Monday, September 19, 2011

Circle of (Plant) Life

The plants around us provide a perfect hands-on biology classroom for students of all ages.  From planting that first bean in a paper cup to conducting more involved and complicated high-school biology experiments, studying plants can be an effective, concrete, fun, and low-cost way for students to explore the living world. 

Kids start learning about photosynthesis from a very young age.  As toddlers begin exploring and playing outside, their observations help them form ideas about plants and how they grow.  By preschool age, many students have had the opportunity to plant seeds and water them to see them sprout.  They may find out that plants will die when we forget to water them or when they don’t get enough sun.  As students’ experiences with plants increase, their perceptions of the way plants grow may change.  Often, by the time photosynthesis is formally introduced in the older grades, students already have some misconceptions about the process.  If we can include photosynthesis in science lessons from kindergarten on, learning the details of the process and understanding the chemical reactions involved will be much easier and more rewarding in middle school and high school.

Since plants are living things, it’s natural for students to compare the functions of the plants to human functions.  Do plants eat, drink, and breathe like us?  How are they different?  How are they the same?

One common misconception going into the study of photosynthesis is that that plants get food from outside sources such as water and soil, much like humans get their food from outside.  All living things need to eat in order to have enough energy to stay alive.  Plants are the hard-working producers of the world, synthesizing their own food using energy from the sun.  They use carbon dioxide and water with the sunlight to make their own food internally.

FT Exploring has a very easy to understand introduction to photosynthesis.  This resource describes photosynthesis in a recipe format and includes diagrams that simplify the concepts.  It answers the questions of how plants eat, drink, and breathe, and shows how these functions are different for plants than for humans.  Teachers could use this introduction for a range of grades, going more in depth with the reactions for older students and sticking to the more basic facts with younger students.  The following diagram is from their site.  

In order for a plant to carry out photosynthesis, water must travel up into the plant from the roots.  This is a fun phenomenon to explore, and would work well for primary or secondary students.  You can introduce simple chromatography experiments with coffee filters and markers or allow students to place the stems of white carnations into water dyed with food coloring.   When bands of color travel out from a marker line or colored water travels to the tips of the carnation petals, students will gain a visual understanding of how water can make its way throughout a plant to take part in photosynthesis.  Take a look at one of our 2010 blog posts about fall lessons to see come neat chromatography ideas. 

Once students are on the right track with the basic concepts of photosynthesis, their learning in the later grades will be more successful.  If you have older students and are ready to go more in-depth with the topic, be sure to look at this comprehensive high school unit.  This unit includes inquiry-based problem solving, hands-on photosynthesis demonstrations using props like tennis balls and balloons, and easy-to-follow procedures.  Another experiment that could go along with that unit is Glucose Factory, where students experiment to see how much glucose is actually inside different plant parts.

~Peggy's Corner - September 16, 2011~

Plant Power

Autumn doesn’t officially start until next week, but the signs that the season is imminent are all around us. The nights have become noticeably cooler, and the days shorter. Trees are beginning to change color, and will soon begin shedding their leaves.  For many plants, the lifespan of their hardworking leaves has come to an end; they will soon color, shrivel, and finally die. In some parts of the country, many plants will remain dormant for the winter, and only gradually re-animate in the spring, when they unfurl new leaves.

Leaves are indeed the workhorses of plants. Through the process of photosynthesis, leaves absorb carbon dioxide and sunlight, and convert the sun’s rays into energy in which to make food. Water, of course, is also necessary for photosynthesis to occur, and is absorbed through the plant’s roots. Once energy is created, the plant is able to store reserves in its leaves for future use, and emits oxygen as a waste product. It’s a remarkably efficient process, and vital to the survival of nearly all living things. Animals and humans exhale carbon dioxide, which the plants take in, and in turn emit oxygen for our use. Photosynthesis occurs in some bacteria, algae, and in most plants.

Leaves are, perhaps, the original solar panels. In autumn, the process of photosynthesis slows as the amount of daylight and precipitation declines. Food production wanes, and deciduous trees and other plants will essentially shut down over the winter months until increased sunlight and rainfall in the spring gradually prompt photosynthesis to resume. Fall is a wonderful time to discuss the process by which leaves make energy, and there are lots of materials available for classroom use.  This week’s selected resources on photosynthesis are for a variety of grade levels, and some can be adapted for different ages. I’ll also be featuring several new lessons and resources on photosynthesis daily throughout the week on our Facebook and Twitter pages, so be sure to take a look.

But What IS Photosynthesis?
Subjects: Math, Botany, Biology
Grade: 3-5
In this lesson, students will experience aural, written, reading, and hands-on instruction in learning about photosynthesis. This lesson is a product of the College of Education at Western Michigan University.

