Category Archives: Developing and Using Models

Teaching Geography? 7 Hands-On Items that You MUST Have!

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Earth Science Strategies #2: Using Hands-on Materials

In the last post, I showed you how using models was an important way to teach earth science to young children. Now let’s talk about using hands-on materials as another earth science strategy. We’ll also see how teaching geography in your earth science lessons is easy, using the right materials.

Do you work in a preschool classroom or with young adults? No matter what age your students, you will love this list of models and concrete objects for the geography classroom. So, even if you’re not a Montessori teacher, you will see the usefulness of these items, for any grade. So let’s see which ones you need for YOUR classroom. {Then click on the links for more information.} teaching geography hands-on

Globes are useful for teaching geography through earth science work. {Photo via Creative Commons}

Teaching Geography Using Physical and Visual Models

Physical Models of the Earth and Its features

The more a material resembles the real object of study, the easier it is for students to understand it. So, start teaching geography and geology using models that are 3-dimensional images of the earth and its surface features.

#1 ~ Globes: There are many globes to choose from. First, use a physical globe with realistic colors for land and water , useful for all ages. {Always start with a globe that represents land and water using natural colors: green, brown, white, blue.} Maybe turn it upside down for a great conversation starter about “up” and “down” in space!

#2 ~ Land and Water Models:  Next, let students explore land and water features using water and models of basic surface features: island and lake, peninsula and gulf, isthmus and straight. Use these ready-made Montessori land and water forms, or make your own.

http://simplesciencestrategies teaching geography

Begin globe work that use two colors, only: green for land masses and blue for water bodies. {Photo Credit (c) Jason Wilson, 2006 via Creative Commons}

Visual Models of Earth features: Photographs

So, your students have an understanding of the way the Earth looks from space. Now it’s time to use 2-dimensional images (i.e., photographs) to study geography and earth science.

#3 ~ Photos of the Earth from Space: Because I subscribe to National Geographic Magazine at home, I like to use images from the National Geographic website.   But you can also use Bing to find amazing images of the Earth from space. Post one on your SmartBoard for students to see as they enter the classroom ~ use it as a discussion starter!

#4 ~ Land and Water Form Photos: Don’t throw away old magazines! Tear out images and begin creating a picture file ~ the high-quality images are great for so many learning tasks. Don’t worry too much about sorting ~ leave your filing system open and flexible. Magazine photos make great prompts for writing, too {see this article on using picture prompts with English Learners}. teaching geography models

Use real photos of the Earth from space to spark discussion during earth science lessons. {Photo Credit of Hurricane Sandy (c) NASA/Rob Gutro, 2012 via Creative Commons}

More Visual Models of the Earth: Graphic aids

#5 ~ Climates of the World: Colorful posters about the regions of the Earth are great additions to earth science and geography work. For homeschool, we use the map that comes in the National Geographic magazine. We hang it within view of our work table. These two-sided maps often address bigger issues. For example, this month’s issue visually presents the changing Pacific coastline. In my classroom, I keep these maps in a file for student use.

#6 ~ Geography Nomenclature Cards:  Students use nomenclature cards to learn important concepts. Once students learn these concepts, the teacher then adds the label with the vocabulary word on it. While you can always buy nomenclature cards online, you don’t have to buy them. You can also download these FREE Montessori continents cards, or check out this Pinterest board for tons of other Montessori nomenclature materials. Or, if you’re handy, apply the ideas to create your own card sets, using concepts from your own geography curriculum.

#7 ~ Outline Maps: Students of all ages love maps. The Notebooking Treasury has thousands of blank outline maps to jump-start your geography lessons.  Check out the continent maps and the world maps, for starters. {If you want to try the notebook pages out first, download some FREE resources first — you’ll be very happy, believe me!} teaching geography climate

Posters and maps showing the climate and culture of a region are helpful additions to your geography and earth science studies. {Photo credit (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2016}

Time to Get Teaching!

In this post, I’ve shared just seven teaching materials that you must have, if you want to be a great geography teacher. Using these materials, teaching geography, in your earth science lessons, will be engaging and rich, for all ages.

What classroom supplies do YOU want to add to this list? Let me know in the comments section, below.

{Please note: this post contains some affiliate links. It also has links to some free and wonderful stuff that other educators are offering to all of us!}

Free Notebooking Pages Sampler



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Earth Science Strategies, #1: Using Models

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Picking the Right Earth Science Strategies for the Very Young

Have you ever tried to teach about something vast, to little children who think their dad is huge? Or have you ever tried to explain why we have seasons, or night and day, to a five-year old?

