Read and Talk to Construct Science Knowledge
By Maralee Thorburn and Debra Schneider
Teachers in Tracy Unified School District, a CA NGSS Early Implementation Initiative district, recently participated in a lesson study where they planned a lesson to explore the behavior of waves in an 8th grade classroom, and had the opportunity to teach and debrief a portion of the lesson together. They agreed to focus on reading and talk strategies to increase students’ learning; this was a challenge for teachers who were comfortable teaching science but not as comfortable in supporting ELA literacy standards. Teachers were pleased to discover that these strategies gave students time to think, reflect, and cement their learning. The result was rich, deep discussions as well as evidence of content knowledge retention weeks later.
Groups of four students stood closely together around their flasks, holding them up to the light from the windows, peering intently at their watery contents. Their prompt: Was there something in the beaker other than water? Members of each table group passed the flask back and forth as they discussed their observations. When directed, students drew their observations in their sense-making science notebooks, most recording a flask holding only water. Then students emptied out the water and were surprised to find “growing spheres,” colorless, superabsorbent polymer spheres, inside the flask. Their teacher asked, “Why do you think you couldn't see it before? Discuss with your group." When the water was refilled, the grow spheres were no longer visible. “Now what do you see? After you discuss this, draw and label why you think this is happening.” Students made preliminary sketches, diagrams and models to explain what they were seeing in relation to the way waves behave based on what they knew about light waves.
Growing spheres in flasks without and with water. Photo credit: Maralee Thorburn.[/caption]
During this early stage of the lesson, students were directed to discuss at least three different times what they were observing and thinking, what they were planning to draw, and what they had drawn and why. The amount of knowledge about the behavior of light waves was widely varied, yet all students contributed ideas, even if those ideas were tentative or parroting another group member’s thinking.
Students working on models in sense-making notebooks. Photo credit: Maralee Thorburn.[/caption]
In this 5E instructional learning sequence developed by the teachers, students moved into the Explore phase. Students worked through a series of stations at which they explored the behavior of waves (following some basic instruction in laser safety). The stations included these activities:
• Using an app on phone to measure frequency of a tuning fork
• Pointing laser beam through various media (liquids, foil, wax paper, saran wrap, glass, different colors of jello)
• Using mirrors to create a path to hit a target with a laser beam
• Seeing colors under UV light and observing color changes when viewed through different color filters
At each station was a half sheet with question prompts for students to discuss and record their responses about how waves behaved at that station. Then students drew their observations and their current understanding of waves’ behavior in their notebooks. Students were explicitly instructed to talk, “At each station, I want you to follow the directions, observe and discuss what you observe using the half sheets, and take detailed notes, in drawings, labels, and writing, about what you observe and discuss with your team” (Science and Engineering Practice: Developing and Using Models, Crosscutting Concept: Patterns).
Before leaving each station, the team was asked to record two questions they still had, as an exit ticket for the teachers to review before the next day’s lesson.
DAY 2 (“teaching day” when the teaching team teaches together):
To re-engage with the previous day’s work, students met in their groups to discuss the following question, "How did waves behave in the four stations? Draw and label a model of what you now think or know about how waves behave.” Students made revisions to their models from Day One.
Next, teachers handed out a reading about light waves to each student (Science and Engineering Practice: Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information, Crosscutting Concept: Structure and Function). The reading was at the 12th grade level, with complex sentences in addition to new content vocabulary; however, the reading directly addressed the questions the students had from the stations and was chosen as being particularly engaging for that reason. The initial plan had been to “have students read the article.” But in challenging themselves to consider disciplinary literacy practices and the need to build better readers in science, the teachers had created a series of reading steps to scaffold students reading comprehension.
First, a teacher explained to students that they would have time to read, re-read, discuss, and ask questions about the article. This was to reduce students’ affective filter at addressing a complex text. Then she read the entire article aloud with expression and clear diction, while students followed. She directed students to discuss, in pairs, one thing they thought they understood from the article so far. Students took turns speaking, naturally using the text’s content vocabulary as they expressed their understanding.
Then the teacher asked students to return to the first section of the reading and to focus only there. She asked students to circle any words in that section that they thought would be important to pay attention to if you wanted to understand the article. She read that section aloud, while students listened, followed, and circled. Commonly circled words included light, waves, energy and electromagnetic radiation (Caution! See statement below the performance expectation at the end of this article.) Once this individual work was done, the teacher asked students to share their ideas in their groups of four, to identify the three most circled words and be prepared to share them out. When each group had shared out, the class was told to turn to their teams to discuss any patterns they saw in the keywords. This strategy was repeated with each section of the article and during this time, the discussions about the key terms, their meaning and relationships became richer and more complex.
