I began by having students write down the focus question (How can you use fossil records to learn about life on earth?) in their science notebooks. Next, I showed my students a picture of a cliff showing a variety of strata. I asked them what they could tell by looking at the cliff, and steered them towards explaining the oldest layers are at the bottom.
I asked them how they could use what they know to help them interpret fossil records. I projected this Fossil Record image, and asked students to share what they noticed with their tables, then with the group. (If I were to do it again, I probably would have made one copy for each pair of students to make it easier to read.)
Next, I explained that certain fossils are so common that they became guide fossils, fossils paleontologists could use to compare land features that were far apart. I passed out the Key to Guide Fossils and had them glue this into their science notebooks.
After listening to many observations, I asked them to answer the following questions using only the evidence from the fossil record; Which is older, flowering plants, or cephalopods? What organism is first to disappear from this fossil record. For each question, I gave them time to think it over, discuss with their group, and share back with the class. I called on several students and encouraged them to respond to the student before them before making their own comments. Before moving on, I made absolutely sure they understood that fossils near the bottom are older than fossils near the top.
For each of the next three questions, I increased their responsibility and reduced their support.
Once groups turned in their papers, I had them go to Layers of Time from the American Museum of Natural History. This game reinforces the concept that we can compare the location of fossils to determine when they existed relative to each other. If they finished quickly, they could explore anything on the Paleontology page.