The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Posts tagged “Science

Introducing Inquiry Workshop

Some of you may recall that I changed my approach to scheduling instructional blocks last year to create more workshop time for learning. I don’t think I really explained what, exactly, a learning workshop is. For those who aren’t familiar, a learning workshop is an approach to teaching that has a 10-15 minute mini-lesson followed by 30-40 minutes of independent work time and concluding with a 5 minute period for students to share what they have done with the class or small groups.

I have four major workshops set up for my students’ schedule: reading workshop, writing workshop, mathing workshop (yes, I know that mathing is not a real word; I use it anyway to emphasise that math is something that we do),and inquiry workshop (which, as much as I wanted to calling inquiring workshop, sounds better as inquiry).

Inquiry workshop is the time we have set aside for units of study in science and social studies. While I haven’t started any units for either content area yet, I introduced the concept of inquiry workshop this morning by having students complete a simple prompt: what do you wonder?

Each student then shared something he or she wondered. I let the students share anything at all. Some wonders that got shared included the following:

  • Why does Mr. Valencic wear ties every day?
  •  Why is LeBron James so popular?
  • Why didn’t it get very dark during the eclipse?
  • Why do people get sick?

After students shared their wonders, I introduced a website that is dedicated to answering questions like these: Wonderopolis. I showed the students how to find articles, the features each article includes (vocabulary, comprehension check, and text-t0-speech), and how to ask questions. Students may not find the answer to every research question they have on Wonderopolis, but they will certainly be using this site to explore questions they have about the world around them!

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The Great American Eclipse 2017

Many of my blog post titles over the past seven years or so have overlapped with other titles. Today’s is definitely unique in every way. (Of course, I will likely be writing a similar post in about seven years, but that is seven years from now; will blogs even be a thing by 2024?)

We had the awesome experience this afternoon of witnessing a solar eclipse; and not just any solar eclipse–this was the first full solar eclipse to pass through the continental United States from the Pacific Northwest through the Atlantic Southeast (totally not a term we use but one we ought to use). The path of totality was about 150 miles south of us, but we still got to witness an eclipse that covered about 94% of the sun and that was pretty cool!

Thanks to our fantastic district superintendent, every student and teacher in the district was given a pair of eclipse glasses so we could all watch at the same time (but not at the same place). Here are some things I learned about 94% totality:

  • 6% of the sunlight is dark enough to turn on street lights but nowhere close enough to being actual dark.
  • 6% of the sunlight definitely results in much cooler temperatures.
  • Watching the moon cover 94% of the sun leaves a pretty remarkable sliver of sunlight that is neat to watch through eclipse glasses.
  • My iPhone camera isn’t sensitive enough to pick up the moon when 6% of the sunlight is demanding attention.
  • My fourth graders still thought the eclipse was pretty cool and were excited to watch, even if they didn’t get to see the sun’s corona or the neat phenomena that accompany 100% totality.

My front-facing camera adjusted for the moon and showed the full circle of the sun.

My wife came down during the eclipse and took this picture by placing the eclipse glasses over my phone’s camera. You can see a tiny little sliver of the moon on the left, even though the eclipse was almost as total as it got in Urbana.

If I get the opportunity, I might try to travel to Carbondale, Illinois, in seven years to experience full totality. But if I can’t, I’ll still enjoy watching the eclipse wherever I may be!

(PS: I apologise for the lateness of this post; I didn’t get home until 8:45 pm and I am unable to update my blog from school due to network filter issues.)


Observe and Write

As the end of the year swiftly approaches, it can be tempting to cut out “extras” from the day to make room for the “essentials.” But, for me, the “extras” are essential. This is definitely true for the ongoing professional collaboration I do with Miss C, one of our kindergarten teachers–our Learning Buddies project. Next week will be our last time bringing our two classes together for the year, but that doesn’t mean that we’ve stopped doing amazing projects and activities with them!

The project we started last week and completed today was all about observing and writing. The students got to go to the outdoor learning space we have behind the building and observe something they saw in nature, whether it was a plant, an insect, a bird, or even a rock. As they observed, they drew detailed pictures of what they saw and then they wrote a paragraph based on their observations.

The role of the fourth graders was to be support and encouragement. The role of the kindergarteners was to draw and write as much as they could on their own. Both groups were responsible for talking to each other, helping each other, and staying focused on the task at hand.

