September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

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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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.