Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Two Annotated Lessons to Show How Concepts of Literacy Might Continually Intersect in a Science Classroom

Building on my previous post (a must read before this one), I describe two lessons here, labeling the literacy components of each lesson. For reference, connections to literacy strategies (L), disciplinary literacy (DL), and scientific literacy (SL) are labeled within the descriptions of the lessons below. Because each reference to disciplinary literacy (DL) would also be a reference to scientific literacy, for clarity it’s only labeled as DL (not as SL too). 

In a kindergarten classroom, a teacher puts a stuffed animal on a rolling chair in front of the room. The teacher asks, “How could we make ‘Stuffy’ move? Share an idea with a partner” [DL]. She then circulates to hear student talk [L]. She randomly asks a few students to come describe and demonstrate their method [DL]. As students share their method, she’ll be pointing out terms they use, particularly highlighting or prompting the terms push and pull. Next, she has students write in their science notebooks, “A force is a push or a pull” [L]. This writing may be scaffolded by having some students just trace these words on a worksheet glued into the notebook [L]. Above that writing, she asks students to draw a picture of their idea, or another pair’s idea, for how to move the animal [DL]. Some student pairs that haven’t shared yet are then given the opportunity to share and explain their drawing [DL]. Students are specifically asked to explain, “What is causing the force in your picture?” [SL]. 

For homework, students are asked to somehow show their parents a push and a pull and tell them that a push or a pull is a force [DL]. For accountability, parents could help students write or draw about what they did, or students would just know they would have to share the next day.
In class the next day, the teacher asks students to share some of the pushes and pulls they showed their parents, asking them to use the word force [DL]. She then asks students to talk with their partner about, “Why did the animal in the chair sometimes move far and sometimes not move as far when we added a force?” [SL]. She then asks some students to demonstrate and describe an idea for making the animal/chair more far or less far; ideally, students will push or pull with varying degrees of force [SL]. Students are then asked to write in their notebooks, “A big force makes it move more!” [L] With a teacher example as needed, they also draw an image of what this might look like [DL]. 

As a possible extension: how would a scientist decide for sure which went further? How would she measure it? The class could discuss and perform different means for measurement, standard and nonstandard [SL].

Middle School
Student groups begin with a set of rocks and crystals at their table. The teacher asks them to generate a set of science-related questions in relation to them, noting those questions in their notebooks [SL]. Each group shares one of their questions, looking for one that’s different from other groups and adding new ideas they like to their list [L]. The teacher then asks students to observe the rocks and crystals with a goal of generating a list of characteristics based on/related to those patterns [SL]. Groups share how they’ve characterized the rocks, adding interesting new ideas shared to their own lists [L]. Tools such as microscopes or magnifying lenses will be useful in their observations [SL]. 

Students next read an article on rock and mineral types, including characteristics of those rocks and minerals [L]. The teacher asks them to specifically find information on characteristics of the rock types that relate to or are similar to the list of characteristics (groupings) that they’ve generated [DL]. Finally, groups of students put their rocks into groups based on the categories and characteristics provided in the text, providing written rationale and evidence for why each rock would be placed within each group [DL]. 

Extension: Before reading the text, the teacher could also elicit background information and use characteristics generated by students to have them predict what types of processes would have been required to create these rocks and crystals, with the given characteristics [SL]. One possible question, “What do you observe about the rocks that makes you think different processes might have been involved in forming and shaping them?” Further, they could model and investigate where the energy involved in creating the rocks came from, linking processes with types of energy (such as gravity providing the energy for erosion due to water or the thermal energy of earth’s core providing energy for metamorphosis of rocks and creation of crystals) [DL and SL]. 

Concluding Thoughts
As I labeled the literacy facets of these lessons, I more fully realized how integrated these components should be in a classroom all the time. Effective science instruction constantly: 1) supports the literacy work that students do (L), 2) as it encourages them to interact with text like scientists (DL), 3) while they engage in meaningful scientific thinking and practice (SL).

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Making Sense of Literacy in Science: Applying Literacy Strategies to Science, Disciplinary Literacy in Science, and/or Scientific Literacy

Taking a hiatus from the pathway of my previous posts, I've been thinking about disciplinary literacy this summer.

