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 Heavy, outdated, and in some cases, obsolete textbooks in every subject area (social studies, math, science, reading, and the list goes on) devoured my day.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.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

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

Swimming in a Sea of Change

Revolving Doors

Education is a perpetual revolving door of change. Every time the door rotates, new learners walkthrough, discoveries loom, fresh learning tools/platforms emerge, and technological advances burst into our worlds. We are continuously swimming in a boundless sea of eternal possibilities. As we tread in the water, we find ourselves looking around, grasping for the right answers, and searching for the people who will hold out a life vest and swim with us. These are the people who have faith in our ability to believe in ourselves; they lift us up, empower us to take the lead on decision making, and let us spread our wings by sharing with others. And while the doors endlessly turn and transformation ensues, we recognize that education begins with people; not protocols, not a curriculum, not instruction, not technology, not evaluations, and certainly not assessments. We need to ask ourselves, what can we learn today that will strengthen our ability to amplify the social, emotional, and academic capacity of our students? Who will support our efforts and give us permission to sink in the ocean and then push ourselves up for air so we can swim again? 

A Commitment to Transformation

When you become an educator, you are committing to a journey of lifelong leadership, learning, and growth that stretches far beyond the required traditional years of schooling. It is a mindset and professional obligation to push yourself down a path of innovation, creativity, risk-taking, and reflection. How can we work to create professional learning communities that value collaboration, open dialogue, reciprocity, and a willingness to share instructional practices with one another? Becoming a part of professional learning communities will ultimately transform your practices and propel you forward so that you positively influence your colleagues and students. You see, you can’t wait for growth to come to you; if you want to make an immediate impact, you have to be willing to proactively seek it out!

Finding My Life Vest

When I stumbled upon the book, The Innovator’s Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity by George Couros, I knew I had found my life vest.  I felt as if George was speaking right to my core.  As I read his book, my whole educational journey flashed before my eyes.  I became deeply reflective about my own successes, challenges, and failures.  I thought about what I could have done differently to positively impact my students and colleagues and wished I could go back in time to make adjustments to some of the choices I made. I thought about the present and the future and how I can use my learning to elevate others in intentional, meaningful, and relevant ways. His philosophy and mindset are what every educator and person who comes in contact with learners should hear. Every time I read another line in the book, I would write it down in my journal and share it with whoever would listen. In my heart, I knew this book could be a key driver in moving teaching and learning practices forward in my school district.  After all, the district vision statement supports innovation, risk-taking, collaboration, and creativity; I wanted to help bring this vision to life.  

Living the Innovator’s Mindset

When I became the Mentor Coordinator in my school district, one of my goals was to use the book The Innovator’s Mindset to inspire and empower new teachers and their mentors to be lead learners, share their special gifts with others, and not be afraid of success! These are the educators who consistently model professionalism, have strong interpersonal skills, value collaboration, are empathetic, compassionate, reflective, and responsive to ALL learners’ needs. These are the educators who will ultimately become the hub and driving force behind the development of powerful professional learning communities. With them by your side, you will build social and professional capital, strengthen collective efficacy, and empower educators to improve the learning outcomes for ALL students. To me, these educators will be able to embrace the 8 Characteristics of the Innovator’s Mindset; they will become connected and networked educators while making a positive impact on school culture, their colleagues, and the students and community we serve.

innovators    IMG_5451

Long Beach Public Schools Mentors                 LBPS Mentors and Mentees  

Finding the Courage

I am so grateful to have connected with George Couros.  He has the natural ability to rally people together, lead with empathy, empower educators to fail forward, be resilient, encourage risk-taking, and challenge people to create new and better things. One of my favorite quotes from Couros is, “Change is the opportunity to do something amazing!”  He truly does inspire me to embody the change I want to see.  When you are open to inviting new perspectives that stretch beyond the walls of your classroom and school district, you ARE embracing innovation.  Finding the courage to believe in yourself while motivating and inspiring others, showing bravery and strength in your convictions, and creating collaborative learning communities are the heart of continuous personal and professional growth.  And, as the perpetual revolving door of change keeps spinning in the education world, we manage to keep ourselves afloat in the boundless sea filled with eternal possibilities; Suddenly, we realize that the door of transformation has always been open. Sometimes it just takes the inspiration and optimism from the right people to help you recognize that you are your our own life vest and are READY to swim!

IMG_2523

George Couros, Lauren Kaufman, and

Sari Goldberg McKeown at an

Eastern Suffolk Boces Conference.