It can be frustrating when students are absent on lab days. You spend a lot of time setting up and often spend money out of your own pocket for supplies. If you are doing labs often or teach multiple preps, dealing with student absences just gets harder to juggle. By the time the student comes back and asks "what did I miss?" I've often torn down the lab or passed the supplies onto another teacher in my department and don't have them available. Instead of scrambling to re-set up the lab every time, here are a few alternative options:
1. DO THE LAB MAKE-UP ON THEIR OWN TIME
If the lab isn't super labor intensive and students can read through the procedures on their own to figure out what to do, I have them come in and make up the lab on their own time. Luckily my school has an advisory period built into the school day where students can travel to get caught up on their classes. If you don't have this luxury, they could come in during lunch or after school.
2. SUBSTITUTE THE WET LAB FOR A VIRTUAL LAB
There are a bunch of virtual labs out on the internet that you could substitute for the wet lab. Phet or Glencoe are great options to check out.
3. COPY THE LAB DATA FROM A PEER AND ANSWER THE ANALYSIS QUESTIONS
This option is my go-to for labs that take multiple days. If students missed the first day of experimental design or data collection, they can come back in, join a lab group, and finish the lab. If it was a one day lab, you can have a "master copy" of data that absent students can copy down and analyze before answering the post lab analysis questions.
4. DO AN ALTERNATIVE ASSIGNMENT ON THE SAME TOPIC
If you can't find a virtual lab on the same topic, try and find an article or worksheet on the same topic and use that assignment to replace the lab grade. Newsela is a great place to find free non-fiction articles. Don't forget to look for freebies on TpT! (type in the topic you are looking for and filter by grade and cost).
5. EXCUSE THE ASSIGNMENT
I would like to begin with a disclaimer that this is NOT something I do regularly. I think students need to somehow show proficiency on a standard, not just get it excused. However, if a student tells you they were absent for a week because they were in the hospital or had a true family emergency that you can verify, sometimes they just need to be cut a break. Realize they will have missing assignments from 6 other classes on top of yours, pick which assignments you think are vital for mastering the standard, and excuse the rest.
The moral of the story: Don't lose your sanity trying to have every absent student do make up labs.
This blog post is sponsored by Ward's Science.
If you've scoured the internet looking for fun Karyotype activities like I have, you know they are few and far between. Most activities involve students cutting out 23 chromosomes, finding the homologous pair on a worksheet, and gluing them together. This activity ends with paper scraps everywhere, missing chromosomes, and frustrated students.
My goal was to create station activities where students could rotate around the room and analyze and manipulate different karyotypes. I found some great resources from Ward's Science that I used to supplement the activity. Student groups had 5 minutes at each station to complete a karyotype related task. Here are some station activity ideas:
On U of A's website, there is a virtual karyotype activity with 3 patients. Students need to click on each patient, fill in the missing homologous chromosome, and give a diagnosis for each patient. You can check out the website by clicking here.
Karyotype Virtual Lab
In this virtual lab from University of Utah, students pair up the chromosomes on the left with their homologous pair on the right. It's a bit harder than the U of A one, but there is a hints option if students get stuck.
At this station, students will watch a Youtube video and answer a few questions. This video reviews genes, chromosomes, and karyotypes.
Human Genome Analysis
When the human genome project was completed, the genes on each chromosome were mapped out and they came out with these nifty (and free!) science posters. On their website, you can click on any chromosome, print out the pdf, and have students observe what traits are found on each chromosome. I printed out a few and had students look for traits they might have or run in their family.
I ordered giant magnetic pictures of human chromosomes from Ward's Science (you can purchase them here). At this station, students came up to the front whiteboard where I had 23 of the chromosomes lined up. Their task was to arrange the homologous chromosomes and decide if it is a male or female, and healthy or abnormal.
I love these magnets because they can be used throughout the whole unit, not just for this lesson- makes them worth every penny! You can use them when discussing cell division as well. They are large, easy to see, and students love coming up to play with them at the end of class.
Microscope Slide Observations
At this station, students observed a human karyotype smear under the microscope and made observations. If you don't already have karyotype slides, you can purchase them from Ward's Science. Students will be surprised how small the chromosomes are! (the picture shown is on 100x magnification). They will quickly see that in real life, pairing up homologous chromosomes and looking for abnormalities is not nearly as easy as it looks on the virtual labs.
If you are interested in ordering the magnetic karyotype kit or the microscope slides, you are in luck! I have a promo for you!
