September 2016 – Vol. 29 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.

CCSAdBEssence 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 Cross Cutting 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.” Teacher’s 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.

Powered By DT Author Box

Written by NGSS Early Implementer

NGSS Early Implementer

In 2015 CSTA began to publish a series of articles written by teachers participating in the NGSS 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.

Leave a Reply


California Science Assessment Update

Posted: Wednesday, October 12th, 2016

by Jessica Sawko

In June 2016 California submitted a waiver application to discontinue using the old CST (based on 1998 standards) and conduct two years of pilot and field tests (in spring 2017 and 2018, respectively) of the new science assessment designed to support our state’s current science standards (California Next Generation Science Standards (CA-NGSS) adopted in 2013). The waiver was requested because no student scores will be provided as a part of the pilot and field tests. The CDE received a response from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) on September 30, 2016, which provides the CDE the opportunity to resubmit a revised waiver request within 60 days. The CDE will be revising the waiver request and resubmitting as ED suggested.

At its October 2016 North/South Assessment meetings CDE confirmed that there will be no administration of the old CST in the spring of 2017. (An archive of the meeting is available at 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.

Some ways to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service in your classroom

Posted: Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

by Carol Peterson

1) To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, Google has put together a collection of virtual tours combining 360-degree video, panoramic photos and expert narration. It’s called “The Hidden Worlds of the National Parks” and is accessible right from the browser. You can choose from one of five different locales, including the Kenai Fjords in Alaska and Bryce Canyon in Utah, and get a guided “tour” from a local park ranger. Each one has a few virtual vistas to explore, with documentary-style voiceovers and extra media hidden behind clickable thumbnails. Ideas are included for use in classrooms. 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.

2016 Award Recipients – Join CSTA in Honoring Their Accomplishments

Posted: Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

CSTA is pleased to announce the winners of the 2016 CSTA Awards for Distinguished Contributions, Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award, 2014 and 2015 PAEMST-Science recipients from California, and the 2016 California PAEMST Finalists. The following individuals and organizations will be honored during the 2016 California Science Education Conference  on October 21- 23 in Palm Springs. This year’s group of awardees are truly outstanding. Please join us in congratulating them!

Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award

John Keller

John Keller

The Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award honors an individual who has made a significant contribution to science education in the state and who, through years of leadership and service, has truly made a positive impact on the quality of science teaching. This year’s recipient is John Keller, Ph.D. Dr. Keller is Associate Professor, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Co-Director, Center for Engineering, Science, and Mathematics Education, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. In her letter of recommendation, SDSU science education faculty and former CSTA board member Donna Ross wrote: “He brings people together who share the desire to make a difference in the development and implementation of programs for science teaching. Examples of these projects include the Math and Science Teaching Initiative (MSTI), Noyce Scholars Program, Western Regional Noyce Initiative, and the Science Teacher and Researcher (STAR) program.” Through his work, he has had a dramatic impact on science teacher education, both preservice and in-service, in California, the region, and the country. He developed and implemented the STEM Teacher and Researcher Program which aims to produce excellent K-12 STEM teachers by providing aspiring teachers with opportunities to do authentic research while helping them translate their research experience into classroom practice. SFSU faculty member Larry Horvath said it best in his letter:“John Keller exemplifies the best aspects of a scientist, science educator, and mentor. His contributions to science education in the state of California are varied, significant, and I am sure will continue well into the future.” 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.

NGSS: Making Your Life Easier

Posted: Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

by Peter A’hearn

Wait… What?

NGSS is a big shift. Teachers need to learn new content, figure out how this whole engineering thing relates to science, and develop new unit and lesson plans. How could NGSS possibly make life easier?

The idea that NGSS could make our lives easier came to me during the California State NGSS Rollout #1 Classroom Example lesson on chromatography. I have since done this lesson with high school chemistry students and it made me think back to having my own students do chromatography. I spent lots of time preparing to make sure the experiment went well and achieved the “correct” result. I pre-prepared the solutions and organized and prepped the materials. I re-wrote and re-wrote again the procedure so there was no way a kid could get it wrong. I spent 20 minutes before the lab modeling all of the steps in class, so there was no way to do it wrong. Except that it turns out there were many. Learn More…

Powered By DT Author Box

Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the K-12 science specialist in the Palm Springs Unified School District and is Region 4 Director for CSTA.

Celestial Highlights, September 2016

Posted: Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

by Robert C. Victor. Twilight sky maps by Robert D. Miller. Graph of evening planet setting times by Dr. Jeffrey L. Hunt 

Our evening twilight chart for September, depicting the sky about 40 minutes after sunset from SoCal, shows brilliant Venus remaining low, creeping from W to WSW and gaining a little altitude as the month progresses. Its close encounter within 2.5° N of Spica on Sept. 18 is best seen with binoculars to catch the star low in bright twilight. The brightest stars in the evening sky are golden Arcturus descending in the west, and blue-white Vega passing just north of overhead. Look for Altair and Deneb completing the Summer Triangle with Vega. The triangle of Mars-Saturn-Antares expands as Mars seems to hold nearly stationary in SSW as the month progresses, while Saturn and Antares slink off to the SW. Learn More…

Powered By DT Author Box

Written by Robert Victor

Robert Victor

Robert C. Victor was Staff Astronomer at Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs, CA. Robert is a member of CSTA.