Sunday, August 31, 2014

Lets Talk Strategy: Read, Write, Discuss

Below are several strategies that have been utilized in my classroom so far this year:

1. Critical Friends: Students work their chemistry (math) problems or create their graphs individually and then share them with their partner ("shoulder buddy").  The work is then shared with their group of 4 ("pod partners").  The group chooses one work to represent the group, and the group posts the work on a board.  The groups rotate clockwise to the next board where they critique the group's work.  They leave a positive comment, a comment pointing out something that could be done better and one addressing something that is missing.  The groups continue to rotate every 2 minutes until they return to their own board, where they read the comments left by their critical friends.  For homework, the students rework their problems and turn them in for a grade.  I use this method to critique phase diagrams and chemistry problems.

2. Say Something: Students are in pairs and take turns reading paragraphs and summarizing them.  One student reads while the other summarizes; then they switch roles.  We read about physical and chemical properties.

3. Jigsaw Presentations: Students each read a section of the text and summarize the important ideas.  The students create posters and teach the other students about their topics.  Students take their notes from each other.  This year students each read about a group on the periodic table, created a poster and presented it to the class.

4. Scratch Paper Daily Grade: At any point, I check for understanding by giving students quarter sheets of scratch paper.  They work one problem and I take them up.  This only takes about 3 minutes, and I can check the papers in about the same amount of time.  They are worth 10 points.  If the student scores 8 or above, he/she gets a ticket for the Friday Four drawing.  The students enjoy it, and it helps keep them on task.  It is a great way for me to check for understanding and give quick feedback.

5. Frayer Model Word Map: Students write the word in the middle, the definition on one side, a real world example on one side, a representative picture on one side and defining criteria or characteristics on one side. 

6. Mingle: Students are in groups of 4 (pods), and each student reads about a different concept.  Students use the Frayer Model to write about the concept.  Of the 7 or 8 groups in the class, 2 or 4 groups study the same concepts.  Once they have their written notes, they find others with the same concept by mingling throughout the room.  They share their work and add or change their models to make sure they are correct and thorough.  After we mingle, we form the below circles (Inside / Outside Circles) and students taught each other about pure substances and mixtures.  I also used the mingle strategy to practice making ionic bonds.  I gave students index cards, and they noted the valence electrons and drew the electron dot structure for an assigned element.  After that the students “mingled” to find other elements they could form an ionic bond with.  After they found each other they used the boards and wrote their ionic bonds, then they rotated and did the critical friends activity.

7. Inside / Outside Circles: Students share information by forming 2 circles.  The inside circle faces out, and the outside circle faces in.  The outside circle moves clockwise so that students can share information and critique each other’s work.  We did this as a jigsaw activity.  I also had students answer critical response questions and critique each other’s work.

8. Two Truths and a Lie: Students reported on elements by writing 2 truths and a lie about the element.  They presented them to the class, and the class made an educated guess about what the lie was.

Separation Techniques: The Salt of the Classroom

Finally, the first day in the lab arrived, and my vow to intrigue the generally disengaged through inquiry commenced.  The first lab of the year is always a basic separation lab traditionally used to teach lab techniques such as measurement, filtration and evaporation, as well as percent error and percent composition.  The techniques were successfully taught, but the focus of the lab shone a new light… student led learning.

To start, I ditched the lab sheet and replaced it with a revised and abbreviated article from Made How (  Also included were a challenge and an opportunity for the students to be led down a path of discovery.  Students first read the article about salt and ways to obtain it.  They were then given the following challenge: You have a scoop of beach sand mixture and need salt for food; how do you separate the salt from the sand and salt mixture; and how much salt can you produce from 50ml of sand?  Students were given the page number from the textbook that would give hints about setting up the filtration system, and with that they were ready to figure out how to conquer the challenge.  After reading, they mapped out their own ideas about how to proceed in the lab.  They used the reading assignments to guide their ideas.  Students shared their ideas with their shoulder buddy and their pod partners before sharing them with the class and me.

My new role was to guide them by responding with questions, answering their questions and approving their plans.  When the lab was complete, we used the data to learn about percent error and percent composition.  Because we were interested in real world applications, I introduced a problem with salt domes in our area of the country.  We extended our path of learning by exploring the problems being experienced because of the use of salt domes in Bayou Corne, LA.  The students found this very interesting, and it gave us an opportunity to consider ethical topics in science.

