90 What to Avoid When You Head Back to School

August 2, 2021

Often, the first few days of school are referred to as the honeymoon period. Generally, students are on their best behavior. They are quieter and more reserved than at any other point in the school year. But, this period doesn’t last long. In science, it’s important to take advantage of this back-to-school period to set the tone for the year.

Avoid overloading students with teacher talk in your science classroom when you head back to school.

Although there is excitement in those first few days, it’s often extinguished when the teacher spends too much time talking. For example, teachers often read through their syllabus and lab safety contracts in the first few days. Sure, it is important to make sure that students know the rules and expectations. There is a lot to communicate with students, but droning on isn’t the answer.

What to do instead: Teach Procedures in context.

Whether it’s lab safety or classroom procedures, context matters. Introduce students to the procedures that they will need in the first week of school. But, cut out everything that isn’t immediately applicable.

For example, if you aren’t planning to do a lab right away, it’s best to put off information about lab safety until it’s needed. Of course, make sure that you’re following local guidelines here. (Some districts require that you teach all lab safety in the first week.)

When you discuss procedures that are used right away, less information is lost because students are tuning out. Also, you teach students that what you say matters because they will need to apply it right away.

Focusing on Procedures AND Skills

It is incredibly important to teach procedures and skills in context. Also, it’s possible to teach both simultaneously.

For example, discussion mapping allows students to do both. In episode 59, Debbie J discussed providing students with a seating chart. During the discussion, students drew lines between students who were involved in the conversation. Then, students discuss patterns that they notice in the map that they created.

Consider pairing a discussion mapping activity with a Notice and Wonder activity. This way, students engage in the practice of Asking Questions AND learn more about the classroom culture.

Bonus Tip: Make sure your procedures visible.

Not all students will remember the procedures after being told. Also, many students will struggle to auditorially process instructions. So, it’s a good idea to have common procedures written in a location where they are visible to students. This way, you can go back to them when you need to.

Avoid doing an intro to science unit when returning to school.

Before the NGSS, many teachers spent the first few weeks of school teaching students about the scientific method. While many teachers have ditched the scientific method, the intro unit is still very common.

During an intro unit, teachers introduce the skills that students will need throughout the school year. The NGSS version of this intro unit includes teaching students about all of the Science and Engineering practices and/or Crosscutting Concepts at once.

What to do instead: Teach skills in context.

Rather than teaching all of the skills at once, teach them when they are needed. For example, introduce Asking Questions as a Science and Engineering Practice right before doing a notice and wonder activity. Or, teach students the components of an argument immediately before, or after, an argumentation session.

Vocabulary should be taught in context, too.

Sometimes, teachers do a set of introductory vocabulary lessons during the introduction. Often, this comes in the form of teaching prefixes and suffixes. This is especially common in life sciences courses.

However, it’s important to teach vocabulary after student exploration. And, it should always be taught in context. To find out more, click here.

Avoid using a teacher-centered approach.

Ultimately, we want you to use a student-driven learning approach. While many teachers make this shift later, they still use a teaching-as-telling approach in the first days of school. Lectures are most common at the beginning of the school year.

What to do instead: Use a discovery-based approach right away.

Help students build the skill they will need for the rest of the year but using a discovery-based approach immediately. That way, students develop an understanding of what class will be like right away.

To get more information about discovery-based teaching, check out this episode.

Remember the importance of relationships in your science classroom when you head back to school.

Building relationships is incredibly important to both classroom management and learning. (Check out episode 91 to find out about the brain science behind this!)

Sometimes, we only focus on relationship building in a superficial way. For example, we provide students with a survey at the beginning of the year. However, it’s important to build strong, deep relationships.

When relationships in the classroom are poor, it’s obvious. Classroom management issues appear. Also, students are likely to back away when the learning becomes challenging if they don’t feel well supported.

Girl with her chin on her notebook and her pencil in her hand looking bored. 
Text: When there is too much teacher talk, your students tune out.  Its especially important that you avoid too much teacher talk in the first days of school.  Instead, focus on activities that get students talking and building relationships.
Focus on activities that help students build relationships with each other and allow you to build relationships with your students.

Continue relationship-building exercises throughout the school year.

Ice-breakers, surveys, and other relationship-building activities are common in the first few weeks of school. But, it’s important to create a system to regularly check-in. For example, do a weekly survey to find out how students are feeling. then, debrief the result.