A Christmas Memory

An exquisite teaching moment, one that still takes my breath away. Take the time this month to explore holiday classics and recall your own memorable classroom moments. Sweet, sweet gifts that last longer than the moment.

In an American Classroom

In years when I was not running behind by December, when I hadn’t lingered too long on To Kill a Mockingbird or Great Expectations or any other of the books my freshmen read, back when so many days weren’t set aside for standardized tests and final exams and AR assessments, back when I had control of the calendar, I liked to set aside the last several instructional days of the semester for Christmas literature. Sometimes we read A Christmas Carol, sometimes Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” sometimes Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory.” My favorite, of course, was the latter—for two reasons. First, because the story lends itself to the students writing their own memoirs about Christmas—always a delight to read—and then, because I loved watching my students come slowly to the realization that the little boy narrator of “A Christmas Memory” and Dill Harris in To Kill…

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Thanksgiving: For My Former Students

Once more, and still always with the same feeling.

In an American Classroom

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Posting this piece at Thanksgiving has become a tradition.  Once more, the holiday gives me an opportunity to say thank you to my former students. You’ve enriched my life beyond measure, and I am grateful for the time we spent together and for the contribution you are making to our community and to the world.  Was it worth it? All that time and energy and love? The answer is yes. Every single day, every single year. 

You have sold me carpet and cleaned it, accepted my dry cleaning, butchered the meat for my table, helped me find clothes in the right size,  checked out my groceries at the supermarket, and brewed coffee for me at Starbucks. I’ve regularly walked with one of you in the March for Babies, and I’ve removed my shirt in the doctor’s office so another of you could give me a shot. I’ve run into you in…

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Thinking Made Visible

Used to be, when students would stare off into space, we wouldn’t know what they were thinking about. Now, with all the screens in front of their faces—and ours—we at least know the topic of their attention.

But what are they actually thinking? How can we get inside their heads to discern their thought process? If they’re on the mark, terrific!  But if they’re stuck, how can we know?

My colleague used these cool, washable markers and the tables in her science lab to do just that: Get inside her students’ heads.

 

We were co-teaching a lesson in AP Biology about food insecurity in Afghanistan—the primary and secondary causes and the various effects interruptions in growing and marketing food have on the health and well-being of the people in that war-torn country.  It’s a complex topic with complicated connections.

So after we set the stage by introducing new vocabulary, after we had shown a short film about microcredit and talked about food aid from foreign donors, after we’d discussed the topic as a group, we distributed a paper for students to read and a guided reading activity to accompany it. The weekend homework was for students to read the paper, which proposed some solutions to the problem, and think through the questions on the guided reading sheet.

Sure enough. Come Monday, several students hadn’t read the paper. Even more tripped up on the questions because what was called for weren’t easy, fill-in-the-blank, seek-and-find responses. The students had to think about what they had read and make connections. It was a tough assignment. The reading itself was daunting.

But what my colleague did next was not to berate the students or express exasperation. Instead, she put them in groups and asked them to draw the connections, as they understood them, between the causes and effects of food insecurity–right on her lab tables.

As the students sketched out the author’s ideas, my colleague and I were able to move from table to table and with a glance, see where thinking had gone awry, where gaps in understanding occurred. When we’d point out the exact place where the students had not understood, we could sometimes hear sucked-in breaths or audible exclamations. “Oh! I get it now!”

For us, this exercise was thinking made visible. Because of it, we could lead students to a better understanding of what had previously been confusing or even mystifying.

I began to think about where else thinking is visible and what kinds of opportunities teachers construct to make that happen. After all, a check for understanding isn’t meant to be a check for recall. It isn’t just about getting the right answer. A check for understanding is supposed to clue teachers in as to what our students actually have comprehended or taken away from a lesson.

In math class, teachers ask students to “show their work.”  That’s how the teacher can tell if the answer was a lucky guess or the product of a thoughtful approach to the problem.  If the teacher can see the steps the student took to arrive at the solution, the exact point of un-understanding is visible—just as in the table talk my colleague and I conducted with her students.  In fact, math teachers look at “showing your work” as a road map. The point where thinking breaks down is the precise place to apply the red pen—not just on the answer itself. Or, as the teacher in this video does, apply the yellow highlighter.

Geometry offers the same potential for revelation of thought.  Proofs are mental processes revealed. In evaluating a proof, the teacher has to follow, step by step, the student’s logic. That makes checking proofs time-consuming—just as, when reading students’ essays, the English teacher has to follow the student’s train of thought in order to make actionable comments.  But from heavy duty assignments like proofs and essays, teachers learn precisely what students don’t understand—or do, as the case may be.

