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.
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.
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.
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!
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…)
Wow. I know I have decreased my blogging frequency this year, but I just realised that it has been over two weeks since I last updated and that is pretty bad, even for me.
It has been a really busy two weeks. In addition to everything we have had going on in my classroom, I am in the final weeks of my master’s degree program (graduation is on May 14!) and I have been spending a lot of time after school working on collecting artifacts from my internship, writing reflections, and doing a massive online training module that is required for my principal’s endorsement. (Speaking of which, I am 99% certain I’ve mentioned this at least once in the past two years, but my master’s degree is going to be in educational administration and I will be receiving my principal’s endorsement so that I can one day move from the self-contained classroom to the principal’s office. I am not sure when that is actually going to happen, though.)
So, what has been keeping us so busy over the past two weeks? Here are a few highlights: (more…)
For the past two years, I have been the Instructional Technology Specialist for my school. This responsibility has been in addition to my role as a classroom teacher and is just one of many additional duties that I have taken on. I applied for, was offered, and accepted the role because I am passionate about not just using technology in the classroom, but using it well. Because of this role, I test out a lot of new things in my room that I then share with others and encourage them to try out. (Of course, some of the things I have tried out have been failures and so I just drop them completely and encourage others to not use them; I don’t blog about those, though, because I really try to keep this as positive as possible.) As the Instructional Technology Specialist, I am a member of my district’s Tech Cadre and serve on the Technology-Enhanced Learning Environments task force. I am also a Grade-Level Leader and work with other grade-level leaders in the district to identify and implement best practices in technology education at the elementary level.
When it comes to technology, one of my great peeves is when others describe technology simply in terms of 21st century digital technologies; i.e., Internet-connected devices. Computers, tablets, mobile devices, interactive boards and screens, projectors, media players, and similar things are all definitely part of the large umbrella of technology. But technology is so much more than just the devices.
Illinois recently adopted the Next Generation Science Standards as the targets for what students can and should be able to do and know at different grade levels. In addition to concepts and skills about earth science, life science, and physical science, students are also taught grade-appropriate concepts about technology and engineering. A great resource the Instructional Coaches in my district have made available is the Engineering is Elementary series. The series presents a variety of engineering tasks that correlate directly to the new science standards and also pair the activities with multicultural real-world texts and applications. Each unit starts with a fundamental question to ask students:
What is technology?
Knowing how I feel about the concept of technology, it should be no surprise that I was thrilled when my students explained that technology is “anything designed or created to make a task easier to accomplish or make the world a better place.”
That definition is exactly what I want my students to understand! To help further this idea, I had them work with their seat groups to identify an item on their desks (not a Chromebook), that was an example of technology and describe what problem it solves. Some of the items identified were glasses (they help you see better), headphones (they let you listen to music without distracting others), earmuffs (they help block out extra noise), and a ruler (it helps you accurately measure different lengths).
21st century digital devices are absolutely technology and they are definitely the first things people tend to think of when they think of technology; but technology is so much more than just the device. Technology is what you use to solve a problem. Tomorrow we will discuss what role engineers play in creating and developing technology as we learning about geotechnical engineering. In the meantime, I can rest easy know that my students recognise that technology is much more than the device that connects to the Internet.
How do you define technology?