CSTA Classroom Science

An Early Implementer Teaching Learning Collaborative: Connecting Science and Literature

By Karen Cerwin

“I used to let myself get stuck on what my students don’t know instead of asking how I connect with what they do know. Every student has his or her own understanding and knowing where each student is at is challenging. Now I know that I have a responsibility in orchestrating student understanding. Working with my colleagues increases the effectiveness of my lesson design, my teaching practice, and my student learning.” — TLC participant

The Teaching Learning Collaborative (TLC), a K-12 Alliance professional development strategy for lesson study, began 20 years ago as a way for teams of teachers who attended institutes to apply their learning in the classroom. TLCs focus on identifying specific learning goals (content) that students should know and understand, and designing a learning sequence which helps students produce quality work.

Working in TLC teams and guided by a facilitator, teachers participate in an iterative process of “polishing the stone” as noted in Figure 1.

Figure 1 - Click for larger view[/caption] 

Teams bring their experiences and understanding about teaching and learning to the collaboration. They first plan for student learning by designing a learning sequence. They then team-teach the lesson. This is followed by a debriefing of the effectiveness of the lesson. Then, the team analyzes student work and transcriptions of teacher practice to determine whether the learning sequence design had an impact on student learning.

The learning sequence is then redesigned for student learning based on evidence from the classroom and then taught to another group of students. The process of looking at student work is repeated and the learning sequence is refined for future use in other TLC experiences or in the teachers’ individual classrooms.

Palm Springs USD is one of the Early Implementer Districts. Their first grade teachers have been grappling with the acronyms (CCSS, ELD, ELA, NGSS) and how they could “fit it all in.” They saw the TLC as a perfect opportunity to weave science and literature by using science as a context for listening and speaking, writing and reading text material.

The teachers arrived early for a full day of planning for a lesson. Surrounded by chart paper and post its, they began by clarifying their conceptual flow they began in the summer to address the selected performance expectation below:

1-PS4-1. Plan and conduct investigations to provide evidence that vibrating materials can make sound and that sound can make materials vibrate. [Clarification Statement: Examples of vibrating materials that make sound could include tuning forks and plucking a stretched string. Examples of how sound can make matter vibrate could include holding a piece of paper near a speaker making sound and holding an object near a vibrating tuning fork.]

The teachers recognized that they needed to think about the three dimensions of the PE. For the DCI, they knew students could identify sounds, but they didn’t think that students connected vibration as the cause of sound or that sound causes vibrations. As for the practice, the team was pretty confident that they could help students plan and conduct hands on investigations about sound, but they wanted to challenge themselves to use a piece of text as part of the investigation. The team selected a non-fiction literature book that they predicted would add more about how sound causes movement/ vibrations and vibrations cause sound and they decided that the book would be read after the sound explorations and children have questions to be answered. The crosscutting concept of cause and effect and patterns seemed a natural fit as for asking questions and probing student thinking about their observations from the investigation.

On the second TLC day, the teachers taught the lesson for the first time and had a major “aha” in student understanding. The team noticed the students were not able to generalize what is the same when all sound is made. Students did not observe that all sound included vibrations and when vibrations stopped, sound stopped. So the team added a step for the second lesson where students stopped the sound with their hands at each investigation station. As they stopped the vibration, they were able to connect that movement (vibration) caused sound and stopping movement stopped sounds. This change brought students closer to the learning goal of expressing the connection between vibration or movement and sound.

The team’s learning provided the basis for the following vignette for an article by Karen Cerwin, Laura Henriques, Susan Gomez Zwiep, and Peter A’Hearn for the science and literacy Appendix to the California Science Framework Science Framework. In addition to the revised lesson, a video clip of the classroom is available here:


Case Study Grade 1 Science and Literacy
Teacher #1 began the learning sequence at the carpet circle by asking the class to think, pair, share “What makes sound?” After students discussed the prompt with a partner, the team asked students to respond by verbalizing what their partner said about sound. Students used the prompt, “my partner said….” as the teacher recorded responses on a circle chart with sound in the center. The partner talk (ELD strategy) was then used to chart responses visually on the board. Responses on the chart included; my dog barks, my cat meows, the car makes sounds, phones make sounds, and I make sounds. The teacher for this part of the lesson was listening for the moment when children would mention they make a sound.