Old-fashioned sentence outlines are also great revealers. Students prefer the bullet points of a topic outline, of course, because they can bluff their way through an outline check or turn in something when they haven’t really started thinking about their topic. But when ideas aren’t connected with transition words and complete sentences aren’t available for examination, the teacher can’t really follow the student’s train of thought. When a sentence outline has gaps and misunderstandings, the teacher can direct next steps.

One of my favorite lessons when I taught composition was an exercise in understanding how sentence outlines work. I’d find or construct a fairly complicated sentence outline of a research topic, cut the sentences into strips, remove the numbers and letters, and assemble sets of these sentences, all jumbled up.  Students would form groups, and I’d hand each group a set of the sentences. They’d spend the rest of the period figuring out the outline based on logic and the clues provided by transition words. Then, of course, I’d require them to construct their own sentence outlines.  

And when I really cast my thoughts far back into the recesses of my life in an American classroom, I remember sentence diagramming. I’m not advocating for bringing that back necessarily, but I do have to say, faulty diagrams revealed exactly what students didn’t understand about sentence structure.

Whenever a performance is required, whenever students do something, we see thought in action: Their level or degree of understanding is immediately evident in the performance of a musical piece, the execution of an art project, the preparation of a recipe, the construction of a garment, the reassembly of an automobile system. The problem is, when what we seek to understand is a mental process, it’s not so readily visible. Sketch notes help. Graphic organizers and graphic summaries help. Models and puzzles and other manipulatives do the trick.

But what else? Send me your pictures and tell me about the activities and processes you employ to make thinking visible.  I’d like to put together a gallery of thought-tracking possibilities.

And if you purchase some of those neon markers?  Be sure to get some Windex and a roll of paper towels, too. You’ll need them!  This activity is addictive!

Power Lesson

Hydroelectricity? Sixth grade? English class?

Yes, indeed. In fact, before the day I observed her 6th grade class, my colleague, Melanie Quinlisk, had guided her students through the process of writing an argumentative paper about that very topic: Hydroelectricity.

Students had researched the subject and lined up their arguments, pro and con. They’d even learned how to acknowledge a counterclaim, some to concede a point.

The day I came to class, my colleague introduced thirty cardboard Virtual Reality Viewers encased in cellophane.  On cue, students took out their phones and accessed a 360 degree YouTube video produced by Hydro-Quebec.  Ms. Quinlisk showed them how to assemble the viewers and insert their phones into the cardboard holder.  A strap held the viewers tight. Once the video began, the students were oblivious to the world around them. They were mesmerized by the virtual tour of an enormous hydro-electricity generating station in the James Bay region of Quebec (Welcome to Hydro-Quebec).

For most students, this was the first look at a 360 degree video; a few experienced ones had brought their own viewers from home.  I was there to be hands-on support, to help students access the video on their phones, secure them in the viewer, and adjust the straps.  Naturally, there was a good deal of fumbling with the mechanism of the box, and the classroom was abuzz with excitement. The students’ reactions and exclamations were punctuated by the sound of Velcro fasteners and crinkling cellophane.

“Wow! That’s cool!”

“I didn’t think it would be so big!”

“So that’s what it looks like!”

But within seven minutes, it was all over, the boxes tucked away and the students focused on their teacher’s question: “Was your opinion changed by seeing the video?  Why or why not?”

It was the “Why or why not,” of course, that she wanted to hear. And students replied using the evidence they’d researched before—quotes from authorities, statistics, facts, even the counterclaims they’d heard.

“The video explains the cost-saving,” one boy said, “but hydroelectricity is still hard on wildlife.”

Clearly his priority was wildlife, not economics.

Priorities is where this remarkable lesson went next. Ms. Quinlisk distributed a handout that listed the amount of wattage various household appliances, large and small, consume per kilowatt hour. The students’ task was to select the appliances they’d choose to use if they could use only 1000 watts a day.

One boy went right to the heart of supply and demand and family dynamics: “Is this what it’s like to be a parent?” he asked.

The students’ priorities were cell phone chargers, TV, and air conditioning, though some were creative:

“I’d get three fans instead of air conditioning!”

“I’ll get a leaf blower instead of air conditioning.”

“Skip the stove. I’ll live on Cheetos and Cheese Whiz!”

One girl did say it might be good not to have access to so much wattage. “We might go outside more. It might be like camping.”

The students pondered their choices, added up their wattage, prioritized, made decisions, and practiced a bit of creative thinking. And then they were asked to take the worksheet home and talk with their parents, to see if their parents’ priorities were the same.  The students knew right away they wouldn’t be.

