Friday, August 8, 2014

Science Notebooks, Blogs, and Portfolios

The literature on the efficacy of using science notebooks to increase students conceptual understanding, language ability, and internalizing science habits of mind are substantial. It should absolutely be one of the first steps elementary teachers take in integrating literacy and science in their classrooms. But what makes notebooks so powerful are also a weakness: ownership, safety, reflection.

These are key ideals when setting up and using a science notebook. Students need to feel like their notebook is a place they can make mistakes, a place where they can look back on their learning and on the progression of their learning. And it's also inherently their's and their's alone. We have them decorate the cover just to solidify this feeling.

Finding a real voice

But then we talk about audiences, writing to different audiences, writing to communicate, writing to persuade or refute - all important science skills that can be honed in the notebook - but, the notebook isn't the place for publishing. A partner might read it, a teacher, a parent, but honestly ... no one else will.

First, we have to stop pretending to write for audiences. We have to show students that they really do have a voice. I've seen so many persuasive essays on school uniforms or healthier lunch options that go no where. I've done it myself. Students wrote and revised and wrote and revised, even made a poster. I put it on the wall of my classroom. And, "wow, isn't that great" my principal said. But really, when we do this, we end up teaching the skills in a vacuum. And we've been doing this for decades. We can't afford to do that to students, especially not in science. Let's be more authentic. 

I work with an amazing teacher (no really, she's amazing) and her class did a project on the snowy plover. Her kids wrote about the detrimental effects of planned construction on their habitat. They sent it to local politicians and news outlets. They got some press about it, her students spoke on the topic on the news. They felt heard.

We can't all do that. And even if we could - it's probably not something that we could do all year long.

Finding an audience can be hard. And it is super scary to think that strangers are reading your work. But that is what scientists do. They send their papers off to journals. Peers and experts review and comment. So what can we do? Where do we put the final drafts of our science writing? How can we complete the writing process while still using the notebook to its fullest capacity?

Blogging for authenticity

Blogging is a transformative experience. It gives students a voice, the opportunity for anyone, all over the world to read what they are thinking. It is the ultimate motivator. It motivates students to actually revise. And to be excited about the response they might get from their work and effort. It can also engage students in conversations of creating a safe online presence. But it's not the place to put just any piece of writing. It's a place to put products. But it's also a place that needs to be updated with new content regularly. Monthly at minimum (perfect for checking out that computer cart.)

Finalized lab reports, compare/contrast pieces, claims and evidence writing, detailed observations (with a scientific illustration), discussions of how they progressed through the science process and more can all be terrific opportunities to blog.

Structured time to comment on each others blogs is also helpful to hone review, comprehension and questioning skills. The power comes from the fact that it is not just the teacher that reads it. That anyone in their class, their school, their extended family anywhere in the world, in addition to other students working on similar projects at different schools can read their blog.

From Blogs to Portfolios

The blog lies between the science notebook and the performance portfolio. A teacher and student might pick one of the 5-10 blog posts to put in a portfolio - a place to put their absolute best work. A portfolio (especially in elementary school) might be interdisciplinary and therefor include pieces from ELA, math, art, etc.  Traditionally, we put these pieces in their cumulative folders. And then where do they go? A deep, dark filing cabinet in the office somewhere. Not to be looked at again. It is completely useless to the student and their families. Often, teachers don't even really look at the contents - merely the students picture and grades. But it could be a really powerful tool. We would just need access to it. And ways to use it.

What if the portfolio was a folder on Google Drive? It could be easily passed on to teachers, administrators, families, support providers but still stay safe. And it would still be available to students. It would be worth it even if your whole school doesn't go for it. Even if it's just you.

You could use it at parent-teacher conferences, you could use it during IEP meetings. You could have your student's look through their own and write about one transformation they saw. One thing their proud of improving upon.

Start now

It is the start of the new school year and a perfect time to set up science notebook, blog, and portfolio routines and expectations. But even if this finds you half way through your school year ... start now! Try it out, have fun with notebooks, blogs, and portfolios. Enhance your day-to-day science teaching with notebooks. Engage your students in real audiences and provide your students and families with an interdisciplinary portfolio.

Resources to help:

Are you a Google school? Try Blogger with your students.

Need something other than Blogger? 

Get an audience for your students:

Need some science notebook motivation and advice? 

Real science blogs to emulate?

