Archive for August, 2013

Now Available Online: Nonfiction Notebooks

0952Many teachers use writers’ notebooks as an integral part of narrative and poetry writing instruction, but less so for nonfiction genres. Over many years in her classroom, Aimee Buckner, author of Notebook Know-How and Notebook Connections, has refined and expanded her use of notebooks to all writing genres. In her new book, Nonfiction Notebooks, Aimee shares a host of strategies for using notebooks to help students improve their nonfiction writing.

Concise and accessible, Nonfiction Notebooks will help you and your students:

• record craft and structure ideas while reading mentor texts;
• develop seed ideas, purpose, and vision by trying out different angles, tones, and formats before writing a first draft;
• write better first drafts so that revision can focus on such things as craft, leads, and sentence combining rather than extensive rewriting;
• create a place and habit of mind to write often and explore a topic, no matter what the genre, and become more independent writers.

The heart of the book presents 23 classroom-tested strategies for exploring topics, gathering information, predrafting, and crafting nonfiction writing pieces. Aimee provides snapshots of instruction, student and teacher dialogue, and dozens of student samples, giving readers a clear picture of how the strategies take shape in a real classroom. A final chapter on assessment includes a sample grading rubric, FAQs, two in-depth examples, and suggestions for formative assessment.

The entire book is available for preview on the Stenhouse website!

Add comment August 28th, 2013

Preview Online: Becoming Scientists

0978Children hold on to their notions with a passion. Teaching by telling does not necessarily help students change their conceptions. We cannot drag children into understanding concepts that have taken scientists sometimes years to make sense of just because the test is looming.

What would it be like to let students’ thinking, discoveries, and questions guide science teaching and learning? Students uncover and discover the content of standards rather than having them presented and memorized. Teachers pose provocative questions, facilitate conversations, make experimenting possible, and encourage in-depth thinking.

In their new book, Becoming Scientists, Rusty Bresser and Sharon Fargason describe the advantages of an inquiry approach to teaching science and how it especially benefits students who have been historically underserved by our schools. Drawing from years of experience in Sharon’s diverse classroom, they give teachers a clear picture of how to move toward inquiry-based learning.

Readers will find advice on classroom management, practical strategies for supporting English language learners, and a series of activities and lessons that illustrate how inquiry science plays out in a real classroom. The book also shows how inquiry science directly supports the Next Generation Science Standards.

You can preview the entire book online now!

Add comment August 26th, 2013

Preview a clip from “How Did You Solve That?”

0983Small-group instruction is a key part of developing young mathematicians and responding to the needs of each student. In her book Math Exchanges, Kassia Omohundro Wedekind helps teachers use small groups as a critical component of successful math workshops. Now in her new DVD, How Did You Solve That?, Kassia and her colleague Rachel Knieling demonstrate small-group math meetings with their kindergarten and second-grade students.

Viewers will see what small-group math exchanges look like, sound like, and feel like, as students learn what it means to have significant mathematical dialogue that results in deeper understanding and more effective and efficient strategies for solving problems. Kassia and Rachel offer commentary as they plan, teach, and reflect. Your staff will see how to:

  • group students and plan effectively for math exchanges;
  • patiently use questions and other language that supports (but doesn’t take over) student thinking and encourages student talk;
  • assess students’ mathematical understandings; and
  • respond when math exchanges take an unexpected turn.

The companion viewing guide provides background on each problem discussed in the small-group meetings, notes on teacher language, and discussion questions. The DVD includes a special 25-minute section focusing on frequently asked questions about math exchanges.

Add comment August 21st, 2013

Profiles in Effective PD Initiatives: Mamaroneck, NY

In our new series on effective PD initiatives Stenhouse editor (and longtime education journalist) Holly Holland  interviews staff developers and administrators about how a Stenhouse book or video changed practice in schools. We continue this series with a look at schools in the Mamaroneck School District. Teachers there embraced Peter Johnston’s work to empower their students through language and to make them resilient, self-confident learners.

Last year, when educators in Mamaroneck, New York, began reviewing a new state-approved rubric to guide teacher evaluations, many wondered about the criteria that teachers demonstrate a “growth mind-set.”

