Profiles in Effective PD Initiatives: Perfect Pairs

We continue our series on effective PD initiatives with a case study from Pasadena, California, where teachers used Perfect Pairs: Using Fiction & Nonfiction Books to Teach Life Science, K-2 to thoughtfully integrate science and literacy lessons in their classrooms.

By Holly Holland

Perfect PairsThe Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and the Common Core State Standards encourage a balance of informational and literary texts in K–5 classrooms and expect teachers to help develop students’ literacy skills through learning science. However, many elementary teachers are more comfortable with fiction than nonfiction resources and often lack extensive background in science.

As both the library coordinator and scientist-in-residence at Jackson STEM Dual Language Magnet Academy in Pasadena, California, Mavonwe Banerdt knew she was in a unique position to help teachers thoughtfully integrate science and literacy lessons. When district elementary literacy specialist Alyson Beecher suggested that they focus professional development on Perfect Pairs: Using Fiction & Nonfiction Books to Teach Life Science, K–2 (Stenhouse, 2014), Banerdt said it took about five minutes to determine that the book was “perfect for what I wanted to do.” Authors Melissa Stewart and Nancy Chesley “go into each standard and what it’s trying to accomplish,” Banerdt said. “They talk about how, over a period of time, teachers can use fiction and nonfiction, how pairing fiction and nonfiction [with science] is great because you can reach the kids who are into each. But I feel the book has an additional bonus in that it presents a bridge from the ideas in the classroom to the real world around us.”

Perfect Pairs starts each lesson with a Wonder Statement, which is designed to address an NGSS Performance Expectation, and follows with a Learning Goal, which details the knowledge students should gain from the lesson. Matching appropriate fiction and nonfiction books to the science concepts enables students to investigate and reflect using experiments and engaging activities, as well as Wonder Journals, Science Dialogues, and Science Circles.

During the 2014–15 school year, Banerdt and Beecher began modeling demonstration lessons from the book for teachers in kindergarten through second grade. They chose three of the lessons for each grade level, trying to match the focus of the lesson to what Jackson’s STEM teacher had planned for weekly science pullout labs. Because about 80 percent of Jackson’s dual-language instruction is in Spanish and the Perfect Pairs lessons were in English, Banerdt and Beecher provided additional vocabulary study and made sure to include both oral and written language activities and extensions. For example, to help English language learners with limited vocabulary, they made color-coded cards that the children could use to match the correct words for animal parts to corresponding pictures. They also found a short video and played quick games to help students who had never visited a beach understand how hermit crabs move.

“We knew the authors had great lessons, but we had to make adaptations to our situation and students,” Beecher said. “Part of it was helping teachers think differently about how they use a book and integrate stories into the classroom curriculum, that it can be really tied into your goals. Then looking at science standards and how they can use stories, writing, collages, and physical activities to help reinforce those concepts.”

Beecher and Banerdt had only one class period, not the full week of classes the authors intended to develop each lesson. So the regular classroom teachers helped to prepare students by reading aloud one of the paired books prior to the demonstration lessons. For a second-grade lesson about how wind, water, and animals disperse seeds, teachers read Miss Maple’s Seeds by Eliza Wheeler and Planting the Wild Garden by Kathryn O. Galbraith. They also used discussions, dramatizations, art, and writing to deepen students’ understanding of the science and reading concepts.

“There are a number of great ideas in the book and one was to print out examples of burrs,” Beecher wrote in one of her blog posts about the sessions at www.kidlitfrenzy.com. “This was especially important for our students who are English language learners. Since we were unsure how familiar they were with the concept of burrs getting stuck on their socks and shoes, the visual examples helped. The students loved looking at pieces of Velcro and learning that it was invented by Georges de Mestral, who was inspired after a walk through the woods.”

Because they had to shorten the Perfect Pairs lessons, Beecher and Banerdt weren’t sure if the students would retain crucial information. They were thrilled when the school’s STEM teacher reported that students were so well prepared for science lab sessions that they could move more quickly through the content. For example, first graders who had engaged in a lesson about how an animal’s body parts help it to survive could richly contribute to the conversation about that topic.

“That was the defining moment when the school really bought in. Once they see it in action, they want to be part of it,” Beecher said. “We’ve definitely showed people this [high-level instruction] is possible and how exciting it can be.”

In addition, because scheduled parent visits to Jackson coincided with the demonstration lessons, many prospective families got to see the impact of the Perfect Pairs instructional approach. School and district administrators also observed some classes and later shared the ideas with other schools. Beecher invited faculty at other schools to see demonstration lessons at Jackson, and several have asked her to work with their staff during the coming school year.

Banerdt also discussed the professional development initiative at Jackson with elementary librarians throughout the Pasadena school district. One librarian obtained a grant to purchase copies of Perfect Pairs for every teacher in her school. Now Banerdt and Beecher are eagerly awaiting the grades 3–5 edition of Perfect Pairs that Stewart and Chesley are currently writing.

Stewart said she has been pleasantly surprised by the way librarians around the country have responded to the book. Recognizing that many elementary schools have limited classroom time for science instruction, they have seized the chance to help teachers integrate children’s literature with science concepts.

“I think one reason the librarian community has sort of embraced it is because they trust my reputation,” said Stewart, the author of more than 180 books about science. “I think it’s showing that Perfect Pairs has an appeal beyond the audience [of classroom teachers] it was intended for.”

Banerdt agreed. She bought additional copies of Perfect Pairs to share with Jackson’s staff, and plans to use funds from a STEM grant to buy many of the fiction and nonfiction resources the authors recommend pairing with science texts. She encouraged other educators to be open-minded about the careful choices Stewart and Chesley have made. For example, she said she initially thought some of the recommended poems were too sophisticated for second graders but saw in practice that the selections were just right. By contrast, Swimmy by Leo Lionni seemed too simple for first graders, yet it proved a perfect match for a lesson about how animals protect themselves. Banerdt said she considered the alternate fiction and nonfiction sources that the authors included with each lesson but ended up believing that the primary pairings were best.

“I just thought it was a remarkable book, how accessible it is for any teacher,” Banerdt said. “It has so many ideas and is so well researched. In California, lots of teachers are struggling with how to work with the Common Core and NGSS, and that piece is laid out crystal clear.”

2 comments August 6th, 2015


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