September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

Sensemaking Notebooks: Making Thinking Visible for Both Students and Teachers!

Posted: Friday, August 19th, 2016

by Karen Cerwin

“Students can’t yet write independently without basic sentence frames.  Their thoughts are usually bigger than what they can put on paper.” – Kindergarten Teacher

This quote works for everyone; our thoughts are usually bigger than what anyone can put on paper! Yet, our job as educators is to help students learn to communicate their thinking in meaningful ways. One strategy is to use science notebooks in the classroom in a way that aligns with how scientists use their notebooks in their daily work.

Scientists use notebooks as a “thinking journal” in which they record observations and thoughts about a phenomenon they are investigating. They propose ideas, research how others have thought about the phenomenon, do original investigations, edit and refine their thinking as they gather more data, generate more questions for further study. Scientist notebooks are living documents that reflect the author’s thinking.  Thus their notebooks are unique and individual to that scientist’s ideas.

How can we translate this use of notebooks into our classrooms? Contrary to some people’s practice, it’s not about format!  It is about student thinking! The K-12 Alliance has had many “think tank” discussions to find the balance for classroom use of notebooks that offers a space for documenting thinking like a scientist while maintaining guidance towards developing student autonomy.

“All major aspects of inquiry, including managing the process, making sense of data, and discussion and reflection on the results, may require guidance.

In the absence of instruction or prompts, students may not routinely ask questions of themselves, such as What are you going to do next? What outcome do you predict? What did you Learn? How do you know”

-Taking Science to School, National Research Council, 2007

Our focus on developing a “thoughtful notebook practice” for our classrooms has resulted in naming Four Essences of Science Notebooks. We intentionally avoided the term “types” or “parts” of notebook entries as those words are often reduced to formulaic notebook entries. Essences embody how student thinking is present throughout the notebook!

Description of Notebook Essences:
The Four Essences of Science Notebooking align learning experiences with tenets of “How People Learn”: Accessing Prior Knowledge, Developing Conceptual Frameworks and Metacognition about what is learned (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000). In the science notebook, students share their prior knowledge about the phenomenon, collect data and make sense of it (conceptual framework) to explain the phenomenon and metacognate about their understanding.

Essence of Prior Knowledge
All learners bring prior knowledge about a topic or phenomenon. It is much like turning on your computer and waiting for the computer to load information and the screen lights up! Prior knowledge notebooking entries provide a measure of what the student knows to both the teacher and the student. It provides a starting point to build conceptual understanding of the phenomenon.

Essence of Collecting Data
The NGSS shift to collecting data is the expectation that students use the practice of plan and conduct an investigation to collect data. In this practice, students identify what qualifies as evidence to answer a question. Instead of telling students the variable in an experiment, NGSS requires students to have a clear understanding of the phenomenon on which they are collecting data, as well as why the data should or should not be collected in a particular format. Encourage students to think about how to display their data. If students understand what data to collect, and how to display it, there is little or no need for a worksheet.

Essence of Making Sense of the Data
Making sense of the data aligns with how scientists establish or revise their understanding about a phenomenon. It is the crux of student thinking where they are able to make sense of data in terms of trends, causal or correlation relationships, validity and reliability of the evidence. It is where students can argue from evidence about methodology, results, and conclusions to support or rebut claims and explanations. Making sense includes using the Science and Engineering Practices and Crossutting Concepts in concert with Disciplinary Core Ideas.

Protecting time in the classroom for sense making of the data is essential to building student understanding.

Essence of Metacognition
Expert learners know what they have learned and how new information fits into prior conceptual frameworks. Teachers working on developing metacognition with students carefully design prompts such as: What do you know for sure? What are you not sure of? I used to think ____; now I think___; What are three things I know about this phenomenon, two things I learned and one thing I am wondering about.