And all of this was prelude to reading City of Ember, the first book in a science fiction series by Jeanne DuPrau, a story about two young people frantically trying to save their crumbling subterranean city, powered for over two-hundred years by a hydroelectricity plant that is now breaking down.

Pretty high wattage interdisciplinary learning: math, science, argumentation, critical thinking, technology, collaboration, decision making, and reading— both fiction and non-fiction.

Electrifying, in fact.

Learning Never Ends

On an early morning walk one day this summer when I was in Colorado, I came across a wildflower I’d never seen before—at least I thought I never had.  Actually, there were 3 or 4 of these bright, white flowers, all growing near one another, each about 10 inches tall with thick, alternating, jagged leaves running the length of the erect stems. Tiny 4-lobed flowers ended in what is called an inflorescence; that is, they opened like an umbrella at the end of the stem.

I had no had no idea what they were.

For a couple of reasons, though, I leapt to the conclusion that they were a kind of saxifrage.  But what kind?

I took a photo with my iPhone and even drew a sketch of the leaves and the umbrella and then, at home, spent some time looking at pictures of white flowers in several guidebooks. Discouraging. None of the possibilities was quite right. I was forced to face the truth all botanists know: Focusing on the flower is not enough.  I needed to pay attention to the leaves, the petals, the stamen, the ovary, etc. and tackle the wildflower identification key for the Western Slope.  And that meant relearning the language of botany. Identification keys use botanical terms, not common parlance. Just saying “the leaves are jagged” or “the flowers form a cap” is not precise enough. 

Working my way through the sorting system of the key, I quickly realized I was in the wrong family. What I was looking at was a mustard (Brassicaceae), not a saxifrage.

So it was a lengthy pursuit, but not without its rewards.

One morning while I was at this, sitting cross-legged on the roadside with my camera, the key, and a sketchbook, a doe came upon me in the course of her early morning saunter down the road. I was just below a little rise, so she didn’t see me until she was upon me. As soon as she did, she froze. When I reached for my phone, she moved to the side in an attempt to hide, then turned and bolted.

I love to come upon deer unexpectedly—and this one came upon me the same way. Her appearance on the hill above me sweetened the morning, just about the time I was thinking about quitting the search.

However, I continued to work on it bit by bit, but it was, in fact, several days later before I knew for certain what I had: a common wildflower called bittercress. Cardamine cordifolia is the botanical name.

My identification was confirmed by text in The Flora of Gunnison, Saguache, and Hinsdale Counties—a serious book that has no pictures whatsoever. The final identifying feature was this: According to the author of this definitive treatise on the wildflowers of these counties, the flower head is corymbose, meaning that the outer part of the umbrella matures first, giving the inflorescence a sort of flattened look. The leaves are heart-shaped (cordate), and I should add, sinuous-dentate or irregularly crenate.  That is, the leaves are wavy, but toothed, although those waves are sometimes rounded. 

Naturally, it wasn’t but a week later that I saw three huge stands of bittercress growing right where bittercress is supposed to grow: in wet places like under a culvert, near a trickle, or in a seep. The isolated patch I found that first morning had simply bloomed earlier than the rest, but now I know that bittercress is, as advertised, common.

Of course, I could have saved myself a lot of trouble if I’d just asked someone what this flower on my iPhone was—but that would have taken all the fun out of it.

And, I could have given up, thinking “Who cares? It’s just a flower and identifying it is taking so much time!”

And that, of course, is the connection to my life in an American classroom.

Learning is not always easy; it involves false starts, revisions, and consultations with teachers. It takes longer for some students than for others, depending upon prior knowledge, access to and availability of information, level of motivation, tolerance for frustration—and many other factors.

My wildflower identification quest reminded me that real learning occurs when the student is engaged with a task that is doable, yet involves a little struggle. Not so much struggle as to be impossible (I can read; I did know how to use the glossary to learn those botanical terms!), but challenging enough so the student is proud of her accomplishment.

And I remembered why it won’t do to just tell our kids the answer when they’re stuck. That not only robs them of the victory in the end, but deprives them of competence and real understanding. Instead, we have to plan and sequence our instruction so the students get the help they need—the identification key and the knowledge of how to use it—just at the time they need it.

And, of course, timing rewards that sweeten the whole experience but don’t extinguish the drive to finish.

Effective teaching, in other words, fosters a growth mindset. By engaging students, encouraging persistence, rewarding small victories, lightening the load at just right moment, supplying information in a timely manner—in short, by letting the student learn we teach them to value learning.

It sounds so easy.

It isn’t.

