To Give Full Credit, or Not to Give Full Credit…

…That is the question.

I realize that late work is a touchy subject for some teachers. We all have various policies, and some schools have a blanket policy for all teachers. But this is my policy that I have adapted and changed over the years. I finally have a plan that I really like, so I want to share it with you.

Until a few years ago, my policy was any homework turned in late was worth 60% of the total points (our lowest D is a 70). So I would grade it, and as long as they got a 60% or higher, that was their grade. If they got 59% or lower, then I gave them that grade. What I did not like about this policy was that when I (or a parent, administrator, or student) looked back at the gradebook, you couldn’t tell if the low score was the result of incomplete work, the student not comprehending the task, or just that it was late. And then I had a group of students that forced me to change (so looking back, thanks kids). Their mindset was that it was better to turn in work incomplete (and I’m talking REALLY incomplete) than to get points off for being late. I’ve gone to great efforts to make sure that any homework I assign is enrichment and will help the students deepen their understanding. It’s never busy work or just because I feel the need to take up every free moment they have. So because they weren’t completing the work, they weren’t getting the information. And everything else they were doing in class was suffering as well.

So I had two big issues here; getting kids to complete the work and being able to tell if students were getting the knowledge and skills. Here’s what I now use: I will accept all late work until the day of the test for full credit (see, controversial… I warned you), but I will not accept ANY incomplete work. If a student hands in an incomplete assignment, I hand it back to them and explain the value of the work and that it’s worth more complete and late than the other way around. I rarely have a student hand in incomplete work more than once.

Now before you go thinking I’ve lost my mind, yes, I do know that turning work in on time is an important life skill. So when I say they get full credit for late work, that’s a tiny bit untrue. I keep a separate grade in the gradebook for “on-time” points. They get 15 points per quarter. Any time they turn in something late (or without a name), they lose one of those points. So there is an incentive for turning your work in on time, but turning in one or two late won’t trash your grade. It also makes it super easy to look at the gradebook and see if a student’s grade is low because they aren’t doing well on the assignment (which was complete, of course) or because they turned work in late.


This policy has been working really well for me and my students. I know that in a perfect world, students would do their work well, on time, and completely finished. But this isn’t a perfect world. So for me, it is about choosing which skills are the most important (and realistic) for my kids and putting my emphasis there. I hope this is helpful to some of you. I’d love to hear your class policies in the comments!

Science Literacy for Modern Students

When I look back at my own education, I had no intention of studying science (let alone teaching it). But what I always have loved is reading and writing. I can remember writing stories on my parents type writer, and I have no idea where they found the patience to read draft after draft after draft of these stories. I used to read next to my nightlight when I was supposed to be sleeping (huge rebel, I know). And as I got older and went through high school and college, I still loved to read and writing continued to be a strength of mine. But somewhere along the road, I ended up in science land. I wanted to know why and how the world worked. But as any science teacher can tell you, reading about science (whether a fictional story or informational texts) is tough. And it is even tougher the first few times you do it. But it does get easier as you learn to do it. And so here I am, teaching science classes but emphasizing the importance of literacy.

Science literacy has kind of become a soapbox of mine. I’ve written a few grad papers on the its importance and ways to improve it. Most of the research focuses on reading, and understandably so. That’s how scientists have shared their information for centuries. I have written several posts here on different techniques I use (“But this isn’t english class.”, Updates to Biology Reading DaysMaking Biology Real) to improve students’ reading skills in science, so I won’t repeat that information here. I want to focus this post on how science literacy is different (and in some ways easier) than it was in the past and how we, teachers, can help our students.

More and more people are getting their scientific information from videos and podcasts. It’s just so easy to access. But that doesn’t mean it’s any easier to understand. Giving kids a link to a video and expecting them to be able to make sense of and analyze it is pretty unrealistic in most cases. It’d be the same as giving them a science text as saying “see you at the end”. So I created these note sheets that my students use when watching videos. It gives them a structure to follow and tells them what to look and listen for. Depending on the video, sometimes I change “Dates, People, & Places” to “Important Information”.

video notes 2

After they finish the video, they write a one paragraph response. They have to include details from the video, not just address it as a whole (“this is confusing/great/dumb/interesting”). Having details right in front of them on their sheet makes this task much easier. I’ve also found that they like watching the videos individually (I’m lucky enough to teach in a 1-to-1 school) as opposed to as a class because they can pause whenever they need to.

video notes 3

Sometimes I assign these as homework, sometimes I give them time in class. But either way, there’s one more important step if you truly want to improve science literacy and not just have them recite dates/events/facts. They need to discuss the video with their peers. What I have experienced is that students are much more comfortable discussing if they have their thoughts and questions written in front of them. Sometimes we do this as a class, sometimes I group them based on the questions they wrote. You could also use this discussion as a way to start or enhance a research project.

video notes 1

And then there’s podcasts. I use the note sheets for those as well, but they’re a whole other beast. I will write a follow up post about that!