Notions of literacy in science run in several directions that do not always have clear definitions or delineations. Several resources describe how teachers can apply literacy strategies to support student understanding. Current literature emphasizes “disciplinary literacy” in science, while longstanding commentary also emphasizes the importance of a scientifically literate populace. Below, I propose definitions for these three ideas--applying literacy strategies in science, disciplinary literacy, and scientific literacy--that connect the terms science and literacy, providing examples to illustrate how they differ. In my next blog post, I will describe two science lessons, one from lower elementary and one from middle school, showing how these strategies and frameworks intersect. 

Applying Literacy Strategies to Science
Generally, when I hear about science and literacy, it involves helping students comprehend their science textbook or other science reading. It’s a series of strategies from the field of literacy that educators can apply in a science context. For example, teachers could ask students to do a “close reading” of a text, pulling out specific vocabulary, key ideas, and answers to text-based questions. Or, a teacher might pre-teach vocabulary, and have students write the words in sentences and draw pictures illustrating those words. Perhaps students provide one another feedback on the effectiveness of a presentation. Did you speak clearly and emphasize a few main points? Did you have good eye contact? Generally, these strategies are useful, but they’re not science specific. They could be applied to any disciplinary context. These types of strategies are often mislabeled as “disciplinary literacy.” I would advocate they are not. Disciplinary literacy is not just a new name for reading in a content area. 

Disciplinary Literacy
Scientists have a unique way of working with text and communicating ideas. They read an article or watch a video with a particular lens and a particular way of thinking about the material. Engaging with disciplinary literacy in science means approaching or creating a text with that lens. Notably, the a text is not just a book. The Wisconsin DPI defines text as any communication, spoken, written, or visual, involving language. Reading like a scientist is different from having strategies to comprehend a complex text, and the texts involved have unique characteristics. Further, if students themselves are writing like scientists, their own texts can become the scientific texts that they collaboratively interact with and revise over time. In sum, disciplinary literacy in science is the confluence of science content knowledge, experience, and skills, merged with the ability to read, write, listen, and speak, in order to effectively communicate about scientific phenomena. 

As a disciplinary literacy task in a classroom, students might be asked to write an effective lab report or decipher the appropriateness of a methodology explained in a scientific article. They might listen to audio clips, describing with evidence how one bird’s “song” differs throughout a day. Or, they could present a brief description of an investigation they’re conducting in order to receive feedback from peers.

Scientific Literacy
Scientists use a set of skills that is broader than text, moving beyond the realm of “literacy” in terms of language, to specific ways of thinking about and interacting with particular phenomena. Therefore, disciplinary literacy in science is a subset of the broader abilities described within the concept of scientific literacy

Building on ideas from the National Science Education Standards (p. 22, 1996), scientific literacy implies a base level  of scientific understanding and ability that enables a student to effectively “ask, find, or determine answers to questions derived from curiosity about everyday experiences.” Literacy skills generally connect with science understanding as a student researches a phenomenon of interest or even watches the news. Further, scientific literacy and disciplinary literacy merge in the ability to “read with understanding articles about science in the popular press and to engage in social conversation about the validity of the conclusions.”  Further, “a literate citizen should be able to evaluate the quality of scientific information on the basis of its source and the methods used to generate it”--a process that requires an understanding of scientific practices along with the literacy skill of evaluating sources. 

Clearly, disciplinary literacy and scientific literacy work together. Because “scientific literacy implies that a person can identify scientific issues underlying national and local decisions and express positions that are scientifically and technologically informed,” our students must develop the skills and understanding to clearly communicate complex, scientific information through various media. They must also learn “to pose and evaluate arguments based on evidence and to apply conclusions from such arguments appropriately.” Argumentation with evidence is a literacy skill that applies across all disciplines, but it requires an ability to apply unique disciplinary lenses to evidence and communication methods to effectively carry it out in a scientific context. 

Continuing with the brief bird song example mentioned above, scientific literacy skills would be necessary to generate meaningful questions, such as, “Why do birds sing?” Or, further, “Do variations in bird song correlate with particular behaviors?” Students might start with making observations of bird behaviors and songs through a set timeframe, then comparing and contrasting bird songs. Determining a proper timeframe, sufficient subjects for study, and other investigation parameters would be aspects of scientific literacy. Effectively collaborating with classmates to conduct the investigation and communicating explanations with evidence would involve essential disciplinary literacy skills. 

