Why Pre-Assessments Are Always a Good Idea: My Ruler Story

In the summer before my first year of teaching science I remember talking to the other science teacher. She casually mentioned that I should teach my students how to use a ruler before doing any labs or activities because many of them wouldn’t know how to measure properly. We were talking about my seventh grade students. Seventh grade. I remember learning how to use a ruler in early elementary school. How could seventh graders not know this basic skill? Surely my students knew how to use rulers.

Just in case my fellow science teacher was right, I decided to add a couple of questions about measuring with rulers to my beginning of year exam. Weeks later, when my students took that pre-assessment, my mind was blown. Over half of my students didn’t know how to use a ruler. They didn’t know you need to start at the first line of the ruler and not at the edge. Furthermore, they didn’t know a ruler can be used to measure in a unit other than inches. Even the students who knew that rulers can measure in centimeters had no idea that rulers are marked with millimeters too. It was like rulers were some rare, mythical object instead of a basic tool found in most classrooms.

Pages from my students' INBs about using rulers properly.
Get these Metric Length INBs in my store.
Thankfully, I became aware of the issue in the first week of school and could easily and quickly fix it. We had a special lesson on rulers and students added measurement and ruler information to their INBs. I made sure my students could use rulers properly before proceeding to the more complex stuff in science. Any time we had a lab or unit involving length, I reviewed ruler skills to make sure my students still had it down. Had I not known about my students’ measurement problems, I would have spent much of the year wondering what was up with my students’ answers and why lab and activity results were wonky. The pre-assessment saved my students from frustration and lost learning time.

This experience taught me to never assume that students come to class with certain knowledge and skills. Whenever possible, I check to see what students know before beginning a new lesson or unit. If students don’t know the basics, then they get overwhelmed quickly, shut down, and don’t learn. Doing a precheck can be as easy as having students raise their hands in answer to a yes or no question, eavesdropping on student discussion of a topic, or adding a question to students’ bell work. If you notice that students don’t understand something, address it before moving on and introducing new content. Knowing about the issue right away allows you to fix it before it gets in the way of student learning.

Have your classes ever shocked you by not knowing something? What was it? When did you find out they didn’t know it? Were you able to address the problem? Share your story in the comments section!

Need measurement resources for your classroom? Check out the some of the metric length resources from my Teachers Pay Teachers store.
Metric Length and Ruler INB Pages
Metric Length Worksheet
Measurement in Science Stations: Tools and Metric Units

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How to Teach Laboratory Safety to Middle School Science Students

The very first unit I teach to my seventh grade science students is laboratory safety. Teaching lab safety as your first unit immediately sets your students up for yearlong success in science class. Students love experiments and often learn the most from that kind of hands-on activity. Therefore, being able to safely participate in science class at the beginning of the year is vital. Another bonus is that the unit is short and the content is straightforward (i.e. easy), so it is a great way to introduce and practice class procedures like note-taking, working in a group, participating in an activity, handing in homework, taking a quiz, etc.

How do I plan my lab safety unit?

Start with a lab safety contract! Safety contracts are filled with all of the important safety stuff students need to know. Use one to build your unit. When I first started teaching middle school science, I used Flinn Scientific’s safety contract. (Just Google “Flinn Scientific Safety Contract” and what you need will pop up, available for free. I know there is a high school and a middle school version out there and both of them come in English and Spanish.) However, not all of the Flinn Scientific material applied to my students—it mentioned chemicals and equipment we wouldn’t be using. For my own lesson planning purposes, I printed a copy of the safety contract and highlighted the most important information and crossed off what wasn’t going to be relevant to my students that year. That helped me focus on what I wanted my students to come away knowing. Using my highlighted safety contract, I wrote a list of lab safety rules that encompassed the most important safety information. Then I created my lab safety quiz. Once you have your safety rules written and your assessment made, you’re ready to decide how you’re going to teach the material. Note-taking? Activities? Scenarios? Choose what works best for you, your teaching style, and your group of students.

