January/February 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 4

Shifting Priorities: Teaching Students to Defend and Not Just Identify Answers

Posted: Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

by Sinead Klement     

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While still in the thick of teaching each school year, I prepare a list of things I want to do better the following year. Many times, I focus on little procedural changes that might help keep the room cleaner or help save valuable class time. Other times it is just about tweaking my lessons to add something cool I learned at a workshop or found online. This year, however, I am preparing for a massive shift in priorities. For years my focus has been on making science hands-on and of course FUN, but if I am being honest, it has also been on preparing my students to take a 66 question multiple-choice test in April. This year my focus will shift from being a teacher who can get students to successfully pick out correct answers in a lineup of answers, to being a teacher of scientific writing and communication. Although absolutely necessary, this change may be a little painful. The most notable loss may be the possible sacrifice of some of my favorite hands-on activities in order to make time for students to process their science experiences with real writing.

The timing for this goal could not be better. This year math and language arts teachers are moving ahead with the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS), but we science teachers feel like we are in a kind of limbo period. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are adopted, yet are not meant for full implementation until a few years from now when curriculum and assessments are developed. In the meantime, we are still assessing students in fifth, eighth, and tenth grade on the “old” standards. Consequently, science teachers are expected to teach the old standards but are to integrate CCSS into our current curriculums until we transition to the NGSS.

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Initially, I was a little annoyed. I was impatient and ready to get on with the NGSS. I was also feeling a little jealous of all the attention language arts and math teachers were receiving in their transition, but mostly I was just anxious to be rid of these “mile wide but inch deep” science standards. Upon reflection, though, I realized that I should be grateful for the gift of time. We have a couple years to practice teaching our students CCSS skills such as writing constructed responses and reading primary source science documents before having our students take a new test and I feel like we are lucky the changes are not happening all at once. For this year, then, I am going to start by integrating some of the Common Core writing standards into my current curriculum.

Over the past decade and a half, I always felt that my program was missing something. Even when my students do really well on the standard multiple-choice tests, I am often quickly deflated when I ask my students to support their answers with evidence. Common responses from students are almost always something like, “because it makes sense” or, “because Mrs. Klement taught it to us.” Rarely will a student cite evidence from the many lab investigations we did in class or cite supporting information from their textbook. When looking at the CCCS W.1, I realized that students are going to have to be proficient in writing arguments supported by evidence, a skill many of my former students lacked when I taught them.

Given the “even less than subpar” answers I usually get from students when I ask them to support their answers with evidence, I quickly realized that I will need to scaffold this process for them. Initially, I thought simply referring to our “Activity Summary Sheet” on the board before having them write their supporting paragraphs would be enough. (The Activity Summary Sheet is a large sheet of paper where we list all the activities we have done in class, what we observed in those activities, what we learned from those activities, and how those ideas relate to the bigger science concept we are studying.) It was not. They still provided the same thin responses as before. What I came to realize is that my students do not support their arguments/claims with evidence because they have not been explicitly taught how, and I cannot assume that they have been taught how to do this in their English class. I concluded, somewhat reluctantly, that it is my job to teach them this skill.

As a result, I have been spending a lot of time this summer coming up with a strategy for how to better teach my students to write strong evidence-based claims. Although I have not yet had a chance to fully test this out with students, I have a tentative plan for helping my students develop this skill. First, I will continue to create Activity Summary Sheets for each unit because I do believe that this helps students see how all of the things we observe and learn are interconnected and not discreet events. I will also try to help them plan their writing with a graphic organizer. The best one I’ve found was presented by Sandra Yellenberg (Science Coordinator, Santa Clara County Office of Education) at the 2013 CSTA conference. It does a really good job at breaking down this kind of writing into reasonable chunks for students. I will guide students through the process of transforming the information in the graphic organizer into a paragraph and will then develop a writing checklist so that they can both self-edit and peer-edit the papers. This is essential because I cannot imagine correcting each and every one myself especially since I am planning on having students practice their writing skills a lot.

While this is certainly not the easiest goal I’ve ever set for my students and I, it may be one of the more important ones. Hopefully, we will all learn more and possibly even have more fun than ever before.

Sinead Klement is an 8th grade science teacher at Jackson Junior High School and is a member of CSTA.

 

 

Written by Guest Contributor

From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy: http://www.classroomscience.org/disclaimer.

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