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Models can be powerful tools when teaching science. They allow students to visualize concepts that can be difficult to picture in their heads.
If you ask students what the most abundant gas in the atmosphere is, their first guess is usually oxygen. And when you say no, their second guess tends to be carbon dioxide. When we talk about the composition of the atmosphere and the effect of greenhouse gases, students may picture the atmosphere being FULL of carbon dioxide... and rightfully so- statistics estimate that 45 billion tons of carbon dioxide are released every year. But how much is that?
I wanted to build a model of the atmosphere so students could see that there isn't very much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere relative to other gases.
I like that it is easy to see how much nitrogen is in the atmosphere compared to oxygen and other gases. So much easier for students to visualize!
I want to point out that whenever you use models in class, you need to discuss with students any limitations the model might have to avoid misconceptions.
Overall, the entire thing only cost me $9 to make and I had enough spheres left over to make another. Pretty cost efficient compared to ordering one from a science supply company!
If you would like to check out other resources I use when teaching about gases in the atmosphere and the biogeochemical cycles, check out this blog post.
I posted on Instagram last week pictures of preparing agar for my go-to first week of school lab: testing the 5 second rule. It’s a great lab for back to school because students are super engaged and it’s a good way to review variables and how to set up a controlled experiment. I had a bunch of people ask questions about how I prepared the agar and set up the lab, so here is a blog post to answer all your questions!
WHAT MATERIALS WILL I NEED?
-Sterile petri dishes
-Dehydrated nutrient agar
-Hot plate with stir capabilities
-Heat resistant gloves
-Optional: Autoclave and incubator
DO THEY NEED TO BE STERILE? DO I NEED AN AUTOCLAVE?
If you want to have accurate data, yes, your petri dishes need to be sterile.
Each year, I open a new sleeve of plastic petri dishes so I can assure they are sterile. If you don’t have access to new ones you can re-use petri dishes, but make sure to either sterilize them in an autoclave or clean them thoroughly in a bleach solution followed by a distilled water rinse.
HOW DO I MAKE AGAR PLATES?
Methods will vary slightly depending on the agar you ordered, (directions should come with your nutrient agar, or should be available online from the vendor) but here is the general process:
1. Measure out the desired amount of nutrient agar and distilled water and pour into a clean beaker. For the agar I order, the recipe calls for 23g of dehydrated agar per 1 liter of distilled water. (Note: 1 liter of agar will fill roughly 30 - 40 petri dishes).
2. Add a stir magnet to the beaker and place on your hot plate. Turn on both the heat and the stir settings.
3. Continue to heat and stir your agar until it is boiling. This may take a while, but be patient- if you don’t wait for it to boil, your agar won’t solidify once it cools.
4. If you don’t have access to a hot plate, you can use the microwave. Place beaker and agar mixture into the microwave and heat for 3 minutes. Continue heating in 1 minute bursts until the agar is completely dissolved and the mixture begins to boil.
5. As you are waiting for the agar to boil, lay out your sterile petri dishes on a heat resistant counter. Keep the lids on as much as possible to avoid any contamination.
6. Once agar has come to a boil, remove from heat using heat resistant gloves. Lift the lid on a petri dish, carefully pour agar into the petri dish until it is roughly 2/3 of the way full, and promptly return the lid. Continue until all your agar has been used.
7. Allow the agar to solidify at room temperature- this shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes.
8. Once the agar has solidified and cooled, store them upside down in the fridge until you are ready to use them. Storing them upside down will ensure that any condensation drips onto the lid, not onto your agar.
HOW MANY DAYS BEFORE USE CAN I POUR THE PLATES?
I typically pour the petri dishes a day or two before I need them and store them in the fridge. Petri dishes in the fridge will be good for a few weeks before they begin to dry out, but the sooner you use them the better.
I HAVE 150 STUDENTS. HOW MANY PLATES WILL I NEED TO PREPARE?
It can be pricey to pour a ton of plates every year and with 150 students it would be way too expensive (and a lot of work!) to pour every student their own plate.
When I do this lab with my students, I put them in groups of 4. With roughly 32 students per class, I pour 8 plates per class. As a lab group I let them choose a variable to test and have them whiteboard their experimental design. Some groups want to change the amount of time the food is on the floor, other groups want to test different food types, and other groups want to try out different dirty surfaces. Once I’ve approved their design (to make sure they have a control) they can begin the lab.
