Exceptional Instruction

Connecting Concepts to Real-Life Application for a Three-Tiered Approach to Science

When Mrs. Grove started planning for her 6th grade study of the water cycle, she knew she wanted to take what she had done in the past to a new level.  She wanted her students to think more deeply and more critically about the water cycle.  Additionally, Mrs. Grove wanted to offer a hands-on experience to her students; one that would bring the water cycle to life.  While continuing to incorporate the newly adopted Next Generation Science Standards with fidelity into her plans, Mrs. Grove worked to more completely integrate all three dimensions of science learning to how students encountered this unit, and what resulted was an engaging unit culminating in students creating watershed models to explore concepts leading students to develop scientifically-based views of the world around them.

Mrs. Grove started by ensuring students had the background information necessary to complete this complex task.  Students learned the basic vocabulary, concepts, and processes of the water cycles.  With the language necessary to move forward, 6th graders watched Tapped, a documentary that explores the role of the bottled water industry and how it affects our world. This led students to the issue of pollutants and how they impact the water cycle.

Next, students broke into small groups and were challenged to design and create a watershed model.  Students had to use all of the information they had gleaned about the water cycle and how the watershed works in order to design a complete model.  

Once their models were created, simulated pollutants like lemon juice, hot sauce, and Kool Aid mix, were added to the models.  Students had to test the effect and impact these pollutants had on their models.  After making observations, students were tasked with researching solutions.  Next, students “built” their top solutions into their models to help mitigate or mediate the negative aspects of the pollutants.  


Students even had the opportunity to turn accidents and disasters into learning opportunities!  Here you can see what happened to a model that was accidentally tipped over:

Instead of asking students to redo their work, Mrs. Grove had her students investigate natural disasters and how they impact the watershed.  Students selected a type of natural disaster to learn about and learned how to classify disaster zones.  After this group’s investigation of earthquakes and the Richter Scale, this model’s disaster was classified with a level 7 earthquake.   The culminating activity was for groups to create a presentation which captured each group’s process and experience from start to finish.

 “It worked because it was inquiry based and hands on.  Students’ creative skills came to the table here. Students who may not thrive in a direct instruction classroom setting had the opportunity to show leadership and shine.” – Mrs. Grove

For teachers who are interested in facilitating this type of scientific learning experience, Mrs. Grove has a few suggestions:  First, you need to carefully consider your setup and organization of the materials.  “Set up is a lot of work, and you really have to manage your space so students have free access to what they need and know where their materials are at all times.  I labeled everything and made materials available for students so they didn’t need my help to locate the things they needed with working with their models.”  Having an organized student system allowed Mrs. Grove to be available to help facilitate student learning instead of managing materials.   A second tip is for teachers to collect random household items, you never know how it could be used for projects.

Mrs. Grove’s updated unit is exceptional!  Students encountered the information using an inquiry-approach. They were required to use evidence when responding to scientifically-oriented questions, they formulated their own explanations from the evidence they had collected, and they had to justify and communicate their findings. Well done, Mrs. Grove!

Like Fish in a Fishbowl

Exceptional instruction abounds here in the classrooms of Lakeview Junior High School.  However, this post spotlights Mrs. Burrows and her Advanced ELA class.  Over the course of the school year, this class has engaged in Ted-Talk inspired Fishbowl discussions.

The “fishbowl” is a teaching strategy which helps students practice being both contributors to and listeners of classroom discussions.  Typically, students ask questions, present opinions, and share information when they sit in the “fishbowl” circle.  Students on the outside of the circle listen carefully to the ideas presented and pay attention to the process of the conversation.

Mrs Burrows has devoted herself and her students to this strategy on a weekly basis.  Earlier in the school year, each student selected a Ted Talk topic that appealed to them and signed up to facilitate a discussion at some point during the year.  Then, Mrs. Burrows carefully crafted and front-loaded lessons teaching her students the elements for engaging in great discussions.  These lessons included topics such as how to create open-ended discussion questions, how to respectfully acknowledge and build off of others’ ideas, how to respectfully disagree with others.  With these skills understood and practiced, her students were set up to have successful discussions.


“It taught me that there can be a lot of different views on different topics, and that is okay!  I understand how it’s important to embrace everyone’s opinion and come to an overall conclusion.  I know I will use this after 7th grade.” – Brendan G.

The Fishbowl Discussion strategy is especially effective in ensuring all students are engaged in the discussion.  Inside the fishbowl, students are active participants. Because of the careful planning and preparation, the discussions are sophisticated and deep. This strategy ensures students who are not active participants are still equally engaged.  

“My students seated outside of the fishbowl are participating in a Today’s Meet back-channel discussion.  They are tasked with reporting on interesting observations related to both the content and the process of the live discussion.” – Mrs. Burrows

   Some of the student-selected topics include: Artificial Intelligence, The Impact of Video Games,  How Kids Can Influence and Impact Science, Do Schools Kill Creativity, Robots that Show Emotion, Why We Should Talk to Strangers, Are Athletes Really Getting Faster, Better, and Stronger, Preparing for Climate Change, The Importance of Art in Society, Lying, and What Makes a Good Life: Love or Money

“I have learned about many different topics. And I feel like I’ve learned a lot of knowledge from the Fishbowls.”  – Michael S.

