I am teaching the states of matter to first graders. I was looking for some demonstrations or hands-on activities to help the students understand the concept of a gas, since they can’t really see it.
First of all, I’m glad to hear your school has not relegated science to a back burner. It’s important to tap into students’ natural curiosity through learning activities appropriate for their levels of understanding and interest.
I shared your request with Peggy Ashbrook, a teacher, NSTA author, and blogger on science in the early years. Based on her experiences, she suggests the following:
- Check out the discussion on the NSTA Learning Center’s Community Forums. In one post, I shared some activities I do with preschoolers to give them focused experience with air, their most familiar gas (http://learningcenter.nsta.org/discuss/default.aspx?tid=vVZ6lbSTw!plus!M_E).
- Young children can explore air as something, not just “nothing.” They can blow on their palms and feel their breath, even though they cannot see it. Using empty, clean, and dry dish detergent bottles, they can move feathers around with the air that comes out of the bottle when they squeeze it quickly. They understand that something is pushing the feathers. After these experiences, I ask four-year-olds if air can hold up something heavy, such as a book. We try it, and the book always falls to the table. Then we put our breath into zip-closing plastic bags and put the book on top of them. It doesn’t fall. Some children believe the bags alone can hold the book up, and we try that. Then we try the inflated bags again and ponder why this way works. Not all of the children are interested or able to put into words what they think, but a few say, “The bags keep the air there so it can’t go away when the book is on it.”
- Because air is part of so many early childhood experiences—blowing bubbles, pumping up the deflated soccer ball, feeling a breeze, and learning to whistle—I think it’s okay to use the word “gas” when we talk about air.
- Dance as a model of “there are small particles moving within the substance that we can’t see with just our eyes” might be useful in introducing the idea that there is more to solids, liquids, and gasses than meets our eyes, in a general way, such as we talk about “germs.” But I’m not sure if first graders are ready for understanding the distinctions between the molecular structure of the phases of matter.
- Definitely read Bill Robertson’s Science 101 column “What Causes the Different States of Matter?” from the December 2008 issue of Science & Children. “What’s the Matter With Teaching Children About Matter?” also appeared in this issue, along with other articles on the states of matter.
Search for the topic at the K–4 level in SciLinks, www.scilinks.org, for lists of websites for teachers and students. The teacher sites usually include lesson plans or demonstrations for the topic. These are a few from the topic States of Matter:
In addition to SciLinks, NSTA has other resources for learning and sharing ideas and background on content and teaching strategies appropriate for your students:
- As Peggy suggested, join the conversations in one of the Community Forums in the NSTA Learning Center.
- Sign up to participate in the elementary e-mail list to ask for suggestions or share your own. You can learn a lot by “lurking,” too.
- NSTA’s Social Networking Dashboard updates you on NSTA’s presence on Facebook and Twitter, blog posts, and forums.
- Use the NSTA Learning Center to search for NSTA journal articles, Web Seminars, books, and professional development resources.
Just be sure that your students realize that the “gas” they’re learning about in these activities is not the same as “gasoline.” (Even some of my seventh graders were a little confused with the language—gas as a state of matter versus gas as a liquid fuel for cars.
The teachers on our team all have different homework policies, which confuses our students and their parents. Do you have any suggestions to help us become more consistent?
My views on homework evolved throughout my years in the classroom, as I better understood my students and improved my instructional strategies. Rather than suggestions, I’ll offer some reflections to stimulate discussion with your colleagues. I suggest, however, that you examine some of the research on the effectiveness of homework (for example, the book Rethinking Homework has a chapter on this topic). I’ve created a resource collection in the NSTA Learning Center with summaries of research studies and other readings.
Perception of homework’s value is mixed. Teachers who don’t assign homework are considered “easy,” regardless of their in-class expectations. Teachers who give a lot are “rigorous,” even if the assignments are trivial, unnecessary, or unrelated to the learning goals. Some parents demand homework for their children; others make excuses or even do the assignments for the student. Some schools have formulas as to how much homework is appropriate (X minutes multiplied by the grade level), homework hotlines, and homework sessions at the end of a marking period that allow students to recoup some points toward their grades.
I once had lunch with teachers at an elementary school, and their discussion centered on consequences for students who didn’t complete homework. The options included keeping students after school, reducing their grades, keeping them in at recess, calling parents, issuing demerits, or giving “gotcha” quizzes. They also discussed whether to accept late assignments. But not one teacher mentioned the value or purpose of the assignments.
I observed a class in which the “homework” was completing a find-a-word on the planets (it must have been an oldie—Pluto was still listed as the ninth planet) and a maze called “Help the Astronaut Find His Spaceship.” I have no idea what the learning goals were for this busywork, but I suspect that if students did not do these worksheets, they would have suffered the “consequences.”
If a learning activity, such as completing a worksheet or study guide, is completed in class, it’s called classwork, but when completed outside of class, it’s categorized as homework and weighted differently toward a grade. The same activity is awarded points based on where and when it is to be completed, not on how it helps students achieve the learning goals. And I’m puzzled by students who claim they finish all of their homework in class: Is the assignment then reconsidered to be classwork?
I’m concerned when homework is used as a punishment: “If you don’t settle down, you’ll have homework this evening.” Or when lack of homework is used as a reward: “You’ve all behaved very well today, so there will be no homework” or “You can earn a ‘get out of homework’ pass for doing Z,” a behavior unrelated to the learning goals.
What about students who lack support at home? Do all your students have parents who help or encourage them? Do they have access to technology, a quiet place free from interruptions and distractions, or even something as simple as a box of pencils and paper? How should students juggle homework with other meaningful activities, such as music lessons, sports, family events and responsibilities, community activities, after-school jobs, or personal interests?
What if we gave students ideas for pursuing topics of interest outside of school rather than busywork for its own sake—options such as reading lists, videos, or other science-related activities that engage students without the “grade” component?
It might be reasonable to ask students to practice skills, finish a lab report started in class, review content presented in class, or prepare for a lesson (e.g., via videos, podcasts, readings). You might be interested in learning more about the “flipped classroom” model (visit http://flipped-learning.com or follow #flipclass on Twitter).
Some suggest homework teaches students to be responsible, but it seems for most students, this lesson is not learned very well. Teachers of high school juniors and seniors still complain about students not doing homework. We should ask what we’re asking students to be responsible for—for making decisions about their learning? Or for complying with directions?
Brian (not his real name), who had a reputation among the seventh-grade teachers for not doing homework, gave me a lot to think about one morning. “Did you see that TV show on spiders last evening?” he asked, referring to a PBS program. He talked nonstop about spiders and mentioned some library books he had read. Obviously something had captured his interest! I wondered what homework did not get done as he pursued his interest in spiders? Were other teachers punishing him for spending time on this rather than on their assignments?
Check out more of Ms. Mentor’s advice on diverse topics or ask a question at www.nsta.org/mentor.