In other words, scientific literacy encompasses a broader range of work with scientific practices than disciplinary literacy. Students can show some ability and understanding of science practices through text, but scientific literacy also requires physical performance of these practices. Further, it requires background knowledge, whereas a disciplinary task in science, such as creating an effective data table, might not require such knowledge. Students planning and conducting a chemistry experiment moves beyond textual interaction to knowing when to use a fume hood and how to be safe more generally in a lab. Scientific literacy also requires mathematical thinking and a comprehension of scale for effective study of daily phenomena. These skills come into play in defining and modeling a particular system, with all relevant components.  

A late addition to this post - great article along these lines in Science!

In my next blog post, I’ll look more in depth at two lessons, one from elementary and one from middle school, showing the intersection of these three notions of literacy and science.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Conducting a Science Program Audit

With a mission and vision in place for the science program, teachers will need to personally and collaboratively decide whether or not they have a sufficient understanding of what instructional practice looks like under that vision. In future blog posts, I’ll be providing suggestions for professional development on research-based science instruction. For this post, I’ll be assuming (always a risky plan!) that teachers have the skills and understanding necessary to evaluate their work in relation to their vision.

Therefore, to determine progress towards a vision, a school or district will first need to determine where they’re at now. A science program “audit” is a strategy to do that. It asks, “How well does our instruction align with this mission? How well are we accomplishing our vision? How do we know?”

Forming a Committee

Again having an audit committee will be a valuable guide for this process. While there could be some overlap with the leadership committee that crafted the mission and vision statements, the auditors should consist of outsiders, not district employees. A school will need constructive, impartial outsiders to give an unbiased perspective. Some suggestions for members of this committee:

  1. A recent graduate of the district currently studying science in college
  2. Community members working in science-related fields (healthcare, high tech, university research, etc.)
  3. Science education professors or coordinators (college, university, teacher professional organizations)
  4. State education department or regional education service agency science education leaders
  5. Parents
  6. Educators from neighboring school districts (would be great to have districts across a region support each other in this audit process)
The size of the committee needed depends on the size of the district. The committee would ideally be able to visit every school in the district and interview a representative sample of teachers and students across the district that includes some from every school. One strategy would be to have two auditors work together, visiting one school in the morning and one in the afternoon. Thus, in a district with 40 schools, 20 auditors would then be needed to complete all of the visits and interviews in one day. Of course, fewer auditors would be needed if the process was spread over several days. More in-depth audits could be conducted by one or two auditors over the course of several months, though an audit can be a unique opportunity to engage a broad range of community members.

Data Gathering

Before the committee comes to the school, administrators and teachers should collect and share useful data and information about the school/district science program. This data should be broken down by all appropriate subgroups and could include:

  • Assessment data: standardized test scores, district or grade level common assessments, classroom level assessment examples;
  • Descriptions of courses taught and typical student pathways: for example, it will be important to note if students from particular backgrounds tend to be in “honors” classes to a lesser extent;
  • Teachers’ license and longevity information;
  • Postsecondary pursuits: career or college/university pathways;
  • Any documentation of science program mission/vision and links to science department or teacher websites.
Information gathered before the auditing day(s) should also include broad-scale surveys to gather quantitative data on the science program. These could easily be created and conducted through Google forms or another free survey tool. These surveys could alternatively be developed, conducted, and analyzed by the auditor(s).

Student Surveys Example Questions
  • Elementary: at lower elementary the teacher would need to read and explain the questions. A simple yes/no might be most appropriate K-2. 
  1. I enjoy science class. [A lot, kind of, not really]
  2. We do interesting experiments and investigations in science [A lot, sometimes, not much] 
  3. We learn about scientists in class that look like me [yes, no]
  4. We study science outside [A lot, sometimes, not much]
  5. I get to study my own questions in science class [yes, no]
  6. I learn about things in science class that I wonder about in my life.
  • Secondary:

  1. I enjoy science class. [A lot, sometimes, not really]
  2. We do interesting experiments and investigations in science [A lot, sometimes, not much]
  3. We learn about scientists in class that look like me [yes, no]
  4. We study science outside [A lot, sometimes, not much]
  5. I get to study my own questions in science class [A lot, sometimes, not much]
  6. I learn about things in science class that I wonder about in my life or the world around me [A lot, sometimes, not much]

