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Second Semester for Secondary Science: Tips and Strategies for Completing the School Year!

LET'S FINISH THIS!  As a high school biology and chemistry teacher, I always find this to be a very interesting point in the school year.   After spending time with family and friends during the holidays, and feeling very rested and relaxed, it's time to start thinking about returning to school for the second semester of the school year.  New Year's resolutions are running high, and the realization that the school year is half over brings both excitement and anxiety to teachers as they prepare to return to the classroom after the holiday break.  The "excitement" comes in being able to see summer break on the horizon.  The "anxiety" comes in the form of "Oh my gosh, I have so much to do before the end of the school year!"

We have to make a complete and total mind shift from first semester to second semester.  The dynamics of the classroom, the way we carry out planning, and our classroom management strategies need to undergo a complete and thorough transition.  First semester was spent getting to know our students.  We learned their personalities, their strengths, their weaknesses, and all of their idiosyncrasies.  We learned what worked and what didn't work as far as teaching strategies, and now it is time to take our "first semester game" to a new level for second semester.  In short, we have to make a change from "getting started" to "getting finished."

To that end, I have a list of 11 tips and strategies for the successful completion of second semester in secondary science classrooms.

Tip #1:  Organization and Planning is Essential.  
Yes, I realize this tip is predictable and mundane, and not really a concrete strategy.  Please stop your eye-rolling and consider this.  Do not return to school after the holidays until you have thought through the entire semester and you have a plan of action.  The first couple of weeks after the holidays are chaotic and can turn into a blur of indecision and wasted time if you are not careful.  Know what you need to accomplish during the semester, and start your students down that path on the very first day they return to your classroom.  Grab your student's attention, and don't give them time to settle into old routines.  Start the first day with fresh ideas, fresh classroom management strategies, and a fresh look in your classroom.  Having a clear vision and an action plan, and the implementation of it on the first day of the semester will send a definite message to your students:  "We have a lot to do and we are not going to waste any time getting started on it."

Tip #2:  Assess where you are in your curriculum.
Students in my state must take an end-of-course exam in biology and chemistry.  I would assume that every state has a state mandated curriculum or framework of standards that must be covered in any given course.  Where do you stand on covering all of the content that you are required to teach? Before you start second semester it is essential that you make a list of units and topics that you need to cover.  Once you have a list of topics, determine how many days you can spend on each topic and still get them all covered before the end of the school year.  Obtain a calendar grid for the months January through June and fill out the days and weeks with the topics you must cover.  Keep this on your desk or wall, and stick to it!

Tip #3:  Make changes to your Classroom Management Plan.
Now that you have spent an entire semester with your students, you have a pretty good idea of what works and what doesn't work in terms of managing your classroom and the behavior of your students.  This is the perfect time to tweak your management system and make changes to ensure your daily routine is a well-oiled machine.  I use a system of daily warm ups and bell ringers to get my students on task and ready to learn at the very beginning of each class.

Tip #4:  Organize and clean your classroom before students return to class.
Early in my teaching career I had a wonderful mentor who told me that the condition of the classroom was one of the most important factors in determining the effectiveness of my class.  As a young and new teacher, I had my doubts about this.  What possible difference could it make if the desks were arranged in an orderly fashion, and that my desk appeared to be in order?  As it turned out, this was one of the best pieces of advice I ever received about teaching.  Student performance and classroom behavior IS determined (at least in part) by the climate of your classroom.  If the classroom is disorganized, the students will be disorganized and student behavior will suffer.  If students walk into a classroom that is clean and highly organized they enter a mindset that improves their performance while in your class.

Tip #5:  Put something new on the wall or bulletin board!
You do not want your students walking back into your classroom without making some changes.  Shake things up a bit!  Put up some new wall displays and bulletin boards.  They don't have to be too fancy or time consuming to make.  You just need to send the message that this is a new semester and you are ready to go with all new materials and resources.  Here are some ideas of things you can display that will take only a few minutes to print, laminate and get displayed on the wall:

•  Biology and Life Science Careers Mini Posters

•  Character Building Quotes from Famous Scientists

•  Important Dates in Science History Monthly Calendars

Tip #6:  It's time for a new seating chart.
While you are shaking things up by reorganizing your classroom and getting new wall displays posted, go ahead and make out a new seating chart for your students.  When students return from the holidays, every aspect of your classroom needs to be new, fresh, and different.