What lab safety rules should I use?

Like I mentioned above, you can construct your own lab safety rules using a lab safety contract. Alternatively, you can use the rules I wrote for my own students. They are listed below. You’re welcome ;)

  1. I will always take the time to read and understand all laboratory procedures before beginning.
  2. I will carefully follow all directions and will ask the teacher if I do not understand something.
  3. I will not touch any laboratory materials before being told to do so.
  4. I will keep my area clean and clear of everything except laboratory materials. 
  5. I will properly wear all required safety items, such as goggles or aprons, for the duration of the laboratory activity.  
  6. I will wear appropriate clothing on lab days. I will wear closed toed shoes. I will tie back long hair if applicable. I will not wear baggy clothing or jewelry. 
  7. I will only work when the teacher is present. 
  8. I will not eat, drink, or chew gum during the laboratory activity. 
  9. I will not run or engage in any horseplay during the laboratory activity. 
  10. I will tell the teacher immediately about any injuries, spills, or broken items. 
  11. I will not take any of the laboratory materials without permission from the teacher. 
  12. I will completely clean my area and appropriately return laboratory materials before leaving the classroom. 

How many days long should my lab safety unit be?

I always make my lab safety unit last no more than one week long. That gives us more than enough time to introduce, practice, and assess the unit. And remember, I also use this time to familiarize students with classroom procedures, which saves us oodles of time later in the year. Five 50 minute class periods (or three 90 minute block periods) is the most I’ve ever needed for this unit. In my opinion, the optimal amount of time to spend on the safety unit is four 45 minute long class periods.

What does a complete lab safety unit look like?

Below you’ll find a breakdown of my own tried and true lab safety unit. I’ve taught this unit using various bell schedules—(45 minute classes, 55 minute classes, and 90 minute classes). The unit description below is for four days of 50 minute class periods.

Day One:

Start class with a warmup (also called a bell ringer) about lab safety to see what students already know. Discuss student answers. As a class, read through and discuss lab safety contracts and have students sign theirs. Send the contracts home and have parents sign the contracts as homework.* Make it clear that students will not participate in any labs or experiments until their signed contracts have been handed in.

*The lab safety contracts are due by the end of the week. Students are reminded throughout the week to hand them in.

Day Two: 

Begin class with a warmup about lab safety. Discuss student answers. Use a PowerPoint to guide student note-taking about lab safety. I include the following notes sections: Before the Lab, During the Lab, After the Lab, and Other Safety Information.

Day Three:

Begin class with a warmup about lab safety. Discuss student answers. Review the material students learned the day before. Students practice the lab safety rules in small groups with a fun scenario activity.

Day Four:

Begin class with a warmup about lab safety. Discuss student answers. Review lab safety information. Students complete their lab safety quiz.

My entire safety unit is for sale in my Teachers Pay Teachers store. You can get the whole Lab Safety Bundle, which includes everything mentioned in the unit described above, or you can buy the safety contract, warmups, quiz,  notes, PowerPoint, and scenario activity separately to suit your needs. And, just an FYI, all of my safety resources are in both English and Spanish.

What do I do before each science experiment in the future?

Before Every.Single.Science.Experiment we review general safety information and safety information that is particularly relevant to that experiment.

Well, that’s my lab safety unit! I hope it helped you plan your own unit or gave you a clear picture of how to use my safety unit in your own class. Remember, you can check out the lab safety resources in my store and save yourself some time.

Science Lab Safety Bundle for Purchase

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How to Be an Effective Middle School Teacher Part 4

These are the final five tips I have for you about how to be an effective middle school teacher. Feel free to add your own tips in the comment section!

Be choosey about what you grade.

There is only so much time in the day. Pick the most important things to grade, and don’t get behind in your grading. Return graded work to students quickly so they have time to learn from their mistakes and get feedback about how to improve. I think we’ve all had that teacher who returned assignments a month or two or three after assigning them. I don’t know about you, but that always irritated me. Here are some tips on how to reduce grading time.