Often, our classroom resources don’t help us. They are often written by science experts who work with older students. So, the earth science strategies and materials we are given in these lessons are ones meant for big kids. Furthermore, it seems that they simply water down the concepts, or take away the “hard” ideas, for preschool and kindergarten …  And what we have left isn’t what we know our kids can learn!

Beyond Rocks and Minerals: Big Ideas for Small People

What SHOULD little ones know about the Earth’s surface?

By the end of kindergarten, children should understand the following big earth science ideas:

  • Systems in the natural world have parts that work together;
  • Models are used to represent relationships in the natural world.

In this post, you will learn two earth science strategies that can help you teach these big earth science ideas, to even the littlest Einstein:

  1. Using models of the Earth and its features;
  2. Working with hands-on materials to explore the structure of the Earth.

By including carefully chosen classroom materials and using models of big ideas, you can teach big earth science ideas in an easy-to-understand and age-appropriate way. earth science strategies

Using models makes understanding huge things – like mountain ranges – easier for young children. {Photo credit: (c) Karyn Christner, 2007 via Creative Commons}

What are Models?

A model is something that is used to explain an important idea or process, especially if it is very abstract or hard to see. It might be a physical model (such as a scale model of a monument or a diagram of a plant cell. But it could also be numerical (such as the equation length x width x height = volume), or verbal (“I before e, except after c”). Today we will be focusing on physical models.

Earth science strategies that include the use of models help young children learn about the Earth’s systems. First of all, they can represent something that is otherwise hard to imagine. In earth science, where we are teaching about huge things (planets, solar systems, stars), this is extremely important. Second, models of these things help children see how the parts work together in a system. Furthermore, a child who can physically move the parts of a model benefits even more.

What is NOT a Model?

Many people confuse replicas with models. A replica is just a copy (usually miniature) of another object. Kids playing with plastic animals in a sensory table are engaging in replica play. The plastic animals aren’t models, as they don’t explain an important concept, relationship or process.

Sometimes, we use activities that we THINK are earth science strategies that use models, but which aren’t. A well-known, and much-loved, example is the volcano that erupts using baking soda and vinegar. It’s fun, but it doesn’t teach students the important information about volcanoes:

  • their structure
  • relationships between the part above the Earth’s surface and materials below
  • the process of eruption
  • role of lava in forming the volcanic cone…

So, if you can’t answer the question, “What did you learn about the relationship between ______ and ______?” using a model, then it isn’t a model!

Models and Hands-On Materials for Kindergarten Earth Science

How do we select the best models for teaching earth science? Let’s look at early childhood programs based on Montessori, Charlotte Mason and Reggio Emilia ideas. Here, we find a number of good types of classroom supplies used to teach little ones, and see what earth science strategies use them. You will find these materials a help in teaching earth science to early learners, no matter where you teach.

Here are three kinds of science models that have withstood the test of time and are effective, hands-on ways to help young children understand concepts in earth science:

1.       Globes

First up in our list of earth science models is the globe. Globes are smaller-scale representations of the Earth. By using globes in earth science, students learn that the Earth is a sphere, surrounded by space, and that the oceans and land masses on its surface interact with one another in a global system.

Many Montessori classrooms also show the difference between the land masses and the oceans by using sandpaper to cover the continents of the Earth. As a result, students learn that there is a pattern to how the globe shows land and water in both color and texture, and the distribution of land and water over the Earth’s surface. Globes can also be used in demonstrations involving light sources, to help students understand day and night, and seasons.

Some globes split in two, revealing the layers of the Earth within. In this way, the model is used to show the relationship between the land masses on the surface and the materials deep within the Earth. earth science strategies

Using globes helps young children understand the Earth’s position in space. {Photo Credit: (c) Jon Jordan, 2012 via Creative Commons}

2.       World Map Puzzles

To further explore the land and water of the Earth’s surface, early childhood teachers use a variety of sturdy world map puzzles to teach the relationship between the land masses and oceans of the world. Ideally, the pieces of the puzzle are shaped like the land and water masses of the Earth’s surface. Most early childhood teachers use wooden puzzles, often with knobs to help little hands grasp and place the pieces more easily. These sturdy classroom materials last for many years.

Earth science strategies that involve globes and maps also are used to connect to geography, as teachers can begin with physical maps and globes, and then gradually shift to using political ones. earth science strategies

World maps should have pieces shaped like the land forms of the Earth’s surface. {Photo credit (c) Katherine Clark, 2012 via Creative Commons}

3.       Montessori Land forms

The third example of the earth science strategies that I love to borrow from Montessori classrooms is the use of land form models. Using these models, students learn about the names for different land masses: peninsula, isthmus, delta, etc. Some teachers buy these land forms models. Still others create them using salt dough or similar materials, or even have the children make them.

