Beginning the school year with goals

Photo by her students.

Early in the month of August, pre-kindergarten teacher Gail Laubenthal begins planning for the young children who will soon be entering her classroom. As a guest blogger she is sharing her ideas on how to start the school year by setting goals for herself and her children. Gail teaches pre-kindergarten at Sanchez Elementary School in the Austin Independent School District in Austin, TX. In the coming year she will communicate with families and other teachers on her Laubenthal’s Ladybugs website and a classroom blog which will highlight classroom activities.
Gail Laubenthal writes:
My goals began with this one for science vocabulary and language development:
By the end of the school year, my children will be able to look at a variety of materials from their environment and use descriptive language to describe the materials’ differences and/or similarities. In the fall, I will ask the children to sort objects into groups that are alike and see if they can tell me why they sorted them in that manner. The results of this task will be useful and will guide my teaching for the rest of the school year.
The May 2011 draft of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) for Physical Science states that by the end of second grade (Grade Band Endpoints for PS1.A) students will understand that there are “different kinds of matter (e.g., wood, metal, water), and many of them can be either solid or liquid, depending on temperature. Matter can be described and classified by its observable properties (e.g., visual, aural, textural), by it uses, and by whether it occurs naturally or is manufactured.”
I had the children use their senses to explore and then verbally describe “matter” in their environment by “Exploring with Magnets” and “Exploring with Our Senses”. In the draft NGSS, investigating patterns in the forces between two magnets is for grades above the early childhood years. However, the statement “builds on K-2 experiences” is part of every standard above early childhood so it is appropriate for children to do some work with magnets.
Exploring with Magnets
At the very beginning of the school year I put magnets in the Science Center.

  • Children are amazed that they can pick up other objects or move objects around without even touching the object. There was lively interest for weeks for going on Magnet Hunts to test for attraction.
  • Wonderfully rich vocabulary words can be used while exploring magnets: alike, same, different, compare, sort, group, magnet, attract, repel, magnetic, nonmagnetic, predict, graph, and count. Children began to use these words to describe their experiences and later were observed making connections to these early explorations when given other materials to investigate. For instance, when they realized that some of the rocks (lodestone and hematite) in a basket of assorted rocks and minerals were magnetic, they began testing other rocks to see if they were “attracted” to metal things.

Exploring with our Senses
In September, we began purposefully using our senses to explore our environment.

  • Our eyes focused on the shapes of objects, like doors, tables, windows, swing set poles, slides, sidewalks, ceiling tiles, balls and classroom materials and equipment. We played “I-Spy” with our eyes, both indoors and outdoors.
  • But with our hands, we really began to compare and contrast items, using only our sense of touch at first by describing something in a mystery bag. Later, we used all of our senses and that’s when the descriptive language began to grow.

Gathering Data:
In October I gave the children the initial sorting task with a tray of objects to sort or group things that might go together—things that are alike. I recorded their observations and used them as data for planning science explorations for the rest of the year.
During the school year I planned experiences to encourage the children to increase their ability to examine, compare, contrast, and discuss the properties of objects in their environment. They continued to use their senses as they learned about food they ate, toys they played with, and animals and plants, both in and out of the classroom.
Using letter and word walls, thematic word banks, non-fiction and fiction books, local experts, field trips, and hands-on materials, ensured that the science topics were fully developed and integrated across the curriculum. For instance, we used a word web to record everything that the children already knew about pumpkins, and then continued to add onto it as they discovered and learned more. Some of the experiences were guided, but many of them were independently carried out with other children. I kept a notebook handy to record their conversations, wonderings, and “Ah-ha” discoveries, as well as a camera ready to film (both still and video) their experiences.
Final Properties of Matter Activity and Assessment:
As a culminating activity in our rock and fossil unit of study in April, I set up pairs of rocks for the children to compare by color, luster, weight, texture, and patterns. In small group discussion, the children used the descriptive language that we had been using all year in the previous compare and contrast activities as they examined the pairs of rocks with loupes, hand lenses, a SmartScope digital microscope (and laptop for viewing). The children described the differences, similarities, and additional properties.
The children were able to look at a variety of materials from their environment and use descriptive language to describe the materials’ differences and/or similarities. The children surpassed the individual goals that I had set for them, as well. One child, who initially described a group of objects as “soft”, now described a pair of river rocks as “smooth” and “hard”, but also as “this one is large and this one is small.”
Being able to use their senses to describe, compare and contrast matter is a skill that will continue to develop as they grow and mature as learners and as scientists. My children came a long, long way and the high-interest level of science activities gave them a “voice” to use new and rich vocabulary to communicate their exciting discoveries.
By setting goals for myself and for the individual children at the beginning of the year, I was able to keep my work focused, kept working towards the goal and was able to celebrate the successes at the end of the year.