Assistant superintendent Annie Ward knew just where to turn for information.

Years before, while working in New York City, Ward had become a fan of Choice Words (Stenhouse, 2004), Peter Johnston’s book about how the language that teachers use shapes students’ perceptions of themselves as learners. Through classroom discourse, Johnston asserts, teachers can encourage students to become strategic, dynamic thinkers or reinforce the belief that intelligence is fixed.  A teacher with a growth mind-set might display student work that demonstrates progress, important insights, and the capacity for learning. A teacher with a fixed mind-set might display only papers on which students had received A’s.

As soon as Ward discovered that Johnston had written a follow-up book, Opening Minds (Stenhouse, 2012), she knew that the resource would play a pivotal role in the district’s professional development plans.

“It just seemed like the perfect text at the perfect time,” Ward says. She likens Johnston’s writing to “a single malt scotch in that you have to really savor it and read and reread it. There’s just so much there.”

Starting with a professional book study for district instructional coaches, expanding to summer training for all new teachers, continuing with ongoing faculty studies at school sites, and including a personal visit by Johnston this spring, the Mamaroneck School District has embraced the author’s work and used it as the centerpiece of a broader focus on providing effective formative feedback. As Ward explains, “How do we give it, how do we receive it, and ultimately what impact does it have when administrators give it to teachers and when teachers give it to students?”

Using Language to Change Lives

Mamaroneck, which serves about 5,000 students, is a largely suburban school district about twenty-five miles from New York City. Educators there acknowledge that they have only started to explore the richness of Johnston’s reflections about how “words change the life of the classroom” and the risks that students and teachers must be willing to take to learn, not just get the right answer. “Children must experience many things as at least potentially changeable, not just aspects of the world outside them, but also aspects of themselves—their learning, their identities, their intellect, their personal attributes, and their ways of relating to others,” Johnston writes. “In the talk of the classroom, we want to hear the threads of a dynamic view of intellect—indeed, of self. We want to inoculate the children against infection by fixed theories; we want them to say ‘I’m not good at this yet’ and to take steps to change that. Indeed, yet is a key word that we should regularly encourage children to add to their narratives” (2012, 27).

At Chatsworth Avenue School, principal Gail Boyle and assistant principal Katie Andersen led faculty study sessions of Opening Minds and also began observing classrooms to search for evidence of growth mind-set in practice. The following are just a few of the examples they captured in the elementary classrooms:

  • A child freely acknowledging “I don’t get it” and asking for and receiving help from a peer
  • A team of teachers who asked each other to return with ideas about how to collectively support a struggling student instead of just judging his deficiencies
  • Teachers carrying “cheat sheets” to remind them to use empowering terms when conferring with students

In the upcoming school year, Andersen plans to set up a lab site where teachers can model lessons using what Johnston calls a “dynamic-learning frame,” such as emphasizing that the goal is to learn as much as you can, versus a “fixed-performance frame” in which the goal is to look as smart as you can.

Andersen and Boyle also have tried to model the instructive feedback they expect teachers to give to students through their own interactions with the faculty.

“I do believe that people will grow, and we communicate that to teachers,” Boyle says. “We acknowledge the hard work they are putting in but we also communicate that we believe they can do better and therefore the children will do better.”

Adds Andersen, “If you talk with kids in the classroom, most can articulate back to you what they need to work on. I believe that’s because the teachers have given them specific and direct feedback in terms of where they need to grow as a learner.”

Dialogic Conversations

If people question whether young children are capable of thinking meta-cognitively about their learning, Kelly Brennan would beg to disagree. A second-grade teacher at Mamaroneck Avenue School, Brennan strives to create what Johnston refers to as a “dialogic classroom,” one in which “there are lots of open questions and extended exchanges among students. These are not classrooms based on the delivery of facts. They are classrooms in which there are multiple interpretations and perspectives—classrooms in which facts are considered in different contexts and in which people challenge each other’s views and conclusions” (2012, 52).

