Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Social Studies and Science in Literature

Miss Rumphius has been thinking lots about how and when (and if) we teach science and social studies in elementary classrooms, which books might be best for instruction in these areas (math, too), and the power of letting kids play outside.

Here's some good news from my 5th grade classroom on all of those topics:

Before break, my students planted terrariums as a part of their environments unit in science. Every group got the same size container, the same amount of soil and the same kind and number of seeds. Each container got roughly the same amount of light. The variables in this experiment were how they planted the seeds and how much water they gave their seeds. We did observations sporadically and in no consistent format. I told them to date each entry, to write down how much they were watering, and to measure their new plants, but it became obvious that they didn't always take accurate notes. They also experimented with ways to keep their observations: on paper in their Environments Journal, with words in the Memos application on their handhelds, with pictures drawn in the Notepad application on their handhelds, with photos taken with the digital camera on their handhelds, or some combination of methods. When they tried to graph the amounts and dates they had watered the first terrariums, and the growth of their plants, it became clear to them that consistent, regular observations are important if you are going to do anything with your data!

After considering the biotic and abiotic factors in their terrariums, the students made plans for new, more successful terrariums to be planted after break. They also insisted on a regular schedule for observations, and we will create an observation form so that they are sure to gather all the information they will need when it comes time to share the results of their new experiment.

Sometimes, no matter how much instructional time it takes, it's important to deliberately plan for a failure so that students have the opportunity to do an experiment over again and improve their methods. (No, I didn't tell them that I planned for the first terrarium experiment to fail!! Sometimes it's also important to keep your teaching cards hidden!)

To give them a bigger example of the fact that science is not a tidy, works-the-way-you-planned kind of discipline, I read Boy, Were We Wrong About Dinosaurs! by Kathleen Kudlinkski. I also want them to know that science is not DONE. There will be lots left to explore and discover when they grow up and become scientists.

I also read them A Seed is Sleepy and An Egg is Quiet by Dianna Hutts Aston. I asked them where they thought these books should be shelved in a library: fiction? nonfiction? science? gardens? birds? My students were in agreement that the two are nonfiction because of the inclusion of facts in the captions, but neither is the kind of book you would use to do research. Both books sparked lots of great discussion. At one point I was reminded of Scrotumgate. A student said humans don't have eggs. I corrected him and said that human females do indeed have eggs, and the student interrupted me to say, "yes, in their stomachs." No, I told him, not in our stomachs (that's where we digest food), in our ovaries. At a swift pace to head off any goofy embarrassment, I reminded them that even flowering plants have ovules and ovaries -- we learned that when we dissected flowers in 4th grade. The large picture of a chicken embryo in an egg caused another student to worry that he was eating baby chickens when he ate eggs, so we talked about the difference between a fertilized and an unfertilized egg. And then, thank goodness, it was time for P.E.!

About 1/3 of my class is involved in a weekly science enrichment pull-out. The rest of the class is working on a project for our preschool and kindergarten classes. I named the project "I See Science." We are taking pictures of anywhere in our everyday environments where we see science. (After another week or two of gathering pictures, we will create a picture book or multimedia project to share with the little kids.) An electrical outlet (the study of electricity), the geranium (biology), computers (computer science). Last week we took our cameras outside. We saw bumblebees, mud wasp nests, hyacinths blooming, a preying mantis egg case, chickadees, and budding trees and bushes. On the playground equipment, we found simple machines: ramps and pendulums and screws. I think they're getting the idea that wherever you look, you see science!

Rather than trying to cram the rest of this year's social studies content into the three weeks after break (before testing), I am going to use historical fiction (Blood on the River: James Town 1607 is our current read aloud), short nonfiction, and some videos and dvds to provide an overview of the remaining topics to build background knowledge that will help me to TEACH the concepts required by the state (after testing) rather than just COVERING the material (before testing). I'm really excited to share a book I found last week at Cover to Cover: Everybody's Revolution: A New Look at the People Who Won America's Freedom by Thomas Fleming. This book is full of great pictures, the text is very accessible, and his premise is perfect for my multicultural, multilingual classroom: What does the American Revolution have to do with me? Fleming highlights the contributions to the American Revolution of immigrants, blacks, Native Americans, women and children.

So that's my (rather windy) answer to the study that says we're not teaching science and social studies and our kids rarely get a chance to think.


  1. Hi Mary Lee,
    Thank God for experienced teachers! Yes, I know new teachers can do this, but I worry about all these young folks coming in and experiencing teaching only under this standards/NCLB/high stakes testing environment.
    I felt some remorse for my rant, because I do know there are lots of good things happening in classrooms out there. It just seems like I'm seeing less and less of it, especially in challenging schools. The kids who need this range of instruction across all subjects seem to get so little of it.
    Now the question is, can I send some of my students to Ohio?! I know they'd learn a lot from spending time in your classroom. Perhaps they can live vicariously by reading your post.
    Thanks for such a positive response.

  2. Anonymous1:22 PM

    Mary Lee, thanks for the recommendation for Everybody's Revolution -- I'd never heard of it, and my son will love it.

    Your science curriculum sounds terrific. I love the way you dealt with the egg question.


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