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13 Responses to Beginning the school year with goals

  1. Vivian says:

    Hello Gail,
    I agree with you that as teachers it is better we set goals for oneself and his/her students. I like the way the childen learn through exploration and experience. How best can you advise a K-12 teacher to use this teaching method to achieve the objectives set for a topic?

  2. Gail Laubenthal says:

    What age/grade-level do you teach? I don’t think that it matters, but what I like to do is look at the national and state standards first, then look at the diverse community of children that I typically work with, and finally set some goals that will meet their needs. Teachers of young children help build a firm educational foundation for success. So, look at where you want your children to go (academically, socially, emotionally, and physically) and then plan your goals, objectives and developmentally appropriate activities accordingly. I hope that this helps.

  3. Robbie Polan says:

    I was fortunate to visit your class throughout the year and watch the sequence of your science lessons develop. Your goals were always clear and you used your understanding of the children’s needs, as well as the state and national guidelines, to guide your unit lessons. It is a good example for other Pre-K and/or Kindergarten teachers to see how a strand/goal can run throughout a school year. As these objectives span the year, they develop and deepen the students’ understanding as they mature and develop. You always incorporate math and literacy connections into science lessons and this integration makes them meaningful to the children.
    The most powerful statement in your blog was, “By setting goals for myself and for the individual children at the beginning of the year, I was able to keep my work focused, kept working towards the goal and was able to celebrate the successes at the end of the year.” I agree that strong goals and knowledge of your children’s needs are a winning combination!

  4. Gail Laubenthal says:

    Thank you for your kind comments. As I get ready for another science-filled and exciting year with a new group of eager 4 year olds, I can’t help but begin thinking about this years goals. I am sure that the goals will continue to include language and vocabulary development, but at this point I am thinking that I will have my science center filled with rocks, along with magnets. The robust language that my children were using to describe rocks in their environment in April makes me wonder what would happen if I introduced rocks, fossils, and soils in September. Just writing about it in this blog makes me think that this would be the way to go. What do you think?

  5. Jackie Totten says:

    As always I love reading about what you have been doing in the classroom. I like to teach thematically, integrating all curriculum areas, and build on through the school year. The project we start at the beginning of year develops/grows as they learn/explore and it is a deeper learning (building on) rather than a surface type (teach and move on). I agree a strand/goal can run throughout the year and provide a strong foundation for a student to build onto each school year. Gail, You Rock!

  6. Gail Laubenthal says:

    Could you give an example of a project that might start at the beginning of the year and continues to develop as the children explore? I think that the more concrete ideas teachers have, the more possibilities they might consider.
    Something that I do at the beginning of the year is ask the children where their food comes from. We then begin working in our children’s garden, and they soon learn that their food does not just come from the local grocery store…someone has to plant the seeds. By the time we harvest, prepare, and eat the food, the children have also learned about the importance of insects in the garden. They also know what a plant needs to live and be healthy enough to grow. Also, by the end of the school year, the children have seen a plant go through it’s whole life cycle, since you have opportunities to allow a plant to go to seed, using those seeds to plant and grow again. At the end of the year, I again ask the children where their food comes from and they proudly answer, “We grow our food in the garden!”

  7. Robbie Polan says:

    Being purposeful about your goal setting and planning, while considering the interests of your students, translates into engaged and successful students. It seems that all children have a natural curiosity and some type of prior knowledge about rocks, and you are wise to begin the year with this unit so children will feel free to talk about rocks and begin developing vocabulary. And we all love to investigate and explore rocks in the playground!
    Since the senses is typically a beginning-of-the-year science unit, this could be another underlying strand that is carried throughout your year.

