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!


“Today we made pee….” 

Last summer I attended a workshop through the University of Illinois’s extension campus. It was called “Mellow Yellow” and it was simply wonderful. Not only did they refresh my knowledge of kidney function (and dysfunction), but they gave us several hands on activities that were ready to use with students. The concepts that tied it all together were osmosis and diffusion, making it a great way to hook freshmen general bio students (face it, they’re interested in pee).

But what I am sharing today is a simulation that I use with my Anatomy & Physiology students. Again, this is in no way my own creation…. But I tried it with my students for the first time this past week and not only did they like it a lot, but I saw so many “ah-hah light bulbs” going off over their heads that I’m convinced it’s too good not to share.

Students obviously have to have a basic understanding of anatomy and I gave them an internal kidney diagram to look at as we went throught it. You use cheap, easy to find materials. I listed the specifics in the doc at the end, but the beads in water represent different components within blood, cups for blood vessels, a bowl and Latch-hook canvas are the kidney parts. 

Here’s how it works: 

IMG_0381  IMG_0383

Start with all the beads and water in the Renal Artery cup. Put the latch-hook canvas over the bowl (AKA the nephron and glomerulus) and pure the “blood” over it.


Right away the large blood components (red blood cells, white blood cells, and proteins) are caught in the filter. Move those into the Renal Vein cup. 


Use the correct transporter proteins (colored spoons) to move the glucose, amino acids, and some of the salt out of the kidney and into the Renal Vein cup. This models reabsorption by the body (AKA diffusion). Stress that each spoon can only move that one specific molecule… That’s how it really works! This will take the kids a while (I have them work in pairs), and they’ll be amazed that your body does this so quickly in real life. 


Last step… I ask what’s missing from the “blood” in the Renal vein. Thankfully, most of them notice there’s no water! Use the pipette or an eye dropper to simulate osmosis and move water from the nephron to the renal vein. 


And that’s it. What’s left in the bowl is urine! It travels through the ureter and into the bladder. I finish up by asking what would happen if the glomerulus had a hole and that brings us to the next lesson on dialysis…. Which I’m hoping to actually have time for in next year’s class! 

Here’s my document with all the instructions if you want to save it:  Kidney Simulation

Questions? Thoughts on how to make this better? Share in the comments! 

Florida and Grad School and Facebook, Oh My!

I’m coming up for air just for a quick post. It’s been a BUSY month, and it’s not slowing down anytime soon. First up, I was in Orlando for a meeting with the Life Science Teacher Resource Center. You all know how much I love them, but this sealed the deal. I want to tell you all about it, but that will have to wait until I have time to do that post justice.

Mickey and Me!

Mickey and Me!

The following week I started grad school. I am getting my Masters of Science Teaching Biology from the University of Illinois (online). EVERYTHING about this terrifies me. I know online classes are not my “ideal learning style” and it’s not like I had a whole lot of time to kill to start with. I felt a little selfish when I first started for taking so much time away from my family and students to work on assignments (grading can wait), but now I see that this is already making me a better teacher and allowing me to make new connections through information with my family and friends. I just finished my third week (1 day early, by the way!) and I really love it. I am currently taking Sustainability and Global Change, and want to share some of the awesome resources with you here.

How Wolves Change Rivers: YouTube video, under 5 minutes, about reintroducing Yellowstone wolves is such a simple, but powerful example of a keystone species. I shared that video with a friend of mine who teaches geography, and she showed it her class then next day (the timing just worked perfectly!).

How Many People Can Live on Planet Earth: Another youtuber, this one is 45 minutes. But it is SO very interesting! I love that they point out the importance of educating women as a part of the solution. I’m planning to show this one  to my freshmen this spring.