Prior to their discussion date, each student facilitator meets with Mrs. Burrows to review the guiding questions they have created to lead the discussion.  As Mrs. Burrows explains, “Students have to complete a planning document, create guiding questions, and met with me before their discussions.  Here we make sure the questions are not text-dependent.  I work with students to insure their questions are universal and higher-order thinking questions, which helps set the stage for deep and meaningful student discussions.”  Students also meet with the peers who are included in the inner circle of their discussion to make sure everyone is prepared for the meeting.

“It honestly taught me about the importance of leadership and preparation.  I have to facilitate meetings and create agendas and questions in order for my group to be successful.” – Cassie R.

Once everyone is prepared, the magic happens! Observing the Fishbowl Discussions is a truly exciting experience!  It is clear that Mrs. Burrows’s students have embraced this experience.  Indeed, I observed students inside the Fishbowl listening to each other, building off of each other’s ideas, and respectfully acknowledging when there is a difference of opinion!  It was exciting to see the back-channel discussion going on at the same time.  This is a great example of how to make sure all students are engaged during a small group discussion that takes place in a large class.


I’m better at building off of other’s ideas now, which make the conversation deeper. Kids on the Today’s Meet can use their computers to look for more information about what they’re talking about in the circle. We learn so much about the topics because of our class’s collaboration.  What’s going on in the Today’s Meet is learning too!” – Cassie R.  

Fishbowl Discussions have helped bring the Speaking and Listening Common Core State Standards to life! In her own words, Mrs. Burrows explains, “This practice is an ongoing conversation about how to communicate effectively and respectfully about topics of which students feel great passion.”  Consistently revisiting, practicing, and evaluating these skills has truly helped Mrs. Burrows’s students to become masters of the art of discussion.  By incorporating Fishbowl Discussions regularly into her curriculum, Mrs. Burrows’s  students have a heightened awareness about what good discussions look like and how they can keep a discussion on track.

“I love it because the kids love it.  They get so excited to develop their arguments and engage in these discussion with their peers.  I’m also impressed with the growth I’ve observed in their awareness of effective communication.” – Mrs. Burrows

Prairieview Panthers Persevere and Prosper!

Mrs. Csorba, along with several 4th and 5th grade teachers working in collaboration with the instructional coach, have challenged our Panthers with Breakout EDU activities. What is a Breakout? It is a game that engages students in critical thinking, problem-solving, troubleshooting, and working collaboratively. Students have so much fun that they don’t even realize how much they are using their brains!Mrs. Csorba has done Breakouts both digitally and with actual locked boxes. Take a look at some 5th graders completing a Breakout during WIN time.

Digital Breakouts were created with the instructional coach incorporating Social Studies content for 4th grade and Science content for 5th grade. Here you see some of the students who were able to solve the Wacky Weather Breakout in 5th grade, and some of the 4th graders who solved the Midwest Map Mess-Up.


Thank you to the teachers who welcomed the opportunity to try something new in their classrooms. These types of activities provide so much more learning for our students beyond actual content. Congratulations to the students who persevered and prospered!


Hats Off to Dr. Seuss

March the 2nd was a special day.

Kindergarten Students found a way

To celebrate the birthday of Dr. Seuss.

The author of books they often choose.

They read his books all week.

His silly rhymes they will always seek.

They celebrated his life in a ‘Seussical’ way.

By joining the fun with a theme each day.


Monday – One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish — Students used colorful Goldfish crackers to explore graphing and patterning concepts.


Tuesday – The Cat in the Hat — Students and teachers wore their favorite hats.


Wednesday – Wacky Wednesday — Students and teachers dressed in a wacky or mixed up style.


Thursday – Fox in Socks — Students and teachers wore silly or mismatched socks.


Friday – Green Eggs and Ham — Students and teachers wore green.

Flipping the Classroom

This teacher is modeling how students should work through and take notes when watching a video lesson at home.

Prairieview teacher, Kim Swaekauski, and Lakeview math teachers, Karin Snodgrass, Annie Diver, and Sarah Focken, recently attended a seminar that presented strategies to successfully “flip” their math instruction. “Flipping” instruction allows the students to take a more active role in their learning. Teachers can create video lessons for students to watch at home or independently in the classroom. This enables students to take in the information at their own pace, view the video or segments of it more than once if needed, and pause the instruction to record notes. An archive of videos can also be created so that students can access lessons when reteaching is needed or as an option for review before assessments.


There are other benefits of video lessons. Studies have shown that shorter or condensed video lessons are more engaging than live lecture. Video lessons allow the teacher to be with the students at home – this is very valuable to students who are absent from school. These pre-recorded lessons also allow the teacher to “duplicate” his/herself in the classroom. While playing a video lesson, a teacher can walk around the classroom to promote student focus and engagement, and answer individual questions. Finally, students will have time for more active learning DURING class – engaged in discussion, collaboration, and projects.

This is an example of a paper slide video lesson. The teacher is able to monitor students and keep them on task while the lesson is being viewed.


Another aspect of “flipping” is to have students create video lessons of their learning. Here you can see Kim Swaekauski recording student “paper slides” to demonstrate how they could solve various real-world problems using the different methods of multiplying fractions.

Students provide a verbal explanation and can point out steps in their work as the teacher records.

Kudos to our teachers who took the risk and tried out these techniques in their classrooms right away!