Parent/Community Survey Example Questions
  1. I am satisfied with the science education that my child (or our community’s children) is receiving [yes, somewhat yes, somewhat no, no]   Explain: [open-ended]
  2. Students are involved in science learning relevant to needs and issues in our community [A lot, sometimes, not enough]
  3. Students are learning relevant 21st century skills through science classes, such as analyzing scientific studies and evidence, communicating technical information, conducting investigations, and collaborating with peers [A lot, somewhat, not adequately]
  4. Students are adequately prepared for postsecondary careers or educational pathways [A lot, somewhat, not adequately] 
  5. Community members and experts are invited into science classrooms and to support science projects [A lot, sometimes, not enough]
Teacher Survey Example Questions
  • Select how much you agree with the sentence.
  1. I am comfortable teaching science. [Yes; somewhat yes; somewhat no; no]
  2. I have sufficient collaboration time with other teachers focused on science. [Yes; somewhat yes; somewhat no; no]
  3. I receive sufficient science-related professional development from my district/school. [Yes; somewhat yes; somewhat no; no]
  4. Our current curricular materials effectively support science instruction. [Yes; somewhat yes; somewhat no; no]
  5. I have adequate lab and related science equipment for effectively teaching science. [Yes; somewhat yes; somewhat no; no]
  • The next set of questions asks about frequency of various actions.
  1. I take advantage of outside professional development opportunities (not school or district sponsored). [At least monthly, five to ten times per year, two to four times per year, about once per year, once every few years, never]
  2. Students have opportunities to investigate their own questions in my science class [At least monthly, five to ten times per year, two to four times per year, about once per year, never].
  3. Our class goes outside or to other relevant sites in the community (or beyond) for science learning and investigation [At least monthly, five to ten times per year, two to four times per year, about once per year, never].
To better understand the “why” for the survey answers, auditors should also conduct interviews and focus groups of students and teachers based on these questions. This back-and-forth will allow for follow up questions and clarification. Focus groups will allow for greater synergy of respondents and will typically be more appropriate for work with students, where one-on-one interviews are not advisable for student safety and comfort reasons.


As part of the day(s) that the audit committee is in schools, they should be observing classrooms. Ideally, this observation will happen naturally in the flow of instruction, not just be scheduled for the best lab of the year. The auditors need an authentic perspective on what is happening in the day-to-day work of the classroom. Notably, auditors without an education background will need further guidance on what they’ll be looking for in classrooms. In addition to general, objective observations of what happens in the class, some specific prompts/questions that auditors could be answering include:
  1. Describe the classroom. How are desks arranged? What materials and space are available? 
  2. What happens during the class? What is the duration of each segment of the class? [lecture, independent work, collaborative work, and whole-class discussion]
  3. What types of questions is the teacher asking the students? What questions are students asking of each other and of the teacher? [Yes/no, clarification, one-right answer, logistical, deeper though required, etc.] 
  4. What type of work are students doing? [step-by-step lab, worksheet w/ one right answer, open-ended problems, peer discussion, arguing with evidence, modeling or investigating a phenomena, 
  5. How does the teacher establish whether or not the students understand the material? 
  6. How does the teacher ensure all students are equitably engaging in the instruction?
Bringing It All Together

At the beginning of the day (week, month, or year) the audit committee would come together with administrators and science teacher leaders to establish their roles and the plan of attack. They would receive guidance on what’s expected of them and a schedule, maps, and other needed support in accomplishing those tasks. Ideally, they would have tasty snacks (I prefer cake donuts and seasonal fruit, in case you’re wondering) and lunch available during the day. At the end of the allotted timeframe, the auditors will come together to discuss the data and observations as a group and collaboratively review the day. They should have feedback templates where they can create and share consensus comments of the group and their individual feedback on the day, though individual feedback could come back a few days/weeks later after auditors have had a chance to fully analyze the data provided from the school, their observations, and the observations of their fellow auditors. Templates would include the specific questions that the school/district wants feedback on from the auditors, as well as space for open reflections on the wide-ranging pieces of data reviewed.