So  what I have found is that just like we have to teach them to read science, we also have to teach kids to listen to science. We have to give them structures and guide them on what to listen for, but they are more than capable. And most kids prefer getting their information from the videos instead of a reading (which has increased effort and work completion).  Give it a shot.

Here are some of the videos that I love to use. If you have suggestions of video or podcasts, I’d love to hear them!

Bad Blood (PBS)

In the Shadow of Ebola

Ted: The Case for Engineering our Food

Ted: Let’s Talk Crap. Seriously.

Updates to Biology Reading Days


A while back, I wrote a blog post about my Biology Reading Days. When I started this project, I wasn’t quite sure where I was going with it. I now love it. You can read the original post here.

I will admit, not all my students share my enthusiasm for scientific literature. And that’s fine. What I really want them to get out of it is an exposure to this type of writing. Some of the books on the list are fictional stories (that are scientifically accurate). Some of the books are non-fiction explaining scientific ideas and events. Some of the higher level students actually struggle because they have never read something like this before. I don’t need them to have a Ph.D after reading the book, but just want them to come away with a greater understanding of the concept than they went in with.

So here are my updates:

1. Updated Book Lists: I now use this project with my freshmen bio and my jr/sr A&P….so two lists. I am always looking for new books to add, and taking off any I feel are too hard/boring based on student feedback. I post this for the students as a GoogleDoc, so I put positive student reviews in the comments.  AandPReadingList      BiologyBookList

2. Final Project: I still use the weekly reading sheets (found in the original post), but at the end they have to choose one of the following projects. This is a great way for me to see what their take on the book really was.  FinalBookProject

My final word of caution when doing this project: it is very much about you. This school year, I had a baby. I left reading days as a project for my sub thinking it’d be the easiest one. They pick a book, read it, and answer questions. Easy, peasy…. WRONG. I didn’t realize how important the conversations I was having with the students along the way were. When I returned the last week of the project, a lot of them were so confused, frustrated and bored with their books. They didn’t see the real world connections. And this is not a slam on my sub; she was great! But she hadn’t chosen and read the books (I’ve read about half). Those discussions about how awesome the author/story/concept is weren’t happening. Students weren’t getting productive feedback. And so a lot them felt lost. My point is don’t use reading days as a chance to catch up on grading/paperwork/endless other tasks we have to do. At least not the whole period. This is a chance to make real connections with your kids and get them excited about science (and maybe even reading!). I hope you AND your students love it as much as I (and most of my students) do.

Questions? Suggestions? I’d love to hear them n the comments! And don’t forget to Like me on Facebook!

Collaboration Concept Maps

We just finished final exams at my school (though my grading is far from done….). I usually dread the days leading up to exams because I find that the kids are as bored with reviewing as I am, though it is a necessary evil. I’ve tried review games, but find that the kids don’t really get as much out of them as I’d like. But this year I found an activity that I really like!

I’m always shooting for the application end of my content, not just memorization of facts. So on those review days, I handed each student an index card as the walked in. I had marked each card with a colored line (I had 4 or 5 colors). Then each student chose 5 words to write on their card. They had to choose words from the section of the study guide that was due that day (I had not collected the study guide yet). I advised them to choose words they understood since they were going to have to use them.

Then the students were grouped according to the colors of their card. They compared their lists and replaced any repeats. Then each group was given a posterboard and created a concept map using their words. Creating the map itself is tough for them when it’s from scratch and there are no bubbles to fill in. But the struggle is worth it.

poster 1

The next day we started the same way with new cards for everyone. This time they were in different groups, so when it came time for the concept map they had to choose a random one that was started the day before and figure out how to fit today’s words in it. This was a lot harder for them since they may not totally understand the words that were already on the poster, but it was beneficial for them to see what they really did and did not understand. They also had to not only know the meaning of the words (memorization), but be able to relate those words to other words (application).

poster 2

The third day was the same routine; card, 5 words, groups, concept maps. By the end, students were comfortable explaining words or concepts they understood to their group members that didn’t. And I always feel like they’re more willing to learn from their peers than from a teacher. This was, in my opinion, a much better use of review time!

poster 3

How do you review for finals?

By Popular Demand!

