May/June 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 7

Shifting Priorities: Teaching Students to Defend and Not Just Identify Answers

Posted: Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

by Sinead Klement     


While still in the thick of teaching each school year, I prepare a list of things I want to do better the following year. Many times, I focus on little procedural changes that might help keep the room cleaner or help save valuable class time. Other times it is just about tweaking my lessons to add something cool I learned at a workshop or found online. This year, however, I am preparing for a massive shift in priorities. For years my focus has been on making science hands-on and of course FUN, but if I am being honest, it has also been on preparing my students to take a 66 question multiple-choice test in April. This year my focus will shift from being a teacher who can get students to successfully pick out correct answers in a lineup of answers, to being a teacher of scientific writing and communication. Although absolutely necessary, this change may be a little painful. The most notable loss may be the possible sacrifice of some of my favorite hands-on activities in order to make time for students to process their science experiences with real writing.

The timing for this goal could not be better. This year math and language arts teachers are moving ahead with the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS), but we science teachers feel like we are in a kind of limbo period. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are adopted, yet are not meant for full implementation until a few years from now when curriculum and assessments are developed. In the meantime, we are still assessing students in fifth, eighth, and tenth grade on the “old” standards. Consequently, science teachers are expected to teach the old standards but are to integrate CCSS into our current curriculums until we transition to the NGSS.



Initially, I was a little annoyed. I was impatient and ready to get on with the NGSS. I was also feeling a little jealous of all the attention language arts and math teachers were receiving in their transition, but mostly I was just anxious to be rid of these “mile wide but inch deep” science standards. Upon reflection, though, I realized that I should be grateful for the gift of time. We have a couple years to practice teaching our students CCSS skills such as writing constructed responses and reading primary source science documents before having our students take a new test and I feel like we are lucky the changes are not happening all at once. For this year, then, I am going to start by integrating some of the Common Core writing standards into my current curriculum.

Over the past decade and a half, I always felt that my program was missing something. Even when my students do really well on the standard multiple-choice tests, I am often quickly deflated when I ask my students to support their answers with evidence. Common responses from students are almost always something like, “because it makes sense” or, “because Mrs. Klement taught it to us.” Rarely will a student cite evidence from the many lab investigations we did in class or cite supporting information from their textbook. When looking at the CCCS W.1, I realized that students are going to have to be proficient in writing arguments supported by evidence, a skill many of my former students lacked when I taught them.

Given the “even less than subpar” answers I usually get from students when I ask them to support their answers with evidence, I quickly realized that I will need to scaffold this process for them. Initially, I thought simply referring to our “Activity Summary Sheet” on the board before having them write their supporting paragraphs would be enough. (The Activity Summary Sheet is a large sheet of paper where we list all the activities we have done in class, what we observed in those activities, what we learned from those activities, and how those ideas relate to the bigger science concept we are studying.) It was not. They still provided the same thin responses as before. What I came to realize is that my students do not support their arguments/claims with evidence because they have not been explicitly taught how, and I cannot assume that they have been taught how to do this in their English class. I concluded, somewhat reluctantly, that it is my job to teach them this skill.

As a result, I have been spending a lot of time this summer coming up with a strategy for how to better teach my students to write strong evidence-based claims. Although I have not yet had a chance to fully test this out with students, I have a tentative plan for helping my students develop this skill. First, I will continue to create Activity Summary Sheets for each unit because I do believe that this helps students see how all of the things we observe and learn are interconnected and not discreet events. I will also try to help them plan their writing with a graphic organizer. The best one I’ve found was presented by Sandra Yellenberg (Science Coordinator, Santa Clara County Office of Education) at the 2013 CSTA conference. It does a really good job at breaking down this kind of writing into reasonable chunks for students. I will guide students through the process of transforming the information in the graphic organizer into a paragraph and will then develop a writing checklist so that they can both self-edit and peer-edit the papers. This is essential because I cannot imagine correcting each and every one myself especially since I am planning on having students practice their writing skills a lot.

While this is certainly not the easiest goal I’ve ever set for my students and I, it may be one of the more important ones. Hopefully, we will all learn more and possibly even have more fun than ever before.

Sinead Klement is an 8th grade science teacher at Jackson Junior High School and is a member of CSTA.



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From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy:

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Participate in Chemistry Education Research Study, Earn $500-800 Dollars!

Posted: Tuesday, May 9th, 2017

WestEd, a non-profit educational research agency, has been funded by the US Department of Education to test a new molecular modeling kit, Happy Atoms. Happy Atoms is an interactive chemistry learning experience that consists of a set of physical atoms that connect magnetically to form molecules, and an app that uses image recognition to identify the molecules that you create with the set. WestEd is conducting a study around the effectiveness of using Happy Atoms in the classroom, and we are looking for high school chemistry teachers in California to participate.

