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 ...

Source:web.sssd.k12.ar.us/ 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 ...

Friday, May 2, 2014

Institute Evaluation Data

A wordle of last summers open-response evaluation:

Science, technology, writing. Check.