Monday, June 4, 2018

Infusing Science in Story Workshop - Intermediate Grades

Story Workshop is gaining popularity in many classrooms. I am even hearing about teachers continuing to use Story Workshop in intermediate grades. It got me thinking about how science could be woven into the writing process when play-based learning is not as prominent as in early grades.

In grade 5 Chemistry, students explore the Big Idea: Solutions are homogeneous. There a lot of hands-on inquiry possibilities. I am imagining a lab with a lot of white powders (salt, sugar, baking soda, flour, chalk dust, laundry detergent, cold pack crystals). Students can explore various mixtures and observe properties like dissolving, temperature changes, fizzing (baking soda and vinegar). Students can go much deeper with solubility in a more formal lab. Looking at various changes like amount of salt, amount of water, temperature of water, stirring or no stirring. Here is a link to a document on my Google Drive with lab ideas about solubility.

What if students came in a few days after the lab and found one unknown white powder on their desk? They would have to run some tests to identify it. Add water. Does it dissolve? Heat up? Fizz? Make a Claim stating what the powder is based on Evidence from various tests and Scientific Reasoning.

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Better yet, what if they came in and found a crime scene? A small part of the classroom set up to look like someone ransacked it and stole something. And one of the main clues is footprint in an unknown white powder. Now you have the elements for a Story Workshop. What is the story about the crime? What was stolen? Who stole it? Who is investigating? How do they catch the thief?

And they would have to write about the science to explain how the white powder clue helped solve the crime. How did investigators figure out what it was? Does it taste salty? Did they add water and notice a temperature change? Did they spill vinegar on it and see it fizz? How does that lead them to the thief? This might also lead them to research forensics and further their scientific understanding.

Embedding science materials into a Story Workshop scenario allows students to weave their science learning into their stories.

A note on materials:
It is important to have a variety of white powders that will react in different ways. Salt and sugar for dissolving, baking powder to fizz with vinegar, and some powders that don't do much at all like flour or chalk.

I suggest using So Clean! laundry detergent from London Drugs (also available from It will heat up when you add water.

And I also suggest the cold packs at London Drugs in the First Aid aisle. These are not the ones you put in the freezer, but the ones you activate by squeezing. Just cut them open and remove the small bag of water that is inside (squeezing breaks this bag and mixes the water with the crystals starting the reaction). Then you have crystals that will get cold when added to water.

Neither of these are toxic but I would have students wear gloves, safety glasses, and wash their hands after. That’s just good lab safety behaviour.

Friday, May 25, 2018

I Wish I Had a Bag of Atoms

I try very hard to create learning opportunities for students to engage in "hands-on" inquiry. This works very well in physics with toy cars, potato cannons, and electric circuits. But when we start to learn about the structure of the atom, chemistry, and quantum mechanics, I am a little stumped. I wish I had a bag of atoms I could dump on the table for students to play with.

Recently, I was at Guildford Park Secondary to work with the science department in creating inquiry activities to align with the new BC Curriculum.  The teachers were frustrated about the lack of hands-on activities and labs for the grade 9 chemistry Big Idea: The electron arrangement of atoms impacts their chemical nature. This essentially means using the Periodic Table to understand how the electrons in the outer shell of atoms determine how chemical bonding will take place. Ionic and covalent bonds forming chemical compounds.

Students need to practice identifying atoms, maybe draw some Bohr models, and name the compound. Unfortunately, this usually means a whole lot of worksheets like these:

Now, these worksheets aren't horrible. They give students the practice they need. And they do require more than just naming compounds and writing chemical formulas. Students need to use the periodic table, draw Bohr models, and calculate some things. But there is not a lot of thinking required. I wish I had a bag of atoms!

I can hear you saying, "But wait! Don't we have atomic model kits? That's like a bag of atoms." The teachers at Guildford Park brought out the model kits and gave me a mini-lesson on ionic and covalent bonding (it had been so long since my last chemistry class, I had forgotten everything). I built some compounds and then asked, "How do I know which is ionic and which is covalent just by looking at it?" There was no visual way to tell. The bonds look identical.