In the past, I would have given students the lab with the procedures.  We would not have researched salt or the salt domes.  Also, the students would not have had the opportunity to write and talk about their ideas for separating the mixture.  My new commitment to inquiry makes me step back and ask what students can learn for themselves if I guide them and give them the opportunity.  It really is not that hard, it just requires a different way of thinking during the planning stage.

I am proud to say the first two and a half weeks were free of dreamers (sleepers), thinkers (daydreaming doodlers), and readers (of novels that is)... movers (pencil tappers) and shakers (attitude filled lip smackers)... and the captive student who feels imprisoned by me, the giver of knowledge and key-holder of the lab.  Instead, we were all engaged in the constructed path of inquiry!  We are on the road to deeper understanding through inquiry, the salt of the classroom. 

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Pop the Question

I did not think I could transition to full inquiry AND meet the requirements of the curriculum UNTIL I realized constructivism must guide my inquiry.  I have always used hands on activities in my classroom, but when chemistry became a tested subject I found myself wanting to give more and more direct instruction.  I wanted to make sure I covered the material, and consequently I found myself losing the interest of more and more students.  After much reflection, I realized the students needed their learning to be authentic, but I still wondered how to do that and teach all the required skills.  Have you pondered the same question?

How does inquiry work?  Has my paradigm shifted enough?  Learning to Pop the Question…

My Inquiry Evolution: 
First, my work with the South Mississippi Writing Project (SMWP) has given me a model of inquiry and constructivist learning to help me guide students the way a tour guide efficiently leads a foreigner to make sure they do not miss the best sights.  In this model, the teacher uses carefully chosen strategies and materials to strategically guide students to the places that allow them to make discoveries and construct their own learning along the way.  Much reading, writing, sharing, reflecting, and revising is done along the way.

Second, my recent experience with Project Based Learning (PBL) taught me that I can hold the role of a performing arts master teacher who is responsible for teaching techniques to my students, requiring them to practice and expecting them to pass performance tests to prove their acquisition of skills.  From PBL I also learned the importance of student generated questions in authentic learning.  Students determine the “Need to Know” questions based on the task at hand.  From PBL, I also learned about metacognition.  I had been using metacognition with the SMWP, but I did not really grasp its greatness until I saw it in the PBL workshop. 

Finally, my views were shaped by ACT Quality Core Training.  It taught me rigor can be accomplished and encouraged through the powerful strategies that require writing to learn.

The summation of my experiences leads me to understand that teachers know things the students don’t know, and as we use authentic situations to teach through inquiry, we must help set the stage and ensure students learn the proper techniques without missing the best sights along the way.  In order for students to construct their own learning, teachers must actively construct a path of learning for them to follow and embed opportunities to experiment and write throughout the journey. 

Dance to Your Own Music… NOT
Inquiry, which I am going to dub “teacher influenced student inquiry”, is different from free discovery learning.  The students are not really free to dance to their own music as discovery learning may suggest, because that is unrealistic in most science classes like chemistry.  Imagine students being allowed to flit with and possibly mix two incompatible chemicals!  Therefore, the use of constructivism and metacognition by the masterful choreographer (teacher) is the key to making inquiry work.  Like a beautiful performance on the stage, inquiry has the power to inspire awe in beholder.  The enjoyment brought to the stage by a performance is not only the result of technical classes (direct instruction), rehearsals (student practice), corrections and revisions, but also that of cooperation and most importantly the culmination of the vision and encouragement of the choreographer (teacher) mixed with hours of work behind the scenes that others never see. 

Popping the Question
How in the world do teachers fully implement an inquiry classroom, and complete the required curriculum with the depth of knowledge required for standardized testing?  The answer is a well-choreographed classroom where the teacher knows how to pop the question.  Just as music influences the style of dance one chooses to exude, well prepared teacher prompts can influence and spur seemingly improvisational student questions in a subject area.  Prompts that lead to student questions and authentic learning include, but are not limited to, discrepant event demonstrations, projects to tackle, challenge based learning and problems to solve.  These invitations to student initiated inquiry will allow the magic of the dance in your subject area to take place as students learn, practice and prepare in your classroom so that they can shine on the public stage when they perform on standardized test or present their findings to the public. 
Invitation to the Dance

Successful inquiry, inquiry that leads to deep understanding, is a hands-on journey which is stealthily constructed and skillfully guided by the teacher to sway the movement of the students.  I invite you to join me in the dance of inquiry this year.  What skills will you teach together through inquiry?  How will you help your students generate useful and meaningful questions that will teach your curriculum as they construct meaning for themselves?
For more information visit these websites...

