Ravens and Science: Now or Nevermore?

What makes a science field trip a Do Now for your students? When two ravens are hatching eggs in a few days at Wellesley College.

Go to the Ravencam and leave your computer screen on all day to follow the nesting habits of Pauline and Henry. You’ve just created a field trip in your classroom. The pleasure of doing this will remind everyone you teach that science is part of every day. The raven sounds alone fill me with awe.

Use the following ideas, for all ages, singly or in combination:

  • Individualized Learning 

Observe these birds and notice how calm and focused you become. Then show students how to immerse themselves in watching and listening. This is active, not passive, learning and embodies all levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Give your students the gift of time so they can experience what learning feels like when their bodies and minds relax.

  • Student Inquiry

After a period of observation, ask students to write down observations in their science journals. Ask students to turn their statements into questions and choose one or more questions to guide data collecting and research. It’s a perfect short-term inquiry project to travel back and forth from home to school.

  • Mathematics

Create focused discussion opportunities for student brainstorming. What kind of math skills will help them understand these ravens, and why? What kind of data collection–either qualitative or quantitative–leads to the answers they need?

  • English Language Arts

Many of us remember Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven” (1845). Follow this link to the Poetry Foundation to get a copy. After reading the poem aloud and learning more about Poe, have students perform readings of “The Raven” that reveal their own understanding of the poem. Encourage alternative versions. For example, does a joyful version of “The Raven” change its meaning?

While writing this, it hasn’t been just the ravens’ croaks and calls that fill me with awe. Pauline does, too, as she shifts position on her huge twiggy nest to reposition her eggs.

This is what a celebration of learning feels like, doesn’t it?

Kathleen Nollet

 

Give Thanks for Family Stories

Thanksgiving

Did you hear the story of the Victorian grandmother who stripped down to her foundation garments to keep cool on hot days? She answered the door and frightened the postman. “Oh, dear lady!” he shrieked as he covered his eyes in shame.

And what about the story reminding you how grandfather banged his fists on the table before dessert and led his grandchildren in the chant, “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream, Tra! La! LA!”

Holidays like Thanksgiving create the perfect time to tell and retell family stories. They enrich a child’s understanding of family and the bonds that connect generations.  Stories about travels, traditions, and wars make their heritage real.  Even young ones are able to discern voices and generational differences. It draws children in to hear stories that deepen their understanding of time family lore and loved ones’ experiences that may span a century.

Mine is a family that likes to linger at the table after dessert and that lingering invites conversation that turns to family storytelling.  Some years I’ve taken videos of these priceless times.  These videos become part of my family heirlooms–storytelling by beloved family members that will be preserved for a long time. I’m deeply grateful for that.

  1. Listen to family stories this Thanksgiving.  Then talk about them in the car.  Ask your child, “What do you remember most?”
  2. Bring a recording device so you can preserve the storytelling.
  3. Participate in the National Day of Listening  http://nationaldayoflistening.org/   on Friday, November 29, 2013.  A part of StoryCorps, you can record your own interview with a loved one.

Kathy Nollet

The Sky Has No Limits

Diligence.  Patience.  Perseverance.  Every teacher and parent wants children to develop these qualities.  Aside from urging students to complete their work, just how is it done?

Consider parent William Mitchell, a father of ten. He loved astronomy and expected his children to assist him—as part of their education—as he observed the sky at night.  He showed them how to use a telescope to sweep the sky, observe, take notes, and record measurements.  As a result, two of his children, Maria and Henry, developed interests in science.  Henry went on to a career as a hydrographer and helped found the National Geographic Society.

And Maria? She discovered a comet at age twenty-nine, became the first American Professor of Astronomy at Vassar College, and is acknowledged as the first professional woman astronomer in the United States.

Maria Mitchell thrived in a home in which parents prized learning.  It took years of diligent study of math and patient observation of the sky until she discovered Comet Mitchell.  Later in life, she wrote that she never forgot the one-on-one time with her father on the roof walk as they observed the sky together.

Children thrive when their parents share their interests, spend time with them, and teach them.  Parents don’t need to have all the answers, either; for example, when William Mitchell had taught Maria all the math that he could, he found her a more advanced teacher.

We don’t need to be experts in astronomy to learn from the sky, nor must we expect our children to make fantastic discoveries.  But observing the night sky often is a terrific, family-friendly field trip. It teaches our children that there are infinite worlds for exploration and discovery.

Why Are Trees So Pushy?

If you ask your students, they’ll probably know we refer to autumn as “fall” because that’s when leaves fall from deciduous trees.  But do they know it’s more accurate to call it the “Get-Off-Me-Season?”

That’s what botanist Peter Raven calls it.  In this 2009 NPR story, he explains how trees push off their leaves when no longer needed.

Couple this with a visit to a nearby tree and you’ve got one of the best science lessons of the season.  Follow these three steps:

  1. Collect and display fallen leaves.  Include a branch with some leaves still attached
  2. Tell students that after they listen to the 4-minute NPR story, they’ll tell partners what they learned from it.
  3. Take them outside for a walk to observe trees in different stages of “pushing.”

Teaching science is about creating opportunities for your students to have individual, hands-on contact with the world.  You can enhance this lesson to make it longer or more complex, but the important thing is to enjoy science every day.

Plus with a word like abscission, your students will have fun teaching it to people at home.

Worms Conquer! Science Teaching For Us All

This year, Sam’s school hired a science specialist.  Every Tuesday she rolls her supply-stocked cart from room to room and teaches the science content students must know by spring.  Sam’s class’s 40-minute slot begins at 10:20.