An idea had been percolating in the back of my mind throughout our discussion. What if we created our own bag of atoms? It might look something like this:

What if students were given Bohr models and simply asked to create as many compounds as they could? Instead of a worksheet telling them to combine Hydrogen and Fluorine, they have to decide which elements they could combine. Instead of a worksheet asking them which type of bond it is, they have to decide how to bond the elements. Instead of a worksheet with 10 questions, they have to decide how many combinations they can make. The act of deciding changes everything. Students are doing the thinking. And it is deep thinking.

I would start with the 10 elements on the left that include the chemical symbol. Students must find a way to combine all the elements into compounds without having any left over (Helium is thrown in for fun).

Here is a sample of what this might look like:

Notice how the two types of bonds are now visually obvious. At the top, there are two ways to visualize covalent bonds. On the left, the pictures have been trimmed back to allow the electrons in the Hydrogen atom to be taped onto the Oxygen atom overlapping the outer electron shell. On the right, the sharing of electrons is emphasized by the use of brad pins to bond the two Hydrogen atoms. I like the brad pins because they demonstrate the strength of covalent bonding. At the bottom, an electron from the Berylium atom has been cut out and taped into the outer shell of the Oxygen atom. The elements are placed near each other to show the ionic "bond" through electrostatic forces between the ions.

Later on, I would repeat the process with the 10 unnamed elements on the right. In fact, I might choose to start with the unnamed elements and ask students to simply sort them however they wish. I imagine students will notice how many shells each element has and how many electrons are in the outer shells. Which is exactly how the Periodic Table is organized. That would lead naturally to a discussion of the Big Idea: The electron arrangement of atoms impacts their chemical nature.

I tried this out with Science Department Heads. I started with the worksheets, then brought out the Bag of Atoms. We talked about how the activity is different and improves on the worksheets. One comment encapsulates everything I wanted to accomplish. "We had to think."

Here is a link to my Bag of Atoms cards.

Special thanks to the Science Department at Guildford Park Secondary who were instrumental in developing the Bag of Atoms concept and activities

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Infusing Science in Story Workshop - More Thoughts

One of the things I am very conscious of in thinking about leveraging Story Workshop into a Science Workshop is that I don't want to change what is already happening. I am not trying to hijack Story Workshop and convert it into a science activity. But I am thinking about small changes that will allow students to include their science learning as part of their stories.

I revisited the Grade 1 class doing Story Workshop. As I debriefed with the amazing classroom teacher, Mrs. Mace, we started to talk about what Science Workshop could look like.

And then some magic happened!

Mrs. Mace is very intentional in attempting to move students' writing skills forward. We were talking about how we could help improve student writing by teaching them to add adjectives. "One day, a cat went to the sea" could become "One day, a cat went to the cold sea." The addition of the adjective adds detail and depth to the story.

But how do we weave in science? Mrs. Mace shared that they were currently studying the grade 1 Big Idea: Matter is useful because of its properties. Properties... Adjectives... It's the same thing right?

What if students revised their stories to include adjectives that were inspired by properties of matter? What if the materials used to inspire stories were the same materials being studied in science?

That rock in the story becomes a hard rock. The bark on that tree becomes rough bark. The cottonwood blowing in the wind becomes fluffy cottonwood. Student writing includes size, shape, texture and many more descriptive words. Students consciously include science thinking into their stories.

And when they share their stories, they are also sharing their science learning.

Thank you...
to Mrs. Mace and the amazing Grade 1's at Bear Creek Elementary for inviting me into their classroom.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Infusing Science in Story Workshop

In my role as Science Helping Teacher for the Surrey School District, I have the privilege of visiting classrooms and seeing some amazing teaching and student learning. Recently I was able to see a grade 1 class engaging in Story Workshop.