Providing feedback to show students that learning is a process of improvement is one of the ways Brennan puts this theory into action. During a lesson focusing on poetry and reading fluency, for example, she modeled how to read a poem and then asked for volunteers to follow her lead. At first, when classmates offered constructive comments about their delivery, the students felt dejected. But when Brennan stressed the value of the feedback from their peers and asked the students to try reading again, they not only improved their fluency but also asked to try more difficult poems to stretch their range.

“It’s fun to watch it happen,” Brennan says, when kids realize that getting better is “really the best learning instead of only being right.”

Brennan says she used to have dialogic conversations when she taught fourth grade, but reading Johnston’s book reminded her of the importance of establishing expectations for divergent learning in the primary grades too.

“I think sometimes in your career there’s just a book that comes along and it’s what you need to hear again,” she says. “This was a way to remind us to take a step back and figure out, ‘How do we find time to have these conversations with our kids?’”

The Capacity for Learning

After taking time off to raise her children, Kim Armogida returned to teach reading at Hommocks Middle School in time to participate in the faculty book study of Opening Minds. She took to heart the message that teacher feedback is a critical part of shaping students’ resilience.

“It was my nature to rush in to praise them to build up their self-esteem, but I wasn’t having great results,” she says. “So I went back to the book. I did a second read about halfway through the year and realized I wasn’t giving them enough time to struggle through it.”

She started writing sticky notes to remind herself not to jump in at the first sign of student hesitation. This was particularly challenging with a group of eighth graders who had never been successful with reading. Armogida concentrated on turning around their negativity by valuing their contributions and relying on their expertise to interpret literature and share strategies for finding meaning.

“I used Johnston to figure it out,” she says. “If you act as an expert, it cuts off their ability to figure it out together. I shifted the power back to the kids.”

When students looked to her for answers, she shifted the responsibility. Over time, both Armogida and her students learned to become comfortable with uncertainty and have rich conversations about racism, social justice, peer pressure, and other topics that gave their texts relevance.

“As Johnston says, we want to read for meaningful action,” she shares. “We want them to take it out into the world with them. I think the kids have been amazing, but they have to have the opportunity to think and the time to do so.”

Katie Nagrotsky, a sixth-grade English teacher at Hommocks, says she also had to learn how to stop rushing in to provide answers to her students so they would develop intellectual independence. She has pushed them to share the steps of their writing processes and to invite feedback from their peers, just as medical or law students might analyze cases from their own fields. At first, students typically offered soft commentary to curry favor rather than to coach improvement, but as Nagrotsky asked for more precision, they eventually sharpened their language to talk about maintaining voice, choosing quotes with impact, using complex sentences, and other important literary devices.

Assistant principal Nora Mazzone, recalling research that most of the feedback kids get every day comes from their peers, says teachers like Katie Nagrotsky provide value-added instruction. “If we model for kids how to give feedback, we’re helping our own work as teachers. We are guiding learning in a way that’s far more powerful than we can ever do by being one in a group of many. Katie’s work really exemplifies that, teaching them to teach each other in how they give feedback.”

Math teacher Paul Swiatocha says he initially struggled with how to adapt those principles in his classroom, believing that ambiguity has more in common with literary or historical analysis than computation or algebraic thinking. But, encouraged by teachers on his sixth-grade team, he began asking students to show their problem-solving strategies in addition to finding the right answer. Responding to students’ familiarity with the shorthand of Twitter, Swiatocha and Nagrotsky put the message #SWYK on their classroom whiteboards: hashtag, Show What You Know.

“That’s really what popped for them and got them to show the process,” he says, particularly as they prepared for the state testing period. “We looked at a lot of complicated problems and kids would say, ‘I don’t know how to do this.’ I would say, ‘What’s the problem about? It’s about area. Okay, what do you know about area? Write down everything you know about area.’

“On the state tests on open-ended questions, they get partial credit for showing substantial thinking about the content.”

Building on those practices, Swiatocha also encouraged students to put collective intelligence to the challenge of analyzing problems. The more he stepped out of the way, the more students stepped up, and in the process they learned to respect each other’s contributions.