A while back I wrote about turning my classroom into bakery. Here’s the original post: Let Them Eat Bread  Since then, I’ve had a lot of people ask for the document I used for the yeast lab. I apologize that it took me forever to post it, but better late than never. So here it is: YeastLab. I have my students do a formal lab report with this one. Their initial hypotheses are usually all over the place, and someone always says the salt will kill the yeast.

This year I used both the yeast tube lab and the bread baking in our cellular respiration unit. I started the unit by having them write in their journals in response to “Why does bread dough rise?”. It was important to emphasize to them to just write whatever they thought. This gave me a good idea what their pre-conceptions were, but also allowed me to show growth throughout the unit. After baking the bread, they had a one question quiz. “Write one paragraph explaining why bread dough rises.” They had to include the words cellular respiration, yeast, glucose, and carbon dioxide. I graded them not by marking their answers right or wrong, but by asking questions. Then I put them into pairs based on their scores and had them revise together to raise their scores. I feel like they got a lot more out of it this year.

If you try it out, let me know what works and what doesn’t. I really appreciate your feedback!  Happy Baking!!


Political Biology



Today I’m sharing another one of my quarter projects, meaning my kids work on it once a week for 9 weeks. I really like this one because it gives the students the freedom to dive into a topic that they really are interested in. It requires them to find out what is happening in the real world and decide for themselves what the best solution is.

Each student chooses a biological topic (ie. global warming, animal conservation, organic foods) and then researches political connections. The end product is a letter to a politician explaining what the problem is and what they feel the government should (or should not) do about it. In some cases, the government is not involved at all but the students can take the side that it should be! They can disagree or agree with what is already being done (which means they have to actually know what is going on). Here’s the student instructions and research questions: Politician letter   I’ve done this project with my freshmen bio and with my upperclassmen bio 2, so there are modifications for both levels. My freshmen all write to President Obama. My upperclassmen have to choose their own politician (anyone but Obama).  They edit each other’s letters, and then I edit again if needed. I do actually mail their letters (well, the ones that meet all the criteria). We always get a response from the White House (though it takes a few months). I post the letter in my room, and the kids really get a kick out of it. Some of the other politicians will respond as well, and I give those letters to the student who wrote them.

Here’s what’s great about this project:

-They have to think for themselves. They can’t defend their solution with “my parents say”. We also do a discussion day where they tell the class their problem and solution, and then the class gets to ask questions to make them strengthen their defense.

-Writing a letter that will actually be sent gets them to put in more effort. It gives the whole project a purpose beyond “it’s good to know”. It does make them feel important and show them their opinion is valued.

-It’s great way to teach about credible sources and even bring in primary literature if your students are ready for it!

Teachers Travel, Too!


This summer seems to be flying by… even faster than most! I’ve been fortunate enough to travel a lot and visit places I’ve never seen before. But the highlight happened at a professional development last week. That’s right, a SUMMER PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT.

I spent five days at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta for their Science Ambassador program. I joined 31 other high school and middle school teachers from around the country (and 1 from Canada) to build curriculum aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards. The curriculum will be published (after revisions and the final clearance by the “powers that be” at the CDC) sometime in the future, but in the mean time feel free to check out the work that previous Science Ambassadors have done here.

We worked in teams of 4 and each team had a CDC Subject Matter Expert (SME, the CDC is huge on acronyms). My team is working on a lesson on radon and its link to lung cancer. We had an incredible expert from the CDC Comprehensive Cancer Control Branch.

While the curriculum building was the main goal, here are some of the other highlights from my week:

Dr. Harold Jaffe and Dr. Jim Curran reliving the early days of the AIDS epidemic. Have you seen "And the Band Played On"? These tw are the real life CDC guys!

Dr. Harold Jaffe and Dr. Jim Curran reliving the early days of the AIDS epidemic. Have you seen “And the Band Played On”? These two are the real life CDC guys!

Dinner and downtime with teachers from around the country. Not only are they brilliant, creative teachers but fun humans too!

Dinner and downtime with teachers from around the country. Not only are they brilliant, creative teachers but fun humans too!

Public Health Panel of Experts: The CDC includes such a variety of career fields. It's so much more than M.D.s and lab researchers.

Public Health Panel of Experts: The CDC includes such a variety of career fields. It’s so much more than M.D.s and lab researchers.

Tour of the CDC Emergency Operations Center with my teacher team. CDC is really strict about no pictures on campus, so we were thrilled to get a pic with the sign!

Tour of the CDC Emergency Operations Center with my teacher team. CDC is really strict about no pictures on campus, so we were thrilled to get a pic with the sign!