Get feedback on how to improve your teaching.

This can be from your students. When I was teaching middle school, my students would grade me twice a year. Their comments helped me reflect on my teaching practices and make improvements. I gained valuable insight from those little dudes and dudettes. If you’re serious about improving your teaching skills, let your students grade you. You can also request to have fellow teachers and administrators observe you. Observations are scary. I know. I hated them. But I learned so much from them that they were almost always worth the sleepless nights, nail-biting, and massive pit stains that preceded them.

Differentiate your lessons when feasible.

Challenge your students at their level. Too much challenge and they will shut down. Too little challenge and they aren’t really learning. Differentiation can mean the difference between an okay teacher and an amazing teaching. Many times, the most advanced students in class don’t get the challenge they need. Here’s how you can challenge those students.

Know that some classes are just wonky.

This doesn’t make you a bad teacher. Without fail, there has always been one “off” class every year of my teaching career. I’ve made great strides with those classes, usually, but never perfected them. What works for most classes might not work for your “off” class.

Take care of yourself!

Teacher burnout is real and common. Your needs need to be met. If you’re unhappy and struggling, you aren’t your best teacher self. Regularly take time for yourself and do what you love.

Thank you for reading! I'd love to hear your tips! Please add your own teacher tips to the comments section below.

Previous Teacher Tips:

Part One
Part Two
Part Three

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How to Be an Effective Middle School Teacher Part 3

Read these tips to become the best teacher for your students.

Lean on other teachers.

The teachers around you understand what you’re going through. They can provide a shoulder to cry on, chocolate to eat, and solutions to stuff you’re dealing with in your classroom. I remember many Tootsie Rolls were eaten with my fellow teachers during my first year of teaching. They (both teachers and Tootsie Rolls) can help.

Form a positive relationship with each student.

Classes are more fun for everyone when students like and respect their teacher. More positive adult role models are always a good thing. Do you have a difficult student you’re struggling to connect with? Here’s how you can form positive connections with ALL of your students.

Use a paperwork organization system that works for you.

Teachers have a lot of paperwork. Find a good way to organize all of those student papers and documents before the school year even begins. Some problems happen when transporting student work to and from school for grading purposes. Originally, I used paperclips to keep my different class sections separated. Well, let me tell you, paperclips don’t like to stay on bulging stacks of paper that are repeatedly crammed into a bag and then pulled out again. My eventual solution was one of those expanding file folders with multiple pockets. I labeled each pocket with a different class section. Worked like a charm. Until the little claspy-thing weakened and the papers spilled all over the floor in one big ol’ mess. #experience

Communicate with parents often.

Unfortunately, the first time many parents of middle school students hear from a teacher is negative news about how little Jimmy or little Janie is acting up in class. Try to recognize and share positive things with parents whenever they pop up. Also, parents have a wealth of knowledge about their kids. Time and again parent surveys given at the beginning of the year have proven invaluable in my class. Learn more about using parent surveys in your classroom.

Anticipate possible problems and misunderstandings.

When lesson planning you should dedicate just a little time to thinking about what problems might arise during the lesson. Come up with solutions, clearer directions, and/or better approaches. This has saved my sanity many times, and, more importantly, decreased wasted learning time for my students.

How to Be an Effective Middle School Teacher Part 2

Read these tips to become the best teacher for your students.

Incorporate socializing into your lessons whenever possible.

Most middle school students thrive on working with their peers. When they aren’t given the opportunity to talk to each other, they will often create their own social opportunities at inopportune times during your lesson. If you provide occasional times to communicate with classmates, then things will go more smoothly for all of you. These can include Think Pair Share, explaining a definition to a classmate, or coming up with examples together.

Allow for movement!

