Step Away from the Book…

If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you know I love learning, and I’m always searching for a new way to reach my students. I want to excite them, spark intrigue, and honestly, maintain their focus throughout the day. This love of learning that I want to develop in my students has lead me to really dislike (hate?) our science curriculum, which was created by TCI. All last year, I struggled to find supplemental material to make science fun again (maybe I can get a hat made…MSFA).

This last week, I gave my first science lesson of the year, introducing the concept of energy to fourth grade students. In this first lesson, they learn to define what energy is, covering energy of motion (kinetic energy), which includes a discussion on how the weight and speed of an object relates to the amount of stored (potential) energy it might have. We also cover energy conservation (the law that states that energy can’t be created or destroyed), which is a pretty difficult concept to explain to a nine- or ten-year-old!

During the first day of the first lesson (each lesson takes about a week to cover), I could feel the energy (pun intended) leave the room. Poof. Gone.

Why? Well, I did something I normally don’t do: I had students read from the textbook and then fill out the provided worksheet (gross). It was toward the end of the day, and I watched their eyes glaze over and shoulders slump. When that day ended, I decided I wasn’t going to let that happen again. I needed to find a way to take this by-the-book science curriculum, and make it engaging.

The next day, I put the text up on the screen, but instead of reading it with students, we explored the claims being made in the text, and I used stories from everyday life to explain them. We talked about the difference between using a 4lbs and a 10lbs bowling ball, and getting hit with a basketball or a beach ball. In our talk about bowling balls, I told the story of my son and daughter using the ramp at the bowling alley, and how using a heavier ball helped them knock down more pins. We watched what happened when I took two identical Expo markers and threw them at the wall at different speeds, discussing which one had more energy of motion, and why (precluded with a safety talk, of course). After a quick discussion, we talked about energy transfer taking place as I tapped the side of the 5-gallon jug atop our watercooler, watching the ripples take place inside, which lead to students turning and talking about skipping rocks, and throwing things in the local lake.

During that hour, I was walking all over the room, their heads were on swivels, eyes wide open, and the air was full of excited whispers, gasps, and laughs. We did it! We made science fun again that day.

Don’t worry, we still covered domain-specific vocabulary, and we still recorded notes in our science journals. We just stepped away from the book is all, treating it as a reference to be cited rather than a script to follow.

At the end of the lesson that day, I was reminded of a book my principal had our entire staff read at the beginning of the previous year, Happy Teacher Habits: 11 Habits of the Happiest, Most Effective Teachers on Earth by Michael Linsin. In his book, two chapters spoke right to me: Improvise, and Bridge. Here’s a quote from each:

School districts pour millions of dollars into training teachers how to implement curriculum, how to conduct guided reading groups, how to use manipulatives to teach math, and so on. But this isn’t what inspires students to learn. You do. It’s the teacher that makes the difference. pg. 50

I received training on how to deliver TCI’s curriculum, how to navigate the website, and how to organize the materials. However, like Michael writes, none of this inspires students—that’s my job as the teacher.

Although details and descriptions add great interest to your lessons, and by themselves are remarkably effective, it’s storytelling that puts students over the edge. pg. 65-66

This right here is my powerhouse. Every time I tell a story in class to deliver content in a relatable and interesting way, my students remember it. In fact, last year, the number one comment I received from parents was that their kids were excited to tell them my stories from class, which allowed parents to have conversations with their students about their learning.

Here’s my encouragement and challenge for you this week: don’t let the energy get sucked out of the room by teaching from the curriculum. Improvise, adapt, and overcome boring curriculum material, and tell captivating stories to bridge the gap between concepts, content, and your students’ understanding, allowing them to build on their background knowledge.

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About the Author: Shawn Seeley

Father, husband, teacher, retired Marine.

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