Monday, April 15, 2013

Talking Trade Books In Science

Spent the weekend at the National Science Teachers Conference, and talked with a room full (or not so full) of science teachers and those interested in using trade books in their science classrooms.  The session wasn’t as packed as it should have been, but the discussion was no less rigorous.  I met teachers from Missouri, Vermont, Wyoming, and other states who all struggle against time constraints, testing standards, and changing curriculum in their efforts to teach science as it should be taught – as an exciting exploration to satisfy curiosity about the world around us. 

Catherine Thimmesh (author of Team Moon) wondered why students “check out” when a lesson or activity is labeled science. It didn’t make sense to any of us in the room – teachers or writers – who think that science in all its forms is cool.  Most kids start out being curious, natural scientists. Something along the way turns them off.  What can we do?

I’ve heard that kids don’t go into the sciences because they believe that it is hard.  Where does that idea come from? Yes, science can be difficult, but it is also one of the few places where being wrong can be just as important as being right.  Elizabeth Rusch (author of Mighty Mars Rover) noted that we need to model that it is okay not to understand something.  Our school system promotes right and wrong answers, facts for every subject. Sarah Campbell (author of Growing Patterns)  contends that if kids are taught how to think – analyze, compare, etc. -- science is just like everything else. “If you can do that, you can do science.” 

I think Sallie Wolf (author of The Robin Makes a Laughing Sound) hit the nail on the head when she said, “We don’t have time in our education system to let kids stay in that place of not understanding.” There is always a test in two weeks, another unit to move on to. Kids also aren’t taught to trust their observations.

When a group of 5th graders created a bird field guide, they had to ask, “How can we make a boring Missouri bird sound cool” (They had just read about penguins and thought they were cool.)  That’s what NF writers ask every day. What other questions do we ask?  How do you make something complex simple?  What’s important to kids?  If you don’t understand, how do you find out – what questions do you ask?  What are your assumptions? How do you know what you think you know?

If we want kids to ask questions, we can’t be afraid to not know the answer. Teachers, writers and everyone need to admit, “I don’t know, but let’s find out.”  And we writers can acknowledge how much we don’t know when we start a project, how that it’s exciting to us, and how we go about getting the information we need. If we are honest with kids about not knowing, perhaps they will be more comfortable with that part of learning and science won’t seem so hard. 

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