Tip #7: Start planning now for end of course testing.
I am not a fan of the maze of standardized testing that we put our students through each year.  However, that is a topic for another day.  If your students will be required to take an end of course exam for your class, it is imperative that you begin planning for that now.  Take the semester calendar that you made in Tip #2 and see where you might insert a few days for test prep and review. I look for days when the school is planning an assembly or pep rally, or a day when some students will miss for a field trip.  It is hard to teach new material when students are missing from class, but it makes for a great time to get in some test prep review time.  Be prepared to review.  You never know when an opportunity for reinforcement will arise, so keep task cards, review games, or worksheets at the ready.  Every minute counts in the second semester rush to the end of the year.

Tip #8:  Make a plan for struggling students.
The sad reality is that some students are always in danger of failing our class, or in danger of not being able to pass the end of course exam.  It is extremely important to identify the struggling students and put an intervention plan in place before it is too late.  With enough help, guidance, compassion, and will power, we can ensure that most of our students will earn credit in our classes. Students try harder when they know we care about them and that we are trying to give them the help they need.  Have individual meetings with your struggling students and develop a plan with each student to ensure their success at the end of the school year.  Many of my "A students" belong to organizations that require them to get service hours.  I always set up peer tutoring opportunities to help my struggling students get the reinforcement they need, while allowing other students to get the service hours they need.

Tip #9:  Start working on your lab inventory.
My school district requires that we do a complete inventory of our classrooms and lab areas, and we must turn it in before the last day of school.  Are you required to complete a lab inventory?  If so, do yourself a favor and start working on it now.  The end of the year is CRAZY, and you will be greatly relieved if you already have this cumbersome chore accomplished.  If you need an inventory form, check out my free Lab Inventory Form in my TpT Store.

Tip #10:  Make out your lab order for the upcoming school year.
This makes perfect sense if you also have to complete a lab inventory.  As you complete your inventory, make a list of the items that you are running low on. As the semester progresses, locate your new catalogs and start looking up the purchasing information for the items you will need for the next year.

Tip #11:  Watch our for Spring Break/Spring Fever!
This is also known as "Teach as much as you can as soon as you can!"  Once spring arrives, even the best laid plans can fly out the window.  And students are not the only ones to get spring fever, right?  January, February and March are easy!  But after that, even the absolute best teachers amongst us will struggle to keep the kids focused and learning.

Hopefully, if you have made it to the end of this article, you have found a few tidbits that will help you get off to a great start for second semester.  I hope you had a wonderful holiday break, and that you have a happy, healthy, and organized new year!

5 Days of Science-y Holiday Cheer!

December 4 - 8

Ready for some holiday fun, 

Thank you, thank you, thank you to all have supported my work through 2017.  To celebrate the holidays, and the entire year, let's have some fun with a week of giveaways, freebies, discounts, and more!

For the third year, a group of science teachers / TPT authors are having a blast with the "Five Days of Holiday Cheer."  Super fun stuff will be happening each day, December 4 - 8.  There will be promotions, free stuff, gift cards, sales, and more free stuff! Well, let's just say that each day just gets better and better!

These offers will be available ONLY to the subscribers on my email list.

What???  You are not on my email list??  Please look to the right side bar and sign up immediately!  Please enter your email in the "Want My Newsletters?" box to the right.

You'll receive an email from me each morning between 6 and 7 am (CST) letting you know about the fun happenings of the day.  I sure hope you can join us!  The offers are time-sensitive, and are good for one day only.  Be sure to open that email each and every day!

Watch for my first email on Monday, December 4.  I think you will be very pleased with Day 1.  (Hint, hint....  It might involve some free stuff!)

Happy Holidays!!

The Pros and Cons of Outdoor Science Education

The benefits of taking our science students out of the classroom for an outdoor activity are many ... BUT, you better be prepared and super organized!

If I ask my students what the term “environment” means to them, I am going to get a wide variety of answers.  Many of them will automatically think of a beautiful setting in nature, such as a bubbling creek through a forest, a field of wildflowers, or a stand of shimmering evergreen trees along a mountainside.  However, the “environment” is so much more.  It is everything that exists around us.  It is the natural world as well as all of the things that have been produced by humans.  The environment is an incredibly complex web of interactions between the living and the nonliving components of Earth.  I'd wager to say that most of our students pass through their "environment" on a daily basis without ever noticing that "things" are going on.  They may frequent a public park or live on a lake or pond, but rarely do they notice the complex web of interactions that are taking place right before their eyes.