After conferring as a group, the auditors should present their initial findings to teachers and administrators, with the opportunity for auditors and district educators to ask clarifying questions of each other. This discussion will need an able facilitator, as it is a time for teachers to reflect on the observations shared by the auditors, not get defensive about perceived negative feedback.

Once final feedback is received by individual auditors, either a primary auditor or a school/ district leader should combine the data and feedback into a final report. Several science department and leadership committee meetings will need to be devoted to reviewing the feedback and determining the next steps in moving toward the vision and mission for science education. 

*Special thanks to Judy Singletary of Stoughton School District for ideas on this audit process. 

Monday, March 23, 2015

Process for Creating a Vision and Mission

Perhaps you’ve decided that your school or district needs a vision for science education, what are your next steps? While you’ll have to determine the best approach for your context, I outline what I see as some critical steps here.

Your vision statement can provide a clear focus for your work, noting the crux of what students can do with their scientific understanding, but it does not lay out how to get there. So, I’ll extend my process for crafting a vision into a discussion on developing a mission statement – a concise roadmap for how you will attain that vision.

Clearly, you’ll need the right people at the table. This science leadership committee will be the champions of your cause down the road. They will be leaders and resources for science instruction in their schools and on their teaching teams, as well as advocates for science at school board and other community meetings. For example, if science-related controversies come up, they can readily share their perspective from a position of credibility as part of a district science leadership team. To inspire them to attend and feel good about the meeting, it’s essential that their voice is heard, that they have a clear role, and that everything is clearly communicated. Some suggestions for group members include:
1)      Community members – business people in science-related fields know what skills students need; employers have a critical voice and inherent credibility.
2)      Parents – they’re invested in having this done well, and they really need to feel that this is their school community.
3)      Teachers – the key here is the need for PK-12, vertical representation; students will be asking questions in preschool that they might not fully understand until high school.
4)      Students – they know what and who engages and challenges them.
5)      Administrators – particularly if they’re evaluating teachers, administrators need to understand what research-based science instruction looks like.
6)      Board member – could possibly be a person in another category above; board members have a voice in funding for science education when the votes happen.

Meeting One
Before the first meeting, ask group members to develop a list of important outcomes of science education. What do we want for all of our students in relation to their science education by the time they graduate? What will they have learned? What skills, what knowledge, and what dispositions?

An effective facilitator will make this a smoother process for everyone involved. Don’t just have the science department head or the administrator run it by default; be mindful of who can do the best job.

During introductions have each person share thoughts on why they are there (assuming it’s not just because they have to be). Then, begin an affinity diagram process. Have everyone write the outcomes they previously brainstormed on sticky notes, one per each sticky. Without talking (challenging for some!), post the stickies on a large blank wall and begin to group them. Anyone can move them to different locations based on themes they see (will want to warn people up front that others will be touching their stuff). The facilitator will decide when to ask the group if they’re done and end the process. He or she will then lead a brief discussion of each grouping of stickies, coming up with a phrase or sentence to describe each. If key ideas such as equity don’t come up, the facilitator might need to suggest additional ideas in this discussion (referring to other vision statements, like that in my last post, could be useful). Note: when ideas focus more on how (mission) rather than what (outcomes/vision), the facilitator will need to deftly move those into a to-be discussed mission area. While the facilitator will ask the group if the summary statement captures the main idea, he or she should make a point of not wordsmithing it with the group. In my experience, that’s likely to waste a lot of time and lead to frustration! (“I think we should say ‘the,’ not ‘a,’ as it’s a stronger declarative…”). On a Google or other shared doc, the facilitator will post these group statements in real time, and then show the group how they can go back later to suggest edits. After a set time (1 week?), you want the main understandings, skills and dispositions nailed down in order to get the process going, but acknowledge that the wording is not set in stone. When your science department advisory committee meets again in a couple years, they can fine-tune a phrase if teachers or others have found it doesn’t quite their work adequately. 

Meeting Two
Before meeting two, the facilitator or other designee will revise the vision elements based on the online feedback and craft them into a cohesive statement. The group will come together to vote on the vision statement (quick!) and begin work on a mission statement that details how science instruction will look in order to accomplish this vision. It could also detail the roles of various stakeholders in that instruction. I suggest going through the same affinity process again with follow up through online suggestions. Unfortunately, it will likely be more challenging, as members of the group will likely have different ideas on the best way to teach science. For example, how do you balance learning content, science practices, and scientific thinking? The NRC K-12 Science Education Framework, pages 25-33, might help in that discussion. For the mission statement, I would suggest either an online vote (wouldn’t bring people together just for that), or combining that vote with the beginning of a science program audit.

