Tips for Teaching the Rock Cycle

Does your middle school science curriculum include a unit on the stages of the rock cycle? You’ve come to the right place! Having spent several years teaching a rock cycle unit in my own classroom, I’ve collected a whole bunch of great earth science resources that make studying rocks feel a little more exciting! Here are my best tips for teaching the rock cycle!

Use Real Rocks

What’s a rock unit without, well, rocks?! I know, this one probably sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how often I hear from teachers that aren’t using real rocks as part of their instruction. Giving students time to touch, feel, and observe different samples of rock is a great way to make abstract content and ideas tangible and real for your students.

Where do these rocks come from?

The students! Pro-tip: Your students are just as capable of going outside and collecting different types of rocks as you are. When we study the rock cycle, I have my students each bring in four different rocks with the following requirements:

  • One solid colored rock
  • One rock with two different colors
  • One rock with three different colors
  • One rock with more than three colors

Naturally, the rocks my students chose to bring varied greatly, making for an exciting lesson in observation and classification.

What to do with these rocks?

Once students bring in their rocks, divide students into small groups of four or five to perform a dichotomous key classification based on the rock samples they are observing. I ask students to disregard differences in rock size or shape, and instead focus on coloration and texture. Through this process, students are able to classify their rock samples according to the main types of rocks:

  • Metamorphic Rock
  • Sedimentary Rock
  • Igneous Rock

Through this activity, students become familiar with the unique characteristics that each type of rock possesses. I’ve found it to be an excellent way for students grow in their understanding of different rock types.

Additional Rock Cycle Activities:

Sure, when you are studying rocks, you truly can’t beat the knowledge that comes from handling, well, rocks. That being said, having students observe and assess real rock samples isn’t the only way to create a model of the rock cycle. If you are looking for some additional labs and hands-on activities to spice up your rock cycle unit, here are a few ideas that are sure to give you and your students a rockin’ (get it!!) good time!

Candy Bar Classification

This is one of my all time favorite science activities! For this rock cycle exploration, students will be asked to classify different candy bars as different rock types and defend their classification using academic vocabulary.

Here’s the background:

For this activity, students will play the role of scientist, examining specimen bags collected from a newly discovered planet by NASA’s astronauts. Each bag contains a slice of a different type of candy bar. Working together in partners and small groups, they will assess their specimen to determine what type of rock they have, how it formed, and what the environment was like that led to their “rock’s” formation.

I like to use:

  • Snickers
  • 3 Musketeers
  • Milky Way
  • M&M’s

This activity is a great assessment of student progress and knowledge and is a fun way to wrap up a rock cycle unit.

Rock Cycle Comic Strips

This activity is GREAT for the creative students in your class. It’s a great way to marry a student’s love for art or writing with science concepts and vocabulary. For this activity, students will be asked to create a comic strip that details the journey of a rock as it moves throughout the different stages of the rock cycle.

Here’s the twist:

The comic strip must be written and illustrated from the perspective of the rock. This creative activity is sure to produce some interesting and, at times, hilarious perspectives on the series of changes a rock experiences throughout the rock cycle. After students have completed their comic strips, I like to leave time for sharing their comics. This can be done in partners, small groups, or through a “Speed Dating” style rotations read.

You also may consider offering literary awards (similar to Caldecott or Newberry honor medals) for the most creative stories or high-class illustrations.

rocking the rock cycle

In this NASA created learning stations activity, each student in the entire class is assigned a type of rock and a learning station that corresponds to their rock type. Once finding their station, they must roll a dice, and the number they roll on the dice will correspond with an something that could happen to their rock.

For example: rolling a “3” might indicate that their rock has experienced high heat. Some of the events may result in a fundamental change in rock type. (I.e an Igneous rock becoming magma when exposed to extreme heat.)

They will record any changes made to their rock on their data sheet and if their rock type has undergone a change, they will move to the station of their new rock type before rolling the dice again. This process will be repeated a number of times until they have completed their data sheet.

Additional Resources

Over the last few years of teaching earth science, I’ve worked hard to find fun ways to teach students about rock formation. I’ve created several Geology resources aimed at teaching the key concepts involved in teaching an understanding of the rock cycle. If your are looking for additional resources to supplement your rock cycle unit, here are a few of my best:

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