You can enhance reading and math instruction and learning by engaging kids in science.

That’s right. It has been done. It has a proven track record. This concept has been taught by reading and science faculty at the University of Delaware (I know this to be true because I took their Science and Literacy course.) and by adjunct instructors in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania (I know this to be true because I was a co-facilitator, along with Linda Poorman, for the Penn Literacy Network course PLN7: Integrating Literacy and Science.).

I am a science teacher. However, I am no longer teaching science. However, it is still a practice and a subject near & dear to my heart. There was so much fine work put into revising and revamping the curriculum and materials and instructional practice for elementary and middle school science in this state–all fourteen school districts that include elementary schools and an entire five years were dedicated to this project–that I can no longer sit by and allow this opportunity to be ignored, squandered, or forgotten.

[I was awakened from my complacent state during a Q & A session with folks from USDOE  this past spring by a simple, interesting question from the superintendent of one of our school districts. He asked, and I paraphrase here, “What could we or should we be doing to better prepare our younger students for STEM (science-technology-engineering-math) programs and initiatives in our high schools?”

“Oo-oo! Call on me!”  I knew the answer to that one. And so, in a room full of VIP’s, I spoke up to proclaim, “We already have almost everything we need in place. We have a world-class, nationally-renowned, state-wide science program developed and introduced by teacher leaders, and adopted by districts (including yours) a decade ago. This program is capable of preparing students not just for STEM, but for the future as science-literate adults and informed citizens. All we need to do is recognize what we have and make it functional once again in the effective, efficient, productive way it once was.”

Ta-da! And the crowds cheered. No, they didn’t—that was just my imagination. LOL

Science was first put on the back burner about 10-11 years ago. I remember the first of my Coalition Science Specialist (CSS) colleagues showing up at a weekly Science Coalition meeting in 2001 with the news that their schools or their district had decided to dedicate more time to reading and math instruction and less time to science and social studies. We all lamented this news. The new science program had been initiated in earnest in 1997, and was generally well-received and well-supported by district administrators, principals, Science Lead Teachers, and by many of the K-6 classroom teachers around the state. By that time, hundreds of elementary teachers had been trained in one of more of the kits at their grade level. But, this was also the time that No Child Left Behind really gained strength and the results of statewide test of reading and math began to take on greater and greater significance.

The result? Test scores in reading and math trumped elementary science education in a state that derived great prominence and financial reward from corporate, industrial, and even smaller business success in science-related work, invention, and production.

This begs a few questions–does it not?

I taught 3rd grade (with a few 4th grade years) for 17 years (fall 1972- spring 1989), so I know how little time had traditionally been left over for science back then. I always felt guilty about the lack of time, the lack of materials, and the lack of training/PD related to science education. Even when the old Alexis I. du Pont School District introduced (probably around 1974) the SCIS science program—a program that was way ahead of its time—the adoption of this curriculum and instructional materials came with little more than a 2-3 hour introductory in-service for teachers who were totally unprepared to understand or appreciate the difference. I know that I had absolutely no idea what it was all about or what to do with the stuff—and there was a lot of stuff. I wish I had known then what I know now.  I wish that there had been meaningful assistance back then to help me become capable and confident—ready to make the most of this kind of program.

Throughout much of my teaching career, I had been amazed by how little supervision there had been of teachers and what they did with the 6-7 hours they spent with students day after day in rooms with closed doors. (Principals in many schools actually tell teachers to keep their doors shut. Phil Reed—my all-time fav principal—was the only guy who asked us to keep doors open. I liked that.) We used to joke that the principal had virtually no idea what we were doing.

The surprising thing was that for the most part, we were all doing what we were assigned to do, what we were supposed to do, and what kids and parents—my own greatest accountability agents—expected us to do.

So, here we were in the early part of the 21st century with principals (primarily), and superintendents (occasionally), directing elementary teachers to dedicate increasing minutes and hours to reading and math, and to spend less and less time on science.