Project Based Learning (PBL) Buck Institute for Education
Challenge Based Learning (CBL) 
Problem Based Learning in Science 
Active Physics ppt example
ACT Quality Core

I Was a Horse With Inquiry Blinders

What is inquiry in the science classroom, and should labs be part of science education?  Wow, could someone dare to suggest that labs have no place in the science classroom?  Well, it depends on the purpose of science education.  What do you think the purpose of a pre-college science class is?  Is it to learn about scientific facts; is it to make students aware of social crisis and issues that are scientifically influenced; or is it to teach students to be scientists?  The argument could be made that the students are there to learn science, not to be scientists.
In our consideration of inquiry in the science classroom we would do well to pause and consider the above questions, and determine if a science classroom can and should address all the above questions.  Whatever our conclusion, students need to be guided to knowledge through inquiry. 
In the National Science Teachers Association’s (NSTA) Position Statement on Scientific Inquiry, they state that the National Science Education Standards (NSES) define scientific inquiry as “the diverse ways in which scientists study the natural world and propose explanations based on the evidence derived from their work.  Scientific inquiry also refers to the activities through which students develop knowledge and understanding of scientific ideas, as well as an understanding of how scientists study the natural world.”  It is NSTA’s stance that understanding science content is significantly enhanced when ideas are anchored to inquiry experiences.
In the last sentence, could the word inquiry be replaced by the word lab?  I used to think so.  I changed traditional labs so that the students wrote the procedures to answer the lab question, or so that they figured out how to test a second or third sample after walking through an example lab.  Wasn’t this inquiry?  Weren’t they answering questions and figuring out things on their own?  Why was I getting such poor results?  Why was there a lack of evidence for deep understanding?  The answer: I was a horse wearing inquiry blinders, a puzzle missing a couple of pieces, a performance with dance after dance and no step weaving them together.
When talking with a language arts colleague, she stated that scientific inquiry was different than inquiry in her classes.  Reflection on her statement, my research and time spent with the South Mississippi Writing Project leads me to think that scientific inquiry is often so focused on the student as a scientist, that we fail to successfully use inquiry for the acquisition of scientific content.  As stated above, so often my students finished our inquiry project or activity without being able to show evidence of deep understanding.  They do the lab but cannot explain the results.  I am coming to understand that effective science inquiry involves the weaving of inquiry activities (labs) and inquiry learning (academic activities including guided student research), which are best executed through the mindset of constructivism.  Constructivism is a learning theory suggesting that through processes of accommodation and assimilation, individuals construct new knowledge from their experiences.  Along with constructivism (the teacher’s careful construction of opportunities for students to create specific knowledge), opportunities for metacognition are important in achieving deep understanding.  Metacognition is the awareness and regulation of one’s own learning process.  I believe metacognition is where writing will play a key role in enhancing deeper understanding in my science classroom.  As I have observed in language arts classrooms, inquiry encompasses teacher guidance that leads the student to construct meaning and knowledge.  My new working definition of inquiry reads like this: the teacher’s role in scientific inquiry is to lead students down a specific path that will allow for the construction of knowledge as they resolve their questions (which were planted by me) through research, collaboration, thought, writing and experimentation.  See the next blog for ideas about planting questions to sway the dance of your classroom.
An inquiry based approach is most effective when it is carefully designed and structured by teachers.  It was with the understanding that inquiry is an approach, otherwise thought of as a way of thinking, an environment or culture of the classroom, that I found the missing piece of my inquiry puzzle, the blinders I’d been wearing, the missing step in my dance!  I was offering inquiry activities to my students, but not really an inquiry environment with a constructivist mindset and time for metacognition.  Think about it, science teachers are charged with teaching students to be scientist AND with teaching scientific facts.  This lofty request cannot be realized through haphazard teaching consisting of poorly linked lectures, practice sets, strategies and labs, but is possible through the carefully choreographed science classroom where inquiry in its broadest sense leads the way.

For more Information I recommend the following:

Teaching High School Science Through Inquiry by Douglas Llewellyn, NSTA Press, 2005

Web Article: 
National Science Teachers Association’s (NSTA) Position Statement on Scientific Inquiry,     

Friday, June 13, 2014

A Party Crasher at the The Burke Inn Parlor, Looking Into the Conversation of Inquiry and Writing for the Science Classroom

I am spending the next few days gathering resources on the use of inquiry and writing in the science classroom.  I am currently meeting with other Writing Project members, and as we began the first day of research, we were prompted by a lesson which revealed the value of The Burke Inn Parlor Metaphor…  

·         Burke's Metaphor for the "Unending Conversation"
"Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally's assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress."
(Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action3rd ed. 1941. Univ. of California Press, 1973)
I am in the process of discovering who is at the table talking about inquiry, which experts are there, and what has already been said.  I am learning all I can through the study of others' observations and conclusions so that I can join this conversation which has been raging for some time now and which will continue to engage seekers of knowledge for years to come. 