Students focus on identifying and describing a specific land form, using its unique attributes. Then, they can apply this learning to their work with maps and globes.

4.       Other Helpful models and materials

There are other models that are helpful for specific parts of earth science instruction. One model is the stream table. Stream tables are extremely useful when talking about the interaction between the water and land masses of the Earth’s surface. Another model that I would add to your classroom is a timeline. Geological timelines can help students understand how slowly Earth changes are happening. Finally, when possible, use real fossils, rock and mineral specimens, and other earth materials for authentic hands-on work.

Final Thoughts on Using Models

Today, I’ve taught you what a model is. Additionally, we discussed how earth science strategies using models can help young children learn important earth science concepts. Finally, I shared with you three models that I think all early childhood classrooms should have: globes, world map puzzles, and Montessori land forms.

Next time, I will share with you some ways that preschool and kindergarten teachers have incorporated these models into a purposeful sequence, so that little ones learn important ideas about the Earth’s surface.

If you’re shopping for teaching materials… earth science strategies models

Illuminated globe with base ~ $49.98 at Hearthsong. earth science strategies models

World map puzzle ~$11.04 at Barnes and Noble



You might also be interested in…

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What models do you use to teach earth science?  Leave a comment below!










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Power Thinking: Concept Mapping in Smart Notebook 2015

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Powerful Thinking… Powerful Learning

When we teach, we want students to learn. The more we can get them to think about the content we are presenting, the deeper and longer-lasting their learning becomes. In this post, we will explore Power Thinking, a concept mapping and outlining strategy that helps students organize information. concept mapping

Power Thinking: a great concept mapping and outlining strategy for all ages. {Image via Creative Commons}

What is Power Thinking?

Power Thinking is a strategy that students use to organize information, much like you would do in an outline. The most important piece of information, the title or topic, represents Level 1; main ideas are Level 2; other ideas or details become Level 3. Additional levels may be added, depending on the topic or the age of your students. For some students, the information can be color-coded by level, or the ideas can be numbered.

In the Power Thinking strategy, students stand in a circle in an open floor space and take turns placing pieces of information on the floor, building the map one piece at a time. When students run out of information to add, they may move one piece to another part of the map. In my classes, I usually conduct two rounds with information, then two rounds moving information, before ending the task.

The trick to Power Thinking is that the task is performed silently. This allows students who need more think time to process without classmates calling out answers or giving advice. It also requires students to think more deeply as they wait.

The Learning Benefits of Power Thinking

As with any concept mapping activity, Power Thinking helps students think about the many ways they can connect information, leading to a deeper understanding of the topic being studied. The hierarchical thinking that is used also helps students understand main ideas and supporting details. Older students can use this thinking to take better notes.

Power Thinking assists a wide range of learners, providing multiple entry points for the students in your class. The ability to stand and physically move items helps students who need a more active learning environment. Color cues, when used, aid in identifying levels of information, and help some students remember the levels later. Because there are many ways to connect pieces of information, students who are divergent thinkers are able to participate equitably, as well.

Concept Mapping Technology

Thanks to the plethora of educational technologies available in most classrooms today, students can practice concept mapping on many electronic devices. In this post, we will explore the use of the Smart Board and Smart Notebook 2015 software as concept mapping tools to use in Power Thinking.

Concept Mapping Using Smart Notebook 2015

The newest version of Smart Notebook includes built-in tools for concept mapping on your Smart Board.  Follow the steps below to make your Power Thinking Activity high-tech.

Before you teach:

  • Step 1. Open Smart Notebook 2015.
  • Step 2. Click the new concept mapping tool on the top tool bar. concept mapping

Smart Notebook 2015 includes a new concept mapping tool in the main tool bar.

  • Step 3. Prepare term cards for students. On notecards or pieces of sentence strip, write the terms and phrases that you want students to use in the concept mapping activity. {A practice set on bird eggs is included for your convenience.}

Power thinking:

  • Step 4. Pass out term cards to students. Each student should have at least two cards. Adjust the number of terms to match your class size.
  • Step 5. Students begin mapping. One at a time, students come to the board and create a map item by writing the term on their card, and circling it. Circling it causes the term to become a movable item on the Smart Board.
  • Step 6. Students connect items on the map. As students place their terms on the map, they can drag them to other terms and connect them by drawing a line between related items.
  • Step 7. Students move items. Once all the terms are on the board, continue with 1-2 additional rounds, allowing students to move one item to a new location, erasing and redrawing connections.

After teaching:

After the learning task is finished, you may save and print your concept map. Power Thinking can be repeated after instruction of key parts of the topic, and can also be used as a summative assessment after instruction is completed.

