My first year of teaching had its ups and downs, but I’m looking forward to next year. As the school year ends, do you have any suggestions for how I can prepare for next year? I’ ll be teaching the same subjects in the same lab.
—Monica, South Carolina
Congratulations for completing your first year, and for having a job next year! You’ll find the end of the year is as hectic as the beginning, with final exams, grades and other reports, inventory updates, and cleanup. You also may be looking forward to graduate courses, home improvements, a summer job, family time, or some much-needed R&R. But the end of the school year is a good time to review, reflect on, and learn from your experiences while your memory is fresh, and plan for next year.
You probably had some great lessons, as well as a few that went over like a lead balloon, and you can learn from both kinds. What made them successful? What did you do when things didn’t go as planned? How effective were your classroom management routines and procedures? Did your students seem to enjoy learning science? Did you enjoy teaching and learning with them? How did you deal with disruptive students? What were your interactions with parents like? Are there any strategies you would like to add to your repertoire in terms of instruction, classroom management, or communications?
Consider your course curriculum. Were you surprised by any misconceptions or lack of experience your students had? Should you change the amount of time or emphasis you put on some units? Did you have an effective combination of science content, skills, and processes? Do you have any gaps in your own knowledge base that could be supplemented this summer with online courses, readings, websites, or visits to local informal science institutions (museums, zoos, planetariums, and other venues)? How well were you able to access and use the technologies available in your school? What kinds of interdisciplinary connections did you make?
As you completed final evaluations/grades for students, did you ask yourself how well the grades reflect student learning. How well did your assessments align with the unit goals and lesson objectives? Did you provide opportunities for students to reflect on their own learning (e.g., through a science notebook, rubrics)?
Although some schools do not require detailed written lesson plans, there are advantages to having plans that can be revisited and adapted the following year. Were your lesson plans detailed enough, or will you have to re-create them? Based on your assessment data, what instructional strategies should you change (or keep)? How well were your assignments and projects aligned to the unit goals and lesson objectives? Did your lab activities help students develop their inquiry skills?
On a practical note, check with your principal or department chair for any end-of-year checkout procedures. Your classroom may not be secure during the summer months, so keep your lab equipment and technology in locked cabinets or storerooms. Take valuable or irreplaceable personal belongings home, or lock them in a cabinet. Label any large personal items you brought in, such as a desk chair or stool, with your name in case they wander off over the break. If you have personal documents, tests, grades, or other sensitive information on an unsecured hard drive, transfer them to a network drive or to a flash drive. Some schools allow teachers to take their school-assigned computer home for the summer, but don’t take any school equipment home without permission.
Update equipment inventories, and note if anything needs repair or replacement. Keep your requisition list for next year handy so you can check in the new materials. If any textbooks need repair, take care of them now. Make sure items such as glassware, cages, aquariums, sinks, or tabletops are clean and ready for next year.
Based on your reflections, this might also be a good time to formulate your goals for next year. It’s tempting to say, “I’ll think about this in August,” but if you take some time now for thinking, reflecting, organizing, and planning, you’ll have more time in the fall to get your second year off to a good start.
I’d like to change my approach to how students learn vocabulary. Even when I ask students to write definitions in their own words, they don’t seem to understand the terms. Any suggestions?
—Ryan, Fort Smith, Arkansas
High school texts may have more than 3,000 specialized terms. We want our students to understand and use this vocabulary to communicate their understanding of science concepts, but the sheer number of words plus the lack of background knowledge in younger or less experienced students can make this a frustrating experience.
Based on the work of researchers such as Robert Marzano and Debra Pickering (in their book Building Academic Vocabulary), I suggest you distill the list in the textbook to critical vocabulary—essential words important to understanding the concepts of the unit, words applicable to other units, and words specifically mentioned in your curriculum or state standards. You also could have supplemental lists of “nice to know” words and review words students should already know. For example, photosynthesis may be an essential term in a unit on plants at the upper-elementary level. At the secondary level, it could be on the review list.
Traditionally, students found definitions in a glossary or dictionary. I observed a class in which students were copying and pasting from a website: They didn’t even have to read the text or write their own definition. A teacher mentioned that during a unit on the cell, some students had copied a definition of “nucleus” as a part of an atom. It’s important for students to understand the context in which a science word is used.
Students should have a record of the word lists in their notes. In addition to formal “definitions,” ask them to create a graphic representation of the word. Classroom word walls keep the words visible to all. I recently visited a classroom where the students had made the cards for the wall. They included a drawing with the word and the definition and a sentence on the back of the card. The teacher noted the cards weren’t as neat as ones she used to make, but the students had ownership of the list, and some were very creative. She sometimes took the cards down and gave them to students to review.
This teacher also displayed student-created graphic organizers, another way for students to become familiar with words. For example, using Frayer models, concept maps, or semantic feature analysis charts, students identify characteristics of the word (as well as its meaning) and show relationships between words. These are described on the Graphic Organizers and Reading Educator web pages.
Teachers often assume students, especially older ones, know how to use context clues in the text to determine what a word means. But with the specialized vocabulary in science, many students may need some assistance, especially less experienced students or those who are learning English. By doing a “think aloud,” teachers can model how to examine a new word using context clues or visuals. My students seemed to enjoy figuring out words using some common affixes and root or base words. For example, when my students first encountered “aquatic,” I pointed out that “aqua” is Latin for water, and we then brainstormed other words that started with “aqua” and were related to water. They thought of Aquarius, aquarium, aqueduct, Aquaman, and aquamarine. The Spanish-speaking students noted that agua means water in that language. The website Prefixes and Suffixes can help you identify some relevant ones to share.
For students to understand and use new words, they need to hear and say them, as well as read and write them. For more complex or unfamiliar words, have the students repeat the words several times aloud, emphasizing the syllables by clapping or tapping them out: pho-to-syn-the-sis. (I picked up this idea from a colleague who taught elementary science.) This seems to help with spelling, too, so even older students can benefit.
Creating metaphors and analogies and playing games based on Password or Pictionary are enjoyable ways to explore and review words. However, I would question the value of word searches or word scrambles in helping students use words or understand their meaning.
You can assess students’ knowledge and use of vocabulary in interesting and creative ways, beyond an objective test. One of my favorites is a “word splash.” Using a word list (either teacher- or student-generated), students write sentences that include two or more words. In “word sorts,” students are given lists of words to categorize. If these activities are done in teams or groups, the discussions students have are interesting and informative.
Check out more of Ms. Mentor’s advice on diverse topics—such as collaborating with a principal, encouraging girls in STEM, or taking on a departmental leadership role—or ask a question at www.nsta.org/mentor.