Thursday, November 1, 2012

Writing to Learn in a Science Classroom

It was definitely Halloween with jack-o-lanterns and costumes in the classrooms of our middle school.  With mad scientists on the loose, the pumpkins weren't safe.  This, I thought, would be a great day for me to sneak a peak in a science classroom--the day of the pumpkin explosions.

I spoke with one of the science teachers about having the students do a writing activity to go along with the annual pumpkin experiment. Students would be witnessing a chemical reaction that, when ignited, would cause an explosion.  This could be prime writing material.  He graciously agreed to allow me the lead during the first class period of the day.

I started with a little questioning about the day's activities, then asked the students to write a prediction of what would happen when we went outside.  They "hypothesized" that pumpkin guts would spray out or that the outer shell would collapse.  Some offered sound effects that called upon their background knowledge of the word "explosion."  I loved hearing their renditions of what a pumpkin would sound like the moment it was blown up.

Once students shared these predictions, I asked them to make a T-chart. They were to use the left side of the chart to record observations on three pumpkins while they were outside.  Because there were going to be at least ten pumpkins ignited, I thought it would be best to narrow the number of observations to something manageable.  We discussed observations as being what someone sees, hears, smells, and possibly touches and tastes, though that wasn't recommended for this particular experiment.  The right side of the chart would be addressed when we returned to the classroom.

We collected the pumpkins, filed outside, and sat on the very cold concrete entrance into the school. The edge of the parking lot became a science lab.  Students listened as one of the science teachers explained that what they would see was the result of a chemical reaction, but they couldn't share the names of the ingredients because they were fairly common household items.  Then, the first pumpkin was prepared and...barely anything happened.  Ah, but the chemicals weren't balanced correctly, the teacher explained.  The next pumpkin gave the students what they were hoping for--a dramatic POP!  I watched students write their observations and encouraged those who were not writing to remember their observations and try to write them down. Some students in the front row captured the event on video.

It was bitterly cold in the shade of the portico with the wind blowing, so after about eight pumpkins the students were ready to move inside.  After twelve pumpkins, they were eager to get feeling back into their fingers.  When we re-entered the classroom, I asked students to make general observations about the activity and the conditions of the day.  A scientist's work could be affected by the temperature of the lab and a number of other conditions.  "I am so cold" was a common complaint, but there was one student who said, "Even when I'm eighty years old I will come back and watch the pumpkin explosions! This is the best science day ever!"  It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out he loved the sights, smells, sounds--the experience--of science.

Finally, I showed the students why I wanted them to draw a T-chart.  They were to find a partner who made observations on the same pumpkin and compare findings.  Most students did a nice job of labeling which pumpkins they were observing and wrote more than one or two details.  There were a few, however, who had simply written "explosion" and seemed to find the others who had written just as little.  All the papers I saw, though, had at least one side of writing by the time the day was complete, even if the pumpkin observations themselves were limited.  When we returned to our seats, one young gentleman commented that they could use this as a piece in their school writing folder.  In fact, this led to a discussion of what kind of writing it was--writing to learn or writing to demonstrate learning.  Most agreed that it fit the category of writing to learn, though this writing was also allowing them to show some knowledge of science concepts.

Most students gladly gave me their papers with the expectation that I would scan them into their school network files.  Even though I guided the students through the day's writing tasks (as we do with many types of writing to learn assignments such as notes and brainstorming), these tasks and others could be stepping stones for formulating questions and developing creative inquiries in future science units.

That leaves us with the question that if students recognize writing as proof of learning, as a means to learn, and as a foundation for asking questions, why can't we as teachers be more purposeful about including writing as part of our daily curriculum?  I say make it small.  Not everything has to be a mountain to climb.  So often I ask my students a question and familiar hands will shoot up.  Sometimes they blurt out answers before I can call on them.  But when I ask the students to jot down a few ideas and give both the students and the ideas processing time before I call for "hands up" I will see different hands waiting to respond.  Those students, the ones with pencils in their hands, have learned how to think.

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