Because, as veterans know and new teachers soon discover, teaching involves learning, too.  Effective teaching isn’t something you master in a day, a month, a year, even in five years. In fact, if you’re open to it, the learning continues until the last day of your long career. Not because you’re weak, but because you’re strong. Because you aren’t defeated when something doesn’t go as planned. Because you’ve developed stamina and a can-do attitude. Because you’re engaged, you’re eager, and you’re open to the experience of others. Because you’ve got a growth mindset yourself.

Enjoy the quest!

The rewards are sweet.

Summertime, Summertime

DSC00297A few of the new teachers I’ve coached this year approached me when school was ending to ask what they should do over the summer to prepare for next year. I started this list with suggestions for their professional task lists…and then I just couldn’t stop thinking about what else I’d recommend. Maybe I was dreaming about what I plan to do?

So first, the professional:

1. Assess your challenges and spend some time learning about these areas of instruction.  Is it an aspect of your curriculum—say, grammar—that you’re weak on?  Study up on that.  Is your repertoire of instructional strategies slim? Learn about some new ones.  Try Jennifer Gonzales’ The Cult of Pedagogy blog. Do you need to sharpen  your classroom procedures?  Read The First Days of School or THE Classroom Management Book by Harry and Rosemary Wong.  Polish the procedures you already have in place or think through some you haven’t nailed yet.

But a piece of advice: There’s no end to becoming a more effective teacher, so don’t overwhelm yourself with too many self-improvement tasks. Prioritize the aspects of teaching that you feel you need to improve upon, pick a couple, and concentrate on those.

2. Read the books that you’re going to teach.  Make margin notes.  Look for companion texts: poetry, essays, newspaper articles, non-fiction pieces that can accompany the book and broaden, deepen, intensify the students’ understanding. 

3. Read some professional literature.  Expand your understanding of the issues and developments in the education field.  

4. Join your discipline’s national organization.  That will give you access to current thinking in your subject area, to blogs by fellow teachers, to grant opportunities, to inspiration.

5. Speaking of inspiration: Dream—and look for the grant support to fund your project.  Here are a few sources:

Never written a grant?  You do have to plan ahead.  That takes time. Get your ideas together and call on someone experienced in grant writing to read over your proposal before you submit it.

6. Explore websites that you haven’t had time for.

7. Subscribe to a blog written by a teacher in your discipline.

8. Learn something totally new.  (As you learn, think about what it feels like to be a novice at something and let that inform the way you think about your students.)

And what else?  We’re more than what we teach.  (But if you’re like me, you always end up teaching what you’ve learned.  Or using the new in some way in the classroom.)

Any of these sound appealing?

  1. Get outside and enjoy the weather.  Walk, run, bike, swim.  Exercise clears the mind, creates space for new ideas.
  2. Read a book that has nothing to do with education.  Read many books.
  3. Watch the movies you couldn’t stay up to see during the school year.
  4. Reconnect with an old friend.
  5. Take a trip—even if it’s just an hour away. To your state capitol? A tourist destination? Go someplace you’ve never been.
  6. Try out new recipes.
  7. Visit a museum or an art gallery.
  8. Go to a game.  Hit the golf course.  Try river-rafting or kayaking.  Bike across Iowa (http://ragbrai.com/registration/)—or only as far as the next small town: Just ride.
  9. Spend time with your significant other.  With your kids.  With your parents.
  10. Camp out in the backyard.
  11. Write a letter—the old-fashioned kind—and send it to a friend.
  12. Write a professional article yourself.  Or start a blog.
  13. Figure out Twitter.  Or Instagram.  Or Google+.  Would any of them work for you? If you don’t like them, don’t do them.  But maybe one has possibilities—for you or for your class.
  14. Reorganize your Google Drive.  (This is the equivalent of cleaning your room, but it’s oh-so-satisfying after you’ve done it!)
  15. Subscribe to Austin Kleon (http://austinkleon.com/) or Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings (https://www.brainpickings.org/) or another source of eclectic inspiration.
  16. Take pictures with a camera, not your phone.  Learn how it works.  Have fun experimenting!
  17. Try taking a picture of the same thing/place/person every day all summer long.  If it’s a selfie you’re taking, watch the stress melt away as the summer days go by.
  18. Take an art class.
  19. Grow flowers you’ve never grown before, veggies you’ve never eaten.
  20. Try a new restaurant.
  21. Visit your local Farmer’s Market downtown on Saturday mornings.
  22. Take your kids to the airport to see the planes fly in and out.  If yours is a small town, hurray!! You’ll get much closer to the planes than you do in a big city.
  23. Go on your own Genealogy Roadshow.  Start at your computer or a cemetery or by interviewing your relatives.  No matter where you start, this is a trip like no other!
  24. Listen to a Ted Talk.  A new one every day.  https://www.ted.com/talks
  25. Buy a journal.  Write one page every day.  Dismiss the English teacher on your shoulder.  
  26. Sew a dress.
  27. Make a table or refinish a piece of furniture.
  28. Try learning a new language.  Even just a few words.  https://www.duolingo.com/  
  29. Volunteer somewhere.  
  30. Go to a concert (especially one outdoors!)
  31. Ride a train somewhere. Or even the city bus.
  32. Broaden your perspective on the news. Subscribe to an online newspaper in another part of the country.
  33. Go on a picnic.
  34. Find the closest U-Pick and pick your own strawberries–or whatever is in season.
  35. Organize your old photographs in an album for your coffee table. Or make a photo book online.
  36. Visit a national park this summer.  Fourth graders go free this year!
  37. Organize a neighborhood yard sale.
  38. Donate your old books to the library–and check out some new ones while you’re there.
  39. Imagine you’re a tourist in your own hometown. Make a list of places to go. And then go there.
  40. Visit with a neighbor.
  41. Make a dinner for a friend who’s NOT on summer vacation.
  42. Help your kids set up a lemonade stand–and then donate the proceeds to a charity.