As part of the study, teachers will be randomly assigned to either the treatment group (who uses Happy Atoms) or the control group (who uses Happy Atoms at a later date). Teachers in the treatment group will be asked to use the Happy Atoms set in their classrooms for 5 lessons over the course of the fall 2017 semester. Students will complete pre- and post-assessments and surveys around their chemistry content knowledge and beliefs about learning chemistry. WestEd will provide access to all teacher materials, teacher training, and student materials needed to participate.

Participating teachers will receive a stipend of $500-800. You can read more information about the study here:

Please contact Rosanne Luu at or 650.381.6432 if you are interested in participating in this opportunity, or if you have any questions!

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.

2018 Science Instructional Materials Adoption Reviewer Application

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

The California Department of Education and State Board of Education are now accepting applications for reviewers for the 2018 Science Instructional Materials Adoption. The application deadline is 3:00 pm, July 21, 2017. The application is comprehensive, so don’t wait until the last minute to apply.

On Tuesday, May 9, 2017, State Superintendent Tom Torlakson forwarded this recruitment letter to county and district superintendents and charter school administrators.

Review panel members will evaluate instructional materials for use in kindergarten through grade eight, inclusive, that are aligned with the California Next Generation Science Content Standards for California Public Schools (CA NGSS). 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.

Lessons Learned from the NGSS Early Implementer Districts

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

On March 31, 2017, Achieve released two documents examining some lessons learned from the California K-8 Early Implementation Initiative. The initiative began in August 2014 and was developed by the K-12 Alliance at WestEd, with close collaborative input on its design and objectives from the State Board of Education, the California Department of Education, and Achieve.

Eight (8) traditional school districts and two (2) charter management organizations were selected to participate in the initiative, becoming the first districts in California to implement the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Those districts included Galt Joint Union Elementary, Kings Canyon Joint Unified, Lakeside Union, Oakland Unified, Palm Springs Unified, San Diego Unified, Tracy Joint Unified, Vista Unified, Aspire, and High Tech High.

To more closely examine some of the early successes and challenges experienced by the Early Implementer LEAs, Achieve interviewed nine of the ten participating districts and compiled that information into two resources, focusing primarily on professional learning and instructional materials. 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.

Using Online Simulations to Support the NGSS in Middle School Classrooms

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

by Lesley Gates, Loren Nikkel, and Kambria Eastham

Middle school teachers in Kings Canyon Unified School District (KCUSD), a CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative district, have been diligently working on transitioning to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) integrated model for middle school. This year, the teachers focused on building their own knowledge of the Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs). They have been gathering and sharing ideas at monthly collaborative meetings as to how to make sure their students are not just learning about science but that they are actually doing science in their classrooms. Students should be planning and carrying out investigations to gather data for analysis in order to construct explanations. This is best done through hands-on lab experiments. Experimental work is such an important part of the learning of science and education research shows that students learn better and retain more when they are active through inquiry, investigation, and application. A Framework for K-12 Science Education (2011) notes, “…learning about science and engineering involves integration of the knowledge of scientific explanations (i.e., content knowledge) and the practices needed to engage in scientific inquiry and engineering design. Thus the framework seeks to illustrate how knowledge and practice must be intertwined in designing learning experiences in K-12 Science Education” (pg. 11).

Many middle school teachers in KCUSD are facing challenges as they begin implementing these student-driven, inquiry-based NGSS science experiences in their classrooms. First, many of the middle school classrooms at our K-8 school sites are not designed as science labs. Learn More…

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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 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.

Celestial Highlights: May – July 2017

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

May Through July 2017 with Web Resources for the Solar Eclipse of August 21, 2017

by Robert C. Victor. Twilight sky maps by Robert D. Miller. Graphs of planet rising and setting times by Jeffrey L. Hunt.

In spring and summer 2017, Jupiter is the most prominent “star” in the evening sky, and Venus, even brighter, rules the morning. By mid-June, Saturn rises at a convenient evening hour, allowing both giant planets to be viewed well in early evening until Jupiter sinks low in late September. The Moon is always a crescent in its monthly encounters with Venus, but is full whenever it appears near Jupiter or Saturn in the eastern evening sky opposite the Sun. (In 2017, Full Moon is near Jupiter in April, Saturn in June.) At intervals of 27-28 days thereafter, the Moon appears at a progressively earlier phase at each pairing with the outer planet until its final conjunction, with Moon a thin crescent, low in the west at dusk. You’ll see many beautiful events by just following the Moon’s wanderings at dusk and dawn in the three months leading up to the solar eclipse. Learn More…

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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.