DO I NEED AN INCUBATOR?
Okay, so your students set up the lab, but do you need to leave them in an incubator?
If you want quick results (overnight) then an incubator will speed up the process. But if you don’t have access to one, just let the plates sit for an extra day or two in your room temperature classroom and you will still get plenty of bacteria growth. Again, leave them upside down (agar side up) so you don’t have issues with condensation dripping into your agar.
HOW TO STUDENTS COLLECT DATA?
Since I do this lab the first week of school, this is an excellent time to review the difference between quantitative and qualitative data. Once students get their plates back, I have them make both qualitative observations and measure quantitative data.
You can have students collect quantitative data by counting colonies, but a much easier way is to use a grid and calculate percent coverage. You can purchase gridded stickers that stick onto your petri dish lids, or just do it yourself with a fine point sharpie marker. All students have to do is count the number of squares that have bacterial growth, divide it by the total number of squares, and multiply it by 100 to turn it into a percentage.
HOW DO I DISPOSE OF THE PLATES?
It is important you do not place your plates in the trash without first taking some precautions. While bacteria in small numbers may be harmless, once cultured into millions of cells they can pose a greater threat. There are a few ways to properly dispose of your used agar plates, depending on what you have available:
1. If you have an autoclave, you can autoclave your plates per the directions on your autoclave (generally at least 30 minutes).
2. If you used glass petri dishes and don’t have an autoclave, prepare a 20% bleach solution and spray your plates down. Allow the bleach to soak into the agar for 1 hour before placing agar in the trash. Then thoroughly clean your empty petri dishes again with a bleach solution and distilled water rinse.
3. If you used plastic petri dishes that you can afford to part with, you can place them in bio-hazard bags and have your district arrange for bio-hazard pick up. It doesn’t hurt to spray them down with a 20% bleach solution before placing them in bio-hazard bags.
I hope that answers all your questions! If you are interested in the lab handout I use with students to test the 5 second rule, you can find it HERE!
Today is my first day back to school and my 12th year teaching. (No, I'm not actually typing this August 5th, I scheduled it out in advance. Because we all know the first day is EXHAUSTING and I'll be in bed by 8pm. Plus this is my first back-to-school ever being pregnant, so maybe I'll be in bed by 7...)
But as I look back on the past 12 years I know for a fact I wouldn't have made it through all those tough times without some amazing colleagues and mentors. There were days during my first year I would go home and cry and think "I just can't do this." And even when I switched schools and had 5 years of experience under my belt I felt all of those feelings again. If your significant other isn't a teacher, you can vent all you want and they can try and be empathetic but they just won't get it. You need to find a mentor to help you maintain your sanity. Someone asked me once on my instagram to do a blog post about finding a teacher mentor and I feel like back to school season is the perfect time to discuss. So here we go!
HOW TO FIND A TEACHER MENTOR:
1. If you are a new teacher, this could be (and should be) something you ask during the interview process. Does the school provide you with a mentor teacher? Will you have a structured grade-level support team? What resources will they provide you as a new teacher? I promise you won't sound needy, you will sound like you want to be prepared.
2. Many districts have a science content specialist. They get paid to help you teach science well, so utilize them! My district also has something called a "professional development specialist" who runs monthly PD sessions for new teachers and sits in on lessons once a quarter. Don't be afraid to send emails, ask them to come sit in on a lesson or two, or offer guidance on how to better introduce a new topic.
3. If your school doesn't have a specified person to help new teachers, go ask an administrator for some recommendations. Have something in mind you want to improve- maybe classroom management. Go ask your administrator which teachers on your campus have exceptional classroom management and then give up your prep one day (I know.... but it will be worth it, I promise) to go watch them teach. If you are afraid to approach them yourself, see if your administrator will send your colleague an email asking for permission for you to come observe, and have them cc you on the email. Even as a veteran teacher, I still have things I can improve and I benefit greatly from watching others teach.
4. Utilize your grade level or department team. Hopefully your school sets aside some time during the week for you to meet with your grade level team or department. Observe who has a personality similar to you that you know you would get along with and make an effort to get to know them. During your meetings, don't be afraid to ask questions on how they teach a concept, how they manage the student that ALWAYS needs to go to the bathroom, or how they stay on top of grading. Not every suggestion will work for you, but it's good to get different ideas and perspectives.
YOU'VE FOUND A MENTOR, BUT NOW WHAT?