Photosynthesis, Trees, and the Greenhouse Effect
Subjects: Geography, Botany, Ecology
Grade: 6-8
In this lesson, students will study photosynthesis and then transfer their understanding of this topic to a consideration of how trees can help reduce the negative impacts of the greenhouse effect. They will read a Web page describing the greenhouse effect, carbon dioxide's role as a greenhouse gas, and the role of humans in exacerbating this effect. This lesson was produced by National Geographic Xpeditions, which offers a plethora of tools, interactive adventures, and ideas relating to geography and the world around us. In addition to lesson plans, the site offers daily global news, maps, interactive games for kids, and more. Lessons are aligned to the U.S. National Geography Standards.

Photosynthesis: Unit Plan
Subjects: Botany, Biology, Ecology
Grade: 9-12
In this series of eight lessons, students will learn about the light reactions of photosynthesis, the physical plant characteristics and their functions, and the role of energy in the metabolic processes in plants. They will also apply their knowledge to the topics of world deforestation and global warming. This lesson was created by Dayna Wilhelm, a graduate student in Education at Virginia Tech.

~Joann's Picks - September 15, 2011~

Friday, September 16, 2011

September 11

You probably remember exactly where you were and what you were doing on the morning of September 11, 2001.  On that day, history gained a new day of infamy that will be a part of American History classes from now on.  Although this piece of contemporary history is seared in their parents’ minds, it might be just another story for many students who are too young to remember the events themselves. In remembrance of the tenth anniversary of this tragedy, many teachers are planning to cover the events and the aftermath in some way.  Teachers have a chance to use this awful event to continue the learning for future generations.

Studying September 11 brings up a whole list of issues for educators.  This blog post from Teaching Tolerance is a good overview of things to think about before presenting lessons on 9/11 to your classes.  One point I thought was especially important was that we need to be careful not to scare primary students with too many graphic images and audio clips, although they are sure to be inundated with these images on television during the tenth anniversary of the attacks.  The site for the National September 11 Memorial & Museum has some excellent lesson plans and resources for teaching about the events and related topics with your class.  Their K-2 fact sheet explains the events for a young target audience.  This would make a very good introduction for elementary students who might be learning the facts of September 11 for the first time. A more detailed explanation that includes pictures and sound clips can be found in this interactive timeline.

Joann has collected and catalogued resources on the topic for the Gateway that we will feature in our columns and in our daily Facebook and Twitter posts.  Be sure to look there first as you plan activities for your classroom.  If you don’t live in New York, there is a good chance your students haven’t been to the site of the twin towers in New York City.  When you introduce the topic of September 11, it would be really nice to take your students there.  A good place to start introducing the events of September 11 to your students is a virtual field trip to the site using Google Earth.  If you search, you can find some that have already been created, or you can create one of your own.  The following animation will show you what the site looks like today and what the planned memorials look like. 

In addition to teaching the history of the events of the day, the topic provides a good context for presenting lessons on tolerance, cultural differences, disaster response, heroes, and other related topics.  A search of the Gateway for any of these topics will bring up a list of standards-aligned resources you can use. 

One major issue brought up by the study of September 11th is students’ understanding and acceptance of Islam.  Studying the attacks might stir up feelings of prejudice in your students against Muslims or even the Middle Eastern culture.  It’s important to study this religion in a balanced way so your students can form their own opinions.  Read our blog post, Peace Through Knowledge to find some ideas and resources for incorporating the study of Islam in your classes.   Another blog post from Teaching Tolerance discusses confronting Islamaphobia, and would be a good post to read before teaching about the subject.

Whether you study the events of September 11th from a purely historical perspective or if you decide to take a different angle and study other issues related to that day, I hope you find some good resources here and on the Gateway.  We’ll continue to share ideas all week, and we hope you do, too!

~Peggy's Corner - September 9, 2011~


This week marks the 10th anniversary of 9/11. For me, the only day that was worse than September 11, 2001 was September 12, 2001. By then, the shock of what had happened was starting to recede, and the grim reality of the utter devastation was sinking in. Most of our K-12 students are too young to remember much, if anything, about that day, but it remains a watershed event in American history. The legacy of 9/11 is that the U.S. is a changed nation, psychologically, politically, and culturally. It’s forever changed the way that we view our personal freedoms and security. A recent study indicates that emergency response personnel – the firefighters, police officers, and EMTs who worked furiously to save others at the World Trade Center – are being diagnosed with various types of cancers from the toxic dust at an alarming rate. The tragedy of 9/11 still resonates through each of us, every day.