My team's presentation of our lesson at the end of the week. Pretty cool to be able to say I've presented at the CDC!

My team’s presentation of our lesson at the end of the week. Pretty cool to be able to say I’ve presented at the CDC!

Closing remarks from Dr. Josh Mott, Chief of the Epidemiology Workforce Branch.

Closing remarks from Dr. Josh Mott, Chief of the Epidemiology Workforce Branch.

Nothing's official without a certificate, right? Seriously, cannot wait to hang this one up in my classroom!

Nothing’s official without a certificate, right? Seriously, cannot wait to hang this one up in my classroom!

All of us Ambassadors!

All of us Ambassadors!

The whole week was a lot of work, and at the end of it my brain was exhausted (as were my feet, Atlanta is hilly!). But this was such an inspirational experience. Everyone we met there is so passionate about their work and you truly get the feeling that they are in it for the greater good. It also made me realize the influence that us lowly teachers have when it comes to public health. We really have a chance to make a positive change. My very strong suggestion to you is to keep an eye on this program and when applications open for next summer, APPLY! Here’s the info: CDC Science Ambassador Program

The Dream House Challenge

Our last unit of the year in freshmen bio is the environment. It is really one of my favorites because there are just so many great, hands-on ways to teach kids. Last year, we built compost containers (I wrote about them here), but this year we just ran out of time. But have no fear- we did another project that I loved and hope to be able to do again in the future.

We spent a good deal of time talking about traditional and alternative energy sources. Students worked in groups and each did a brief presentation to the class on one type (ie. coal, hydro, solar, nuclear). We talked about recycling, composting, and zero waste. Then I set them loose to design and build a (model) dream house. The dream was to be as eco and environmentally friendly as possible. Some made it known that wasn’t THEIR dream house… but too bad for them.

They worked in groups of 2 or 3, which I let them pick… sort of. I split the class into 2 or 4 groups and they had to choose someone from another group. I strategically put all the “hands-on” kids in one group, the creative thinkers in another. Each student was given the instructions and the rubric (which included due dates for each step) on GoogleDrive.  Here they are: Dream House Challenge    DreamHouseChallengeRubrics

They had about 2 weeks total to work on this, which really could’ve been longer… Here is how we approached it step by step:

Step 1: Pick the location of your home. I was more interested in the type of environment than a place (at first, some picked California… which I pointed out could mean lots of different environments). They have to think about the pros and cons of that environment (ie. temperature, seasons, rainfall, sun/shade).

Step 2: Research ecofriendly homes and design your own. I really encouraged them to be creative, it didn’t have to look like any house we’d ever seen.  They had to make a blueprint and calculate square footage. We measured my classroom as a reference point. Students used the app Floor Planner on Chrome to create their blueprint. It’s a free app, but you can only save one design at a time and it’s not collaborative (only one account can work on it). Beware- this app is ADDICTIVE! If you were ever a slave to The Sims (yep, I was) this can suck you in.

 In the meantime… I had a local solar power installation expert come talk to my kids. Each group came up with 3 questions ahead of time, which helped a lot. He was great…. Check out his blog!

Step 3: Use your blueprint to build the model of your house! They could use whatever supplies they wanted, but it had to match the blueprint (which means the inside had to be visible). In addition to the model, they also had to turn in a written explanation of their choices (ie. “we are using solar panels because….” “our house is in a forest because…”). And their model had to show whatever was in the explanation.

Step 4: Present your model to the class and convince us it is the ultimate ecofriendly, environmental dream home. Here’s what I really loved- they graded each other’s models. The rubric is divided into “Peer Review” and “Teacher Review”. After everyone is done presenting, a rubric is put next to each model. The students go around and put a tally mark for whatever grade they think it deserves. Then I average the scores.

Here are some of my favorites:

They built a tree house for a rainforest... and included a sloth sanctuary.

They built a tree house for a rainforest… and included a sloth sanctuary.

No rainforest tree house would be complete without a rain barrel!

No rainforest tree house would b complete without a rain barrel!

The coastal dream house...

The coastal dream house…

Complete with floating solar panels and a slide ("to conserve your body's energy too").

Complete with floating solar panels and a slide (“to conserve your body’s energy too”).

Glass wall to absorb sunlight and a garden roof for insulation/food supply. (Do you kids love selfies as much as mine?)

Glass wall to absorb sunlight and a garden roof for insulation/food supply. (Do you kids love selfies as much as mine?)

Another glass wall for sunlight. This design was to be built over a river (which was supposed to flow between the basement pieces, creating hydropower).

Another glass wall for sunlight. This design was to be built over a river (which was supposed to flow between the basement pieces, creating hydropower).