“If a child gets 85 percent of the way to solve the problem, we’ll look at that solution in class,” he explains. “Somebody will be able to follow the thinking and fill in that last piece, and then the class has the right answer. You’re not chastising them for not getting 100 percent of the way. You’re celebrating, ‘Wow, you didn’t know how to solve it, but because you showed your work so beautifully the rest of the class was able to say, ‘This is the last piece we need to solve it.’”

Teachers and administrators plan to continue cultivating a growth mind-set this next school year. Reading teacher Nancy Capparelli says she wants to display classroom anchor charts of prompts so students can use them to initiate academic conversations, explain their learning strategies, and provide feedback to peers. Nagrotsky says she plans to emphasize the value of struggling, beginning with the first days of school, so students will understand that the most important work in class “is the thinking, the process.” And Mazzone says she will encourage colleagues to keep opening minds.

“It’s riveting enough to us that it’s a topic that’s going to stay on the table,” Mazzone says. “I think everyone feels this has been valuable.”

Acknowledging that much work still needs to be done, such as reflecting the growth mind-set on students’ report cards, Annie Ward says she’s nevertheless delighted by what’s happening in Mamaroneck.

“It’s been very exciting and energizing to see teachers and administrators at all stages of our careers respond and participate in professional dialogue and make change,” Ward says. “It’s attributable to Opening Minds and to our work on leadership and providing constructive and timely feedback at all levels of our organization. . . . We think this work is enhancing the professional culture of the district.”

Add comment August 20th, 2013

Blogstitute Week 9: Designing Interdisciplinary Units with Literature

To say farewell to summer and to the Blogstitute, we bring you one last post in our series. This one comes from Steven Wolk, author of Caring Hearts & Critical Minds: Literature, Inquiry and Social Responsibility. In his post Steve talks about the powerful resurgence of interdisciplinary learning and its benefits to students and teachers alike.

Powerful Connections: Designing Interdisciplinary Units with Literature

Way back around 1900, John Dewey delivered a series of lectures that went on to become a famous book titled The School and Society. It’s worth quoting him:

I have attempted to indicate how the school may be connected with life so that the experience gained by the child in a familiar, commonplace way is carried over and made use of there, and what the child learns in the school is carried back and applied in everyday life, making the school an organic whole, instead of a composite of isolated parts. The isolation of studies as well as of parts of the school system disappears. Experience has its geographical aspect, its artistic and its literary, its scientific and its historical sides. All studies arise from aspects of the one earth and the one life lived upon it. We do not have a series of stratified earths, one of which is mathematical, another physical, another historical, and so on. We should not live very long in any one taken by itself. We live in a world where all sides are bound together. All studies grow out of relations in the one great common world.

I would like to say that Dewey’s charge to teach through an integrated curriculum is back. Unfortunately, I don’t think it was really here in the first place. Yes, many teachers during the past century took Dewey’s inspiration and designed integrated instructional units, but as a paradigm of teaching and curriculum—especially in any formal capacity in the middle and high school grades—it is fair to say that school subjects have stubbornly remained within their own disciplinary walls. A few years ago, when my family visited my son’s high school orientation day before he started as a freshman, we spent a little time in a history classroom. I privately asked the teacher if, when students studied history in his class, they might also read a novel about that history, perhaps in their English or literature classroom. He looked at me conspiratorially and let it be known that that would not be happening: the teachers would never agree to do it.

Though the practice of interdisciplinary teaching was never really adopted, the idea is in the midst of a powerful resurgence, fueled in part by the interest in project-based learning, inquiry-based teaching, using technology across the curriculum, and making school and curriculum truly interesting and relevant for students. Many people today see an interdisciplinary curriculum as a foundation for twenty-first-century schooling. To see some exciting and inspirational examples of this in action, check out the projects being done by the High Tech High schools in San Diego (hightechhigh.org) and the school-community connections being made by Studio H (studio-h.org).

One especially exciting piece of the interdisciplinary puzzle is the use of middle-grades and young adult literature as part of integrated units. Imagine the power of students conducting research on the Vietnam War in social studies while analyzing the results of a survey on war that they created and gave in math class, creating a symbolic piece of art about the war (and their opinions about the war) in art class, and delving into Walter Dean Myers’s gritty young adult novel of the Vietnam War, Fallen Angels, in language arts.