I know the first year of teaching I had people always checking in on me asking "do you need help or have any questions?" My response was typically "I'm sure I'll have questions... but I don't even know what to ask yet." It's overwhelming. So here are some tips on things you should ask for help on in the first few weeks or months of school:
1. Ask about how to handle crisis situations. This includes fire drills, lock downs, or even a kid going crazy in your class. Who are you supposed to call?
2. Ask for classroom management tips. This could include: how to handle bathroom breaks, kids that constantly blurt out answers, the kid who can't sit still, or the student who can't stay awake no matter how engaging your lesson is. Veteran teachers have dealt with all of these situations and can likely give you some helpful tips.
3. Dress code. Does your school have a student dress code that you need to enforce? What should you do if students are breaking dress code? Is there a teacher dress code you should know about? At my first school I got hired mid-year so I missed all of the beginning of the year meetings. One Friday I wore flip flops to school (I know, not the most professional decision I ever made) but got in trouble for breaking the teacher dress code.... which I had no idea about. Ask!
4. Timing and pacing of lessons is hard. Ask what other colleagues do if class finishes a few minutes early. Do they allow free time? Do they have any fun activities or ideas to share? (Here is an idea of what I do if class finishes a few minutes early).
5. Ask them to help you set up your gradebook. How often do they put in grades? What categories do they use? Is there a standard school policy? Do you have to turn in progress reports?
6. The first time you need to call a parent for a behavior issue can be scary. Ask them to sit with you the first time you call home and give you some pointers. (Tip: don't just call home for your problem students, call home when kids do something stellar too! It will make their day).
7. At my first school we had something called "think time" which is essentially "time out" time. This is for the student that didn't do anything bad enough to warrant calling the office or a referral, but is driving you crazy and knows exactly how to push your buttons. Sometimes having a 5 minute break from that student is enough for you to regain your composure and focus on the other students. Ask a neighboring teacher if they have a spare desk in their classroom you could use as a "think time" desk. If a kid was driving me nuts, I'd send them over with a form to fill out that had them answer a few questions reflecting on their behavior. Once they felt ready to come back and re-join the lesson, they would. (Tip: try and find a teacher of a different grade level to be your think time buddy. If the other class is the same grade level, your think time student will probably have friends in there and become a distraction).
8. Ask your mentor teacher to come watch you practice a lesson before your observation. They can give you feedback and tips to score well on the evaluation rubric.
9. Ask for lesson and lab ideas. If you are teaching a concept you aren't completely familiar with, ask someone in your content area how they approach it or what labs they use to supplement the lesson.
10. There will be a time when you wake up with a fever and think "OMG I don't have sub plans ready, I'll have to go in with this 104 degree fever!" Have an emergency sub plan ready and on your desk in case this happens. Ask about the process for calling a substitute teacher. How many sick days do you have? Do they roll over to the next school year if you don't use them? Are there rules about how many sick days you can take in a row without providing a doctors note?
While the first year is tough, I promise it gets easier- especially when you have supportive people beside you. If you have any questions or need some more specific tips, leave them in the comments!
(If you are a new teacher and want to see my top 10 tips for the first year, you can read them here!)
It’s almost time to head back to school and I would love to help prepare you for the 19-20 school year! I know teachers spend hundreds of dollars every year supplying their classrooms with resources and I would love to help ease that burden. Me and Bethany over at Science With Mrs. Lau have teamed up to offer you some awesome resources to help get you through the school year. You won’t want to miss this!
First, we are giving away TWO $75 TpT gift cards! You can enter to win them in the rafflecopter below (you only need to enter on one of our blogs).
Next, I’ll be sending 4 lucky winners my mega writing prompt bundle that has over 130 writing prompts that cover all science content areas. Writing prompts are a great way to get students thinking and writing about scientific concepts. If your administration is pushing for more literacy in your classroom, this resource is for you!
(By signing up you are subscribing to my email list, where you will receive 1-2 emails per month with teacher tips, helpful websites and links, and classroom freebies)
Once you’ve entered my giveaway, be sure to head over to Bethany’s blog to enter to win her year-long chemistry or biology doodle diagram bundle! If you’ve been wanting to try out doodle notes this resource has everything you need.
We hope you have a great school year!
Becca and Bethany
If you read my blog post on recommended summer science reads, you saw my confession that I'm not generally a big non-fiction reader. I love to read, but fiction is my go-to.