Teacher #1 then asked the children if they all could make a sound. Let’s figure out what happens when we all make a sound. (Phenomenon) She then asked students if they thought a deaf person would know if sounds were being made. She asked the students to touch their own throat when they said the sentence “I like to go outside to play”. She asked children to describe what they felt. Responses included buzzing, moving, tickling and wiggling. She added that the word movement could be called “vibrations” or “movement”.  Next she asked each student to touch their partner’s throat while their partner said the sentence. Explain to your partner what you feel when you touch their throat while they talk. She revisited the question about someone who cannot hear being able to recognize that a sound was being made. Teacher #1 then read a story to the class, I Have a Sister, My Sister is Deaf. In the book, students learn of two sisters. While one sister cannot hear, she can feel vibrations. The narrator describes all that her sister can do, including the sensing of vibrations. Teacher #2 tells the student that they are going to be trying to recognize and feel vibrations, just like the character in the book.

Teacher #2 next presented the class with a challenge to find out if sound always causes something to move or vibrate. The two centers to explore included water tubs with tuning forks and drums with grains of rice in the center of the drum. She explained their job is to find out if sound causes something to move and record in pictures or words what they observed. Children became very animated as they observed the rice jumping on the drum and the water rippling from the tuning fork. Teacher #2 asked questions that focused the students on the cause and effect of the moving water and rice. What causes the rice to jump? Can rice jump without sound? What makes the water move? Would it move without sound of the tuning fork? Teacher #2 observed the children could say that sound is the cause of the movement but not the idea that sound causes vibrations.

Teacher #3 brings the children back to the carpet to debrief what caused movement and further explore what stops movement. Questions include, what happened at both stations? Children are able to describe that something moved or vibrated when we made a sound. Teacher #3 goes on to ask students to think, pair share, “How can we stop the sound.” Responses include stop hitting the drum, as well as to stop hitting the tuning fork. What else could we do? One student says, “Hold the fork tight”. Teacher #3. uses the response for the next challenge.

Let’s find out if we can stop the sound if we stop the vibration or stop the movement. There are two centers for exploration #2. Children are asked to figure out how to stop the sound of swinging metal spoons with strings to their ears and stopping the sound of the tuning fork. The class quickly figures out ways to stop the movement or vibration and the effect is stopping the sound.

Teacher #3 brings the class back to the carpet and asked them to check their throat movement as they talk about what makes sound. Does your throat move? Do all things move or vibrate when sounds are made?  What caused the vibration/movement on the tuning fork or the spoons? How did you stop the vibrations? How might we stop vibrations and still have sound?  Can we stop sound and still have vibrations? Children are not sure if stopping vibration will cause sound to stop.

Teacher #4. asked the children to think, pair share about questions they might have about sound and vibrations? She charts questions including, “Can moving things make sound?”  “Can something make a sound and not vibrate?” Do big sounds make more vibrations?” “Do small sounds make small vibrations?” Teacher #4 charts all the questions and explains we can find out some answers to questions in a book. She brings out a book for a read aloud (or partner reading) about sound. She chooses a read aloud and asks the children to listen for the answer to their question or a question they like. She gives them a moment to pick their question.

Teacher #4 reads What is Sound? and asks children to see what information was in the book that answered a question. Responses are recorded next to the question. Some questions are not answered and Teacher #4 says she will look for books or things to try to explain those questions. She explains to the children that tomorrow they will make an instrument that vibrates and see if it produces sound when it vibrates.

The components and “flow” for the Grade 1 NGSS Early Implementer team’s learning sequence is based on “How People Learn” and are generic to the design of any learning sequence. They include:
•    Engage in a real world phenomenon (e.g., in the sound sequence children feeling movement when they speak)
•    Explore in a variety of ways to sequence the scientific concept with hands-on materials (e.g., in the sound sequence including making sounds and stopping sounds)
•    Debrief questions to help students make the connections (e.g., in the sound sequence between the cause of sound and the effect of vibrations and the reverse). Questions are critical to help student’s generalize explorations and build solid connections.
•    Read text to help answer student questions when students have experiences and questions to connect to the text information (e.g., in the sound sequence after students have experience with and questions about vibrations)

In a first grade class the literature may be read aloud or printed on a large chart. The words about vibrations and sound needed to access the text for ELD, as well as all students, have been introduced in context of the science explorations, charting, debrief questions as well as student partner talk. Students developed an understanding of vibrations in a rich context and described vibrations in their own words before the term was introduced.

