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?