I recently had the chance to share with students completing their student teaching some of the things I have garnered throughout my career that have served to inform my teaching. It was satisfying to be able to pull together these thoughts. The ensuing discussion was rewarding. I hope to capture them in a series of blog entries.
I worked with the Saint Paul Public Schools District Science Team my last several years at Crossroads. An area we focused on was the intersection of science and literacy – in a way that is mutually respectful of both disciplines. Crossroads was a Reading First (NCLB program) school drawing support and resources designed to implement best practice reading strategies. As the science curriculum coordinator at a science magnet school, I advocated for building on our science success to support this important work in literacy. I argued that students would gain by first hand observation of a working ant farm prior to reading text on ants, allowing them to develop conceptual hooks to hang new learning on. Discussing this with our Reading First external facilitator from the University hit a wall. She supported me theoretically, and suggested we could position our science instruction adjacent to the literacy block, but that, no, the ant farm did not belong in the sacred time allotted within the literacy block.
Yes, literacy could support science instruction, helping kids break down informational texts, providing background information, and all that — what eluded me, however, was any support for the other way around — that is how science might be utilized to support literacy. The concept made complete sense to the science team, but we couldn’t find outside support. We even brought in a national expert to present on the topic – careful to make sure she understood what we wanted. This was met with a big disappointment as she fell into the familiar camp of how literacy can support science — sigh —
While at the Reading First annual meeting the following year, John Guthrie, from the University of Maryland gave the keynote address. It didn’t take long for me to sit up and pay attention. Dr. Guthrie was suggesting that students learned more when they were engaged (duh), and that engagement is created by bringing content (namely science) into the literacy block (wow).Taking kids outside to observe cloud patterns and make observations on the weather first, followed by surrounding kids with interesting texts, was a proven strategy to improve comprehension. That is, giving kids the chance for first hand observations of an ant farm prior to reading text about ants was, in fact, a proven strategy backed up by scientifically-based reading research.
I contacted a professional developer with the Concept-Oriented Reading Instruction (CORI) to come out and work with us to implement a program within our schools. We solicited applications and selected teams from five elementary schools to work with us to develop a unit of instruction based on the CORI framework. It was, by all measures, a success (more later).
Lesson Four: Students learn best when they are engaged, and science is an effective way to build engagement.