So it’s summer, and I’m on my back porch thinking about my teaching over the past year and wondering what I did well and where I could improve. I can be quite philosophical about it in June. But come August, I want a sharp, logically designed, power-packed unit to start off the year. I want to set the bar high and give my students room to find out what they’re made of.

The most obvious way to start my reflection is to search for the places where the upticks on my student surveys intersect with curriculum standards. Put another way: I’m looking for those times during the year when students felt empowered and/or successful in the curriculum. I’d consider those times my points of strength, and that’s where it makes sense to jump off as I begin planning for next year.

This past school year I experimented with teaching science through the lens of current events. That worked out very well — it allowed me to cover every single one of my science objectives and also overlap with my grade-level colleagues on tons of interdisciplinary skills that I know are critical to our students’ long-term success.

Some of my goals were to: Help kids grow their sense of curiosity; improve their ability to ask a question and then go out and find the answer; lure them into reading a nonfiction science trade book (i.e., one that hasn’t been assigned by the teacher and is not a textbook); and have them write well about what they’ve learned and the underlying scientific reasons behind the phenomena they’ve observed.


A monstrous beginning

As I look at my student data, the first point of intersection is Hurricanes. The season for these monster storms is just hitting its stride as school starts, so it’s a perfect fit. Violent weather is engaging and matches the odd fascination that tweeners have with disasters and things that make many of us look the other way and cringe. Our focus on hurricanes also allows me to utilize the technologies that many of my students already use at home.

One of the biggest disconnects I see with my students is that the techie tools I use at school frequently don’t match up with what they’re doing at home. They’re busy “txt-ing” or using Facebook to IM each other. Anything to have dialogue. So if I want to capture the attention of this age group, conversation and social interaction have to play a big part.

It’s also super important to put them in the driver’s seat so they feel some sense of success and power. By that I mean: It’s very contagious to learning if students are able to go home and share something with their family that wouldn’t be expected. I always tell them that “when your parents ask you what you learned at school today, shock ’em with this.” Then we rehearse how to explain the science idea we’re working on (using the tried and true Turn to your Shoulder Partner and Explain technique) — and we do it enough so they’ll sound relatively expert at dinner. They love to shock their parents and parents love to be shocked (about science studies, at least).

Hurricanes provide a wonderful way to marry all this together. If I use something like Twitter I can capitalize on the immediacy of what’s happening in the news RIGHT NOW. Very tween-like. And it also gives me a wonderful entrée into talking about convection currents, evaporation, energy transfer, density and a whole host of other curriculum standards. I’m constantly sneaking in those and other concepts as we’re learning how to track the big storms as they make their way across the Atlantic Ocean.


Hurricanes are cross-curricular

It’s not hard to cross disciplines — think of the social studies skills of latitude & longitude or the impact on economics and culture. Plenty of math. And there are ample expository writing opportunities where they have to identify a main idea with supporting details coming from the current events that frame our studies. Not to mention the scientific inquiry as they “wonder” about why hurricanes have such large amounts of energy. Putting my students in the roles of hurricane chasers, storm trackers, news reporters or municipal officials trying to protect their citizenry keeps them busily at work and gives me time to listen in on their conversations and monitor their progress.

As they wonder, I have them search to find credible sources and guide them towards new uses of the iTunes Store, where we find things like Scientific American’s 60-Second Earth podcasts. We discover other audio that’s regularly published by NASA and the Severe Weather Center of NOAA, and where to download KittyCode’s Hurricane 3.5 App. Students love to track storms. They’re eager to learn how to read position, wind speed and other data points as the monsters make their way across the Atlantic. They love using and doing science!


So how can I improve this Hurricane unit?

As I redesign this unit, I want to include more opportunities for students to show learning, and I’ll likely turn to ideas that engage the kids with technology. As I look through the surveys and student work samples, I can see that they thoroughly enjoyed making presentations with digital tools like Voicethread.

Listen to Lucy work to explain the La Nina weather patterns. In this first version of her VT, I offer questions she will consider before getting to her final presentation. You’ll also be able to see that she is struggling to cite her sources properly. A big problem is that 6th graders don’t understand the difference between Google and the actual URL location of a resource. Here again, I can immediately see the problem and prepare a mini-lesson to correct these errors, which are very common to this age group. She’s also capable of getting other students to critique her VT to help her improve the product.

Student survey data tells me that I need to build more these kinds of “collegial” experiences into the unit. This year, I will appoint different sets of students to be archivists. Each group will have a different function: to Twitter, to blog and/or capture thru digital pictures/video what we’re learning and publish it to our community of parents, stakeholders and other interested parties. I would love for one of our class products to be our volume of knowledge about Hurricanes — some kind of digital book that explains all these things they’ve learned.

Suddenly my back porch doesn’t seem so serene. It’s the effect of my rapid heartbeat, I think. Digging into this data makes me want to sprint right back to my students and my classroom. I know that there will be loads of energy, that all that noise and commotion will be focused at learning science, having fun and – for me – feeling like students “get” how the world works.

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Marsha Ratzel

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