And on and on and on. There’s really no end to the things we could do, the places we could go.  Just enjoy the summer!

Writing Like a Scientist

The first year, we just put a toe in the water: We addressed the use of the passive voice.

The next year, we took on pronouns.

This year, my colleague and I dove in head first: We tackled passive voice, pronoun usage, scientific description, conciseness, the particular vocabulary of science, and (of course) citations and internal documentation. The goal: improved Science Fair projects–and ones that read like science writing.

An instructional coach for secondary teachers, I was thrilled three years ago when Mrs. Amanda Cox approached me about her goal for the year: incorporating the Indiana Academic Standards for Literacy into her Honors biology classes. Mrs. Cox took the standards to heart.  “I want my students to write like scientists,” she told me, “but they don’t know how–and I’m not sure I know how to teach them. I’m not an English teacher.”

She’s not alone. The literacy standards–which apply across the curriculum–challenge many content area teachers.  Writing instruction begins in grade school, but the skills that are emphasized are the ones in the English teacher’s toolbox: introductions that capture the reader’s attention, strong action verbs, colorful vocabulary choices, rhetorical questions, apt quotations.

English teachers don’t focus on the language of science. We want variety in sentence length and structure to sustain interest in the content, and we aim for metaphor, simile, and other figures of speech for the same reason. The passive voice gives us the heebie-jeebies.

If you’re a content area teacher, it is easy enough to require writing, but requiring something means teaching it–or knowing for sure that it has been taught–and then grading it. Where is the professional development in reading and writing for content area teachers?  It came, delightfully and productively for my colleague and me, in the form of co-teaching.

We began with the passive voice, one of the most distinctive features of science writing–and a requirement for the Science Fair project.  In science, it’s the discovery that is important; the role of the specific scientist is downplayed. So, in a  traditional write-up of a scientific investigation, the scientist is missing from his or her report. Instead of saying “I discovered X,” a researcher would write, “X was discovered.” Mrs. Cox’s 9th grade students had never even heard of passive voice.

A grammar lesson was necessary, and I was happy to prepare and deliver it. An English teacher by training, I was in my element. Even more fun, I was in front of students again. I had a chance to refresh my classroom skills.

With practice, Mrs. Cox’s students learned to write sentences in the passive voice. Their lab reports began to sound a little more scientific. But a quantitative payoff wasn’t there. The average grade on the Science Fair projects that year was the same as the year before: 76%.

So the next year we tackled pronoun usage. Again, in science writing, pronouns are scarce. When one is used, its antecedent is unmistakable.  So another grammar lesson was in order: What’s a pronoun? What’s an antecedent? Why do they have to agree? And what’s agreement anyway?  

Every English teacher in the country knows how pesky pronouns can be and how tough it is for kids to master them. Drill and kill doesn’t much work as a strategy for learning. A teacher can spray red ink on a paper like Roundup on weeds and still the pronoun errors sprout again in the next paper.

Mrs. Cox and I decided on an old-fashioned revision method: We projected sentences onto the whiteboard that we had drawn from the students’ own lab reports and, working together as a class, corrected them. That process worked well.  In correcting the pronoun errors, of course, we uncovered other problems and eliminated those, too: problems of conciseness and specificity, problems of vocabulary and redundancy.

For example:

  • New information is important because it can change the way you view other information.

became New information changes the way other information is viewed.

  • We couldn’t figure it out but as we received new information and hints, we got closer and eventually we got it.

became Understanding developed gradually.