For an exciting collaborative twist on concept mapping, see the video, below, where students collaborate to build a concept map of words and photos using their individual mobile devices and the classroom Smart Board.

Get Mapping!

I hope you enjoy this concept mapping tutorial for use with your Smart Board. Happy mapping!

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Working with Analogies: The Analogies Center

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Working with analogies

Classroom Instruction That Works, $22.80 at Barnes & Noble

Researchers have determined that strategies that have students looking for similarities and differences between and among items result in some of the greatest performance gains (Classroom Instruction That Works, Dean, et al, 2013). Among the ways that students can look at similarities and differences is through creating and explaining analogies.  This blog post will explain what analogies are, how they reveal a deep understanding in students, and some ways to help incorporate working with analogies into independent practice opportunities throughout your curriculum.

What is an Analogy?

An analogy is a comparison between two things that are similar in some way, often used to help explain something or make it easier to understand. In an analogy, the student must determine the way in which two things are related, and extend the comparison to two additional items similarly related. Those of us who have taken the SAT are familiar with this device:



This device is customarily read, “Water is to snow as lava is to ____.” This means that water and snow are related to one another, in the same way that lava and _____ are related. In order to accurately complete the analogy, the student must first determine the specific relationship between water and snow, and then apply that to lava.

The Bridge Map: A Thinking Map ®

We know that all bodies of information, and all thought processes, have their own “shape.” That is to say, there is a pictorial way to represent ideas, processes and functions that is not constrained by words, and is easier for learners of all ages to understand. Not only are these graphical representations easier to comprehend, but they also instruct the student regarding the overall structure of the information relayed. David Hyerle developed Thinking Maps ® as a way to simplify the graphical way that learners represent different cognitive processes. In his system, there are only eight “maps” needed to explain the different thought processes that humans use to process information.


Representing an analogy using a bridge map.

When creating and extending analogies, students could use the traditional device with which we adult test-takers are familiar, but the device requires that the learner is a reader, and, therefore, excludes its use by young children, second language learners, or struggling readers. A non-linguistic way to accomplish the same thing is the bridge map.


An extended version of the same bridge map.

The bridge map, extended, can be viewed at right.

Once students see two pairs of items, they can determine the relationship between items in each pair, which is represented by the line between the items:


“Water is the liquid form of snow, as lava is the liquid form of rock…”

Using Bridge Maps in a Learning Center

There are four main ways that students can work with bridge maps in an independent learning center. Using a combination of all the ways ensures that students understand the entire concept of analogies.

  1. What’s My Rule?
  2. Complete the Analogy
  3. Extend the Analogy
  4. Create an Analogy

For illustration purposes, let’s use something easy to understand, geometric figures, to explain these four different learning tasks.


The Basic Learning Center Design

I always like to use a chunk of bulletin board space for learning centers, so that students can manipulate items as they work collaboratively. Alternatively, a table top can be used (especially if you are working with realia as the items in the analogous pairs).

Other Materials:

  • A large copy of a bridge map (for bulletin board or table top) [See Note]
  • Photographs, drawings or real objects to use in analogous pairs
  • Index cards or sentence strips with words to use in analogous pairs
  • Blank cards or sentence strips to complete or extend the analogy
  • Markers
  • Student copies of individual bridge map worksheets
  • A finished work basket

NOTE: When creating a frame to be used over and over again in a center, consider reproducing it on heavier paper or cardstock, then laminating it. Use hook and loop dots to attach items to the frame, and store materials in zipper-style plastic bags.

See the diagram, below, for an example of how the basic center layout might look.

Learning centers

Version 1: “What’s My Rule?”

Learning centers
Students can examine a teacher-prepared bridge map to determine the “rule.”

Use the basic format (shown above). Use photos, realia, or words to complete one bridge map section. Provide sentence strips for students to write the “rule,” or relationship between pairs of items. The relationship between one pair MUST be the same relationship between all pairs in a given map!


To check their work, students place their “rule” strip on the horizontal line between pairs. The sentence must be true. If it is, then they check the remaining pairs. If the sentences are all true, then they can conclude that the relationship is one possible “rule” for this set of items.


Version 2: “Complete the Analogy”

Bridge map

Teachers can pre-fill some parts of the bridge map, and students can complete the analogy.

Use the basic format, as before. Use photos, realia, or words to partially fill in one bridge map section. Provide index cards and markers, or images, or sources of images, for students to complete the analogy. If providing images and words, provide a variety, so that some complete the analogy and some don’t, and so that students may visit the center more than once. Then provide blank bridge maps for students to record their work, and state their rule.