Students have plenty of time to be blobs. Movement gets their blood flowing which improves their ability to learn and refocus after learning difficult content. Movement is especially important during long block classes when students don’t have passing periods to get out their wiggles. Have students get up to turn in their own assignments; have a clear procedure for this, but don’t do it for them. Let students collect their own supplies. Have students do certain movements to show their answers (hop for answer A, flap your arms for answer B, etc.). During especially lethargic classes, I've been known to instruct my students to give a high five to five different people in the room. One of my favorite ways to practice content is with stations, which allow for plenty of movement and socialization. Here are some tips for how to effectively use stations in your classroom.

Be flexible.

One thing I love about teaching middle school students is how every day is completely different with them. They are strange people at this age and that means you’ll have to roll with the (hopefully not literal) punches.

Underestimate how long a lesson will take.

There have been a few lessons I taught that ended a good thirty minutes earlier than I expected them too. Wowza. Don’t let that be you. Have plenty of components to your lesson, a back up plan for what to do in case the lesson ends early, or a trusty time filler you can use in emergencies. My students LOVED when I pulled out my book of fun questions. It will not—and should not—kill thirty minutes of time, but it helped with a few minutes here and there throughout the year. Learn how to make your own fun question book, or get mine from my TPT store.

Check for understanding often.

Trust me, you don’t want to have taught an entire lesson only to realize at the end of class that your students are still trying to figure out step one. There are many ways to check for understanding throughout your lesson: cold calling, quick multiple choice questions, listening to student discussions, having students explain things back to you, and even counting the number of blank stares you receive.

How to Be an Effective Middle School Teacher Part 1

So you want to be a boss teacher eh? Read these tips to become the best teacher for your students.

Build solid lesson plans with clear objectives. 

It all starts here. If you don't have a good lesson plan, then your students won't learn as much as they could in the short amount of time they have with you. If the lesson is boring or if your students only have passive learning roles, then not much learning will take place. Likewise, if the lesson is tons of fun but not actually aligned to learning objectives, your students aren’t going to learn what they need to be successful. Really think about what you want your students to learn and the best way to reach them.

Have and follow a behavior management plan.

Do what works for you and your style of teaching. Not sure how to get started? Read about the classroom rules and consequences that have been successful with my seventh grade students.

Have clear behavioral expectations for every activity and communicate those expectations to your students.

Fun, well planned activities can turn into nightmares involving evil clowns in less than three seconds when middle school students are involved. Before beginning any activity, clearly explain how students should and should not behave. It only takes a couple of minutes and, man, it’ll make a huge difference.

Use a routine your students can count on.

Routines make students feel safe and comfortable. Class runs smoother if students know what to expect. In my class we typically started with a Do Now followed by a quick review of previous content, an introduction of new material, practice with that material, and an informal assessment or Exit Ticket. Keep in mind, you don’t have to be completely anal about it. Test days, lab days, assembly days and more will jostle your typical routine around and that’s okay.  Just be consistent with your routine when possible and when it makes sense to do so.

Include the “why” piece in your lessons.

Students should know why they are learning something. When middle school students understand how a lesson relates to them and their future, they become more invested in your class and what they’re learning. They are better behaved because they want to learn what you’re sharing with them. Here's how to include the “why” in your lessons.

Keep reading about more ways to be an effective middle school teacher in Part 2.

How to Teach the Scientific Method to 7th Graders

teaching the scientific method
As a middle school science teacher, I always love teaching the scientific method to my students. There are so many routes you can take with teaching it, and I’ve tried many of them. If you’re gearing up to teach the scientific method, then you might benefit from reading this post. (See what I did there?) You probably have many questions. When should I teach the scientific method? What all should I include in my unit? What order should I teach the topics of the scientific method? How do I go about teaching the scientific method? In this post I’ll share what’s worked for me. Plus, you’ll find some links to FREE resources to help get you started.

When Should I Teach the Scientific Method?