As I was compiling a science book list for students and teachers, I kept seeing and getting recommended The Serengeti Rules by Sean Carroll (If you've used any HHMI videos in your class, you know who he is). I decided to check it out from the library and I'm so glad I did. The first section of the book discusses cellular rules of regulation. When I first started reading I was thinking "I thought this was an ecology book!" but what's fascinating is he relates cellular rules of regulation to ecological rules of regulation in later sections of the book. So many concepts cross over. For example, cells maintain balance using homeostasis, ecosystems maintain balance with carrying capacity. Cells populations are regulated from the bottom up by food availability, and so are animal populations. Cellular process such as enzyme activity are regulated by negative feedback, while populations are regulated by negative feedback in the form of trophic cascades. It was cool to see the cross over and I kept thinking "this book is perfect for honors and AP biology students!"
As I set out to look for supplemental student and teacher resources for this book, I came across the official version published by the Princeton Press. There is a ton of great information included in that document, but it didn't suit my teaching style. I wanted students to pull out the main ideas and have clear graphic organizers to fill out as they read the book without getting caught up in the nitty gritty details. So I went back through the book and created my own resource for students that is more user friendly. It includes writing prompts, graphic organizers, chapter discussion questions, and more. Below are some images of what the resource looks like (page borders differ depending on if they are a pre-reading, during reading, or post-reading activity).
HHMI also has some additional resources that supplement the book that you can find on their website. And most exciting.... they are coming out with a Serengeti Rules documentary some time this fall! The trailer looks fascinating and I can't wait to see the full movie. Keep your eyes peeled- the HHMI website frequently offers free DVD's to classroom teachers.
I hope you enjoy the book!
*If you are already familiar with how CRISPR works to make GMOs and just want the teaching resources, hop down below the Youtube video*
Some people are terrified of the phrase "Genetically modified organism," yet they are literally everywhere. Roughly 75% of the foods in grocery stores have been genetically modified in some way. While creating a GMO used to be a long time consuming process, the development of CRISPR technology has made the process much faster and cheaper. As CRISPR technology becomes more refined, GMOs are going to become more common, not less, and we need to teach students about them.
How CRISPR Works
I recently was able to attend a seminar talk at Arizona State University by Jennifer Doudna, who helped develop CRISPR technology. If you aren't familiar with how CRISPR works, here's the gist:
Alright, ready for some teaching resources?!
1. The website Unlocking Life's Code has a good overview of CRISPR and links to additional resources. You can check it out HERE.
2. This interactive from PBS shows students how GMOs can be made (this is not via CRISPR). I like that it is simple and easy to use. You can view the interactive HERE. HHMI has an interactive site showing how CRISPR works you can view HERE.
3. This New York Times article has a student reading and questions, along with a ton of helpful links to get you started with GMOs. You can find it here.
4. Want to try some GMO speed dating with your students? In this activity, students are given an organism card (they are either a donor or a recipient) and go on "speed dates" with other organisms and determine if they have any genes that would be beneficial in sharing. You can find the lesson HERE. Note: Having done this activity with students, I would recommend it for honors/AP students.
5. If you haven't seen the University of Buffalo's case studies, you need to check them out. They have a TON of great resources for free (you can pay an annual fee for the answer keys, but usually aren't necessary). They have a bunch of case studies relating to GMOs you can view HERE. I have done the golden rice debate with my students and it always works well.
6. A fun activity you can do is to bring in a bunch of foods from home and have students scan the barcodes with the "Now Find Organic and Non-GMO" app (available for free in the app store). I've found that not every food I scanned is in the app, so be sure to try it at home first.
7. I had my students read this article from Nature and we held a Socratic seminar. The article examines if we should be able to edit our children's genes. It was interesting to hear my student's viewpoints on the topic (the majority were firmly against any sort of gametic gene editing).
8. The University of Washington has a lesson on GM salmon that includes 4 different stakeholders for them to read about. You can check out the lesson HERE.
9. Since I teach a PBL style course, I came up with a Shark Tank project where students had to design a GMO and pitch it to a bunch of sharks (the panel was made of teachers and college professors). This lesson in my TpT store has an outline of the worksheets and activities I used (note: it is not a print and go daily unit, but a guide for the project).
10. If you have time to show a documentary, Food Evolution narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson is a great option that explores GM foods. While every documentary has a little bias, this is much less bias than Food Inc. and a better option. You can view the trailer below:
As I find more resources I will add them to the list. If you have any additional favorites, leave them in the comments!
