Soledad O’Brien Speaks at USF : Inspiring Hope

I had the opportunity to hear Soledad O’Brien Award-winning journalist and documentarian speak at University of South Florida’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative Week. First, I have always been a fan of O’Brien. She has taken the time to shed light on the untold stories of African Americans in the United States, especially when most find the topic to be too hot to tackle. What is so meaningful about her work is the manner in which she captures the “realness” of people’s stories. When I watch her documentaries, I don’t feel that the truth is hidden and I can relate to the issues that we so often do not want to be shared in the public eye. She began her relaxed and down to earth talk by sharing her studies of the life of Dr. King during some of his most prominent moments. Then she spoke about her methodology and challenges in creating the documentaries that she is so well know for.

Oh I got to take a picture with her! Truthfully, I am fortunate to have taught one of her children. You can tell a lot about who a person  when you experience who they are through their children before you even meet them. For a while I didn’t even know I was teaching her child! ( That’s a whole other story!)


You CAN Run a Science Fair!

Science Fair Image Well yes I have done it… and with very little help and I would do it again! Who doesn’t love a science fair?!  Why do we do science fairs and why do we love them? It is a great way for students to showcase what your kids can do. It also helps reinforce all the researching skills and procedures you have taught your kids though out the year, while exposing them to using the scientific process in a real world setting.  My most favorite thing of all is having my students pick something that they are passionate about learning and watching them wholeheartedly commit to their learning! I have recently began to call it a “science symposium” because we didn’t have judges and wanted it to be more of a sharing of knowledge not a competition. So what does it take to do this at your school? Here are some tips from the 3 times I have had to run my own science fair at 2 different schools.

Plan Plan Plan!

Your Science fair is just like any long-term project. While it is a pain to manage them in the classroom, if you plan everything before you even begin you will be surprised how easy it is to pull this off. I use this checklist every year to get my planning going. Obviously, every school is different and will need different things but I thought it would be great to share my list. Symposium Checklist. I always first inform the parents so that they know what will be expected of their children, and that it is a group project. Parents like to know this so they can expect out of school meet ups with their child’s group members. I also invite the parents so this gives them an opportunity to get it on their calendars. I left the students choose their topics. I have done themes for the projects, like one year my entire 6th grade did a project involving a plant. Some years it is a do what ever you are interested in. I try to be very hands off in this stage really giving the ownership to the students, which can be hard to do but it really adds to the quality of the project and their learning. I guide them through their research and their investigations and help them understand data when needed. Again, I am very hands off I have taught them all they need to know and really this is their moment to shine. My students are required to write a lab report for their work and I use a checklist rubric so they know exactly what is expected. They also get a clear description of what their tri-fold posters should have as well as a poster present rubric. Lab Report Rubric   Presentation & Poster Rubric

Keep Students Accountable!

The first time I ran a science fair I had a lot of students who flew under the radar. You know the kid, the one who does 2 things for the entire project and passes it off as their work with the star science student, then collects that A+ grade. It is just is not fair, so  myself and some other colleges came up with sone ideas to help.

  1. Responsibly sheet – Break up parts of the project into chunks, Materials, Lab report sections,  Who is buying the poster? and have members of the group sign up BEFORE they actually begin. I keep copies of these so when a part of project is missing or not done to standard i know jut who i have to have “that” conversation with or who I have to email or locate during lunch, in the hall way or whenever ( you know how it is sometimes) to get them to fix it! This keeps the students honest and able to say when they let the group down. For our overly involved parents they can also see what their kid needs to work on (or didn’t work on).
  2. Tracking Progress – I track everything during this project in a google spreadsheet that is shred with the students. For each item that is needed they have to log in and fill in when it is done. They also can all see each other work, so if groups are studying similar projects they can collaborate.
  3. Class Check-ins – Each week I have a “work in class” day ( frequency depends on how close it is to the end date of project) I share these dates on my weekly announcements so students can prepare in advance. I check in with each group, to see where they are progressing and when they need my help. I take very short notes so that I can keep up with their work, yes in a spreadsheet, can you tell i love these. This by the way is a great resource for comment and report car writing!
  4. Checklist Rubric – Just a smart way to make sure everyone knows exactly what they need to do! see above.
  5. Group member evaluation – A part of their final grade (10%) involves the grade they get from their peers. I have them do two evaluations one in middle of project one at the end on each member of their group and themselves. I find this to be important, because they again hold each other accountable.

This is by no means a comprehensive guide to doing that science fair you have always wanted to do, but I do think this will get you started. Every school is different and value different things, but with lots of planning you can be a great success at your science fair.  But if you need a pep talk email me I will be happy to get you going!

Online Resources

Teaching Test Taking Skills


Tests can be a great challenge for many middle school students, especially in the 5th/6th grade transition year. Some of my students have never really ever taken a test until this year! So as a teacher, I feel it is important to ensure my students are prepared! I expect nothing but the best, so I give them the best test taking strategies! I have found that these skills are very helpful and many of my students thank me for teaching this to them.

Before The Test

Organize It! · Write It! ·  Say It!  

I use a 3 day study plan to get my kids learning a system to prepare. Day 1 they organize all of their notes. I send home a check list with every document and worksheet they need to have both on the iPad and on paper. Based on this checklist, I give a notebook quiz (If we don’t grade them they won’t do it!)

Day 2, they get a review sheet with important hints to remember and I also throw in some practice questions, especially at the start of the year when they need to get used to how I test. (Application VS Memorization)

Day 3, Read, Recite and Review. They have to come to class with a recording of themselves they can listen to or some type of proof that they have reviewed. Remember they won’t do it if there is no grade! Some of my more attentive students write the answers to their review on flash cards to start and then use these flashcards before their test. Some kids have their parents sign that they helped the review. All acceptable!

I have found that they students who don’t take this seriously are generally the ones that do not perform as well as they can. This strategy helps them on their own identify things they do not understand and come see me or ask for help before it is too late!

During The Test

  1. Brain Dump – Write down things at the start of the test that are difficult to remember in margins or on back.
  2. Underline/Circle Key Words – Read instructions and questions actively! Underline and Circle Key words
  3. Cross-Out Wrong Answers – It sounds simple but they don’t do it. Eliminating wrong answers frees up working memory to focus more on finding the right answers.
  4. Find Your Challenge – Who says you have to go in order. Do more difficult sections 1st while your fresh and not fatigued from the test
  5. Review your work – WHY DON’T THEY DO THIS? I have to teach and re-teach my students that this does not mean check that you did every question , check that they are correct too!

After The Test

  1. Do not just focus on your GRADE! – Look for trends in “your” test data. Where did they do well? Where did they Struggle? Is multiple choice their weakness or their strength? Is there one concept that they recurring struggled with. Middle schoolers don’t know how to do this, you have to teach them this skill!
  2. Test corrections – I make every student fill out a test correction worksheet and keep them to compare where they continue to struggle on tests.
  3. Reflect on preparation – This is just as important at the end as it is in the beginning!