Interdisciplinary teaching simply means to design a unit with more than one discipline. At its best, integrated curriculum is coupled with an inquiry-based and project-based approach to teaching. This means designing a unit around an essential question or a set of guiding questions (or theme) that includes at least one in-depth project. For example, that Vietnam War unit could be titled “Was the Vietnam War Necessary?” Ideally, an inquiry-based interdisciplinary unit turns a classroom into a true community of learners who are exploring real questions about the real world by doing real work and reading real texts. Teachers who teach more than one subject can do this in their own classroom, or—and this is often more of a challenge—teachers who are part of a grade-level team can design an integrated unit together. This is what I would like to encourage middle school (and high school) teachers to do: collaborate to design vibrant units that make John Dewey’s “one great common world” come alive.

Twenty-five years ago, when I began my career in education, it was implied that middle school teachers needed to get all of their grade-level team members to participate in order to make interdisciplinary teaching work. Sadly, this probably kept more teachers from trying the idea because, as any educator can tell you, it is truly a Herculean task to get everyone to agree to anything. Rather than fight those battles, many teachers just kept to their own subjects. But teachers certainly do not need all of their team members on board. Collaborating with just one other teacher can open up exciting possibilities for designing dynamic and creative learning experiences. What’s more, many unit topics simply are not suited for all school subjects. Rather than figure out a way to force science into a unit where it does not authentically belong, teachers are better off choosing the disciplines that truly work well for the given topic or theme.

As John Dewey wrote, life is integrated; school separated it. The only reason teachers need to design interdisciplinary units is because they teach in schools that divided the knowledge into separate classes in the first place. Life does not separate knowledge into neat categories walled off from each other. Even when experts work in their field, they aren’t limited to just their discipline of expertise. Scientists write, bakers read, every teacher engages with math, naturalists working in the field use art, and we see science every time we check the weather report. Life is far more interesting when it is integrated.

Bringing different disciplines together helps students make powerful connections. They see how knowledge and ideas and information relate to one another and how we can use different knowledge to see the same idea or topic or question from different perspectives, which cultivates critical thinking. Interdisciplinary teaching also opens up wonderful possibilities for creative teaching and learning. No longer are teachers limited to just one school subject. Once we connect a good novel to science, entirely new teaching and curriculum ideas open up. And, on an extremely practical level, interdisciplinary teaching creates new (and interesting!) options for satisfying the Common Core State Standards. Imagine students reading Operation Redwood in language arts and reading informational texts, such as a National Geographic article, in science about the science of trees and a New York Times article in social studies on the politics of the logging industry and environmental conservation.

Interdisciplinary teaching allows students—who have widely differing interests and strengths—to connect to topics they may not have an initial interest in. One student who loves to read fiction but has little interest in history can be motivated to learn about the Vietnam War by reading Fallen Angels, while another student passionate about visual art makes those connections through the art project, and yet another student connects to the war through his or her love of math and the survey project.                                

There is a unique power to using literature as part of an interdisciplinary unit. Far too often students see books—and especially novels—as strictly a “language arts” or “English” or “reading” thing. Although teachers would not want to risk hindering the enjoyment of a good story or turning a good book into an endless array of school “exercises,” they can most definitely use an integrated curriculum to help students make powerful connections from a book across content areas. Good literature connects to life, and one interdisciplinary unit designed with a book situates that life into the story of a handful of people, helping readers to climb into our interconnected world.

The quality, breadth, and diversity of middle-grades and young adult books teachers can use as part of interdisciplinary units are extraordinary. Never before have teachers had so many astonishing historical novels to connect to social studies, such as Never Fall Down, One Crazy Summer, Between Shades of Gray, Daniel Half Human, Chains, Milkweed, Jefferson’s Sons, Lord of the Nutcracker Men, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, and The Lions of Little Rock. Language arts teachers can collaborate with a science teacher using books such as Half Brother, BZRK, The Adoration of Jenna Fox, Life As We Knew It, The Carbon Diaries 2015, Operation Redwood, Exodus, and Carl Hiaasen’s novels such as Hoot and Flush. Some books, such as Ellen Klages’s The Green Glass Sea—which is set in Los Alamos, New Mexico during the building of the first atomic bomb—could be connected to both social studies and science. It can also be connected to reading nonfiction, such as Steve Sheinkin’s recent and outstanding award-winning book, Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon.                   