I won't be able to do justice to this activity, but the basic idea is to lay out some materials on tables for students to play with. The open play time is fairly unstructured except that students know their play is leading to a story. They are encouraged to play for as long as they like to develop a story using the characters and materials on the tables. When they are ready, students begin to write and illustrate the stories they invented during play.

My first thought on seeing Story Workshop was, "Why can't we do something like this for science?" Open play leading to writing about scientific concepts. So, in my typical professional manner, I am stealing this idea and adapting it. Let me introduce Science Workshop.

My intent is to change as little as possible. The routine of Story Workshop is wonderful and the students are well-versed in the process. All I really want to do is infuse science into the play time.

One problem I found immediately was that science "play" tends to be (and perhaps needs to be) more structured. We want students to be changing variables, establishing controls and collecting data. Hard to do in open play time. But, after leading some workshops last week, I think I am starting to see what this might look like.

Here's an example. One of the workshops last week was about using picture books to teach science. I shared an inquiry activity using Sheep in a Jeep to explore the grade 2 Big Idea: Forces influence the motion of an object. There was a variety of materials on the tables and teachers were asked to re-create a scene from the book. The next stage would be to ask what other adventures the sheep could get into. Participants would use the materials to create a new story for the Sheep in a Jeep.

Sound familiar?

Basically the Story Workshop framework is the same. But the materials chosen relate to the science concepts being learned in the classroom. Students would still write stories. It is certainly not going to be technical scientific writing or a lab report. But the new adventures would undoubtedly involve forces and motion. Are the sheep launched from a giant slingshot? Parachute of a cliff? Ride a roller coaster? Orbit a planet? Pulled by a giant magnet?

And as students share their stories, they can be explaining what forces are involved to influence motion. Extending their understanding to new scenarios. Science woven into story.

Sheep in a Jeep - Using Picture Books to Teach Science

Sheep in a jeep on a hill that's steep!

I read this book to my daughters about a ker-billion times and never noticed it was actually about forces and Newton's Laws. And I am a high school physics teacher.

At a workshop this weekend, I was sharing with Surrey teachers how to use picture books, like Sheep in a Jeep, to teach science. I challenged the teachers to try to re-create a scene from the book using only the materials they had on the table. Most groups re-created the scene where the sheep rolled the jeep down (gravity) a steep hill (Hot Wheels track) and got stuck (friction) in gooey mud (rolled up fabric).

But one group chose a seemingly simple scene that shows the power and depth of using picture books to teach science.

In this scene, the sheep are trying to pull the jeep out of the gooey mud. They have tied a rope to the bumper and the sheep tug. They use a force to pull the jeep. But the jeep doesn't move! Sheep shrug.

This is a deceptively powerful moment. Imagine a grade 2 student grappling with the Big Idea: Forces influence the motion of an object. But in this case, the force does NOT cause motion. What a baffling scenario! Why does this happen?

This is because of Newton's First Law. Perhaps a little advanced for Grade 2 but early exposure to the concept is good. The basic idea being that the jeep doesn't move because there are balanced forces acting on the jeep. The pulling force of the sheep is perfectly balanced by the gooey, suction, friction force of the mud.

Sheep yelp! Sheep get help!

Some brawny pigs with sailor tattoos come to help the sheep. The jeep comes out!

Why does the jeep move this time? Now the pulling force increases because, as everyone knows, pigs are stronger than sheep. When the pulling force exceeds the gooey, suction, friction force, we have unbalanced forces which cause a change in motion.

Newton's First Law is an incredibly complex and difficult concept. A picture book provides students an easy and engaging way to begin to question, explore and experiment.

Picture Perfect Science is an excellent series with many inquiry science lessons based on picture books. The original idea for the Sheep in a Jeep activity comes from this book.

Every Surrey elementary school received a copy of each of the 3 Picture Perfect Science books last year as a part of our Science resource workshops. You should find the books in the Teacher Resource section of your library.