Friday, August 1, 2014

Refutation Writing

I've been reading a lot about refutation writing lately and its role in overcoming students misconceptions. I see a lot of similarities between how we teach persuasive argument in ELA and how we can teach refutation writing in science. Writing refutation texts can aid students in seeing the connection from language arts writing skills to science writing skills. It is also a great way to continue to practice arguing from evidence, making students thinking visible, and directly addressing common misconceptions. This could be especially helpful when discussing the nature of science in the beginning of the school year. Students could refute the common misconception that there is a single scientific method that all scientists use or that scientific ideas are absolute. You can find more common misconceptions from Cal, here. Below is a quick summary of the standards, structure, and basic uses of both a traditional "persuasive" or argumentative essay and writing refutation texts.

Refutation Writing
According to the Common Core, starting in 6th grade, students are to:
Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence.
Introduce claim(s) and organize the reasons and evidence clearly.
Support claim(s) with clear reasons and relevant evidence, using credible sources and demonstrating an understanding of the topic or text.
Provide a concluding statement or section that follows from the argument presented.
According to the Common Core, starting in 6th grade, students are to:
Write arguments focused on discipline-specific content.
In the Next Generation Science Standards, – Connects to NGSS Science and Engineering Practice #7: Engaging in Argument from Evidence and starting in grade 3, students are to:
·   Compare and refine arguments based on an evaluation of the evidence presented.
·   Distinguish among facts,
reasoned judgment based on research findings, and speculation in an explanation
1. Claim
2. Evidence – text-based
3. Counterclaim (starting in 7th grade)
4. Conclusion
1.    Counterclaim
2.    Claim
3.    Data – investigation, text
4.    Evidence
5.    Reasoning connected to science concepts
6.    Conclusion
Best Uses
To help students evaluate others’ claims and clarify their own thoughts.
To spur conceptual change, to address misconceptions.

To help our students start to write refutation texts, I've used this simple graphic organizer with sentence starters:

Students jot down ideas in each of the four boxes, share their ideas with a partner, then go on to translate this organizer into a more formalized piece of writing. To continue the conversation, students could post their writing on a blog and comment on the strength of their peers' refutations.

This is a writing activity that could result in real conceptual change for our students - can't wait to see how it turns out!

Here's my current Prezi on Refutation Writing:

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

NGSS: A Case for Writing in Science Part 1

For most of us in the PD world, NGSS is at the forefront of our minds these days. We talk a lot about how to read them, how to introduce them to teachers, and how to reconfigure our own lessons and presentations to be more aligned with the ideals of NGSS.

We've been focusing a lot on the practices. And as I've gotten to know them as more, I've also noticed the incredible emphasis placed on literacy in the performance expectations. Coming from a science background, I know how important "doing" science is but, the reading, the writing, and the meaning-making of the data takes much more of our time. NGSS focuses more on an authentic scientific process (not method) and I think it is going to be great for our students ... albeit a bit of an effort for our teachers. NGSS really requires our students to take a more active part in the development of experiments, asking questions, planning investigations, etc. But I'd also like to take a look at the ways literacy is integrated into these new standards, especially with regards to how the practices are translated into performance expectations.

The Science Practices (setting aside, for now, the Engineering Practices):
  1. Asking questions
  2. Developing and using models
  3. Planning and carrying out investigations
  4. Analyzing and interpreting data
  5. Using mathematics and computational thinking
  6. Constructing explanations
  7. Engaging in argument from evidence
  8. Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information
Lets take a closer look at the highlighted practices as they are described in third grade performance expectations:

Here, students are asked to construct an argument. An important piece of arguing from evidence is the interaction between the writer and the other claims or opinions. Students negotiate their claim through the science they do, data analysis, talking, reading, and writing which may support, refute or strengthen their final argument. This is a sense-making activity. In a journal article this would occur before and after writing (peer review) but also during the discussion section that may include counterpoints.

In this performance expectation, students are asked to support an explanation. This type of assignment scaffolds the experience so that students don't necessarily have to develop the claim themselves (although they should have through the related investigations.) In science writing, it is often this sort of conclusion (the explanation of the evidence --reasoning) that ends a paper on a particular investigation.
Here students are required to read and synthesize, investigate and explain then, communicate a phenomenon. All very strong literacy skills that all scientists engage in especially during the literature review stages of their writing.

These are just 3 of 15 third grade performance expectations that have clear literacy demands as apart of the science process modeled as actual scientists experience them. It's a synergy of science and language instruction we're striving for. 