And finally, podcasts. Yes, just podcasts in general. I started listening to them and the one that has me hooked is Horizontal Transfer. Those of you familiar with Bozeman Science will recognize Paul Anderson. At the end of each episode they give their “TWIL” (This Week I Learned), so  this week I started a “TWIL” activity in my HS bio classes. On Friday, each kid shared something the read, saw, or discussed with the class (anything related to biology). I also shared with them what I had read about for my grad school assignment. I have a refreshed perspective on what it’s like to be a student and want to share with them that I am still learning too. I hope they realize learning is a life-long process and will take that with them when they leave my room.

Last thing! Over winter break, I started a facebook page for this blog! Since I rarely find time to write whole blog posts, it’s a way for me to share little tidbits I come across. I’d love for you to check it out!


The Ultimate Bubble Blowing Champion


Today’s my last day of winter break. I’m sure my students are just as excited to go back as I am (and are also secretly hoping for a snow day). That first day back is always a tough one. They (and I) have been staying up late and sleeping in for two weeks. With all those visions of sugar plum fairies dancing in our heads, there’s little room for biology. And BAM! We’re back to school.

I give me freshman a pretty easy transition back to class. We have a bubble blowing contest. But it’s not all fun and games…. they have to do a lab report. It’s a great way to review concepts we used last semester (ie. control variables, hypotheses, graphing) and get them a little sugared up to get through the day. Here’s the lab template my kids use:   Lab Write Up Template  They have this glued in to their lab notebooks so that it cannot get lost. Usually they write their reports on a separate paper but I think I’m going to have them type them on a GoogleDoc and share it with me this time.

I go to the dollar store and buy a bunch of different types of gum. Then I put them in groups of 2 or 3 and each group has to come up with their own hypothesis. Some will test different types, some different people. I even have had groups test the number of chews before blowing a bubble. Once each group has figured out how to blow their biggest bubble, the groups compete for the title of Ultimate Bubble Blowing Champion!

Last year's winner!

Last year’s winner!

So simple  and they have a lot of fun with it. Try it for yourself! Have other activities for the post-winter break blahs? Share them in the comments!

Prove It!

Today I realized that I have 398 pins on my Pinterest board for teaching. Some of those I have looked at and am saving to print out, but most of them are “to look at when I have time”.  And I’m sure I’m not the only one in that situation. But this blog is for things I have actually used in my classroom. Again, most of these were found somewhere in cyberland long before the mighty Pintrest arrived on the scene and I have adapted them to work in my room. Some are my own brainchildren. Here’s one I just started using last year and have had really great results!

Project #7: Design a magazine ad (obviously for the reproductive system). I love teaching sex. ed!

Project #7: Design a magazine ad (obviously for the reproductive system). I love teaching sex. ed!

I’m always looking for ways to make my students prove that they understand the content, not just that they have memorized facts and vocabulary. So for each of my anatomy & physiology units, they are required to turn in a capstone project. I give them a list of 10 to choose from (we usually cover 8 body systems) and they are not allowed to repeat a project. They are due on test day. It’s interesting to watch them pick what they think are the “easy ones” first and then panic at the end, even though they all require the same effort.

Project #1: Acrostic poem

Project #1: Acrostic poem

The illustration for skeletal acrostic poem

The illustration for skeletal acrostic poem

Project #5: Tee Shirt art... Do you get it?!

Project #5: Tee Shirt art… Do you get it?!

This list is a compilation of several mini project ideas I’ve seen and used throughout the years. These projects could easily be adapted to units other than the body systems.  Capstone Projects

Have ideas I could add to the list or ways to make it better? How do you make your kids “prove it”? Share in the comments!!