Even though I have taught life science most of my career and not physical science, I still feel it is important for students to understand polarity and electronegativity. If students don't understand polarity, they won't understand why the cell membrane has a hydrophobic and hydrophilic region. Understanding polarity also helps them understand protein folding and so many other macromolecule concepts. Because of this, I spend time before my cells unit reviewing the periodic table, bonding, and polarity. Here are a list of some resources you may find helpful!
The website Middle School Chemistry has a ton of free chemistry lessons and labs aimed at lower secondary grades, including this one on why water is a polar molecule. You can check out the lab here.
This resource is a cartoon called "The Bare Essentials of Polarity" and uses polar bears and penguins to help students visually understand polarity and electronegativity. I use it every year and get so many "ah-ha" moments by the end. You can download the cartoon here.
Similar to the cartoon listed above, I created this review worksheet that uses a tug of war as an analogy for polarity. It would be a great homework assignment following your polarity lesson. You can check it out here.
If you have access to computers, PHET has a free interactive website where students can play around with and observe the polarity of different molecules. You can access the interactive here.
Want to add a little coloring to your polarity lesson? Check out this polarity color-by-number activity to give your students a bit of a brain break. You can find it here.
My friend at Science with Mrs. Lau created this free electronegativity reference page you can print and have students keep in their binders. You can download it here.
I haven't tried this last lab, but it looks like a blast! Students use food coloring, paper, and shaving cream to make observations about polar molecules. You can check it out here.
I hope one or two of those links are useful to you! If you have any other favorites, drop them in the comments, I'd love to check them out!
When we ask students to review each other's work and give feedback, we often hear...
"Why did you do that?" or
"It's just wrong." or
"It's good" (even when it's not).
Teaching students to give effective feedback is hard and takes a lot of student practice. And then more practice. If you are using project based learning in your classroom, peer feedback is a vital part of the process (you can read more about PBL here). But it's worth it when you get to the point where students give feedback that is meaningful and actionable, and you are receiving higher quality work at the end. It's going to save you a lot of grading time!
So, where do you begin?
1. Always begin by modeling what good feedback looks like.
Pass out a sample lab report, essay, or whatever assignment your class will be completing. Walk the students through the strengths and weaknesses of the assignment, and show them that feedback needs to be specific in order for the person to improve. Show them how it is possible to be honest and be kind at the same time.
2. Don't ask them to give feedback on everything all at once.
It can be overwhelming if a student gets back their lab report or essay and it is covered from top to bottom in red pen. Instead, beak it down into smaller chunks. On the first round of feedback, have students look for and highlight the thesis or hypothesis and write in tips to make it more clear. On the second round have them look for and highlight supporting details or data and write in any clarifying questions. On the third round they can check for grammatical errors.... you get the picture. By breaking it down into smaller, manageable chunks you are making it easier on both the student giving the feedback and the student receiving the feedback.
3. Feedback should be actionable.
Make sure that if students leave comments, they need to be actionable. If they just write "paragraph needs work" in the margin, that isn't helpful. Why does it need work? What specifically needs to be improved? If the feedback isn't clear, the author of the assignment can go back and ask "What did you mean when you wrote this?" and get some clarification.
4. Feedback should be timely.
One mistake is waiting until the very end of the assignment or project to do a round of peer evaluations. If the assignment is due on a Friday and you wait until Wednesday or Thursday to give feedback, it can be too late. Students are busy after school with jobs and sports and need time to make edits. By giving feedback multiple times along the way, it will save them a lot of frustration and time at the end. Also, plan ahead and build in class time for editing instead of having them do it all at home.
5. Feedback can be anonymous.
Sometimes students don't want to offend or hurt feelings when giving feedback, so they only leave nice comments instead of being completely honest. By providing methods of anonymous feedback such as sticky notes, gallery walks, or removing names and numbering the papers instead, you are allowing students to be more honest in their critique. That being said, you are opening the door to negative comments as well. Be sure to go over expectations with students prior to the activity, and if problems do arise, have a way to track down the offender (try different pen colors or group them in small groups to narrow down the possibilities).
I love this video of "Austin's Butterfly" and show it to my high school students even though it is of elementary kiddos. It shows the process of giving feedback where "they were specific but they weren't mean about it."
Sentence frames are also a great way for students to give structured feedback, especially when they don't know where to begin. If you would like to check out some FREE peer feedback forms I have used with my students, you can download them here.