“I hate to admit it, but I’m relieved,” he said. “It’ll free me up to focus on my kids’ literacy and math. Divide and conquer, I guess.”

Conquer science?  Yes.  Divide the responsibility? No—share the responsibility.

While Sam’s school made good use of a grant to address science learning, Sam and I talked about how to incorporate science into the life of the classroom.  It’s our job to help tomorrow’s scientists—who are in front of us today—learn to wonder, question, experiment and imagine.

Also, to boost my case, I mentioned that if worms could talk they’d suggest that Sam start a worm farm.

Worms are the perfect classroom companions and they teach while they work.  I shared my experiences creating worm farms from scratch:  kids bring in the materials, create the farm, add the worms, and by this point they’ve already learned a lot.  Sam wrote down a supply list:

  • A clear container, like an old aquarium
  • Dirt, worms, and leaves–students bring it all in
  • Dark paper or a paper bag to tape around the aquarium, so worms think they’re underground.

Let the students do everything, I advised, and leave plenty of time to touch and examine everything.  Then:

  1. Layer dirt and leaves in aquarium.
  2. Place the worms on top.
  3. Tape dark paper around the sides so the worms could do their work in peace and quiet.

My students decided to give the worms a couple weeks of peace before peeking behind the paper to see the magic.  Worms in tunnels!  Vacant tunnels!  Leaves munched!  Castings left behind!

The students’ curiosity exploded. They talked, listened, read, wrote, drew, measured, questioned, problem solved, researched and wondered about worms. The best assessment of their learning?  Overhearing students talk about worms with each other in casual conversation.

At times, no one gave the worms a thought and we focused on other science topics.  Then someone would wander over to the worms, pull away the paper and discover there was plenty more to observe and discover.

Of course, this isn’t just about worms.  It’s about creating interdisciplinary learning in science that works because it’s hands-on and fun. It’s naturally differentiated and inspires. It’s available to every student, all day and all year. Sam pointed out that it meets practically every goal in the Common Core standards, too.

Faster than you can say oligochaetologist, Sam was on board.  He also remembered reading a poem by Edgar Allan Poe in college–so here is “The Conquering Worm” for you to appreciate in all its gothic splendor.  Have some fun reading it before you invite your worms to school.

That Good News

Want to know the best way to involve parents?  Send home good news about their child before the first week is out.

And there’s no better way than to have students write it themselves.  With writing now taught across the curriculum, every teacher can do it. Even if you only have fifteen minutes, it’s time well spent:

  1. 3 min.  Create a writing rubric.  What do your students think matters in a quality letter home?  Find out what they know and evaluate what they need to know.  Keep it simple–it doesn’t need to be a forever rubric.
  2. 2 min.  Speed-brainstorm 2 lists of topics.  What new learning did students accomplish?  Looking forward, what goals do they want to work on?  Keep new learning and goals specific.
  3. 10 min.  Students write.  Make copies to keep on file OR ask parents to sign and return them.  

Afterward, send an email home to let parents know that good news is on its way!

The benefits?  Your first message home is student-generated, positive and specific.  Parents become involved in the conversation about their child.  Also, this lesson is naturally differentiated.  Students practice using rubrics, noting what they do well, and setting goals.  You wind up with the best kind of writing assessment piece–one that is organic and personal.

For students’ inspiration or reward, listen to Sam Cooke’s fabulous song Ain’t That Good News on American Bandstand in 1964.  The song is about two and a half minutes;  in the interview afterwards, he tells Dick Clark that he uses “observation…to observe what’s going on…to write something that people will understand.”

It worked for his songs and it’ll work for your students.

 

W-A-T-E-R

            What does this word bring to mind for you?  A cold, refreshing drink .…perhaps memories of diving into a favorite green-blue lake in the mountains…or a chemical substance necessary to sustaining life around the world?

            How about a moment that changed the life of a student?

            You know the story of how teacher Annie Sullivan persisted with her student, Helen Keller,  by pumping a gush of water over her hand while finger spelling “water.”  When Helen made the connection, Annie wrote later that day, “a new light came into her face…she was highly excited…in a few hours she had added thirty new words to her vocabulary”  (Herrman, 1998).

             This profound “w-a-t-e-r” moment in the life of a student is what we teachers strive for.  It’s part of why we choose to teach:  we want to make a difference in the lives of our students.  We want to change their worlds by opening up new possibilities of thought, seeing, feeling, listening, and doing.  We want to teach them perseverance as we persevere along with them.  We want to ignite their curiosity to increase their motivation to learn.  And our job is to create these w-a-t-e-r moments so they will discover the joy of learning.

              At the water pump, Annie Sullivan unlocked the world of language and learning for Helen, and that’s what you’ll be doing with your students this semester as you teach biology, calculus, reading, social studies, Spanish, writing, math, literature, art, and wellness.  As you begin to design your classes for students, keep this in mind:  What kind of experiences can you create to help students discover learning and make it their own?  What can students touch, feel, build, manipulate, draw, invent, create, move, construct, show, present, demonstrate, do

               Build these experiences into lessons every day and you’ll move your students closer to w-a-t-e-r moments.  Watch for the “new light that came into her face”—that incredible reward of teaching, seeing when the student understands.  We teachers set the stage for these moments through our training, dedication, and perseverance.

                What w-a-t-e-r moments have you experienced?  How did they happen?  What did they feel like for you?  What new light of understanding came on for you and your student?

 

 

Herrmann, D. (1999). Helen Keller: A life. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.