I want my students to have a good handle on lab safety before getting started with the scientific method because it involves labs, tools, and sometimes harmful chemicals. The scientific method is important for studying science in general, so I teach it as early in the year as possible. It is my second unit (right after lab safety). I bring the scientific method up throughout the year, whenever we have labs. After winter break I have a week-long review to brush up on the more difficult aspects of the scientific method.

What Should I Include in My Scientific Method Unit? In What Order Should I Teach the Topics?

Obviously, all groups of students are different. My seventh graders always come in with very, very little experience with the scientific method. Knowing that, I start with the basics and go over everything I think they need to know to successfully use the scientific method. I recommend giving your students a preassessment before the unit to gauge what topics you can skip and which you need to hammer into your students’ skulls. Here are the topics I always include in my scientific method unit and the general order in which I teach them:

  1. The Steps of the Scientific Method
  2. Independent and Dependent Variables
  3. Scientific Questions
  4. Hypotheses
  5. Observations and Inferences
  6. Research and Procedures
  7. Constants/Controlled Variables
  8. Analyzing Data/Graphs
  9. Scientific Conclusions

How Do I Go About Teaching the Scientific Method?

I’ll start with an overview of my scientific method lessons. Each topic starts with interactive notebook notes in combination with a PowerPoint. Then the students get practice in the form of stations, activities, and/or worksheets. Lastly, I assess each topic with an exit ticket to determine if we need to keep working on the current topic or if we’re ready to move on to the next.

The single most important scientific method resource I have is my Scientific Method Stations. I use them at least three times in the unit because they’re so versatile. They give students practice identifying variables, writing good hypotheses, designing procedures etc. I just post them around the room at the beginning of the unit and they stay there until the day of the unit test. I truly believe they are a great resource for the middle school science classroom.

But Really, What Do You Do for Each Topic?

  1. The Steps of the Scientific Method: I go over what the scientific method is, what it’s used for, the order of the steps, and what each step might look like.
  2. Independent and Dependent Variables: I go over the definitions of independent and dependent variables and how to identify them in an experiment. Then we practice. And practice. And practice some more. Eventually it clicks and then my students HAVE GOT IT DOWN.
  3. Scientific Questions: Students learn about what a good scientific question needs to have. We review variables again while examining good and bad scientific questions. Group work and games can be fun with this. 
  4. Hypotheses: Students learn what a hypothesis is and how to write a good hypothesis. Even my best students need to learn the If/then version of writing a hypothesis because they have only been taught the “I think blah blah blah will happen” version. Hypotheses typically need a lot of practice. Here is a free coloring worksheet to help your students write good hypotheses and identify independent and dependent variables. 
  5. Observations and Inferences: Students learn the definitions of qualitative and quantitative observations and how to use those to make inferences. Here is a free observation activity you can use in your class.
  6. Research and Procedures: Research is straightforward so we briefly discuss where to find accurate information. For procedure, we learn what it is, why it’s important, and what happens if a procedure is poorly written. 
  7. Constants/Controlled Variables: This is hands down the hardest part of the scientific method for my students. We go over what constants are, why they are important, and how to identify them in experiments. Students need TONS of practice with this. Here is a free exit ticket to check if your students have mastered constants. 
  8. Analyzing Data/Graphs: I go over where independent and dependent variables go on graphs, what good graphs include, and types of graphs. Then we practice interpreting graphs.
  9. Scientific Conclusions: Students learn what should be included in a good conclusion and practice writing a good conclusion using a data table and graph from an experiment. 

I hope this post gives you a good starting point for planning your scientific method unit. I love teaching the scientific method and have created many resources for my students. You can find my scientific method resources here, including interactive notebook pages, activities, worksheets, and assessments. If you have any questions please don’t hesitate to post a question below or message me. Thanks for reading and have a great school year!

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I added an option in my store to get all of my scientific method resources in one discounted bundle: Scientific Method HUGE Bundle.