Incorporation of fictional text with a science-based theme can be a nice enhancement to your lesson. Again, we need to be clear that this does not substitute for science instruction. There are many ways that fictional stories can support science instruction. Stopping at points to critique the science content, conduct investigations to see if what is reported in the story is actually true, and using scientific thinking to analyze what’s written all work to help students be critical consumers of information – all while appreciating a good story.

On another day Teacher #1 (regular classroom teacher) reads The Happy Hedgehog Band. This story is about animals who make and play drums and other musical instruments. The teacher reads the story once. The story is then read a second time with the class developing a two-column chart with the headings of “Real” and “Not Real”. Students are asked to listen for things animals can really do and things that are not-real or pretend. Debriefing the list will help students develop a beginning understanding of how fiction is different from non-fiction.

The teacher extends the exploration further by challenging students to make their own instruments. As they do so, they need to identify where the vibrations are occurring which make the sounds. The Happy Hedgehog Band book could be used earlier in the lesson sequence, before student make their own instruments, or it could be later in the sequence, with students referring to their homemade instruments and comparing them to the instruments the hedgehogs made.

The strategies exemplified in the first grade case study work at other grade levels as well. Below are short snapshots of how waves and literacy strategies can be linked together at other grade levels.

In 4th grade, students begin to explore waves in an Earth Science unit by making waves in stream trays to investigate how the amount of energy in the wave affects erosion on a model coastline. The use of a slow motion smartphone camera allows them to slow down the waves to observe their structure. They learn that waves with more energy have a larger amplitude and cause more erosion. (4-ESS2-1)

They then model waves with long stretched springs and are able to describe the pattern that more energy leads to waves with a larger amplitude and/or shorter wavelengths (more humps) ( 4-PS4-1). This leads to questions that can best be answered by text. "Do waves like light and sound, which are too fast and small to observe first hand, also have properties like amplitude and wavelength? After summarizing the patterns seen in the data, students generate a list of questions about how light and sound travel. The questions are used to focus interactions with the text. Through close reading of text, students connect these ideas learned on waves they can see and manipulate to properties of light and sound waves like color, pitch, and intensity that vary with wavelength and amplitude.

An informal STEM organization visits the class for several sessions to teach the students how to build and program Lego Mindstorms robots. Students learn to connect a sound sensor and program the robot’s computer “brain” to respond to sounds above a certain volume. The robot can react in the way that students choose when they clap hands or whistle loudly. They also attach a light sensor that can distinguish the amount of light reflected off an object and program the robot to respond to the intensity of light to stop at a dark line or choose between two differently colored objects.

Now the students have had enough experience to make text readings on the ear and eye and how they send information to the brain interesting and meaningful. They can also extend their learning by programming the robot to detect ultrasound and read about echolocation in animals like bats and dolphins. Students compare and contrast how animal senses work with the function of the robot that they learned to program. (4-PS4-2) ( 4-LS1-2) The readings are used to answer the question, "How do animal senses compare to the sensors of our robots? 

In 8th grade, learning about waves continues as students take a field trip to a local hospital and learn about the many ways that waves are used to help diagnose patients. Students observe ultrasound, X-rays, MRI, and CAT scans.

Back in class they revisit spring waves and begin to describe them mathematically (MS-PS4-1). They are challenged to use the smartphone App “Anechoic” to design a process to visualize an object hidden behind a fabric screen using sound waves. In doing so they need to consider the way that the sound waves interact with the various materials. (MS-PS4-2). They also learn some simple coding changes in the Python language that lets them visualize their data in many different ways to look for patterns. They will revisit this idea when exploring how telescopes work during the astronomy unit later in the year.

Students are asked to generate a list of questions about how information is sent by coding. This is followed by reading on how information can be digitized and transmitted, which they will relate to their own design and method of visualization (MS-PS4-3).

In high school the students revisit the properties of waves as part of an Earth Science unit on Earth’s systems (HS-ESS3-6) (HS-ESS2-2). Because much of the data that scientists use to understand interacting Earth systems comes from satellite data based on different electromagnetic waves, the students choose a type of data and do a research project to learn about a specific technology and how it works.

Teams of students work to answer the question about how waves are used in technologies that benefit society. The students are asked to develop a class list of possible questions to research. Students select a question or questions to investigate with a group of 2 to 4 other students.  They use the internet to find sources of information, evaluate them for reliability, and synthesize information from multiple sources to describe how the technology works to study things like ocean temperature, ground water movement, vegetation patterns, and weather patterns. (HS-PS4-5) (HS-PS4-4)

Karen Cerwin is a Regional Director at the K-12 Alliance and a member of CSTA



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