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 “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

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

Now Online: Starting with Science

Even the most reluctant learners will observe a bearded dragon lizard, play with water, and be excited to see their little seed start to grow.
—Christina Ryan, Kindergarten Teacher

Imagine teaching a unit where young children are fully engaged, observing, predicting, questioning, and collaborating with their classmates. The stage is set for students to make connections, practice literacy and math skills, and enjoy activities that serve well-defined learning goals.

In Starting with Science, veteran educator Marcia Edson shows why inquiry-based science should play a prominent role in preschool and primary-grades classrooms. Readers will discover how inquiry-based science differs from “hands-on” science, the teaching strategies that are critical to fostering inquiry, and how this approach leads to lasting skills and content knowledge that students will carry into the higher grades.

Regardless of the depth of your science background, you’ll find practical suggestions for designing and teaching rich inquiry units—including a detailed example of a unit on choosing a classroom pet. Edson shows you how to integrate science and literacy, make meaningful assessments, and find ways to incorporate inquiry-based science into your already-busy schedule.

Starting with Science has just been published and is in stock, and you can preview the entire book online.

Add comment April 26th, 2013

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