As I scrambled around one morning trying to pull together the materials I needed for the next class, it occurred to me how lost I would be without index cards. Ever try to do a “quick” activity that starts with “please write down…?”
From the time you say “get out a sheet of paper” to the time every student actually has said piece of paper, you could have done 12 activities and enjoyed a nice snack. George didn’t hear you, and Georgette has spent the whole time looking for the English homework she needs to get finished for her next class. Rather than wait for the kids, I start with handing them an index card—sometimes as they’re walking in the room.
Index cards are my friends. What do I ask the kids to put on the cards? Maybe: three vocabulary words from yesterday. Maybe: a question about the three vocabulary words. Maybe: an explanation of a demo or video we watch at the beginning of class.
Those are quick activities, but index cards also have more extensive uses. I’ll often put pictures on cards. For example, here’s an effective way to start a lesson on cells, relating structure to function. Put pictures of different kinds of cells on cards, and a description of what that cell does on the back. Each student is handed a card, and asked just to look at the picture and think about what the cell looks like. Ask them: which one do you think might be a nerve cell? Why? And so on. Then the students, in small groups, read the back of the cards, and share the different types.
Sure, we have all kinds of technology that would easily allow me to show these pictures electronically on the magic smart board. But somehow, holding the card in their hands is a different experience, and I find that students remember the cells they look at in this way.
Of course there are hundreds of other uses of index cards in a science classroom, including their original function, sorting and organizing big blocks of information. Did you know that Linnaeus is credited with inventing the index card? Neither did I, but I was enchanted to find out that the great naturalist also found them invaluable. Apparently, he developed index cards to solve the problem of needing to record information in a fixed manner while still having the flexibility to shuffle that information around, allowing him to constantly compare and rework his classifications.
From the desk of Linnaeus to the desks of my students, the index card has more than proven its worth. Thank you, Mr. Linnaeus! What’s your favorite use of index cards? Please share!
Leslie Haines is a NBCT-AYA Science teacher in Burlington, North Carolina. She teaches all levels of biology including AP and is the coach of her school’s Ocean Sciences Bowl team. She is a regular contributor and wrote Plant Blindness among other Science Muse posts.