Look, it was not like science had been taking up more than its fair share of the teaching day, for crissake. Believe me. K-1-2-3-4-5-6 teachers have never had to have pointed out to them that reading and math are the top two subjects—the ones that serve as the underpinnings for school success, additional learning, and well, the FUTURE.

We get that—we always have. Teachers get the distinction between learning to read and reading to learn. Teachers know how important it is to move students to a level of reading security by the end of third grade. Teachers understand the value of a good foundation of arithmetic and math skills. You can count on it.

So, let’s not let the dearth of sustained K-6 science instruction be blamed on teachers. Granted, there may have been some teachers who were grateful to be relieved of major science responsibilities. Many teachers would be glad to make time for proper science.

So, what’s so engaging about science?

I used to struggle with kids and science instruction. They thought it was HARD. Heck, many of them had been told by their mother and their Auntie that it was HARD. Elementary science instruction used to be pretty much confined to textbooks. For those kids who could not read well, it was HARD. And, BORING. Oh, my gosh—sitting around for 30 minutes reading science, or worse yet—listening to other students read page after page of science text aloud for the class—is BORING. Sometimes the text was very challenging—above grade level for comprehension, filled with peculiar and unfamiliar words. Other texts were sort of dumbed down and poorly written.

Some kids had been led to believe that science was for someone else—that science was for those smart kids over there, or for those old white guys in lab coats. Science was something you endured.

Many science lessons were episodic, disconnected from the real world outside the classroom, and often did not hang together to present a larger body of understanding and knowledge. A little of this; a little of that. It could be sort of confusing. Some of it seemed irrelevant to kids—the kind of stuff that makes them ask, “What would I ever do with this kind of information?”

On the other hand, Coalition Science (misnamed by the public as Smithsonian Science) was, according to many kids, fun and interesting. It was inquiry-based, to some degree. In other words, kids constructed knowledge and understanding about the big ideas of the kit—kids uncovered information and data as they worked through the 16-20 lessons. It was hands-on, and required kids to work in teams or with a partner. It was relevant; lessons were linked, and made direct connections to the world.

One bright moment for me was when Jeremy raised his hand during our study of Magnets and Motors and announced, “Guess what I just noticed. The ideas in lesson 7 go all the way back to what we did in lessons 3 and 4!” And, he was right—they did. Talk about a satisfying observation.

Speaking of observation, this kind of science is based on science process skills—the skills and strategies that scientists are trained to use as they do science. The process skills on which our instruction primarily focused included: observation, classification, measurement, communication, prediction, experimentation, analysis and inference.

Parents told me that their kids loved science. Kids showed me that they liked science. Between 2002 and 2007, I could count on being able to remind 6th graders about all of the great geology they had already had: 2nd grade Soils; 3rd grade Earth Materials; 4th grade Land and Water; and they would all nod their heads and smile, and remind each other of key elements and lessons from each kit.  These three kits spiraled up to 6th grade’s Earth History kit—a kit set in the Grand Canyon, a place where the earth’s geologic history can be seen in the layers of rock exposed by the Colorado River—so, it was important for me to make the connections to earlier science lessons explicit and to use what they had already learned as part of my instruction.

By 2008, I was already starting to see more dull stares and shaking heads of students who could not recall these kits and others, not because of poor memories, but because they had done so little science in 2nd -5th grades. In my last two years, I had way too many kids report that they never got to such and such a kit, or that they got science every other week or month or marking period. I know those kits—they take from 6-9 weeks to instruct, assuming that you have science for a full 45 minutes to an hour, at least every other day.  There are three kits in grades K-2. After that, it’s four kits per year per grade. That’s a lot of missed learning opportunities.

So, how can a good science program impact reading and math learning?

This entry was posted in A Good Education, Curriculum, Education Professionals, Literacy, Professional Development, Quality Teachers/Quality Teaching, School Improvement, Science Education, Student Success, Students and Schools, Teachers and Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

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