  • Provide resources for students to research the topic
  • Keep sets of related items in labeled baggies for future use

Version 3: “Extend the Analogy”

This example of an analogy center uses real objects instead of word cards. In the example, below, students must correctly determine the “rule” (relationship) between the top and bottom of the bridge map, then use that rule to extend the analogy. NOTE: For this particular example, there is a very specific rule (“If an isosceles triangle is spun around its vertical line of symmetry, you get a cone.”). Watch out for students who only look shallowly at the relationship (e.g., they put a 3D “diamond” under the parallelogram), because they are missing the specific relationship between the top and bottom items (i.e., the 2D form is spun around a line of symmetry, so the resulting 3D form cannot possibly have all those “edges.”).

Provide attribute blocks and 3D geometric figures or real objects of those shapes, to help students to visualize. Then provide materials for them to affix the 3D object to the map. As before, give them the organizer sheet to record their thinking.

Bridge map

Students can use real objects to complete and extend analogies.


Version 4: “Create an Analogy”

In this example, students use real objects from the classroom to create nets, paper models of 3-dimensional objects which, when cut out and folded, form the 3D shapes of the original items. You will also notice that the board space is divided so each group has a portion as a workspace.

Collect a number of classroom items and display them at the center. Provide paper, writing tools and scissors, and allow students to work individually or in pairs to create 2D representations of the objects, or nets. Students create the analogy by mounting the net, over the real object, and stating the rule:  “_____ is the net form of _____.”

Copies of the nets can be provided by teams below each analogous pair, so that their classmates can check the accuracy of their work (i.e., classmates can construct the 3D figures from the nets to determine if they do, in fact, create the shape of the original object).


Bridge map centers

Students can be given a rule and create the analogy.


Other Ideas Using Analogies:

These are just a few ways that analogies can be used in a learning center. Here are a few more… see if you can think of others (the words in bold describe the relationship [“rule”] between the items in italics):

  • Hardware and human joints: “An elbow works like a hinge.”
  • Tiles and tessellations: “This design is a tessellation of this tile.”
  • Form and function: “A bird’s tail steers like a plane’s wing flaps.”
  • Organelles and parts of a factory: “The mitochondria work as the cell’s power plants.”
  • Seed dispersal and package transport: “Dandelion seeds move like air drops from a plane.”


Next Steps… and Sharing!

Please do try out analogies in your classroom. And share your ideas via our Simple Science Strategies Blog Carnival. Happy analogies!


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Winter Nature Walk: Looking for Patterns (Winter Study 1)

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There’s nothing like a nice nature walk to help you gather new ideas for future nature studies. We have had an unusually warm December, and took the opportunity to take a great, long walk with with the dog, to see what is happening in the world around us, to clear the indoor cobwebs from our heads, and to just enjoy the outside air.  Here are the potential nature study topics that our walk generated:

All Kinds of Patterns

[by Kim M. Bennett]

Stone Walls

Here in New England, stone walls are as ubiquitous as sandy beaches are on the seashore. Geologists at the University of Connecticut study the patterns of stone walls in the Northeastern United States, because they teach us about the underlying bedrock upon which are towns and villages are built. Farmers of the early colonies could only move the glacial rubble so far, so the patterns of the rubble they could move tell about the patterns of the glaciers that formed the rubble.

Geology Patterns in Connecticut

$16.95 at Barnes & Noble

A few years back, we read Stone Wall Secrets, by Robert M. Thorson, a fictional account of a young boy, and the stories his father tells him about the natural history of his farm, as they sit upon the stone wall that surrounds it. I bought a teacher’s guide  to accompany a study of the geology of Connecticut several years back.

Connections: Geology, mineral cycle, weathering, Ice Age

An Ecological study of moss and lichens

There is an old belief that moss grows more heavily on the north sides of trees. As we walked, my husband even quoted this little gem. I remember that some of my college companions conducted an ecological study of this, to determine if it was true or not. I can’t recall! But it would be a fun thing to study, and easy for the winter, since moss stays so green all winter, here.

Connections: Ecology, forest biomes, mosses & lichens, population studies

Fractals: the math of natural patterns

Have you ever doodled in your notebook, creating branching patterns that branch again, then branch at the branches, and so on, and so on, until you run out of paper? If so, you are experimenting with fractals.

The science of fractals has turned observation on its end. It was once believed that, the closer you looked at something, the simpler the design, and, if you could look closely enough, you would see the simple geometric building blocks of every design. What we have found, instead, is that closer looks reveal increasing complex designs that often look like miniature versions of the larger design (think about fern fronds, or the branches on the oak tree in the photo, above, to see what I mean).

We might have to visit our post on “The Mathematics of Nature: Fractals,” adding a study of the branching patterns of oaks in our back woods.

