Boosting Student Engagement Through Meaningful Science Literacy Experiences

My Confession

I have a confession to make…I am a literacy nerd.  I have another confession to make…I used to despise most things involving literacy. You may be wondering how someone who now lives and breathes all things literacy once felt that way. As I reflect on the evolution of my learning journey (grade school-present), I can clearly recognize the possibilities that caused these feelings to transpire. One of these reasons is that I felt trapped in traditional learning environments that celebrated the consumption of information instead of embracing meaningful and relevant learning experiences that were applicable to the real world. Of course, there were some outstanding exceptions, but for the most part, conventional practices stifled me. Visually, it was suffocating too. You should have seen the inside of my desk; it was overcrowded and stacked to the brim with the entire curriculum. Heavy, outdated, and in some cases, obsolete textbooks in every subject area (social studies, math, science, reading, and the list goes on) devoured my day. Learning mostly felt like a task, a burden, a mental weight that smothered me. Acquiring content knowledge across various subject areas was heavily focused on memorizing countless facts, regurgitating them orally, in my notebook, and/or on an assessment, only to completely forget that information, and its purpose a day or two later. And even as a child, I can recollect that learning just didn’t always feel fun, it didn’t always feel useful, and at times, it certainly didn’t feel worthwhile. Don’t get me wrong, I do not feel there was any ill intent to sabotage my growth and development as a learner. At that time, perhaps teaching and learning practices were not as focused on capitalizing on curiosity, wonder, honoring students’ passions and interests, and keeping learners at the heart of all decision making.

Discovering The Curious Classroom

When I became an educator, I didn’t want my previous feelings about literacy to reflect the way I approached teaching and learning practices for students and colleagues. It has always been my mission to create cross-curricular, learner-driven spaces that foster student agency, value student choice, and voice while empowering students to view themselves as key drivers of their own learning. With that being said, a few years ago, a colleague recommended the book The Curious Classroom: 10 Structures for Teaching with Student-Directed Inquiry by Harvey “Smokey” Daniels. Not too long after this book discovery, I attended his conference where Daniels charismatically and passionately brought the authentic ideas in his book to life! I was instantly captivated by his realistic, motivating, and engaging approaches to inquiry-based learning that could make an immediate impact on students’ social, emotional, and academic potential. He suggests several ways to implement accessible structures that are not meant to replace existing practices but transform them in responsive classroom environments. I was especially intrigued by the innovative ways to build curiosity for curricular subjects that may not immediately influence learners. 

Taking a Science Literacy Journey with 3rd Grade Classes

Promptly, I joined forces with a few classroom teachers to explore and experiment with practical, exciting ideas to motivate students during their science literacy blocks. Some of the strategies we implemented were suggestions presented in the book The Curious Classroom. One of the reasons we embarked on this experience was to build the curiosity for curricular subjects in exciting and motivating ways. Another reason was to honor and utilize the students’ questions to drive the learning for science topics. Although these particular learning experiences were done with 3rd-grade classes on the topic of Forces and Motion, it is important to note that this learning can easily be translated to any grade level or subject area.

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Grounding the Work 

When embarking on this experience, it was important to ground the work in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) because more than ever before, science education is central to our lives. Science literacy is critical to making sense of complex topics that affect our world. Science is at the heart of designing, innovating, and creating jobs for the future. Read here for more information on why Science Standards matter.

Through a collaborative, state-led process, new K-12 science standards have been developed that are rich in both content and practice, and arranged in a coherent manner across disciplines and grades to provide all students an internationally benchmarked science education. The NGSS were released in 2013 and are being implemented in states and districts across the nation. -NGSS

Ideas for Sparking Curiosity and Boosting Student Engagement

Drawing: If you are looking for a way to have students remember something, then have them draw it!  According to the article The Science of Drawing and Memory, researchers have found that drawing helps a person process information by using multiple pathways (visual, semantic, and kinesthetic). This is a powerful way to double the recall of information and boost memory. Before you begin investigating a science topic, search for a video that introduces the concept. After students watch the video, have them draw what they learned from the experience. I have found that learners enjoy getting to show their thinking through pictures. For some, it builds their confidence instead of having to show their learning/thinking in more traditional ways. Repeat this throughout the learning process. You can also have the students view the video in the middle and end of a topic as a way to assess what they have learned. You may notice that the learners are adding more tier 3 vocabulary, details to their drawings, and are highlighting more complex concepts. Use this information to drive your next teaching moves!

Video We Used

Students’ Drawings/Learning

Drawing 1            Drawing 2

Drawing 3      Drawing 4

Phenomena: For a scientist, phenomena is an observable event (i.e. a fall/autumn day, slip/fall, organisms eating, seasonal patterns). By using phenomena, students are motivated to explain the topic, and the focus of learning shifts from learning about a topic to figuring out why or how something happens. The focus is not just on the phenomenon itself. It is the phenomenon plus the student-generated questions about the phenomenon that guides the learning and teaching. The practice of asking questions or identifying problems becomes a critical part of trying to figure something out. Utilize phenomena and a “See, Think, Wonder” template, at the beginning, middle, and end of a unit to see how the learning has progressed.

Links to Phenomena We Used

Find more NGSS phenomena here

Students’ See, Think, Wonder Templates

See 1see 2

Dialogue Journals: This is a fantastic way to get students to informally write about any topic with a partner or group while developing relationships and building stronger connections with teachers and peers. Learners will start with a question, comment, or thought about the topic by including content knowledge and content-specific vocabulary. Learners respond to one another and should keep the dialogue going.  Dialogue journals are a low pressure way for students to develop writing fluency, stamina, and confidence. Teachers can participate by giving feedback to the learners and/or participate in the writing process.

Dialogue Journals

Rules for Dialogue Journals

Dialogue Journal information from: The Best-Kept Teaching Secret: How Written Conversations Engage Kids, Activate Learning, Grow Fluent Writers…K-12 by Harvey “Smokey” Daniels  and Elaine Daniels

Students’ Dialogue Journals

Dialogue Journals 1Dialogue Journals 2

Some Final Thoughts/Observations

All of the learning experiences I shared were received extremely well among all of the students who participated in them.  I observed every student actively and willingly participating, sharing, and whole-heartedly engaged. Many were even empowered to explore various topics further through their own inquiry process because of the motivation these activities provided in safe, fun learning environments that embraced a learner-centered philosophy. Although we are still uncertain about what our learning spaces will look like and feel like in September, what I do know is that all of these learning suggestions are possible in both physical or remote learning environments. No matter where we are, we will always work hard towards meeting students where they are AND give students exactly what they need to thrive as learners. ALWAYS.

 

Harvey Daniels

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