It's time to start taking science writing more seriously in our classrooms. It's time to give it the explicit instructional attention students need to make those connections between writing conventions and real world applications. I'm hoping to explore more ways we can help our students be successful writers in science in the coming year.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Word Banks vs Word Walls

The word wall. A staple of the elementary classroom. That static bulletin board with the cartoon alphabet in rainbow colors you update every other month or so ... a showcase for words we know, a reminder of how to ... spell? Sometimes used solely for high frequency words, I've heard teachers talk about how these word walls help students recognize words or work on fluency but rarely have I ever seen a teacher do more than put the vocabulary words on the wall and then move on to the next lesson. Now, I've seen some really beautiful word walls. Many teachers really like creating some super Pinterest-worthy word walls. Commercially available in packs, they will definitely make your classroom look like ... a classroom. (Every May this becomes even more important as teachers rush to add more words to the wall before Open House - don't lie, we're all guilty of this at some level.) But if your goals are trending towards the more student-focused, I'd like to discuss the word bank.

The word bank serves many of the same purposes as the word wall theoretically does. It reminds students of words they've been taught, it aids them in spelling and in fluency. But it is not static, it is not even stapled to the wall. And it is for the students, not the parents or other teachers and administrators to admire. (Although they will once they see you using it.)

A word bank is interactive, students can borrow words, return them, and even add to the bank themselves. It is an incredibly helpful tool when we think about teaching literacy and science. If we use it well and often, students will really start to recognize the patterns of scientific writing.

10 Tips for Word Banks

  1. Use a pocket chart (yes, even you 6th grade teachers) and sentence strips - if at all possible mount on a short easel with wheels or make this chart stand using PVC (even better, get a group of kids to maker one)
  2. Add to the word bank together
  3. Pull words out as you model science writing
  4. Pull words as you talk about science content
  5. Encourage students to go up and borrow words as they write
  6. Some content words (organize at the top of the chart) come and go, some sentence starters (organize at the bottom of the chart) may stay in the bank all year
  7. Words that aren't used any more are removed from the bank (maybe they're put on a word wall)
  8. High frequency words or academic vocabulary words are in the bank as well if connected to the curriculum
  9. You can put students names in pencil on the back of some words as "word experts" then, if a student needs more clarification after pulling a word, they can ask that "word expert"
  10. Use the word bank often, use it every time you teach writing in science

The idea is that the word bank is more of a tool for students. A tool that encourages physical interaction with the words, self-reliance, and learning from peers. 

Friday, June 13, 2014

Shared Writing ... northside/baliteracy.shtml
Shared writing has a long tradition. And there is strong pedagogy behind it. But all to often, we stand up in front of the class and translate student thoughts into readable sentences as our students watch quietly from their desks, slowing drifting off to sleep.

In fact, I did some shared writing as an example of one way we can scaffold data analysis the other day with a group of teachers, and even I was a bit bored. It made me think about ways in which we can make this shared writing experience more beneficial for our students. We know that students need to see writers think, what they think about, and examples of good writing. But we also know that shared writing can take a while and that it is hard for all our students to keep a strong focus throughout the session.

So I did some reading, talked to some colleagues, and came up with this list of 10 Tips for Shared Writing. The idea of these tips is not to necessarily do all ten all the time, but just to keep them in mind as we prepare for our shared writing sessions.  This summer, I'm excited to talk with more teachers about their shared writing experiences, how they structure them, how effective they believe the sessions are, and how they help their students hone in on particular writing strategies.

Some short notes on the tips:

1. Less than five minutes. More than once a week. Five full minutes is about all we have to truly keep students attention on the board. You might have longer with an especially focused group of upper elementary students. This needs to be done more than once a week, science writing should happen at minimum twice a week for students to start to internalize the instruction.

2. Focus on no more than two strategies. Students need to be able to focus on just a couple strategies at a time. If it's claims and evidence focus on claims and evidence and let the commas take a back seat for the week.

3. Articulate the purpose of the writing. The purpose of the writing needs to be articulated and clear. Will they be sharing this piece with their class or community? Will it explain a phenomenon to a 1st grader?  

4. Point out language structures. The idea is to integrate science and language instruction. So as we are explaining science content, we need to have our students pay attention to the language structures needed. This is especially important to English Learners, but again adhere to the limited number of instructional points made each session.

5. Identify key words, pull them from your word bank. Make sure your word bank is interactive - it's the topic of the next post. Pull words from the bank as you are modeling your writing. That way students know where they can get help and how to use the words.

6. Ask questions. Modeling your thinking as a writer is important but it is just as important for the experience to be interactive. Ask students questions to deepen their thinking around the topic and the writing.