Connections: geometry, number series, drawing, botany

The Patterns of exercise and our bodies

It is easy to stay shut in during cold weather where we live. But getting outside and moving is good for body, mind and spirit. Plus, we can count it as physical education and health, when we homeschool!

There are tons of apps for smart phones that let you log in and measure how many footsteps you take when you walk, how far you hike, your heart rate, and other data. Kids love these apps (heck, I love them!), and graphing is an important part of both math and science instruction. (As an adult, I find it helps me keep on an exercise schedule, if I am monitoring these things).

I downloaded My Fitness Pal to my smart phone — many people I know find it to be the most fun and easiest to use. Maybe my son could graph his parents weight as a function of how many miles of hiking we do this winter? Hmmm…

Connections: health, fitness, exercise, anatomy, graphing

Flowering schedules

Garden journal imageI saw this great little gardening journal template in Microsoft Word. It had places for notes, and photos, and lists (ooohhh… I love lists…). And a little section at the beginning of each month, where you record what plants are blooming.

What a great year-long idea for a child’s nature notebook!

We were very surprised to find the native witchhazel still in bloom (it peaks at the end of October here). At the end of January, some species crocus might bloom, if the weather is right. Then February can bring in some daffodils, plus the chamaecyparis. Before the peak bloom season, it might be a great time to start putting together a monthly bloom-time journal, to see patterns in when different types of plants bloom in your region.

[PS – Our seed catalogs started arriving last week. We’re very excited!]

Connections: gardening, diagrams, notebooking/journaling, botany

weather watching

We have always had an assortment of weather-watching equipment at the ready: an outdoor thermometer that looks beautiful and makes my husband very happy; a little rain gauge/weather vane that we fastened onto the porch support; rain barrels and other assorted rain measuring devices. These were fascinating for all of us. When you plot temperature, air pressure, wind speed or rainfall, you usually see patterns that reflect your region.

One year, my eldest and I used a cloud chart to forecast the weather. It certainly isn’t the long-range forecast we get on the news, but it’s pretty accurate within 24 hours, and fun for kids (and adults). There’s a great cloud chart that can be used to predict the weather available at Weather Forecasting Cloud Chart.

Connections: graphing, prediction, meteorology

Symmetry in nature

In fourth grade geometry, my son is learning about symmetry. This abstract idea is much easier to convey when you use real-life items in the natural world, to demonstrate it.

Take photos of objects and guide your children to draw lines of symmetry on the photos, rather than using 2D line drawings of geometric figures, only.

Connections: geometry, art/drawing

Fibonacci numbers

math wizardry patterns in nature1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55… can you complete the series? And do you know why these numbers are important?

These numbers are Fibonacci numbers, and the string of numbers is called a Fibonacci series. Natural objects are divided into parts represented by these numbers, and beautiful paintings can be divided into sections that represent this series. The number of needles in a bundle of pine needles, the winding of a vine around a pole, the number of scales on a pine cone … all contain Fibonacci numbers.

Read more about Fibonacci numbers, the Golden Proportion, and fractals in Math Wizardry for Kids (a favorite of my eldest son, a real math whiz).

Connections: mathematics, art, proportions


I was just commenting yesterday that we were in the middle of a huge dry season. I spoke too soon! It absolutely poured today. Even yesterday, our hiking was limited on the nature trail because of exceptionally soggy ground.

The woods behind our house has low-lying spots that are the vernal and autumnal nesting spots of spring peepers. We usually start hearing these little fellows around March, around the time when we start to see skunk cabbage poking through the slush and leaf litter. My eldest now serves on the town conservation commission, so he makes it his business to know all about our vernal pools.

All you need to measure rainfall is a flat pan, like a roasting pan or plastic shoebox, and a ruler. To convert between snow in the winter, and water, take the pan inside, let the frozen precipitation melt, and then measure (some people divide by 10, but this varies with the type of snow you get).

Connections: weather, measurement, observation

So What Will We Study?

Tough choices! Here’s what we decided:

  • the patterns of temperature and precipitation (so we can do some graphing)
  • snowflakes
  • using Fibonacci numbers to draw vines
  • predicting the weather through cloud watching

Here’s to a great (and mathematical) winter!

Happy Holidays!


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Sketching for Understanding: The Sketch Journal

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Sketching to show understanding – an important skill in science.

[My apologies to readers who looked for this post last weekend — I had some surgery, and am finally up and around, and able to think!]

So Far, in September…

We have been working on the science process skill of observation this month, and are learning different ways to encourage our students to look closely at the world around them.

Last week, we took a sock walk to find hidden treasures on our nature walks, and used an observation sheet  to record the things we noticed and the things we wondered about our outdoor observations.