Not only did my students get to be mentors and teachers for a brief part of the day, but they also got to see the fruit of their labours. They well remember that many of their buddies did not even know all of the letters of the alphabet at the start of the year and needed help writing their own names. Now these same children were writing entire paragraphs!

Next week we will have a celebration to wrap up this project, but today? Today was just learning as usual: collaboratively and cooperatively.


Inquiry Experiments

Elementary teachers in Urbana spent a considerable amount of time last school year exploring concepts surrounding inquiry. We talked about the different types of inquiry, such as structured, guided, and open. One of the goals we set as a staff across the district was to use more inquiry focus in our science instruction; to get students away from textbooks, articles, and videos and into actually creating, doing, and discussing as they explored concepts.

Some of the concepts that fourth graders are supposed to learn and understand don’t lend themselves very well to inquiry of this sort. Understanding that energy is transferred through waves, for example, is challenging to teach through hands-on inquiry lessons. Understanding that weathering and erosion can and do change land formations, on the other hand, is quite fun to teach through open inquiry!

We did this as a short three-week unit in my classroom that started before Winter Break and finished today. For the first two weeks, the students did a lot of reading, researched concepts, and watched videos that introduced these concepts. We wrapped up this week with one of the most open approaches to guided inquiry I have ever used.

I provided the students with a variety of materials, such as sand, gravel, plastic containers, and water, then told them that they were to work in small groups to plan, design, build, and demonstrate a model that would show the effects of weathering and/or erosion. I gave no directions on how to do this, nor did I tell students what I expected. My only requirement was that they found a way to show how weathering breaks up rocks and soil and/or that erosion moves rocks and soil to a new location.

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After making their plans earlier in the week, today was the day to actually build and demonstrate. It was so much fun watching and listening as they all worked together in their groups. Yes, they made a huge mess. Yes, there were hands stained green and red from the food dye that they randomly discovered and decided to use. And yes, there was a lot of talking and laughing and bumping into each other. But the students also all worked together as a class to clean up afterwards, to get the spilled water and the wet sand cleaned up and properly disposed of so that our room was once again a clean place to work and learn together.

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We let the models rest during lunch and then the groups did their demonstrations in the afternoon. We had models of mountains, hills, and canyons with demonstrations of rain fall, floods, and rock slides. The students gathered around and listened to one another and made observations about how water could cause both weathering (breaking things up) and erosion (carrying them away). They encouraged one another and helped clean up after the demonstrations.

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All in all, it was a fantastic end to our first week back after the Winter Break! We are going to move into a new social studies unit on Monday and I am really excited about the possibilities we have before us, but I am so pleased that my students were able to so confidently demonstrate their learning. They were especially excited when one of the fifth grade teachers came in and they were able to explain to her what they were doing!

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Return of the Chromebooks

It has been a long three weeks or so without Chromebooks in our classroom. There was an issue with the district’s cache servers shortly after school started that resulted in all devices having to be shut off and put away until they could resolve the issue. Today was the first day we were able to access the devices and wow, what a difference it made!

When I first got my cart of Chromebooks, I signed an agreement that I would infuse technology into my classroom practices and instruction. I spent the past two years or so researching websites and online learning tools, trying them out with my students, studying best practices of technology integration, and generally designing my classroom around the use of Chromebooks throughout the day.

Some people have expressed shock that my students access their devices first thing in the morning and keep them out until the end of the day. They are not on them all day, of course, but they are nearby and used much more than they are not.

During our mathing workshop, students use their Chromebooks to access sites such as Zearn, Front Row, Prodigy, and XtraMath to support and supplement their learning and help them improve on skills. The devices are accessed for fluency practice and for independent work while I am with small groups.

During our inquiry workshop, the Chromebooks become the principle tool for researching a variety of topics, keeping notes, and demonstrating learning through multimedia presentations. The students also use their devices to communicate with one another using shared documents in Google Drive.

During our writing workshop, students take their early drafts and type them into Google Docs, then use the available tools to edit, revise, and format as they prepare for publication. They also use the Chromebooks to research ideas and find better ways to express ideas.