7. Students are tracking as the teacher writes. We teach students to use their finger to follow along, but often we forget to teach students to track with their eyes as we read something aloud from the board. This will keep students focused (for a minute) and indirectly works on fluency.

8. Underline sentence starters. Sentence starters are a great way to scaffold students science writing. Be sure to underline them as you model so they know that they can use those same starters in their own writing.

9. Read aloud. Once you're done, read it aloud to the students. Model quick revision behavior if necessary ("Hmmm, does that sound right?") and ask students to track.

10. Require scaffolded independent writing after the shared writing session.The shared writing is not the final piece of writing, students need to immediately practice the shared writing strategies on their own. Be sure to schedule time for independent writing. 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Motivation ...

A quick argument for science as the answer to student motivation.

We've all heard teachers complain about students not wanting to write or engage in the writing process. An interesting article in the April edition of the ASCD magazine EL called Writing is Taught, Not Caught, Carol Jago cited a long tradition of low-level writing prompts that we continue to use as a reason for this equally low motivation level. And that is part of it, for sure. As a new teacher, I stole (used?) writing prompts from my teaching team and understood that some kids would write prolifically and others, relatively succinct. That that was just the deal. It didn't occur to me that the willingness to really think and write about a topic, or lack thereof, was in large part up to me. The first answer came with student choice. I could engage my students by offering them a choice of what to write about. However, this often resulted in similar writing results based on super open-ended questions. Only my responses to students changed from, "Can you describe/explain this [boring topic] more?" to "You chose this [slightly less boring] topic, write more." Choice just freed me up from guilt and put the responsibility on the student. Which I was fine with for way too long. Now I know that there's something better than choice: importance.

Importance: the idea that what students are writing is actually important. Not just for their grade, or for practice, or for fluency, but for their community, their world. It's relevance, it's contextualization. This importance is what results in real motivation.

The real question is how do you develop units/investigations/activities that are actually important? That people outside of your classroom actually care about?

A group of third graders investigating their schoolyard

Not kit-based, cookie-cutter lab science ... real science. Science based in their local ecology, science that is rich in data-collection, science that describes patterns and changes. It's the citizen science project that engages students in collecting sand crab data, it's the water quality project in the local creek, it's the schoolyard habitat restoration project, the conservation unit that results in cafeteria waste audits or geotagging litter and measuring your collective impact, it's the engineering project where students build models of the proposed new pier.

To motivate students to write, it's old school ABC - Activity Before Content. You start with a real-world, important long-term investigation. And you write about it. You write your predictions, you write your background knowledge,  you write about your observations, your data, your next questions, the connections you make, the revisions you do, even the reference material you read. Not in a science-fairy way, in a real, reflective and inquisitive way. It lends itself to writing mini-lessons, writer's workshops, and real writing instruction. It demands sharing your writing with a larger audience - communicating your results, your message.

And that motivates.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Science and Literacy, Part 1

Standard 7 students at Ha-Polaki Primary School, Lesotho
If there's been a consistent pedagogical goal of my career so far, it's been finding the intersection between science and language instruction. It was imperative while teaching 7th grade science in downtown San Jose and East Palo Alto. It became even more essential as a teacher trainer for the Peace Corps in rural Africa. It was the topic of a short-lived PhD effort. And now, as I lead professional development efforts for an informal science institution, it is still at the forefront of what I do.

It's about access. Access to the science content and science process for all students, no matter their language level or ability. And it's about access to academic language in an authentic setting. This issue of access is incredibly important to me. It leads to deeper understanding, motivation, creativity, and the act of thinking of one's self as a scientist.

Of course there's lots of literature on science and literacy. There are a variety of books for every grade band on the topic and with the Next Generation Science Standards and the Common Core being integrated into classrooms, reading, writing and speaking in science is getting more and more attention.

So, I'd like to start a series on some practical ideas I've learned or been working on that focuses on literacy in the science classroom in the service of English Learners.  But first, here are some of my favorite resources on the topic, feel free to share yours in the comment section:

Twitter Chats:
#ellchat - 9:00 - 10:00 EST Mondays
#scichat - 9:00-10:00 EST Tuesdays
#ngsschat - 9:00 - 10:00 EST 1st and 3rd Thursdays

Online Resources:
Learning the Language Blog
NSTA Learning Center

Research Article Authors:
Okhee Lee
Helen Quinn
Gina Cervetti
Trish Stoddart

Writing in Science by Betsy Rupp Fulwiler

Next up, thoughts on motivating ELs to write in science ...