The Memorial at the new World Trade Center site in New York City is scheduled to open on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, on September 11, 2011. The site includes the Survivor Tree, reflecting pools, and panes of glass from one of the original twin towers. It’s a reminder that even in the face of terrorism and tragedy, life does indeed continue, and we move forward as a nation and as people.

Many students learn about the events of 9/11, and why it happened, at school. For nearly a decade, school districts throughout the nation have held annual observations or remembrances on the date, sometimes following up with related lessons, and sometimes simply allowing the students to commemorate the event in their own ways. The social, political, economic, and historical events leading up to 9/11 and its aftermath are intricate and varied, and ripe for study. Terrorism, religious and social extremism, geography, tolerance, and world history are just some of the topics that can be explored in class discussions of September 11, and these and other topics can be adapted for different age groups.

My picks this week focus on the events of 9/11 and its aftermath. The resources are for a variety of grade levels, and many can be adapted for different ages.  We’ll also be featuring several new lessons and resources on 9/11 daily throughout the week on our Facebook and Twitter pages, so be sure to take a look.

September 11 National Day of Service Lesson Plans
Subjects: US history, Character education
Grades: K-12
These three lessons aim to teach valuable, heartfelt, and constructive lessons about the 9/11 experience, the way tragedies impact us as people, and the remarkable spirit of service that arose in response to the attacks. Students will learn about the incredible outpouring of support from people following the attacks, select causes or organizations
to support through service projects as a way to honor the victims of 9/11, and plan and execute those projects. While the lessons are aimed at the entire range of K-12 students, teachers may want to make adaptations for younger students. This lesson is a product of, part of is a national nonprofit organization that successfully led a seven-year effort to establish September 11 as a National Day of Service and Remembrance.

Lesson MV-11: Civil Rights in the Age of Terrorism
Subjects: US history, Civics
Grade: 7-8
In this lesson, students will define and identify some American civil rights, analyze hypothetical cases, and discuss the impact of terrorism on these rights. This lesson is a product of the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education at the State of New Jersey Department of Education, which provides Holocaust and genocide education materials to the state of New Jersey and beyond.

The Post 9/11 Landscape
Subjects: English Language Arts, US history
Grade: 6-12
In this podcast, teen readers will encounter page-turning suspense and hard-hitting social commentary in books exploring the political and cultural landscape of our post-9/11 world. Tune in to hear how graphic novels place the events of 9/11 in historical context, how war stories put a human face on the costs of military conflict, and how young adult novels imagine roles that teens can play in working for a better world. This lesson was produced by ReadWriteThink, which offers peer-reviewed lessons in reading and English/Language Arts.

~Joann's Picks - September 9, 2011~

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Math Class is Tough!

I remember the commotion started by Teen Talk Barbie when she announced, “Math class is tough!” in the early nineties.  After only a few months, the phrase was taken out of the dolls’ vocabularies and Mattel swapped out the dolls that still said the phrase.  These toys echoed a much larger cultural trend that continues to plague math teachers across the country: being smart and doing well in math doesn’t always make you popular.  Social conditioning can lead students, especially those in their very impressionable adolescent years, to believe that math is very hard and “uncool,” and generally not worth their time and effort.  It’s often seen as a required subject to pass, not a subject that will be interesting, fun, and ultimately very useful in life.  Making math accessible and intriguing and even cool to these students is an obstacle that successful math teachers overcome.  Math class can be tough, but students who enjoy it from a young age will enjoy it enough to make it worth the effort.

Great middle school and high school math teachers find ways to connect with their students to help them embrace and enjoy math, blending mathematical concepts into all different subjects. Integrating subjects like this can seem like a lofty goal for those of us who are constantly short on time, but there are plenty of Gateway resources to help you out.  If you start a search for math resources, you can narrow your search with a secondary subject (such as art). When I did this search, I found a neat lesson about M.C. Escher artwork and the mathematical concept of tessellations.

You can intrigue your students by presenting real-world projects and activities that demonstrate the relevance of math in students’ lives.  Tessellations and fractals are both math concepts can be taught with fun hands-on activities at many grade levels.  Many adolescent students will balk at a discussion of interior and exterior angles, and how different geometric shapes can fit together.  These same students might truly enjoy exploring the concept with manipulatives or interactive computer models.  From simple pattern-building activities in the primary grades to some of the more complex activities available on the Gateway, using hands-on activities and visual aids is appealing and memorable to many students.

