First Coronavirus Response Act here.

Boom Cards for Middle School?

Boom cards are all the rage nowadays for elementary school teachers.

Boom Cards are digital interactive flash cards and they’re a great resource for distance learning. If you’re not familiar, follow this link to a sample Boom Card deck or click here for my basic Boom Card tutorial.

The majority of users I know, however, are all elementary teachers. As a 30+ year middle school teacher, I was excited to find a new remote learning resource, especially one that is easy for teachers to use and easy for students to learn.

The Boom Card interface isn’t as user friendly as other digital resources so I avoided it for a while. Another reason I was avoiding Boom Cards is that I thought it costs $35 per year to use, and I wasn’t sure if it was appropriate for my middle schoolers. Yesterday, I poked around a little and discovered that there is a free membership that is pretty robust – you can create your own Boom Card decks or purchase from a huge library. There are also many free decks available.

The first set I created was a review set for one of my classes who are learning about subatomic particles. To review how to calculate protons, neutrons, and electrons, I would have probably played some kind of game in class, but now that we’re learning remotely, I had to think outside the box.

The atomic structure set I created has 28 cards. Each one provides information necessary to determine either the atomic number, mass number, the number of protons, neutrons, or electrons.

One of the reason I like Boom cards is that it allows student a second chance if they get the question wrong. I also like it because students can set their own pace while they’re studying. Oftentimes in school, review games become races to see who can finish first and speed isn’t a factor in Boom Cards.

Here’s a link to the atomic structure Boom cards for sale in my TpT store.



Boom cards available in my TpT Store:

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