This week, we will explore another way to help students of all ages to make detailed observations about the natural world: the sketch journal.

Why Sketching?

A literacy coach friend of mine reminds teachers that speaking is a rehearsal for writing. As an early childhood educator, I also know that, when little ones draw, the story is in the drawing process, and that you really only know the whole story when you sit side by side the child as he draws and narrates. So speaking, drawing and writing are interwoven as alternative ways of expressive language.

This connection is clear when we look at this writing skill trace in the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.K.3 Use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to narrate a single event or several loosely linked events, tell about the events in the order in which they occurred, and provide a reaction to what happened.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.1.3 Write narratives in which they recount two or more appropriately sequenced events, include some details regarding what happened, use temporal words to signal event order, and provide some sense of closure.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.2.3 Write narratives in which they recount a well-elaborated event or short sequence of events, include details to describe actions, thoughts, and feelings, use temporal words to signal event order, and provide a sense of closure.

As you can see, there is a shift from the details being provided in the narration and illustrations, to an increasing level of detail being provided in the written text.

For more information on the connections between drawing, writing and understanding in infants and toddlers, see Marks and Mind, by Dr. Susan Rich Sheridan. If you are torn between a science journal and a science notebook, read “Nature Journal or Nature Notebook?” (Barbara McCoy, Handbook of Nature Study) for some insight. To see how researchers believe that doodling may help unlock scientific thinking in high school and college students, read “Doodling May Draw Students into Science,” at LiveScience.

Success for All…

Another reason to include drawings as an method for collecting detailed observations is that drawing offers a built-in scaffold for students who need more support in writing:

  • English Language Learners
  • Students with disabilities
  • Younger students and other “pre-readers”
  • Students who need another “pre-writing” step

Even for students from whom you would expect a well-written narrative, starting with even a quick sketch helps them focus on the most important details, and can provide a helpful way to focus on a new concept (such as mood), without being encumbered by working with printed words.

The Role of Sketching in Science

This month, we have been focusing on the science standards around Obtaining, Evaluating and Communicating Information, in which conveying observations through detailed illustrations would be an important subskill. In our current month’s studies (wildflowers and their seeds, mushrooms and lichens, ant colonies, and feeder birds), sketching can play an important role in developing models of living things: cross-sections of dicot and monocot seeds, diagrams showing the fruiting bodies of different types of fungi, illustrations of typical termite colonies, labeled photographs of the types of feathers on a bird. As previously stated, a well-developed sketch conveys detailed information about the item being observed.

Nature and science sketch books can include open-ended assignments, or have a specific focus (see “The Nature Corner: An Invitation to Observe” for some ideas on ways to create specific assignments for sketch books).

Creating Sketch Books

Sketch books are totally customizable. Here are some (very general) guidelines for creating sketch books for science:


  • If you use prebound notebooks (such as spiral or composition notebooks), allow students one class session to customize the cover, using magazine illustrations, scrapbooking supplies, and personal effects to personalize the notebooks. My experience with educators through high school level is that students are less likely to lose a notebook that they have “created” for themselves.
  • If you make a notebook using a 3-ring binder, get 1-inch binders that have the clear pocket for a cover insert. There are many templates available for creating front, back and spine covers for 3-ring notebooks of many sizes. has generic (but editable) ones. The Notebooking Treasury includes notebook cover art and spine covers for many of its notebooking sets.


When I create notebooks with kids, I tend to print out many different types of pages, because I find that different pages “ask” to be used for different purposes.

  • Framed Pages… Full page frames lead students to create full illustrations of the item they are studying. When a page contains smaller frames, or smaller frames and lined sections, students include captions or labels for the illustrations. Numbering the frames draws students to sequence illustrations.
  • Blank Pages… These are useful when students are using art materials such as watercolors or pastels, to respond. Some students need help when faced with a totally blank page, so be prepared to model how you would “attack” a blank piece of paper.
  • Graph Paper… Two of my own children, and many of my elementary students, struggled when faced with paper without lines. Graph paper helps students with perspective, and proportion, two concepts that are challenging for budding “sketchers.” Depending on the size of the grid, graph paper can also help students focus on details more.
  • Lined Paper… Of course you will want a ready supply of lined paper to add pages for writing in between sketches.
  • Novelty Pages… Including scrapbooking or themed notebooking pages (e.g., these interesting elements pages for high school chemistry notebookers) helps to spark ideas for science sketch books, and can help students organize their work. Many commercial notebooking page sites offer notebook section pages such as this.
  • Novelty Paper… One of my kindergarten teachers finds that just introducing a new writing page into her writing center creates increased interest in writing and journaling.