My favorite math and science teachers showed me how to embrace my inner “nerd,” helping me succeed in math despite the social pressure (and Barbie) telling me that math class is tough. In my calculus class, the community was so tight-knit that we created a class shirt that was actually cool to wear it around campus.  In that classroom, I learned an important lesson: being a dork or geek is not a bad thing!  In her book Math Doesn’t Suck, Danica McKellar takes an opposite approach by showing teen girls that math is actually cooler than they think, and not just a subject for the smart boys. The Wonder Years actress turned math guru’s books are a good resource to suggest to girls struggling (or not trying) in your class. 

As a math teacher, you are a very important role model for your students. Your love for math will show, and if you get excited about math in your everyday life, your students will notice.  If you have fun and embrace your own inner “geek,” maybe they will, too. Kids who learn to love math today will excel in it tomorrow. Good luck, and please let us know if you have successful math activities you want to share.

~Peggy's Corner - 9/1/2011~

Repeat After Me….

It’s always fun to do something unexpected in the classroom, and to watch the kids’ reactions. It’s especially gratifying when the event furthers a curricular goal, or makes subject matter more palatable to the students.  I remember one day in middle school where we math students weren’t particularly engaged in the material, and the teacher’s attempts to salvage the class weren’t working. She was a fine teacher, and we were normally motivated learners, but it was just one of those days where things didn’t click. She sighed, scrapped the lesson, and took out a large book of M.C. Escher drawings. While most of the students had seen some of his work before, the tessellation pictures were the ones we focused on. We marveled at the intricacy and precision of his work, and before long were discussing different types of symmetry and what types of shapes could and couldn’t be used to produce tessellations. It wasn’t the lesson the teacher had originally intended (or even wanted) to teach, but she did what gifted educators everywhere do: she took the class pulse, decided to change tactics by introducing something novel to the class, and wound up still delivering math content in a way that was memorable and valuable. 

Tessellations are neat things. They’re created when a specific shape is multiplied and repeated over and over, until it covers the entire surface of a plane without any gaps in the pattern. Tessellations are sometimes also known as “tiling,” and can occur in nature as well as being a man-made product. The repeated shapes shown on brick walls, soccer balls, honeycombs, and the sections of an orange, for instance, are all examples of tiling, or tessellations. The use of tessellations as a decorative motif has been traced to the ancient Sumerians, who some 4,000 years ago decorated the walls of temples and other buildings with elaborate repeated patterns. It’s a fine blending of mathematics and visual art – a fairly rare combination – and can be a great topic to engage students who usually don’t like math. The trick is to consistently emphasize the mathematical properties of tessellations, and how they in turn make the artistic properties possible.

Tessellations can be taught across the curriculum and to a variety of age groups. Younger students can use pattern activity blocks to emphasize patterns and symmetry while working on their problem-solving skills. Older students can calculate distance using individual tile measurements, explore the different types of symmetry on a plane, and figure out which shapes tessellate and which ones don’t. All ages can create their own tessellations, using either simple shapes like triangles and squares or more complex irregular shapes. Tessellations can be studied in the art classroom, and in science by examining symmetry in nature, such as in animals and plants.

This week I’ve highlighted three hands-on tessellation lessons with activities for a variety of ages.  Please be sure to read Peggy’s companion column where she discusses how to use these resources and others in the classroom. We’ll also be featuring several new lessons and resources on this topic each day throughout the week on our Facebook and Twitter pages, so be sure to take a look.

Exploring Tessellations
Subjects: Geometry, Art
Grade: K-2
In these activities, students learn about tessellations and how to create them. They learn to tessellate with one shape, two shapes, and finally with three dimensional (3-D) shapes. This lesson was produced by the Geometry Playground at Exploratorium, a museum of science, art, and human perception located in San Francisco, California. The Exploratorium offers a host of materials for educators, including lesson plans.

Medieval Tessellations
Subjects: Geometry, Art, World history
Grade: 6-8
The major focus of this lesson is to surreptitiously introduce the teaching of math concepts across the curriculum. Students will each produce a tessellation of original design that effectively uses shape, pattern/repetition and color to create a "beastie" inspired by bestiaries of the Middle Ages. This lesson is a produce of the Incredible Art Department at Princeton Online, and offers a plethora of materials for art teachers, art students, parents, homeschoolers and artists.

Let’s Tessellate
Grade: 9-12
This lesson is a hands-on, technology-based project that will take place in the classroom and computer lab. Students will discover which regular polygons tessellate the plane by constructing polygonal tessellations. Students will also use a spreadsheet to calculate the area and perimeter of the polygons. This lesson was produced by the Alabama Learning Exchange (ALEX), an education portal that provides lesson plans, education-related podcasts, best practices, and Alabama professional development activities. Lessons are aligned to Alabama Content Standards.

~Joann's Picks - 9/1/2011~