by Jennifer Henry, Oklea Middle School
At the Oregon Science Teachers Association fall conference this past October, I gained many valuable new insights into the teaching profession. I really enjoyed getting to talk to and learn from a variety of different science instructors and science professionals who were so passionate about seeing kids succeed in their science learning. I attended several fantastic sessions on a variety of topics but they all had a common theme running through them: flip the approach to vocabulary and concepts.
What brought this idea to my mind first was the keynote address by Okhee Lee, where she talked about a huge shift science educators need to make: taking the idea that vocabulary is the prerequisite to “doing” science, and shift towards vocabulary as the product of doing science. I thought about how many times I’ve started my new units by a long day of note taking, writing definition after definition down and telling my students to memorize those words in order to be successful in the lab. What would it look like if I shifted that?
What excites me the most about this shift is the reason I wanted to teach science in the first place. I love doing science! I love getting to do labs and learning through experimentation and getting messy. When I am able to do this with my students, it’s some of the most memorable times of the year. If I am able to leverage these activities with my students to teach them high-level concepts, thinking, and vocabulary, it’s melding what I love with high quality teaching. I also love that this puts science into the hands of all students. I have had students from a variety of backgrounds with a variety of science skills that have been able to grasp and perform high level science tasks without the use of vocabulary words. My goal is to learn how to use those tasks to then teach the content and vocabulary to the students.
The biggest challenge I see to this shift is learning how to assess the doing or the modeling of science for language and vocabulary skills. I really appreciated the session at the end of Friday by Okhee Lee where she looked at modeling and assessment. I already do a lot of modeling in my classroom, but I have been wondering how to increase students’ use of modeling for communication.
I think the easiest way to shift the approach to vocabulary is through the use of phenomena in teaching. By presenting a unique event to students and asking them to explain what is happening, you are able to assess their understanding before ever teaching them. By using their own vocabulary, you can meet students at their level of understanding and build them up from there. By giving them experiences with labs or activities you can give them shared experiences to communicate about. For example, in a session I went to on invention, I created a “robotic animal” that moved. I could ask students to first do an activity like this, then apply the language like circuits, current and motors.
I think the best support I have are my coworkers in my science PLC. We are a group of creative problem solvers who love having fun and getting crazy with science. None of us are afraid to go out of the box to teach difficult topics to students. We have persistence and passion and love to see each other succeed. I went to the OSTA conference with them, I learned with them and I will grow with them.