  • New information and scientific processes are important because they help further our understanding and develop our research.

became Scientific inquiry yields new understandings that, in turn, inform further research.

By the end of that second year, students were more sensitive to language and could quickly spot a sentence written in the active voice and change it into the passive.  But still, the overall scores on the Science Fair projects didn’t budge.  Seventy-six percent remained the average.

By the third year, we decided that we needed to take a much more robust co-teaching approach. Mrs. Cox selected a scientific paper for students to read and dissect and I prepared a lesson that engaged the students in teasing out the fundamental differences between writing for English class and writing like a scientist. Those differences included using the passive voice, and redefining description to mean facts and processes, not “colorful” language.  In English class, students reach for strong verbs, vivid adjectives, figurative language, and even auditory devices like assonance and onomatopoeia. None of that obtains in a journal article for science.

In addition, I taught the students how to document their sources using MLA format, 8th edition. (Yes, they could have used APA, but our teachers have made the decision to use MLA from middle school through early high school in order to be consistent.  Once students have the documentation process down, transferring to APA or any other system will be easy.)

I was in Mrs. Cox’s classroom often enough this year that I learned the students’ names. By October, I felt like a teacher, not a coach. I even helped with drafts and with grading the final projects—that surely made me feel like a teacher!

And the results: This year the average score jumped to 80.5%.  The students garnered top scores at the regional science fair. One young man, who won gold at the regional competition,  qualified for the state science fair and won the Stockholm Award–an honor that brings with it the chance to win a trip to Sweden and participate in a competition there.

Co-teaching the Science Fair project has been fulfilling for both of us—for me, this kind of coaching—where the emphasis is on student learning, in this case through co-teaching, provided sound and appropriate professional development for me, the instructional coach, and for my colleague, the 9th grade Honors Biology teacher.

We both learned new skills.

Mrs. Cox can teach these English lessons now herself (although we do have one more tweak we want to make next year), but the co-teaching idea has spread. Next year I’ll be working with an 8th grade science teacher and a 12th grade Anatomy and Physiology teacher with the very same goal in mind: improving the quality of science writing and thereby augmenting student learning.

And this time, those teachers and I will dive into the deep end right from the start.

Writing Like a Scientist

The first year, we just put a toe in the water: We addressed the use of the passive voice.

The next year, we took on pronouns.

This year, my colleague and I dove in head first: We tackled passive voice, pronoun usage, scientific description, conciseness, the particular vocabulary of science, and (of course) citations and internal documentation. The goal: improved Science Fair projects–and ones that read like science writing.

An instructional coach for secondary teachers, I was thrilled three years ago when Mrs. Amanda Cox approached me about her goal for the year: incorporating the Indiana Academic Standards for Literacy into her Honors biology classes. Mrs. Cox took the standards to heart.  “I want my students to write like scientists,” she told me, “but they don’t know how–and I’m not sure I know how to teach them. I’m not an English teacher.”

She’s not alone. The literacy standards–which apply across the curriculum–challenge many content area teachers.  Writing instruction begins in grade school, but the skills that are emphasized are the ones in the English teacher’s toolbox: introductions that capture the reader’s attention, strong action verbs, colorful vocabulary choices, rhetorical questions, apt quotations.

English teachers don’t focus on the language of science. We want variety in sentence length and structure to sustain interest in the content, and we aim for metaphor, simile, and other figures of speech for the same reason. The passive voice gives us the heebie-jeebies.

If you’re a content area teacher, it is easy enough to require writing, but requiring something means teaching it–or knowing for sure that it has been taught–and then grading it. Where is the professional development in reading and writing for content area teachers?  It came, delightfully and productively for my colleague and me, in the form of co-teaching.

We began with the passive voice, one of the most distinctive features of science writing–and a requirement for the Science Fair project.  In science, it’s the discovery that is important; the role of the specific scientist is downplayed. So, in a  traditional write-up of a scientific investigation, the scientist is missing from his or her report. Instead of saying “I discovered X,” a researcher would write, “X was discovered.” Mrs. Cox’s 9th grade students had never even heard of passive voice.

A grammar lesson was necessary, and I was happy to prepare and deliver it. An English teacher by training, I was in my element. Even more fun, I was in front of students again. I had a chance to refresh my classroom skills.

With practice, Mrs. Cox’s students learned to write sentences in the passive voice. Their lab reports began to sound a little more scientific. But a quantitative payoff wasn’t there. The average grade on the Science Fair projects that year was the same as the year before: 76%.

So the next year we tackled pronoun usage. Again, in science writing, pronouns are scarce. When one is used, its antecedent is unmistakable.  So another grammar lesson was in order: What’s a pronoun? What’s an antecedent? Why do they have to agree? And what’s agreement anyway?