Just about any book can be connected to art by designing a good art project in response to it, which also allows (and challenges) each student to communicate his or her unique meaning and connection to a book. We can connect books to music too by pulling themes and issues from literature and having students listen to related music. For example, in my Social Studies Methods course I’ve had my students read Gary Paulsen’s harrowing short novel about slavery, Nightjohn, and then watch the emotional video of the jazz great Billie Holiday singing the famous song “Strange Fruit” about lynching in America.

A group of my graduate students designed an integrated inquiry unit for our class about the Middle East that brought together social studies and literature as well as music. One of the first unit activities was having students read the lyrics and then watch the music video for the song “War Again” by the popular Israeli musicians Balkan Beat Box. For literature, they read Deborah Ellis’s powerful nonfiction book of interviews she did with Israeli and Palestinian children, Three Wishes: Palestinian and Israeli Children Speak. After reading the book, they had students literally connect with children in the Middle East through epals.com.

One final suggestion for creating interdisciplinary experiences is using realistic fiction to make connections across the curriculum—which really means we are connecting that book to life. For example, when I’ve had middle school students read Paul Volponi’s novel Black and White and Walter Dean Myers’s Monster—both books involving our criminal justice system—students looked at data, graphs, and mathematical infographics on the incarceration rate in the United States and other countries. We also looked at data and graphs on teenage pregnancy when we read Virginia Euwer Wolff’s exceptional novel in verse, Make Lemonade.

Each good book creates its own world that we can use to create dynamic connections to the real world and across the curriculum. That “one great common world” awaits.

We hope you enjoyed this year’s Blogstitute. This week’s winner of a free book is Jessica. You can still receive 20% off and free shipping on any Stenhouse book by using code BLOG at checkout. See you again next year!

2 comments August 14th, 2013

Blogstitute Week 8: Planning for inquiry

As our Blogstitute — and summer — wind down, we bring you a post by Marcia Talhelm Edson that will help you as you think about your classroom for the coming school year. Her post is packed full of practical ideas for making each square foot of your classroom inviting to children to observe, question, learn. Marcia is the author of Starting with Science: Strategies for Introducing Young Children to Inquiry.

It’s August in New England, and that means it’s time for tomatoes ripening in the garden and the return of the Perseid meteor showers. For teachers it’s also time for back-to-school circulars and time to make plans for the new school year, plans for revising curriculum and assessments, and plans for reconfiguring the physical environment of the classroom. Designing classroom space can be especially challenging for pre-K, kindergarten, first-, and second-grade teachers who want an inviting, inspiring, and well-organized space for learning. There are so many materials, so many tables, and so many learning centers—where to begin?

As you settle into ruminations about classroom layout, why not start with your science center?  Have you ever thought about expanding the idea of a science center? Instead of having a table labeled “Science Center,” what if you set up your classroom so that science happens throughout the room:  in the book area, in the meeting area, near the sign-in table, and on the work tables? What would it be like to infuse science throughout the room?

That’s right: infuse science throughout the classroom, much like you already do with literacy opportunities. Think about the way children encounter science in their everyday lives. It isn’t limited to a singular place; rather, it surrounds them indoors and outdoors. For example, think of random summertime science experiences: following the beam of light during a game of flashlight tag in the yard, noticing the way popsicles melt on a hot day, watching the worms that emerge from backyard dirt and the way puddles disappear after an afternoon rain shower. Children may not extract the scientific theories behind these occurrences, but these situations confirm that science is part of our everyday lives. That disposition is something we can also promote in our classrooms. If we expand science beyond the science center, we can tap into a more authentic way of organizing science for children. By intentionally placing interesting objects, books, and experiences around the classroom, not just in the science area, we can develop children’s awareness of science and their expectation that science happens just about anywhere. It will also make science accessible to more children throughout the day.