  8. Marissa says:

    I love the hands on suggestions you have given and I agree with the importance of setting goals for myself and my students. My favorite activity at the beggining of the year is to have each child grow a TickleMe Plant. I don’t tell my kids this, but with in two weeks the TickleMe Plant that grows in their flower pot will close its leaves and lower its branches when they tickle, touch or water it. You should hear the sounds of joy and laughter when they first discover this on their own. I use the plants for topics such as: introducing the needs of living things, ecology, gardening and botany. You can see a video of the live TickleMe Plant moving like an animal at and you can get educational books and kits to grow the plant there too. Their pet TickleMe Plants will change the way your kids look at plants forever!!!!

  9. Vanessa Jones says:

    Gail this is so wonderful. I’m a true follower of your work. I love the way you don’t teach in isolation. Everything is integrated with clear expectations and goals. Your ideas are truly innovative and your students are always infused in learning what essential 21st century skills are all about. Thanks for sharing and I look forward to seeing what other amazing things both you and your students will embark on this year.

  10. Gail Laubenthal says:

    Thanks for the idea of using a sensitive plant (common name) or Mimosa pudica (scientific name)..I have known about these plants for years and, as a child, would love finding them in a field…the thrill of watching them fold their leaves up still excites me today. These plants would allow for interactions, having the children learn about how plants adapt to their environment…closing up their leaves. Some say that they close to protect the plant from predators or when insects disturb them…the movement can surprise the pest and it might move away. These plants also close their leaves during the evening and open during the day. The students might be able to set up an investigation by covering the plants with a box and carefully watch the leaves close up (from a little peep hole). Another way that I plan to have the children learn about plant movement this year is by leaving my iPad on with the iLapse app filming the growth. I successfully used it last year to allow the children to watch chicks hatch and caterpillars move into their pupa stage, as well as seeing the butterfly emerge. You can view these videos on my blog (see link in initial post).

  11. Gail Laubenthal says:

    Thanks Vanessa for your comments. You know that I am already planning for next year. I have added a touch screen computer to my science center and when it is connected to our digital microscope, I suspect that the children will be viewing matter from a new perspective. I want to have them drawing in their journals more this year…while viewing materials with their eyes, and then draw again after using the digital microscope. I am hoping that they will see some of natures intricate patterns and beautiful shapes. I also plan to use some of Discovery Educations high quality videos that support the science concepts we are working on.
    Keeping a digital camera in the science center will also be new this year. I want the children to be able to take pictures of their experiences, investigations, and projects. I can’t always be there to snap that picture, but if I teach them how to use the camera, then they can help document the science going on in the classroom. I will also make sure that the camera goes outside with us…lots of science going on there, too!

  12. Lisa Buck says:

    I enjoyed reading about your science activities that you planned with your pre-schoolers. Setting goals for all of your students is crucial to plan your instruction, as you did. I really like how you incorporate the science standards with other areas, such as language arts and how your students use descriptive words to begin describing materials to you and their classmates. I loved your idea about keeping a journal for yourself to write down things that you notice in the classroom. I have my first graders keep a science notebook for them to record observations, but it never occurred to me that maybe I should do the same! I also like your idea in the above comment, about using the camera to record action in the classroom and outside. Another great idea would be investing in a document camera for the students to “take pictures” and you would have a digital record of objects. You could introduce new vocabulary such as symmetry in objects and you’d have the option of rotating images and manipulating them to help the students understand other concepts.
    You’ve given me some great ideas that I can expand on for my first graders. Thank you!

  13. Gail Laubenthal says:

    Lisa, thanks so much for your comments. I love it that you are getting some good ideas for your first graders, as I do believe that all children come to us with many needs. I am sure that many of your children have difficulty comparing and contrasting matter in their environment, but by keeping anecdotal note taking can really help. One of my goals for the year is to even do a better job at listening to and following the children as they increase their vocabulary and their confidence to use it.
    I do have a document camera in my classroom and do have the children use it, but not as much as I probably could. Thanks for the encouragement and the good idea of using it for symmetry.

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