Voices from the Field: Student Benefits
These summary statements come from K-8th grade teachers in the CA NGSS Early Implementation Initiative:

  • “Students have a safe place to record thoughts about prior knowledge or making sense of data before speaking them aloud.” Along with a safe place to record, students quickly learn they can edit and are expected to revise their thinking about the phenomenon. “Students can see their own thinking and use the data collected as evidence for claims or altering a claim.” Notebooks become tools to record original ideas, collect data, summarize, edit explanations or models and reflect on how the world works.
  • Students have multiple ways to record their thinking. The very youngest K students might draw and write images integrating print with pictures. Older students continue to draw images but include connections between and among ideas through their use of models to explain. “Having my students include arrows in their models helped them and me recognize how they were visualizing the relationships in the model.”
  • Students are caught knowing what they know (rather than “gotcha” at what they don’t know). By encouraging students to use their notebooks to answer prompts, students recognize the importance of making notebook entries to help them with their understanding. “As a teacher it now makes sense to me that students use the information they gathered to explain what they now understand. At first, it seemed unnatural to allow them to use notebooks, but in reality, it is more natural for kids to see their progression in order to show what they have learned.”

Voices from the Field: Teacher Benefits
These summary statements come from K-8th grade teachers in the CA NGSS Early Implementation Initiative:

  • Notebook entries provide a window into the minds of their students, enabling teachers to “coach” what is visible about student thinking. Notebook entries quickly read can give a sense of the intervention(s) needed to deepen conceptual understanding through the next selection of learning experience. “In twenty years I have not found a better tool for shedding light on student thinking.”
  • Effective notebook prompts have to be planned! Prompts need to be very carefully constructed to encourage students to meet the learning goals. “This is a high-level teaching skill and encourages me to work with colleagues to reflect on my practice.” Teachers often have to change their thinking in designing prompts. “I had to learn to move from assessing understanding to interacting with their understanding.”  This moves teaching and learning to a whole new level. 

Notebook Samples Below:
The K-12 Alliance is looking to help teachers collect more notebook samples that feature one or more of the four essences and demonstrate student sensemaking. Please contribute by using this form:

Click on the image below to open a full-screen slide show of the samples with commentary.

Karen Cerwin is a Regional Director for the K-12 Alliance @WestEd and is a member of CSTA. She will be presenting a short course at the 2016 CSTA Conference on Saturday, October 22: Science and Literacy in Primary Grades (K-2): A Win-Win for both NGSS 3-D Science and CCSS ELA. Information and registration is available online.


Bransford, J., A. Brown, and R. Cocking, eds. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school committee on developments in the science of learning. With additional materials from The Committee on Learning Research and Educational Practice, M. Suzanne Donovan, John D. Bransford, and James W. Pellegrino, editors. Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education of the National Research Council. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Richard A. Duschl, Heidi A. Schweingruber, and Andrew W. Shouse, eds. (2007). Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8. Committee on Science Learning, Kindergarten Through Eighth Grade. Richard A. Duschl, Heidi A. Schweingruber, and Andrew W. Shouse, Editors. Board on Science Education, Center for Education. Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

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Written by NGSS Early Implementer

NGSS Early Implementer

In 2015 CSTA began to publish a series of articles written by teachers participating in the California NGSS k-8 Early Implementation Initiative. This article was written by an educator(s) participating in the initiative. CSTA thanks them for their contributions and for sharing their experience with the science teaching community.

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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.

News and Happenings in CSTA’s Region 1 – Fall 2017

Posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

by Marian Murphy-Shaw


This month I was fortunate enough to hear about some new topics to share with our entire region. Some of you may access the online or newsletter options, others may attend events in person that are nearer to you. Long time CSTA member and environmental science educator Mike Roa is well known to North Bay Area teachers for his volunteer work sharing events and resources. In this month’s Region 1 updates I am happy to make a few of the options Mike offers available to our region. Learn More…

Written by Marian Murphy-Shaw

Marian Murphy-Shaw

Marian Murphy-Shaw is the student services director at Siskiyou County Office of Education and is CSTA’s Region 1 Director and chair of CSTA’s Policy Committee.