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Natl. science ed. conference: Saturday

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Before I knew I would covering the NSTA conference for the Notebook, I had planned on spending Saturday at the conference as a professional development.

I teach third and fourth grade, which entails using three different FOSS curricula. This afternoon FOSS was running two workshops: assessment and notebooking.

While four and half hours of professional development can be daunting, it was time well spent.

FOSS assessment

I especially enjoyed the assessment workshop. I know that I still have a long way to go in better assessing my students. In the midst of a young career, I have concentrated most of my efforts on the delivery of instruction. Personally, I enjoy the teaching aspect of education more than the evaluation. Divorcing assessment from instruction is not an option, however.

The framework for the assessment workshop was the knowledge gleaned from the Ask Project. FOSS has spent years developing a series of embedded and formative assessments in their curricula. The formative assessment takes the shape of pre- and post-surveys along with I-Check. I-Checks are benchmark assessments with a very precise scoring system.

I particularly like the I-Check scoring because it is designed to inform teachers and students about student understanding as opposed to achievement. FOSS Co-director Larry Malone posited a transition from the current state of "achievement of arbitrary goals to one of student progress." His rationale for this transition is that it values the efforts of all teachers and students. Instead of NCLB-style winners and losers, we could see who is facilitating children’s growth the most.

A progress model also takes into account the different levels of prior knowledge students might have. I thought the point that we don’t stop educating children when they accrue a certain amount of education was quite poignant. Taking into account that some of students come from disadvantaged backgrounds, but still show tremendous growth, is also an extremely valuable tenet of the progress assessment model.

After talking to some colleagues from Philadelphia, I found out that Philadelphia is considering using the I-Check assessment, and I certainly hope we do.


The assessment workshop dovetailed nicely into the notebook workshop. Research shows that students perform better when they receive frequent, ongoing feedback on their work. In the science classroom, a notebook is the best vehicle to achieve ongoing feedback. I began this year with the intention of using notebooks as much as possible. I have had uneven results, but I see where improvements can be made.

Today’s workshops focused on the four main concepts of a science notebook:

  • planning investigations,
  • data collection and organization,
  • making sense of data, and
  • self-reflection.

I learned some very practical strategies on helping to scaffold these tasks for children and quick ways to assess notebooks. One huge hurdle I’ve faced this year is finding time for the teaching, problem-solving, notebooking, and assessment. Giving feedback to 24 to 27 children at time can be stressful.

Once I scan the document, I will post a very easy tool to quickly assess what concepts your children are getting and what needs to be retaught. I’ll also put up the list of strategies on helping children self-assess using notebooks.

One thing that was humorous to hear was that other teachers ban the word "it" in their classrooms. My students groan and moan when I tell them this, but the word "it" has no place in science. I find that the use of the pronoun is a surefire way to avoid using vocabulary in context and confuses conceptual understanding. I can’t wait to tell my students on Monday that they aren’t the only ones not allowed to write "it" in their notebooks.

All told I was very pleased with FOSS and the skills and understanding I took away from their workshops.


Saturday morning I got the unfortunately rare opportunity to learn from a fellow Philadelphian teacher. Michele Dixon is the elementary science teacher at the Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander Elementary School, aka Penn Alexander. Her presentation was on some of the work the University of Penn Science Teacher Institute is doing. The title of the presentation was "Co-generating Positive K-12 Science Learning Environments Through Dialogue."

Cogens are a framework of reflection teachers and students both take part in to solve classroom problems. Through videotaping lessons and reviewing the shared experience together, students share what they think can be improved about their classrooms. Teachers can provide students with a framework to discuss what they feel and how to change their classroom’s culture for the best.

I think cogens are a very powerful idea, one worth spreading in Philadelphia. While the practice requires intensive time, technology, and cooperation, it seems like a very powerful way to give students a voice in their classrooms. It also seems like a great way for teachers of all abilities to be reflexive on their practice.

That’s all for Saturday. Sunday is the final day, and I plan on creating a clearinghouse list of links at the end of conference.

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