by Elyse Grimsley, 4th grade teacher at Territorial Elementary in Junction City
Attending the OSTA Fall conference in Newport reminded me what it was like to be a classroom learner again. As a teacher, I am always reading new books and learning new strategies from co-workers, but to sit in a classroom with an instructor in front of the room does not happen as often. Students often do not have a choice in what classes they attend, but in this case, I had multiple options. You would think since I had the opportunity to choose the conference and which sessions I attended, that I would be highly engaged in all the sessions, but some utilized stronger engagement techniques that helped me remember what I learned, to the point where I could even share what I learned.
Out of the five sessions that I attended, two stuck out to me significantly more than the rest. One of these sessions was on language development in the science classroom. It was geared towards helping language learners better access the science classroom. In this session, the presenter started with a hands-on experience. We started with a plastic recyclable water bottle, something we see every day. She then asked us if when we twisted the bottle the pressure would increase or decrease. This lead to another question as to whether the temperature in the bottle would increase or decrease. This was a segue into looking at high and low-pressure systems.
A couple of elements made this a highly successful session. The instructor took something that everyone was familiar with, a water bottle, and used this to demonstrate her point. Using simple everyday objects helped me, and can also help students to find a way to relate to the lesson better. Another part of this lesson that was successful was that it was very hands on. We were interacting with a partner, jointly working on graphing high and low-pressure fronts, as well as the path of hurricanes and typhoons. We also did a gallery walk to look at the work of other groups. It is challenging to stay engaged when you have to sit for long periods of time, but in this almost two-hour class we were on the move every fifteen minutes. I think sometimes as educators we forget what it is like to be a student sitting all day, and how much more engaged we can be when given the opportunity to move more often. Also, being given the opportunity to do the work myself, graphing, versus watching a demo under a document camera, gave me more ownership of what we were doing. (I can now even demonstrate with hand motions high and low-pressure fronts.) Sometimes things are best demonstrated whole class, but many times we revert to that as a time saving technique, whereas if we gave students the time to engage in the activity themselves, they would retain the knowledge better.
The second session that I found highly engaging was Engineering the Oregon Trail. In this session, we programmed Dash robots to complete a journey on a simulated Oregon Trail. The robots also had to carry cargo on this arduous journey. Was this more engaging just because it was utilizing technology? No, not for me, but sometimes for students this is the case. What made this session engaging was a combination of old and new, yet something that for me at least, is very applicable. The old – I have some experience coding. No, I am not by any means as expert but I understand the general concept. I have used a few coding websites and apps in my classroom to introduce general block coding. The new – I had never seen a Dash robot before. When I had previously utilized robots for coding, I would call the system clunky. It was not something that was very user friendly and did not make me want to start a new class project with them. The Dash, on the other hand, had a very simple easy to use interface. Our instructor pretty much handed us the robot and iPad and turned us loose to complete the challenge that he had set forth. Having the background knowledge made the task seem manageable. Having a new challenge motivated me to learn the new robot. What made this session especially applicable is that I teach 4th grade, where most of my social studies standards can be covered in an Oregon Trail unit that takes up a month or two each Spring. This was a week-long unit that I could add to my journey West each Spring, given I had access to some type of robot. Knowing how I could use this in the year to come really motivated me to glean everything I could from the presenter about this unit and any others he had to share.
Sometimes students just don’t see the point in learning certain concepts. We have all heard the line “When am I ever going to use this?” As my husband tells his class, in short “Some of you will never use this, but we don’t know what knowledge you will need so we want to give everyone a good base to work with.” Even though some students see the long game, that they might need this knowledge in the future, others have a hard time relating to the concept unless it affects them here and now. This reminds me that I can do a better job of showing the students why this concept matters, why it affects your life. Another example of where I can better connect student learning to real world examples is through our recent science unit. My class has recently been working on a unit on natural processes where we have been talking about plate tectonics, earthquakes and volcanoes. I have talked with the students about the ramifications for us Oregonians and our placement amongst the plates, but I still don’t think they fully understand its importance. A couple of years ago in OBOB (Oregon Battle of the Books) there was a book called Escaping the Giant Wave by Peg Kehret. This book is about a family visiting the Oregon coast and what happens when there is an earthquake, and then in turn a tsunami. I truly love the coast, but for a few weeks after reading this book the thought of even driving over the mountains to head to Newport terrified me. For someone who has lived in Oregon my whole life, this book painted a very clear and terrifying picture of what could happen when a tsunami hits the Oregon coast. I am not trying to scare my students, but that book just jumped towards the top of my list of books for read aloud time. My students need a real-world connection to see why science is important, to see why it matters, to see why it is worth learning and investing their time in.