Classroom Tested

How far away is the Moon?


As you become more familiar with the NGSS, you’ll find patterns in performance expectations across grade bands. One of those patterns is they way in which students engage in understanding and describing the Sun-Moon-Earth system.  Connecting those big ideas to a phenomena students observe and describe is one way to both elicit student current understanding (or misconceptions)  and to provide a context in which they can observe, argue or develop a model of the phenomena.

The question, “How big is the moon?” can help us understand how students think about scale.   We can extend this assessment probe with older students by asking them how they might measure the moon.   Consider the assessment probe from Uncovering Student Ideas in Astronomy (Keeley 2012, p. 95)


Asking students, “How far away is the moon?” also taps into their understanding of scale.  It also gives us a context to talk about the limitations of models and diagrams such as the image used at the top of this post.  Derrek Mueller at Veritasium has a video that elicits and explains this phenomena.

Below are the performance expectations from each grade band that could are connected to this phenomenal question.

First Grade: Use observations of the sun, moon and stars to describe patterns that can be predicted(1-ESS1-1)

Fifth Grade: Support an argument that the differences in the apparent brightness of the sun compared to other stars is due to their relative distances from the Earth. (5-ESS1-1)

Middle School: Develop and use a model of the Earth-Moon-Sun system to describe the cyclic patterns of lunar phases, eclipses of the sun and moon, and seasons. (MS-ESS1-1)



Digital Notebooks

Digital Notebook

I have always been an advocate of science notebooks.  I think the use of a notebook can help a teacher shift to more student-centered practices and I think keeping a notebook can help students to be much more meta-cognitive of what they are learning.  A question that is asked most frequently is about the structure of the notebook.  There are many articles and books on this topic, and I think the bottom line is that the structure is dependent on the purpose of the notebook, how students will be managing their work and how teachers will be providing feedback.

One format I have been playing with recently is building a digital notebook using Google Slides.  Students can easily start their notebook within any Google Drive folder.  Content can be added in a variety of ways:

  • Teacher creates a template and students add content
  • Students create or import information to demonstrate their thinking
  • Students can import collaborative slides from group work
  • Students can embed photos or video
  • Links can extend student thinking and resources to anything online

I’m excited about the prospects of digital notebooks and there are a few examples already in the adapted science GVC.  I will also be including opportunities to think about digital notebooks in the next session of Science Notebooks in Spring Science Online.  I would love to see your examples too!

Engineering in First Grade…

I had the opportunity to spend a couple of hours with a group of amazing first grade students today.  They have been studying force and motion, and were challenged by their teacher to build marble ramps.   What amazed me today was not the quality of their ramps (though they were impressive) but the quality of their thinking and their collaboration.


We forget sometimes that teaching is an inquiry-based practice as well.  While we’re trying to create experiences that challenge students and push their thinking, we’re also learning from our students and revising our plans in response.  Originally these marble ramps were meant to be 24″ tall, have a clear start & stop for the marble and students were trying to build a ramp that would have the slowest run time.  Today, during their second day of building, their teacher realized that the variable of slowest run time was not going to be attainable for most students.  The challenge was in achieving the other variables, in getting the marble down the ramp.  Rather than pushing kids past their construction abilities, a subtle shift was made in the classroom.  Students were designing, testing and redesigning, trying to achieve a ramp that “worked”.


I became fascinated by their problem solving and their articulation of how the ramps were going to work.  I asked most students what problem they were trying to solve and jotted down their responses:

  • I need to keep it from, you know, tipping over.  I think I just need more tape on the bottom to make it stable.
  • It was hard to make the marble turn the corner, it kept jumping out of the track.  I built a railing.
  • The marble keeps getting stuck right here.  I think its trying to go up hill so I need it to, you know, lean more.
  • I need a way to catch the marble at the bottom and tape is not going to work.  I think I will cut a hole here and catch it in a cave.
  • This (paper tube) was too straight up and down and I built a tunnel to hold the marble.
  • The marble kept not going the right way and now I can’t believe it really works!

This is engineering…persevering, solving problems, being patient, helping each other.  I learned a lot from my first grade friends today and I can’t wait to visit them again.


Arguing from evidence…

As I was preparing for a day with our middle school science alignment team, I came across a two-part series in the NSTA journal Science Scope.  Scaffolding Students Towards Argumentation shares several short, but effective strategies on supporting students in their ability to collect evidence and use that evidence to support or refute a claim.  This is the foundation of Science & Engineering Practice #7 – Engage in Argument from Evidence.

I used a suggestion from the article to build an anchor experience for the middle school teachers who are part of our alignment team.

The presentation for teachers was very simple.  In addition to the two packages of Oreo cookies –  I provided a variety of measurement tools, paper plates, cups, plastic knives and string.  Participants worked alone or in groups to carry out an investigation, collect data and argue the validity of the company’s claim.

The extension came later.  I was invited to two different middle schools to observe and participate in a lesson study.  At each school, teachers were using the Oreo lesson as the basis for the lesson study.  I was fascinated – both by the various ways in which teachers set up the lesson and by the response from kids.  Having an opportunity to debrief different lesson study experiences, provided me an opportunity to help teachers unpack the bones of this lesson.  As is the case with so many good, shared lessons there are many applications for this one.  Here are the varied purposes I observed:

  • formatively assess students’ ability to design and carry out an investigation
  • challenge students to collect as many relevant data points as possible
  • support a mini-lesson on relevant vs irrelevant data
  • arithmetic practice
  • writing a claim-based argument
  • having a claim-based argument in class
  • practicing measurement and units of measure
  • writing a procedure
  • presenting group process / thinking with a poster

Each time we set up a lesson for students, we have the responsibility to determine which skills will be practiced and emphasized.  This was a good example of how identifying the purpose of the lesson helps to identify those skills which are most important for that lesson, and those students, at that time.  Ultimately, this lesson provided students a short and easy opportunity to practice designing their own investigation and arguing from evidence.

I challenge you to try the lesson, give it your own spin by emphasizing skills your students need to practice.  What did you learn?

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