During our reading workshop, the Chromebooks are used as students access eBooks through Storia, read articles on Wonderopolis and Newsela, continue writing that they started during writing workshop, and engage in creative writing through Storybird. They also record reading through sites like Whooo’s Reading.

On top of all that, we use our devices for online quizzes through Google Forms, Google Classroom, and Kahoot! Students take brain and body breaks with sites like GoNoodle and find ways to focus with music accessed through Google Play. (We have access to the full suite of Google Apps for Education.) They review and discuss digital citizenship through the Common Sense Media Digital Passport and share projects with one another, with students in other classes, and with their families.

Like I said, I have a technology-infused classroom. So we were all very excited when we were given the green light to start using our devices again! I can hardly wait to see what my students do with their devices tomorrow!


Learning Workshops

As part of my goal to have my students’ days full of inquiry and student-centered learning instead of traditional teacher-led lessons and independent work, I have organised my daily schedule around four major workshops. With one excepting, each of these workshops is titled by a verb ending in -ing. The four workshops are as follows:

“Mathing Workshop”

I decided to use the word “mathing” instead of just “math” because I want my students to think of math as something they actively do. We are using Eureka Math in my district this year, a curriculum series designed around the Common Core State Standards by teachers, for teachers. A committee of teachers in my district selected Eureka Math among many options as our new math series (replacing the old textbooks published by Houghton-Mifflin.) As the students become more familiar with the language and format of Eureka Math, I will give the students the opportunity to do math independently, with partners, and in skills-based small groups each day. We will also be using technology through websites such as Front Row, Zearn, and XtraMath.

“Writing Workshop”

I am continuing to use the Lucy Calkins framework for Writing Workshop to help the students improve their skills as writers. Students will have short 15-minute lessons each day on a specific writing task related to narratives, essays, opinion pieces, or other writing formats. Then they will have 30 minutes to work on their own writing as I meet with students individually or in small groups. We started this today with an overview of the format and then with students doing a quick write on the topic of pie. (I learned that some of my students, like me, love pie while others absolutely hate it. All of their beginning drafts were quite passionate on the subject!)

“Reading Workshop”

Our third daily workshop is designed around the Daily 5 and the idea that students benefit from being able to read independently, read with someone, meet with the teacher in a guided reading group, and work on developing vocabulary every day. We will also have daily read alouds and will read together as a class so that they can experience the fifth daily activity, listening to reading. Right now we are working on building up stamina to read independently so that we can start implementing the other activities later over the next couple of weeks.

“Inquiry Workshop”

My last workshop focuses on general inquiry, during which the students will be learning a variety social studies and science topics. I have been able to arrange my schedule so that this can happen every single day. Our social studies topics will focus on asking (and answering) one big question: how and why are we here? The science topics will be aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards and will focus on deepening students’ understanding of the scientific inquiry and engineering design processes.

I am really excited to use this workshop model for the year! I hope that my students are just as excited!


Shedd Aquarium and the Lake Guardian

Some readers may recall that I had the unique opportunity to participate in a summer workshop about the EPA’s R/V Lake Guardian on Lake Ontario three years ago. Part of this workshop included a commitment from me to include Great Lakes literacy in my teaching. I have done so and continue to be amazed at the depth of knowledge my students gain as they learn about the role of the Great Lakes in our lives and in the health of our world.

Several weeks ago I received an email from the Community Outreach Specialist with the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant who helped organize the workshop. She informed a group of us that the Lake Guardian would be docking at Chicago’s Navy Pier for a week at the end of May and wanted to know if anyone would be interested in taking their students on a guided tour. I asked my principal what she thought about it and she agreed that it would be an awesome opportunity if we could find a way to cover the travel expenses. After several emails back and forth, funding was secured and we were able to schedule a trip to Chicago for Thursday, May 19 (yesterday). In addition to touring the ship, we were able to arrange a visit to the John G. Shedd Aquarium. (Side note: despite being a lifelong resident of Illinois, I had never before visited the Shedd!) The last task was to secure chaperones.

I had initially planned on nine adults to accompany my class, in addition to myself. Parental interest was so high, however, that I was able to secure extra tickets. We ended up with sixteen adults in all! This allowed for very small groups of students, much more freedom for students to explore the Shedd, and the hands-down quietest bus ride I have ever experienced in all my years of teaching. (more…)