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

Posts tagged “Science

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…)


Letting Students Decide

I’ve found myself pondering the concept of student ownership a lot over the past year or so. The research is pretty solid on this: when you allow students to make decisions that impact their own learning, when you seek not just for buy-in but actual ownership, they respond more positively. Instead of just having them stop fighting against you, they are working with you toward a common goal.

Some things I have done to increase ownership have included letting students determine our classroom expectations, giving them freedom to select research groups or math partners, encouraging them to select their own books for independent reading, letting them decide the subject matter for their essays, and asking their input on small decisions such as whether to do recess before music or after.

But I’ve always maintained my “teacher control” on some things: guided math groups, guided reading groups, the general schedule of the day, the type of math homework I send home, the book I choose to read aloud to the class, which class we are partnering with for learning buddies.

Then there is another thing that I have always given myself 75% of the control over: the seating arrangement in my actually-a-little-bit-too-small-for-what-we-need classroom. I have allowed students to pick their group members and I have let them choose whom they would sit with, but I’ve been the one to decide how the desks are arranged, whether it was a series of rows facing the front of the room or groups of four or six desks that are facing the side walls of the classroom.

Today I did something that bordered on downright crazy: I let the students decide the furniture arrangement. And their seating arrangement.

Here’s how it happened: We had finished building our balloon-powered JetToy cars and today was the competition. We couldn’t use the hallways or the gym this year, so I had the students push all of the desks out of the way to clear space in the middle of the room. After seeing which car could go the furthest and which car could go the fastest, I gave the students five minutes to arrange the room. I told them that they couldn’t move my bookshelves, my desk, or my back table, but the rest of the space was theirs to do as they saw fit. Then I started the timer and watched and listened to the chaos. Without any one student taking the lead, the class worked as a team of 26 students and they arranged their desks in a way that they felt made sense.

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They were pleased with their work and excited to try it out. I looked at it and simply said, “Huh. I never thought about doing it this way. Interesting.”

One long row of nine desks at the back, a small column of three desks with a fourth making an L, a row of five meeting a column of four making another L, and a row of five in the middle. There are five entry points total that let me circulate the room as I monitor students and answer questions.

What surprised me most was that I didn’t have any small groups of best friends move their desks away from everyone else and form their own island of two or three. Even though many students chose to sit near their friends, they are in a big group and oriented in such a way that they can see the front of the room when necessary.

I think this is something I am going to do more often. I like letting students decide because I have found that they really do respond well to the empowerment that comes from being agents of their own lives.

How do you let go and let students decide?


So Much Going On

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.

Sorry.

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…)


What Is Technology?

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.”

Wow!

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?