Every English teacher in the country knows how pesky pronouns can be and how tough it is for kids to master them. Drill and kill doesn’t much work as a strategy for learning. A teacher can spray red ink on a paper like Roundup on weeds and still the pronoun errors sprout again in the next paper.

Mrs. Cox and I decided on an old-fashioned revision method: We projected sentences onto the whiteboard that we had drawn from the students’ own lab reports and, working together as a class, corrected them. That process worked well.  In correcting the pronoun errors, of course, we uncovered other problems and eliminated those, too: problems of conciseness and specificity, problems of vocabulary and redundancy.

For example:

  • New information is important because it can change the way you view other information.

became  New information changes the way other information is viewed.

  • We couldn’t figure it out but as we received new information and hints, we got closer and eventually we got it.

became Understanding developed gradually.

  • New information and scientific processes are important because they help further our understanding and develop our research.

became Scientific inquiry yields new understandings that, in turn, inform further research.

By the end of that second year, students were more sensitive to language and could quickly spot a sentence written in the active voice and change it into the passive.  But still, the overall scores on the Science Fair projects didn’t budge.  Seventy-six percent remained the average.

By the third year, we decided that we needed to take a much more robust co-teaching approach. Mrs. Cox selected a scientific abstract for students to read and dissect, and I prepared a lesson that engaged the students in teasing out the fundamental differences between writing for English class and writing like a scientist. Those differences included using the passive voice, avoiding pronouns, and redefining description to mean facts and processes, not “colorful” language.  In English class, students reach for strong verbs, vivid adjectives, figurative language, and even auditory devices like assonance and onomatopoeia. None of that obtains in a journal article for science.

In addition, I taught the students how to document their sources using MLA format, 8th edition. (Yes, they could have used APA, but our teachers have made the decision to use MLA from middle school through early high school in order to be consistent.  Once students have the documentation process down, transferring to APA or any other system will be easy.)

I was in Mrs. Cox’s classroom often enough this year that I learned the students’ names. By October, I felt like a teacher, not a coach. I even helped with drafts and with grading the final projects—that surely made me feel like a teacher!

And the results: This year the average score jumped to 80.5%.  The students garnered top scores at the regional science fair. One young man, who won gold at the regional competition, qualified for the state science fair and won the Stockholm Award–an honor that brings with it the chance to win a trip to Sweden and participate in a competition there.

Co-teaching the Science Fair project has been fulfilling for both of us. This kind of coaching, where the emphasis is on student learning, in this case through co-teaching, provided sound and appropriate professional development for me, the instructional coach, and for my colleague, the 9th grade Honors Biology teacher.

We both learned new skills.

Mrs. Cox can teach these English lessons now herself (although we do have one more tweak we want to make next year), but the co-teaching idea has spread. Next year I’ll be working with an 8th grade science teacher and a 12th grade Anatomy and Physiology teacher with the very same goal in mind: improving the quality of science writing and thereby augmenting student learning.

And this time, those teachers and I will dive into the deep end right from the start.

Wicked Cool: Science in English Class

file_000-2“It was wicked cool.”

That’s how one 10th grade student at McCutcheon High School summed up the collaborative learning experience orchestrated by English teacher Jennie Ruiz and science teacher Chris Pfledderer.

Ms. Ruiz’ students had read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the non-fiction account by Rebecca Skloot of the journey of the cancer cells taken by researchers at Johns Hopkins in 1951 from a living patient, Henrietta Lacks. These cells produced a medical breakthrough: For the first time, human cells grew successfully under laboratory conditions. The cells continued to grow in the lab, and samples were shared throughout the world, enabling scientists to conduct experiments they’d not been able to before. The cells still grow today, though Mr. Pfledderer explained that they’re no longer pure because of all the work that has been done with them. In fact, he said, other cells are more often used today—bacteria and insect cells—to conduct research, but the HeLa cells, as they are called (for Henrietta Lacks), were the first.

file_004-1-copyThe lab took two days to complete. On the first day, Mr. Pfledderer demonstrated the procedure for staining the HeLa cells so that they could be viewed under the microscope. He supervised as students dropped a suspension of cells onto a slide from a height of several feet, hoping that the force of the fall would break open the cell membrane and nucleus so the chromosomes would be available to stain. Then the students waited for the slides to dry. file_005-3

This may have been the hardest part of the experiment. Waiting, blowing gently on the slide, and resisting the urge to hurry the process taxed their patience. “We need a hairdryer!” I heard one boy say. (Never mind that the force of air would have spoiled the slide; the printed directions clearly stated that heat should not be used to hurry the process.)