Art materials

I had one of those three-basket, colorful, wire carts on wheels, that you can get for a few dollars at most department stores. I stored all of my everyday art materials here, and parked the cart in the middle of the room for ready use.  What did I include on the cart?

  1. a class set of watercolors (8 colors), numbered with student numbers
  2. skinny brushes (more than enough for the class)
  3. medium brushes (ditto)
  4. table sets of skinny markers, in pencil boxes (24 colors or so)
  5. a class set of crayons (16 colors), numbered with student numbers
  6. a class set of scissors (I liked Fiskars), numbered with student numbers
  7. table sets of #2 pencils, in pencil boxes
  8. a stash of pencil grips
  9. a stash of cap erasers
  10. more than enough glue sticks for the class

Other materials would be placed in centers or at tables, as needed: magazines, construction paper, scrapbooking or wrapping paper, poster paints, etc.

Teaching strategies

My eldest son loved to create journals, and used skinny markers and invented spelling from an early age, to chronicle all types of outdoor explorations, and could spend hours coloring. My middle son preferred graph paper and elaborate diagrams, usually of inventions, labeled and created in #2 pencil. Coloring and writing bored him, but drawing did not. My youngest son preferred NOT to sketch, at all, but was quite adept at creating diagrams, preferring graph paper to other types, and wrote detailed narratives to accompany them.

So, if I use my three guys as a representative sample of kids, I know that, as in other areas of teaching, strategies for sketching need to be included as part of the process of creating a sketch book. In the next section are some that I’ve learned over the years.

Sketching Strategies

  • The 10-minute Quick Sketch. This is a useful strategy for helping students organize their thoughts before asking them to write about an observation. It’s a good strategy to teach important vs. interesting details, and for focusing on a particular idea (e.g., a quick sketch to show the feeding behavior of a robin). YOU WILL HAVE TO PRACTICE THIS ONE WITH KIDS! They want to spend a hundred years.

A Quick-Sketch of the parts of a feather, as part of a “Fill in the Page” Study — two strategies in one! Notice how the student used sketching, scrapbooking and feather specimens as part of the study.

  • Fill the Page. This strategy (and the next two) come from my friend, Barbara McCoy, blogger, nature study-er and homeschooler, who has a flair for art and how to incorporate it into nature study – see her blogs at Handbook of Nature Study and Harmony Art Mom. The “Fill the Page” strategy is useful for encouraging stamina in sketching/writing. The goal is to fill the page, with artifacts (e.g., found feathers), notes and drawings. The ONLY rule is the page is filled. This really helped my reluctant nature student!

The “Fill the Page” Strategy used in a study of shark teeth. The student included actual objects, drawings, diagrams and written narration on the same page.

  • Fill in the Circle.  A variation of “Fill the Page,” which uses a smaller area for the illustration. Barbara McCoy shows how she uses the “Fill in the Circle” strategy with her homeschoolers at Handbook of Nature Study.

The “Fill in the Circle” Strategy (and a mini-book) used in a Spanish language study of dandelions. We began by coloring a line drawing within the circle, then progressed to providing the complete illustration.

  • Fill in With Words. This is a variation on “Fill the Page,” with the goal to use words, only, to fill in the page. This is a good next step for students who are having trouble moving from sketching to using words, because the goal, as in the previous, is to just fill the page.

We varied the amount of area to fill in, when using the “Fill in With Words” Strategy, as my son’s stamina for journaling increased.

  • Draw What You See. Kids want to draw what they think they see, instead of what they really see. Good practice for this, before using real objects, is to include black and white drawings, and grid paper, and have students copy the drawing exactly. Donna Young has some simple art exercises that focus on copying increasingly complex designs — a helpful step when working with students on accurate rendering of their observations.

We used the “Draw What You See” Strategy for this sketch of Queen Anne’s Lace — notice that my son even included his pencil in the sketch!

  • Focus on… Labels, Titles, Captions, Scale (etc). Connect the science sketch book to other content areas by focusing the written part on a particular concept, such as labels (part-to-whole relationships), titles (main idea or theme), captions (summarizing), or scale (proportions), just to name a few. Practice for this strategy could include pre-made drawings for which students provide the focus. This is a great connection to the use of non-fiction text features in language arts.

An independent work showing a labeled design for a bigger, better bird feeding station, showing a focus on labels.

Houghton-Mifflin has some interesting tasks that can be used to help students reflect on and refine their skills at science drawing.

See the “Apple a Day” set of September notebooking pages for a study of the apple fruit and flower, and the September promotion of my new e-Book, The Gentle Art of Observation, for more ideas on observation for homeschool and classroom.

Find Almost Free Art Supplies, with the help of this handy little book. $3.99 at Barnes and Noble (click the image for ordering information).

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