Gathering Information:
Poking Around - Research Sources Day 1- What are they talking about?  (free membership)
Project Based Learning

Action Research Guide

Real Research – Day 2 and 3 – What are others saying?

Constructivist Model

Complex Learning – Cognitive Load Theory

Paul Kirschner – articles – cognitive load theory, against constructivism

Collaborative Learning


Writing in Science

Science Writing Heuristic

Betsy Fulwiler
Science Notebooks:

Books to Read
Writing in Science: How to Scaffold Instruction to Support Learning (2007), by Fulwiler— published by Heinemann

Writing in Science in Action: Strategies, Tools, and Classroom Video (2011), by Fulwiler— published by Heinemann

Ten Steps to Complex Learning: A Systematic Approach to Four-Component Instructional Design,  Authors:  Jeroen JG Van MerriĆ«nboer, Paul A Kirschner

Read Later – Can this be useful when I share my findings?

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Generally Disengaged: Dreamers, Thinkers, Readers, Movers and Shakers are On My Mind

The Journey Begins

Reflection and Call to Action:
As I reflected on last year's classes I identified several hard to reach personalities existing in my classroom... dreamers (sleepers), thinkers (daydreaming doodlers), and readers (of novels that is)... movers (pencil tappers) and shakers (attitude filled lip smackers) ...and the captive student who felt he was imprisoned by me, the giver of knowledge and key-holder of the lab.  In contrast to the college bound and teacher pleasing conformist personalities, these few students could not create a sense of wonder from the list of skills they had to learn. Their disinterest was evident and their grades proved they were only committed to learning enough to pass the class, but no more.  

Charged with the task of teaching the full set of chemistry standards in eighteen short weeks, I tried both direct teaching and hands-on learning to accomplish the task.  I am convinced that through study and planning, I can create interactions and connections to engage and reach all my students while conquering the standards. I believe strategic writing is a key element for successI invite you to join me on this adventure as I step out of the direct teaching spotlight and off the stage of special projects, activities and lab days and into the journey of inquiry where I expect my students to shine as we explore and write about their own curiosities.   

The Process
Getting started:  
Identify a wondering
My dream and the reality for my classroom seem worlds away from each other.  In my mind, all students are full of curiosity and wonder about the physical world.  In reality, a few students are naturally intrigued by science, the teacher-pleasing and college-bound compliant personalities are engaged by science, but several students in each class are obviously disinterested. Some of the movers, shakers, thinkers, readers and dreamers find chemistry difficult and choose disinterest over hard work.  But some are free spirits, and though they are capable, they are not interested.  They long to know about the world outside the walls of our classroom.  I vividly recall the free spirit of this past school year... I have chosen him as my mascot for this journey we are embarking on... I see this lanky, spark of boyhood jumping up and hanging from my high window ledge to get a peak of the outdoors.  I imagine my classroom prisoner thought he was wasting his life in the shadow of my standards checklist.  He participated and felt the spark of wonder when we did activities and lab work, but on dry stretches of direct instruction and seat work practice, he could not muster an ounce of interest.   He did poor quality work although he was capable of much more. Whether a student ranks among the intrigued, compliant or disinterested, all students deserve instruction that warrants wonder.  Instead of the symbol of imprisonment, this mascot represents the quest to create deep understanding and appreciation of science by making connections to the real world.  Immersion in facts and wonders will not create deep learning, but I believe carefully planned inquiry based instruction with strategic writing assignments to enhance and display learning will.  I wonder if I can coordinate it all and if the results will bring my dream and reality closer to each other.

Brainstorm to create a research question
How do I create interest for my dreamers, readers, thinkers, movers, shakers and free spirited jail birds?
The quick answer: Teach through inquiry and Project Based Learning.
How do I incorporate inquiry AND cover all the science standards?
Quick answer:  Identify big ideas and carefully plan by making connections and being creative.  
How do I create deep and lasting understanding?
Quick answer:  Use writing to facilitate learning and to display knowledge.

Research Question
Final Research Question:  How does the strategic application of writing in the realm of inquiry based classrooms enhance student engagement and understanding?

Rough draft:  How can writing, in conjunction with inquiry, engage students and create deeper interest and understanding of science standards?