Next Steps and Final Thoughts
A science program audit is the next logical step in a broader strategic plan to improve science education in a district or school (notably, this strategic process that I’ll be outlining in these blog posts should be detailed up front). The science leadership committee and/or other stakeholders would investigate current science structures and practices in relation to the mission and vision statements—an “audit.” My next blog post will outline audit strategies, though at this point you’ll also want to ask how well science leaders understand the instruction laid out in the vision.
If they don’t understand what that looks like, they won’t be able to assess how well they’re meeting that mission or not, and some professional development will be necessary at this point.

An ending disclaimer here: I tend to be wordy. Some argue for a very concise mission and vision statement.  As seen in my last post, I don’t think I can capture my vision for science education in a short statement. It’s a substantial paragraph. There’s a lot I want for my students, and I want to have those key ideas at the forefront of what I do. My ideal mission statement wouldn’t exactly be concise either. Here’s an example:

“In order to accomplish our vision, teachers and school-based educators will facilitate science learning through having students engage in authentic science practices and reasoning. These investigations will include applications to real-world problems, meaningful to students’ lives and community. Students will fully engage in these investigations, asking questions and connecting scientific thinking to their lives in an out of school. Our community will provide its expertise in showing how science connects to careers and broader community and societal problems.”

I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on this process and the vision/mission from your school!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Establishing a Vision for Science Education

Does your district or school have a vision for science education? What do you want students to know and be able to do by the time they graduate? How do you want them to think about the world around them?

If you haven’t considered those questions at your school/district, I would encourage you to bring them up in your next department meeting or conversation with your administrator. I applaud the incredible, current efforts of districts around the state to improve their science programs, but what metric is being used to weigh your decisions against? If you’re looking at a new textbook, considering sending a teacher to a conference, or crafting common assessments at each grade level, it’s essential to ask whether or not those actions will best move you toward your vision.

The summary to the National Research Council’s A Framework for K-12 Science Education supplies a goal statement for science education that resonates with me: “by the end of 12th grade, all students have some appreciation of the beauty and wonder of science; possess sufficient knowledge of science and engineering to engage in public discussions on related issues; are careful consumers of scientific and technological information related to their everyday lives; are able to continue to learn about science outside school; and have the skills to enter careers of their choice, including (but not limited to) careers in science, engineering, and technology.” 

Building on this statement, I find it critical that these are goals for all students; I didn’t add those italics in the quote! I recently heard a teacher note that she didn’t have time her regular biology class for in-depth student investigations, though she did in an advanced class. How well does memorizing facts and getting through content line up with your vision? High school is the last arena for science learning for many students. It’s also the last place where they might come to see themselves as science people. Putting a student in a lower level high school class that focuses on content coverage over deep engagement tells him/her that they’re not really a science person, further confirming what they likely already feel. How do you address student mindset in your science program?

Appreciating the “beauty and wonder of science” also really appeals to me. That’s why I’m involved in science now. I’m curious about this amazing world around us. I can clearly remember the first time I looked through a powerful telescope. It happened to be pointed at Messiah 13, the Great Cluster in Hercules. It literally took my breath away. To date it’s one of the most awe-inspiring sites I’ve seen.

Image from www.nightskyinfo.com 

Relevant across content areas, students must be “careful consumers” of information in this internet-infused world. So, they should also possess sufficient knowledge to “engage in public discussions” on science-related issues. I recently had a Facebook-based argument about a current science issue. People I knew from high school were citing blogs as their sources, while I cited reports from the National Academy of Sciences (yes, it’s ironic that you’re reading this in a blog post). Students need to be able to determine what information is valid and how to interpret and question data they’re provided.

Finally, I really wanted my students to have the skill and desire to “continue to learn about science outside school.” When their children one day ask them questions about science, I hope they can effectively investigate resources and phenomena together to find an answer. “Learning” shouldn’t end at the school doors.

Please, leave a comment about your vision for science education!  In my next blog post I’ll discuss ideas for processes to develop a vision and methods to create actual classroom-level change.