When I go outside my mind is racing a mile a minute.  Even if I am walking across the parking lot to enter my local Wal Mart I am going to notice a bird singing or that the clouds are particularly fluffy.  Admittedly, I am a big nature nerd, but I get so much joy from experiencing nature, and I want my students to experience this as well.

The million dollar question is, "Can I get my students to think like me?"  

The students sitting in our classrooms today are going to be the decision makers (and voters) of tomorrow.  The bottom line is that Planet Earth needs our protection.  We have to teach our students about the natural world, and about the things that damage the natural world.  And the first step to effective environmental education is simple ... We have to get our students to NOTICE what is going on around them.  

How do we accomplish getting teenagers to notice nature when that is probably the last thing swirling around in their teen-aged brain?  The answer is:  Take them outside and force them to notice.  Oh, don't be fooled by their initial excitement when you announce to the class that the next few days will be spent outdoors.  They are already thinking that this is going to a welcome holiday away from the classroom setting!  You, the instructor, will have to be organized.  You must have a solid plan and procedure for what the students will be expected to do.  And you must give enough weight to the grade that it grabs their attention.

Let's think carefully about the pros and cons of this venture before we begin.

  • The first is obvious:  Students love to go outside!
  • The ecological concepts we teach in the classroom can be reinforced by a quality outdoor activity.
  • Students practice the skill of making good observations.
  • It teaches and reinforces a different sort of data collection than they normally experience in a laboratory setting.
  • An outdoor activity will probably involve drawing and mapping which will appeal to many of the students.
  • It teaches students to pay attention and notice the world around them.
  • Instilling a love of nature in a student will hopefully lead to an adult who wants to protect nature.
  • The benefits of group work and the reinforcement of social skills are certainly life lessons that will be utilized long after the subject matter is forgotten. 
  • It doesn't matter if you live in the city or in the country.  If you have plants, then you have an ecosystem that can be studied.
  • It can be time consuming:  Can you give up several days to carry out one project?
  • Classroom management:  Will the students behave outdoors?
Tips on Getting Started:  
  • Know what you want to accomplish.  Have a well thought-out plan with concrete objectives.  Don't take students outside and "wing it." That is a recipe for disaster.
  • Have specific goals in mind when designing your activity.  Know what you want the students to learn from doing the activity.
  • Make the assignment an important part of their grade so that most of the students will be willing to do quality work.

I like to do an activity that I call "Exploring an Ecosystem" in which I have my students study and analyze the physical features of an ecosystem, the living organisms within the ecosystem, and the interactions between these two components.  It involves marking off an area with stakes and string that measures 5m x 5m.  Students are required to work in close-knit groups to draw a detailed ecosystem site map and provide a color-coded key for everything in their ecosystem.  The students will identify the living organisms in their ecosystem and answer a detailed set of 29 questions designed to prompt them in making good observations.  Students will make food chains and food webs using the organisms in their ecosystem.  Students look for abiotic factors, biotic factors, evidence of competition, camouflage, predator/prey relationships, limiting factors, etc.

My objectives may seem simple, but they are actually quite involved:  
   The student will survey an ecosystem to map out the physical characteristics of the land and to identify the living organisms that inhabit the ecosystem.
   The student will describe and analyze the various relationships that exist within the ecosystem.

To ensure that my students accomplish my objectives I provide them with a set of handouts that provide clear instructions, safety precautions, and detailed analysis questions.

Click on image to view this resource in my TpT store.

Make sure that the students read the lab handouts, including all analysis questions, before beginning the project.  The questions are designed to guide the students in their observations of the selected ecosystem.  Students will often miss interactions that are occurring simply because they do not know to look for them.  Many of the questions used in this activity will prompt students into making good observations.

Click this image to view my Ecosystems PowerPoint.
I highly recommend that students receive prior instruction before tackling an outdoor project. In order to complete this ecosystems study, students should be familiar with key concepts in ecology. A few days of classroom instruction are needed to make sure that the students benefit from the days spent out of the classroom.  If the students are unprepared, the outdoor activity can quickly degenerate into playtime and goofing around. The benefits of outdoor learning are many, and the negatives are few, provided that you have a quality assignment, concrete learning objectives, and a good classroom management plan in place.

Have fun teaching outdoors!!