My Journey to Techiness…



I make no claims at being tech-savy, but I’m not afraid to give something new a shot. The tech in my classroom is completely trial and error (of course, the kids think I’ve got it all under control). This post is basically what I’ve learned over the last couple years as far as integrating technology…. Feel free to ask questions and make suggestions in the comments!
My district gave me a set of iPads last year. I spent a LOT of time finding ways to use them, both for myself and the kids, that were actually enrichment and not just something cool to look at. What we discovered was that the iPads weren’t the best option in our situation. I know a lot of teachers use and love them, but they just weren’t what I was looking for. They weren’t easy to manage (always needing updates that we had to on a device-by-device basis), expensive (comparatively speaking), and NO FLASH! That was the deal breaker for me. I have friends who work in the tech world and are die-hard Apple fans who tell me no one uses flash anymore. That may be true, but so many of the simulations and games that I love the kids to use DO run on flash.
So now my district is all about Chromebooks. Honestly, I don’t have a lot of experience with them yet since I still have a PC laptop in my room. But the kids are using them, so that’s where I’m getting my opinions from. They are fast to load up and login and seem pretty easy to use. There’s no page-up or page-down buttons, but I guess the can live with that…
What I feel like I’ve learned the most about is Googledrive. Most of you are probably pretty familiar with it by now (seems like most schools are using it), so I’ll finish this post with my thoughts and suggestions about Googleforms. This is what I’ve been using to do my tests and quizzes online instead of on paper. It is a function of Googledrive, just create a form instead of a document.
Pros: 1. It makes grading quick. I use the add-on “Flubaroo” and that will grade it for you (but it’s not perfect, see below). 2. The kids like getting to use the computer whenever possible. 3. It saves trees! 4. It helps them prepare for all the online testing the is undoubtably coming their way.
Cons: 1. Flubaroo only can grade an exact right or wrong answer. It works great for true/false, multiple choice, or fill in the blank (as long as they spell it right, but you can run spell check on their answers prior to grading if you want). Anything else you still have to grade yourself. 2. God help you if the Internet goes out. I usually have a paper copy on hand just in case and make someone go run to the office for copies last minute. 3. You cannot copy and paste whole questions from another source. So you have to basically rewrite your entire existing test. That takes forever.  4. My kids only negative feedback is that they can’t circle a question to come back to later, which some like to do.

In my opinion though, the pros outweigh the cons. And I feel it’s going to be a requirement soon anyway, so may as well work out the bugs now.

Here are my final tips on implementing online assessments using Googleforms.
1. You have to email them the link to take the test. They have to check their email, not Googledrive.
2. Make sure you uncheck the box that says “include form in email”. This way once they are done they can’t pull up the email and show it to someone in another class. They will have to actually click a link to take them to another page (which you can shut down once they are done).
3. Change the theme on your form to something colorful. This way it is very easy to see who is on the test and who is on another page. I sit in the back of the room with a clear shot of all of their screens until they are all finished. The picture at the top of this post is what my room looked like during a final exam.
4. Have the “Responses” page open on your computer while they are taking it. You will be able to see their responses coming in to make sure they all come through before they log off. Once in a blue moon someone’s gets lost in cyber land and if they’ve already shut down, they have to redo the whole thing.
5. I usually will hand out a paper word bank too. Most of them say it’s helpful to be able to cross the words out, which you cannot do online.
6. Once they are finished, go back into your form and change it to no longer accept responses. If they take it multiple times, it will tell you. But you don’t want them showing it to someone else when they’re not supposed to.

I hope this has been helpful. Like I said, this is all a learning process for me and I’m still figuring it out. There are tons of great add-ons I’ve heard about and hope to use soon. Give it a try for yourself!

A Blog About a Blog!

I’ve been a member of the Life Science Teacher Resource Center since last spring. I completed their scholar program which taught me the ins and outs of the site and was then asked to return as a mentor for the new scholars over the summer. As part of that program, I was also asked to be a guest blogger on the LifeSciTRC. I’m so proud of the work I did over there that I want to share it here!

   Get Your Students to Gobble Up Reading

A lot of the ideas I discuss there, I’ve already introduced here on my blog…. you know… refusing the reinvent the wheel!

But seriously, check out their site. There are THOUSANDS of awesome lesson plans and classroom resources on there. And it’s all FREE! The community isn’t very active, which I really wish it was because I feel like it could be such a  valuable resource within itself. But hey, if you join too feel free to jump in! Maybe I’ll see you there!