At moments when new understandings were expressed in the discussion, teachers stopped the reading activity and sent students back to their sense-making science notebooks, to make modifications of their models showing their understanding of waves behaviors given what they were learning in the hands-on explorations, reading, and discussions.
Student teams discussed two questions about the reading from the previous day:
1. “What is one sentence that you think is the author’s main idea? Be ready to explain why,” and
2. “What are three sentences that helped you understand how waves were behaving during the station observations? Be ready to explain how you used this understanding in your model.”
Then each team made an explanation on a poster to summarize the article’s main idea and to explain how waves behave.
White board with group’s answers. Photo credit: Maralee Thorburn.[/caption]
On this day, the classroom teacher was alone, but her students’ discussion and knowledge sharing were so exciting that she photographed many of the white boards and texted them to her lesson study team members during the day.
SEVERAL WEEKS LATER:
During this lesson sequence, the classroom teacher had a student on travel study who missed the entire sequence of lessons and conversations with students. He had been given “equivalent” work that equated to studying some websites, taking some notes that he showed his teacher via his phone, and then taking the same quiz that the students in the classroom took. He had the internet at his fingertips yet he could not wrap his head around a question about light and refraction and the speed of light.
On his return, his teacher shared his quandary with the class and asked them what they could recall in order to explain these concepts to the student. Without hesitation, several students could explain in detail about light wave properties. When asked how they remembered this, one student said it was because they had observed and discussed the phenomenon, not just heard or read about it. This evidence is anecdotal at best but it does illustrate the importance for students to experience hands-on and minds-on learning that are interconnected with phenomena. The travel study student could read about waves and write about waves, yet would have benefitted even more from the hands-on experience and interactive conversations with his peers to have a full and deep understanding of the ways waves behave.
This process made clear the importance of selecting reading material that is directly related to the concepts and phenomenon. Because the reading provided some answers to student-generated questions, they were motivated to stick with it.
Allowing students to explore and discover knowledge in the reading instead of just “extracting” or “delivering” concepts to students required multiple close readings with different purposeful prompts or “lenses” for each reading. Teachers later discussed how providing a graphic organizer to help students organize their thinking while reading could be helpful later in the scaffolding steps.
Teachers were initially reluctant to spend much time on the reading or to allow much time for student talk, concerned about getting through a lot of the content instruction. Through this inquiry process of lesson study, they discovered the power of students debriefing a reading’s content and meaning. This interaction between students, and between students and text - and not just students and station objects - helped guide students to a deeper understanding of concepts. Of course, monitoring student discussions is a concern among teachers, yet these teachers came to believe that it was imperative to use readings this way if we want students to have opportunities to build deeper understandings of content. The payoff was many extended minutes of rich, deep student talk each day of the lesson sequence.
This experience showed the importance of reading in science and the value of student discourse about the reading and their shared experiences. The students’ ability to talk about their reading of the article constructed a deeper understanding of waves. As we delve deeper into what NGSS looks like in a classroom, we need to not be afraid to encourage reading and talking about the reading and their learning. The learning that will take place is worth the risk of “letting go” of the reins.
Develop and use a model to describe that waves are reflected, absorbed, or transmitted through various materials. [Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on both light and mechanical waves. Examples of models could include drawings, simulations, and written descriptions.] [Assessment Boundary: Assessment is limited to qualitative applications pertaining to light and mechanical waves.]
Caution statement: Students read about and discussed electromagnetic radiation in this learning sequence. Specifics of electromagnetic radiation are beyond the assessment boundary for MS-PS4-2. However, with no NGSS-aligned curriculum, the teachers felt the article chosen for the learning sequence worked best to support student comprehension even though it included details beyond the middle school level. The hands-on experiences and summative assessment, however, narrowed their focus to the broader idea of how just light waves and sound (mechanical waves) behave as emphasized in the observable features of the evidence statement for MS-PS4-2.
Determine a central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to supporting ideas; provide an objective summary of the text.
Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative, connotative, and technical meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including analogies or allusions to other texts.
Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 8 topics, texts, and issues, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly.
Maralee Thorburn is an 8th Grade Science Teacher in TUSD, a Core Leadership Team member for the CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative, and a member of CSTA.
Debra Schneider is the Director of Instructional Media Services and Curriculum for TUSD, a Project Director for the CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative, and a member of CSTA.