September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

Getting to Know You: Start the Year by Knowing Your Learners

Posted: Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013

by:  Frederick Nelson

One of the organizing frameworks that guide the practice of National Board Certified Teachers is the Architecture of Accomplished Teaching. The foundation of this graphic, and the first step in constructing meaningful learning experiences, is an exploration of the questions, “Who are your students? Where are they now? What do they need and in what order do they need it? Where should I begin?” Only after we have some answers to these questions can we begin setting high, worthwhile goals and designing appropriate and engaging learning experiences.

So how do we find out who our students are? The purpose of this exploration is to discover information that will be useful in your classroom. This could include things such as:

  • Students’ prior learning of important content
  • Students’ interests—hobbies, activities, favorite movies, TV shows, music, sports
  • Students’ family background—places they have lived, other family members, experiences they have had
  • Students’ personalities and learning styles—how do they learn best?

Prior knowledge is an aspect of knowing our learners that is often determined with a pretest. Many textbook publishers include instruments of this type in sets of ancillary materials. There are also many assessments available on the Internet, for example, a popular measure of high school and college students’ physics knowledge is the Force Concept Inventory, which focuses on understanding of Newtonian physics. Pretests for other content areas can be located on the web.



Making connections between students’ interests and course content is a key method for establishing relevance of lessons. For example, students who are musicians will not only have an inherent interest in a unit on sound and waves, but can also be recruited to perform demonstrations and lead activities related to these concepts. Project-based learning activities can be linked to student interests, such as drawing (create an anime-style comic book about the battle between a white blood cell and bacteria), theater (write and perform a skit about the water cycle), and video games (analyze the effect gravity would have on buildings in the game Minecraft). These interests can be discovered through many writing and creative activities such as journaling and poster construction. Even brief student introductions can generate useful information about student interests. Take some notes while students are sharing what they did this summer.

A third approach to connecting with your students is to use an engaging activity to learn about their backgrounds. One such activity is the Project Learning Tree activity, “Tree Cookies.” In this exercise students examine a slice of a tree trunk or limb, noting unique characteristics, such as annual ring size or fire scars, and consider the various events that resulted in these differences. They then draw their own life cookie on a paper plate, with a ring for each year of their lives, and significant events indicated in a relevant way. This information can provide insights into student motivation and family involvement.

Finally, there are numerous online surveys that reveal personality and learning style information. These include the Index of Learning Styles Questionnaire, assessments that measure Multiple Intelligences, and Myers-Briggs personality profiles. This information can be useful in establishing cooperative learning groups and addressing classroom management issues.

The important consideration in gathering any of this information is having a clear sense of purpose for how it can be used in the construction of meaningful learning experiences in your classroom. While these activities should be done early, the data produced should be examined continuously throughout the school year.

One final suggestion: allow your learners to get to know you, too. Share some relevant pieces of your own history, using engaging activities like Two Truths and a Lie. Appropriate self-disclosure is an important method for building an environment of trust in your classroom.

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Written by Frederick Nelson

Frederick Nelson

Frederick Nelson is an Assistant Professor of Science Education, California State University, Fresno and is CSTA’s Region 3 Director

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CSTA Is Now Accepting Nominations for Board Members

Posted: Friday, November 17th, 2017

Current, incoming, and outgoing CSTA Board of Directors at June 3, 2017 meeting.

Updated 7:25 pm, Nov. 17, 2017

It’s that time of year when CSTA is looking for dedicated and qualified persons to fill the upcoming vacancies on its Board of Directors. This opportunity allows you to help shape the policy and determine the path that the Board will take in the new year. There are time and energy commitments, but that is far outweighed by the personal satisfaction of knowing that you are an integral part of an outstanding professional educational organization, dedicated to the support and guidance of California’s science teachers. You will also have the opportunity to help CSTA review and support legislation that benefits good science teaching and teachers.

Right now is an exciting time to be involved at the state level in the California Science Teachers Association. The CSTA Board of Directors is currently involved in implementing the Next Generations Science Standards and its strategic plan. If you are interested in serving on the CSTA Board of Directors, now is the time to submit your name for consideration. Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

State Schools Chief Tom Torlakson Announces 2017 Finalists for Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching

Posted: Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

SACRAMENTO—State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson today nominated eight exceptional secondary mathematics and science teachers as California finalists for the 2017 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST).

“These teachers are dedicated and accomplished individuals whose innovative teaching styles prepare our students for 21st century careers and college and develop them into the designers and inventors of the future,” Torlakson said. “They rank among the finest in their profession and also serve as wonderful mentors and role models.”

The California Department of Education (CDE) partners annually with the California Science Teachers Association and the California Mathematics Council to recruit and select nominees for the PAEMST program—the highest recognition in the nation for a mathematics or science teacher. The Science Finalists will be recognized at the CSTA Awards Luncheon on Saturday, October 14, 2017. Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Thriving in a Time of Change

Posted: Wednesday, September 13th, 2017

by Jill Grace

By the time this message is posted online, most schools across California will have been in session for at least a month (if not longer, and hat tip to that bunch!). Long enough to get a good sense of who the kids in your classroom are and to get into that groove and momentum of the daily flow of teaching. It’s also very likely that for many of you who weren’t a part of a large grant initiative or in a district that set wheels in motion sooner, this is the first year you will really try to shift instruction to align to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). I’m not going to lie to you, it’s a challenging year – change is hard. Change is even harder when there’s not a playbook to go by.  But as someone who has had the very great privilege of walking alongside teachers going through that change for the past two years and being able to glimpse at what this looks like for different demographics across that state, there are three things I hope you will hold on to. These are things I have come to learn will overshadow the challenge: a growth mindset will get you far, one is a very powerful number, and it’s about the kids. Learn More…

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Written by Jill Grace

Jill Grace

Jill Grace is a Regional Director for the K-12 Alliance and is President of CSTA.

If You Are Not Teaching Science Then You Are Not Teaching Common Core

Posted: Thursday, August 31st, 2017

by Peter A’Hearn 

“Science and Social Studies can be taught for the last half hour of the day on Fridays”

– Elementary school principal

Anyone concerned with the teaching of science in elementary school is keenly aware of the problem of time. Kids need to learn to read, and learning to read takes time, nobody disputes that. So Common Core ELA can seem like the enemy of science. This was a big concern to me as I started looking at the curriculum that my district had adopted for Common Core ELA. I’ve been through those years where teachers are learning a new curriculum, and know first-hand how a new curriculum can become the focus of attention- sucking all the air out of the room. Learn More…

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the Region 4 Director for CSTA.

Tools for Creating NGSS Standards Based Lessons

Posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

by Elizabeth Cooke

Think back on your own experiences with learning science in school. Were you required to memorize disjointed facts without understanding the concepts?

Science Education Background

In the past, science education focused on rote memorization and learning disjointed ideas. Elementary and secondary students in today’s science classes are fortunate now that science instruction has shifted from students demonstrating what they know to students demonstrating how they are able to apply their knowledge. Science education that reflects the Next Generation Science Standards challenges students to conduct investigations. As students explore phenomena and discrepant events they engage in academic discourse guided by focus questions from their teachers or student generated questions of that arise from analyzing data and creating and revising models that explain natural phenomena. Learn More…

Written by Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke teaches TK-5 science at Markham Elementary in the Oakland Unified School District, is an NGSS Early Implementer, and is CSTA’s Secretary.