CSTA Classroom Science

That’s My SCIENCE Teacher!

By Dana Nielsen

As I walk across my school campus, a second-grade student says, “Hi Ms. Nielsen.” I return the greeting, with a smile and a chuckle. The parents look at me quizzically, for their child is NOT in MY second-grade class. The student then enthusiastically says, “That’s my SCIENCE teacher.” I grin every time this conversation is repeated with a different student, year after year. For the 22 years, I have been an elementary school teacher, I have been “the science teacher” in a grade level wheel. (In order to “divide and conquer” the multiple subjects taught in elementary schools, many teachers participate in a wheel where each is responsible for a different content area). In fact, this weekend, while at a Girl Scout event with my daughter, an eighth-grade girl walked up to me and said, “I remember coming to you in second grade for science. I liked when we fed and took care of the mealworms.” She remembered learning about mealworms - six years later!

Being part of the CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative (EII) for the last three years has allowed me to become a better science teacher than I ever thought I could be. It has been one the most challenging, yet rewarding opportunities I have ever been given. Through the Initiative, I have been able to create professional relationships with other science teachers within my very large district and across the other districts in the grant. We have become a large statewide science family.

But how have the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and my participation in the Initiative changed my science teaching?  They have fundamentally changed what and how I think about the teaching and learning of science. They have changed everything I think about preparing engaging learning experiences for the students at my school site. Kids like science, so why does it matter HOW you teach it? Science should be fun, engaging and hands-on. It should not be memorizing a list of vocabulary or diagrams. My goal is to support students to become critical thinkers and problem solvers, making scientific claims based on evidence from their investigations. Therefore, it GREATLY matters how science is taught.

I have taken on several of the pedagogical shifts embodied in the NGSS that have forever changed my teaching:
•    Phenomena based teaching (connect lessons to real-world events that are relevant to students)
•    Introduce vocabulary through science lessons versus front loading
•    Reinforce the ongoing use of science notebooks

Phenomena is the driving force behind instruction in the NGSS. When teaching Earth science, I take my take, my students, outside and show them a rock that is about to break in half. I also show students photographs of trees growing out of rocks or huge rocks that are split into several pieces. Rather than telling students these are examples of weathering, I pose a series of questions: “What do you notice about the rock outside and these pictures? What do you think happened to these rocks? How did it happen?” Students are now tasked with the responsibility of gathering evidence from multiple investigations to explain the phenomenon.

Classroom board with questions (in blue) that drive student sense-making.[/caption] 

In science, introducing vocabulary after students have had time to explore an idea, rather than front-loading, is vital to building their language development and understanding of the phenomenon. Taking into consideration that there are over 80 languages spoken at my school site, I understand the struggle many of my students have with the “language” of science. If I were to do vocabulary development prior to an investigation, my English Language Learners would have no context for the vocabulary. By allowing students to explore the science first, they are able to develop contextual understandings in their own language and are therefore able to develop a stronger context for the vocabulary when it is presented. For example, after several hands-on explorations, I can introduce the term “weathering” and with the growing scientific understanding they are developing, the light bulb in their second-grade brain snaps on, and - POOF - meaning. Only after students have had opportunities for exploring and making meaning, do I introduce vocabulary. Following this, students write the vocabulary, definitions, and highlight so that they can be easily located in their science notebooks when later needed as evidence to explain their learning. In this way, science lessons support language development (see DiRanna, K., & Gomez-Zwiep, S. (2013) for more information).

Students apply science vocabulary after expressing their understanding of a concept they have been investigating.[/caption] 

Changing my thinking around the purpose and structure of science notebooks was probably the most difficult shift for me as a teacher. It meant I had to let go of control... of how the notebook looked...of what was included within it...of how it was organized. I had to ask myself, “Who is this notebook for- me or my students? What is the purpose of asking students to keep a science notebook?”

I have come to understand that in my classroom, notebooks are where students SHOW and EXPLAIN their thinking. The notebooks belong to my students, not me.

While this shift was difficult at first, I have found that science notebooks have become the most powerful tool to authentically assess student learning and understanding. I have eliminated the use of worksheets where students are graded on the number of right answers they get. Students instead create models of the investigations we are doing in class, make predictions, and record their data and observations in their science notebooks. They then use this collection of evidence from investigations and explorations to support and explain their thinking and learning around the different science phenomena we study throughout the year.

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The journey I have taken with the NGSS and the CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative has become a part of who I am as a science teacher. If you are feeling overwhelmed with where to dive into your NGSS learning, start by looking at the shifts document below:


I encourage you to jump into what you can do more of. Start by incorporating a Science and Engineering Practice into what you already do. Re-organize instruction so students are explaining a phenomenon. Stop hesitating and worrying about being perfect - begin your NGSS journey now.  You will be amazed by the depth of learning your students will be able to achieve and how your role in facilitating their learning will be transformative for your teaching practice.  Both my English language learners (ELL) and students with Individualized Educational Programs (IEP’s) are able to show their learning with the use of notebooks. Notebooks allow them multiple methods (model, labels, sentences) to show their understanding. Three years ago, the NGSS was a confusing tri-colored maze of acronyms that caused my head to swirl. Now it’s a comfortable old friend that both myself and my students love. If it’s even possible, my students are even more excited about science than ever before and showing deeper conceptual understanding. And I can’t teach science any other way!


DiRanna, K., & Gomez-Zwiep, S. (2013). High-Quality Science Instruction: Building Conceptual Understanding and Language Skills for English Learners. (A report from the Region IX Equity Assistance Center at WestEd.) San Francisco: WestEd. Retrieved from https://www.wested.org/wp-content/uploads/EAC_Science__ELL_Language_Development_11-20-13.pdf

National Research Council. (2015). Guide to Implementing the Next Generation Science Standards (pp. 8-9). Washington, DC: National Academies Press. http://www.nap.edu/catalog/18802/guide-to-implementing-the-next-generation-science-standards
Dana Nielsen is a Second Grade teacher at Doyle Elementary School, a Teacher Leader in the CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative for San Diego Unified School District, and a member of CSTA



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