When the slides were finally dry, Mr. Pfledderer explained, the students would dip the slides three times into Stain #1, wipe the bottom of the slide, and then dip it three times into Stain #2. Finally, the slide would be immersed in distilled water. Students would leave the slides on a counter in Mrs. Ruiz’ classroom to dry overnight.

file_007-2The next day, Mr. Pfledderer rolled a cart of microscopes into her classroom.  He reviewed the process of focusing the three lenses and reminded the students to move the slide—slowly—on the stage. “A tiny movement by you will be a giant move through the lens,” he explained.

Pairs of students grabbed microscopes and searched for outlets around the room. The English room rapidly became an informal lab as students placed their slides and searched for chromosomes.

“You won’t all get one,” Mr. Pfledderer had cautioned them the day before. “We hope some of you will.”

Hands waved, voices called out for the science teacher to look at the purple blobs the students discovered on their slides.

file_000-3“That’s a floating piece of cell membrane,” he told one pair.

“Just a blob,” he told another.

“Yep! That’s a chromosome!” he congratulated one duo. With that, other students flocked to see the chromosome on their slide. iPhones emerged from back pockets and purses as students took pictures by pressing the aperture of the phone to the eyepiece of the microscope. file_002-2

Henrietta Lacks was a poor, black woman, and her cells were grown and distributed without her consent or her living family’s knowledge. That fact has spawned controversy, for not only are the cells famous, but biotech companies have profited from using them. Until Ms. Skloot wrote her book, the Lacks family had received none of the profit.

The case poses important ethical questions for science: What obligation do researchers have to obtain consent for tissue preservation and use? Who should benefit monetarily from discovery and invention? In other words, who should profit from scientific progress?

Laws, in fact, were different in the 1950s, so Johns Hopkins—which has since established a scholarship in Henrietta Lacks’ name—did nothing illegal. The cells from a living cancer biopsy had grown unexpectedly, miraculously even. The goal was scientific research, and the windfall cell reproduction eventuated in discoveries related first to the polio epidemic that was sweeping the country at the time and later benefitted research into leukemia, AIDS, chemotherapy and gene mapping, to name a few. In short, many modern advances in science and medicine are indebted to HeLa cells and thus, in the point of view of some, to Henrietta Lacks.

The question is a knotty one with no easy or practical solution. Rebecca Skloot, the author, has established a foundation to support education and other needs for Henrietta Lacks’ descendants.

When the lab was over, Mrs. Ruiz asked the students to reflect on the experience. One student wrote, “To be honest, when I was looking at the cells, I didn’t think about the person behind them. I was just looking and feel like that is what the scientists were doing. They were just doing their jobs, like they did to all of the other cells in the lab.”

The student continued: “Yes, I believe that they [Henrietta Lacks’ family] should have gotten money because they were poor.” But, he asked rhetorically, “If they were rich, would you have the same feeling toward them not getting money?”

Another student wrote, “Doing this kind of made me feel bad because these cells once belonged to a woman who didn’t even know that people like 10th grade English students would be looking at her cells. Even though I felt bad about that, I still had a lot of fun and I think it was a very good learning experience. I also enjoyed how it connected English to science.”

And this entry: “I didn’t really understand what HeLa cells would look like until now. Would they look like normal cells? Would they look immortal? Monster like? Now that I have seen and witnessed HeLa cells, I know that they are just the same as yours and mine would be.”

Watching the lesson unfold, I could see that Mrs. Ruiz and Mr. Pfledderer had brought non-fiction reading to life and may even have sparked an interest in science that wasn’t there before. Students thought seriously and deeply about what they had read and experienced, and that is the goal of education. 

Wicked cool.

file_006-2

 

Night in Rwanda

Reading this post again today is chilling. If you are my former student–or even if you are not–what do you see? Do you remember? What can you do? Every voice matters.

In an American Classroom

2009.04.15 Honors 9 Pattern of Genocide 016I have taught Holocaust literature—Night, The Diary of Anne Frank, The Children of Willesden Lane—for many years. But I cannot teach these books in the way I usually teach literary works of art. Granted, these books are not fiction, so I am spared having to chart the plot line. I know there are motifs and images and definitely themes—but my point has never been, in teaching any of these accounts, to reveal the writer’s technique. Putting such a text under the microscope of literary analysis would distance the students from the story, and I want them to hold close the visceral response they all have when they read, say, Night. Discussing Wiesel’s imagery as if he had sat down deliberately to craft a work of art instead of to tell his horrifying story to an unconscious world would be—to my mind—a sacrilege. As story, his journey through…

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