Farmhouse on the plains. A really well built model, the roof came off to display the inside. Featured a wind turbine, solar panels, and a rain barrel.

Farmhouse on the plains. A really well built model, to roof came off to display the inside. Featured a wind turbine, solar panels, and a rain barrel.

And the mountain house. It was built into the side of a mountain (the green part) for insulation and protection from the wind. Also had solar panels!

And the mountain house. It was built into the side of a mountain (the green part) for insulation and protection from the wind. Also had solar panels!

Overall, I’m really happy with the results! Questions, comments, concerns? Leave them below!

Cut & Paste- Old School Style

So many people have responded and pinned my first post on how I use notebooks in my classes that I thought I would give you an update. I still use these notebooks for both freshmen biology and Anatomy & Physiology (upperclassmen). I am using the same setup as discussed in the previous post. I love having them grade each other’s (according to an easy to follow rubric). It saves me time! Having said that, I don’t really check for “right” answers. Most of the work we do in the notebooks in enrichment/explain in your own words type work. I will walk around and help while they are working and from time to time do a spot check by grabbing a notebook out of the box. But honestly, I’ve never had an issue with a kid not at least trying. And when they have questions (which they often do because some of the activities require them to think differently than they are used to), THEY ASK! So here are some of the types of activities we used this past school year. Some of these are from workbooks, so I can’t post them here, but I will share whatever I can…. feel free to “reinvent” them for your own students!

Pre-unit Assessments: Have the students take some sort of little assessment at the start of a unit to see what they really know. It’s just as much for them to see their growth as for me, so why not share the results with them? This particular example was at the very start of the Anatomy class. They have to label which section of the body each part is in (A,B,C,D,E). By the end of the year we cover them all.


Enrichment/Check for Understanding Activities:

Organelle Flip Books: Pretty simple. Fold strips of paper so that they fit inside of each other. Label the flaps. Staple them at the top and glue the booklet in to the notebook. Then on put a description and a picture above the label. I try to push them not to copy the description out of their book, but to put it in their own words.


Labeling Diagrams: I use these a lot in Anatomy. After we’ve been working on the parts for a few days I will have them try to label a blank diagram (and usually not the exact one we already went over) in their notebook. I tell them to try without their notes first, but of course use them if they really need them. It’s another way for them to assess their own learning and see where they need to study more.

Here’s one of the docs: Carpal Tarsal Labeling


Describe the Function: Sometimes (like the digestive example below) I will print out all the parts of whatever system we are on and pass them around. Each student takes three and has to describe their functions. The second example is a little deeper, they have to describe the parts of a part in the flip book. They also had to draw the part themselves!


Body Part Relationships: In this example, they have to give three pairs of muscles that work together. They give the names and the functions of the muscles. You could do this with any body systems.


Word Maps: There are two ways I do this. The first is to put a concept map on the board, or give them a paper to copy (I only make enough copies for one class and can reuse them each year). Sometimes they have a word bank, sometimes they don’t. They have a few minutes to fill it in and then we go over it or I make them show it to me before they can put their notebook away.

The second, and their least favorite way, is I give them a list of words and tell them to create their own map. We usually do this type of activity at the end of a unit, so they are important terms for the upcoming test. They can organize the words in whatever way makes sense to them, but they have to be able to explain it to me.


Review Questions: Another end of unit activity, I come up with several short answer questions and pass them out. Each student takes three and answers them in their notebooks. This is a good way for them to judge how well they understand the topics and how prepared they are for the test.


Information Scavenger Hunt: I put questions in the boxes. It is usually information from the notes we did the day before. They have to go around and get the answers from each other. They put the initials of the student who gave them the answer in the box.

The example below is for the reproductive system. I really love it for this topic because it gets them more comfortable saying the words out loud… and that’s half the battle!

Term Scavenger Hunt


Review Worksheets: Lots of fill in the blanks and crossword puzzles. These are activities they can do in the first few minutes of class.


Word Parts & Examples:

We set two pages aside at the start of the year for word parts. We add to the list as the year goes on. The anatomy list includes terms of movement. Each student gets a few pictures (we did these ones the year of the winter Olympics) and has to identify three movements using our terms.


Of course I am always looking for new activities and ways to improve my notebooks. I recently came across a blog post on Interactive Notebooks with some great ideas! Two things in particular I love are the Parent Reflections and Teach Someone Something forms. It makes me nervous for students to take their notebooks out of the room, but I know that it would be a valuable activity and I love letting parents in on what they are learning.

teach-someone-something-form    parent-reflection

As always, let me know if you have suggestions, questions, or comments!