50 Years of Change

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science for kids

Struggling as a Beginner ―Those guys are really small! exclaimed one of the boys as he peered into the large jar of pond water. ―That‘s a cyclops! I told him, handing over a magnifier. If you look closely you can see that she carries her eggs attached to her legs. Yow! was the response.

The water was alive with other moving things, so I transferred a portion to a smaller container and gave another boy an eyedropper to capture one of the microorganisms for examination under a microscope. When the scope was focused we could see the daphnia clearly, but I didn‘t immediately tell the children what it was.

For that we used a pond book to match the picture with what we saw in the scope. It was the early 1960s, and as a beginning teacher I was working with three children assigned to my second grade. They were there before school so I could help them with their reading.

Yes, I said reading because somehow the boys already perceived reading to be a chore offering little pleasure. I was determined to change that. We embarked on some extra time together studying pond water brought into the school from a nearby park.

A pile of books was used to arm the boys with facts and information qualifying them as class ―experts for a mini-study to be done with the whole class. During a structured reading group held every morning, we covered the basal reader and many of the accompanying lessons from the teacher‘s manual required by the school district. I tried to make those lessons as productive as possible.

However as the year progressed it was obvious that students I had concerns about were much more enthusiastic about our afternoon science lessons. I could see them using books to learn facts and master information. Eager faces and enthusiastic comments convinced me that I should capitalize on this.

Slowly, their enthusiasm for reading and writing improved as I provided books of real interest to them and incorporated teachings from our morning guided reading group. I ushered them into the world of pond animals, bugs, spiders, and earthworms. We observed and examined these creatures. Then we read and wrote about what we had learned.

Enter the District Reading Consultant

Although the district science consultant encouraged my ideas and applauded the results, word had gotten out to others. Soon the district reading consultant came into my room to ―help me as a new teacher with struggling readers asking what I was doing to promote their success. I explained that I often spent time before school with these children and proudly told her that at these times and during afternoon science lessons the boys ―turned on.

I added that they seemed to be much more interested in reading about science topics than they were the required reading text. The consultant‘s eyes grew wide, making her disapproval clear. She promised to be back later with a schedule so I could use more classroom time to ―put reading instruction first. Two days later she presented me with a new afternoon timetable and a few books from a new basal series she wanted me to use in the afternoon with the boys in addition to my morning structured reading lessons.

She was adamant that I scratch my science extras: ―After all, your most important job is to teach these boys how to read! I refrained from telling her I thought I was doing just that, but instead meekly took the plan. For a while afterwards I attempted an afternoon reading group using the second set of books, but it was drudgery for all of us. Soon I quietly revived my former activities. I have never been sorry.

By motivating with a subject of genuine interest to struggling readers, by gearing lessons to student needs for feeling important and ―in the know, and by reinforcing strategies taught during more formal reading instruction, I was sure I was onto something. My other students profited from my approach as well. The enthusiasm shown for our science studies and for reading and writing about what we were learning was reward enough.

Finally, Vindication A few years later when my class was used as an experimental group in my school district to see if students exposed to experiential science integrated with literacy instruction would fare better than other classes on achievement tests, I was pleased to learn my hunches were right. It pleased me to know my students did perform better on the tests, including the reading tests. I was also told that they did better on questions involving reasoning.

Back then teachers commonly taught in the manner they had been taught, which was the same way it had been done for decades.

Workbook page after workbook page was completed. Textbook followed textbook and basal readers alone were used to teach reading. Traditional methods along with a healthy dose of intuition were the mainstays of classroom practice. It was not yet known that reading and writing were natural compliments to rich science experiences. Information involving the ―art and science of teaching had yet to filter down from researchers.

We couldn‘t have realized the magnitude of what was to come and how the changes could help teachers expand their knowledge base, design classrooms, develop lessons, and refine techniques to enable their elementary classrooms to come alive with possibility, excitement and knowledge. Judy McKee is on the CESI Board of Directors and also writes the column ―What‘s Next for NSTA Reports.