This isn’t to say that a science center is a bad thing, but it can be limiting if it is the only place to look at interesting things and do science. Think about the way museums organize their artifacts. There are many exhibits, but often there is space for only two or three people at each exhibit. Rather than limiting science to the six seats at the science table, what if we had “smaller bites” of science throughout the room like the museum does—in other words, several spaces to look at interesting things with one or two friends. Picture a hornet’s nest and two magnifying lenses on the windowsill, a book on guppies propped up next to the fish tank, a flashlight on a tray with a question card asking “How does this work?,” an indoor/outdoor thermometer mounted low on the wall next to a graph of the month’s temperatures, a scientist’s backpack to take out to the playground, and nonfiction books on construction and simple machines in the block area. You probably already have some of these in your room, but because they aren’t in the science center you may have overlooked the rich potential for children to observe, question, predict, collaborate, and share their scientific theories about these interesting organisms or objects. Think about spreading some of these ideas around your room to make that push out of the science center. Here are some suggestions:

  • If you have windows, use colorful tape to block off an area for cloud watching and mount a cloud identification chart on the windowsill. Tape a simple question on the window to catch the children’s attention, such as “What clouds do you see?” A pencil and a cloud notebook could also be placed on the windowsill for children’s observations.
  • Instead of having one plant on the windowsill, put a few smaller plants around the room on tables. Small pots of thyme and mint have interesting leaves and smells to observe and talk about.
  • Place classroom pet cages in a variety of spots around the classroom so children will notice them and stop to watch. Prop a nonfiction book next to the cage, open to an interesting section about the organism.
  • Include a science backpack with the balls and jump ropes you take outside. Fill it with some magnifying lenses, a bug box, small clipboards, and field guides.
  • Set out items from nature chosen for the variety of their texture, shape, or size, such as seedpods, bark, cross-sections of trees, and uprooted plants with exposed roots.
  • Designate a special place—your classroom science museum—for displaying items children bring to school to share. It shouldn’t take up a lot of space. A tray on a bookshelf or small table works, with a clipboard for comments and a frame to hold a description written by the child. Work with the children to establish guidelines for managing and maintaining the exhibit.
  • Display topical nonfiction books along with the organism, object, or phenomenon they describe. For example, in the blocks, include books on architecture, construction, and simple machines; near the water table, include books on flow, dams, and glaciers.
  • Set up a tray for color mixing on a shelf in the art area with two eyedroppers and two small ice cube trays, food coloring, and a small pitcher for water. Two friends can play here when they have time.

Some exhibits may be part of an inquiry unit you are teaching, but even if you aren’t teaching a science unit, your classroom should have many opportunities for children to act as scientists. The idea is to provide children with a variety of interesting phenomena they can work with using the skills of science: observing, predicting, testing, questioning, collaborating, and sharing ideas and theories. It’s important to keep these exhibits simple and small, as well as relevant to the children’s interest. Keep an eye on their engagement. If you notice they aren’t interested in the hornet’s nest, refresh the display with something to rekindle their interest, such as a laptop or tablet with a link to an active hive. Or replace it with something new—something seasonal, a selection of rocks, your son’s turtle, something the children have asked about, and so on.

You can employ simple organizational techniques to ensure that the materials and display are taken care of by the children. You probably use these in other areas of the classroom already:

  • Trays for display of materials
  • Labels and outlines that give children a clear understanding of how materials are put away
  • Small throw rugs that can be rolled out to establish an observation space for two children and then rolled back up
  • A couple of magnifying lenses placed next to organisms or things that are worth a close look

Most of all, take time to join the children in their observations. Savor their curiosity and wonder. Listen to their comments and questions, bring those comments to group meetings, or use them as a source for writing workshop. You’ll be amazed at the connections you can make to science, literacy, and mathematics. By expanding science from the science center into the mainstream classroom space, we as teachers will experience a keener awareness of the kinds of materials and displays that can incite inquiry, interest, and immersion in science.

Leave a comment on this post and win a free Stenhouse books! Last week’s winner is Tracy. You can also use code BLOG on the Stenhouse website to receive 20% off your purchase, only while the Blogstitute lasts!

8 comments August 7th, 2013


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