Teacher Scholar Voices

5th Grade Scientists Bring Form and Imagination to Expository Writing

Teacher Scholar Voices

As a participant in our summer blog writing workshop, Oakland Unified teacher and second year Mills Teacher Scholar participant Michelle Cascio had the chance to reflect on the success of her inquiry into how to support her students in developing into competent and creative science writers. Through the CalBlast Project,  she has been integrating science content instruction and academic writing development on a daily basis into her fifth grade classroom. 

“I hate writing,” my 10-year old students grumbled at the beginning of the year.  I hate teaching writing, I would internally shudder in response.  Writing was such a struggle in my classroom that we actually had to write about our class’ writing affect.  They reported feeling  “stuck”, “frustrated”,  “nervous”; many found writing “complicated”;  some were “not sure what to do”; others reported feeling “bored”, “tired” and (drum roll please) “pain”.

Changes at the school level…

I really had my work cut out for me.  How could I make writing both instructive and an enjoyable learning experience?  Through OUSD’s CalBlast Project, my school began integrating science content and academic writing into a single teaching block.  This instructional change shows great promise, but if students were thwarted by writing in general, where would they find the confidence to explain science concepts in essay form?   And foremost, what extra supports do English language learners require to master the language of academia?

Sometimes the world gives you exactly what you need when you need it.  Betsy Rupp Fulwiler’s book, Writing in Science in Action, landed in my lap shortly after embarking on my Mills Teacher Scholars inquiry, just as I was realizing:  Students need to be explicitly taught HOW to write in a particular genre.   I hit the ground running with a few, key recommendations from Fulwiler.  First, I began to provide students with ample time for scientific observations (i.e. investigate, probe, ask questions).  Second, I allowed a focus question to guide our journey throughout a unit. With students in the driver’s seat, the academic writing piece unfolded as a necessary vehicle for understanding data rather than an arbitrary end goal.

Identifying the first layer of the problem…

Early writing samples were hardly discernible without proper language control, so, I sought a variety of tools from Fulwiler that would strengthen student’s form. Belinda, a mid-level English learner who in the beginning of the year reported not knowing “how to start,” taught me how structure can actually free a writer.  It felt magical.

But unlike magic, these essays were the result of tens of hours of material preparation and in-class teeth pulling.  On any given day, an observer might hear a chorus of young voices chanting along as I walk my pointer through a data matrix enunciating the relationships between each cell, then students working in pairs twisting their tongues to link one cell to another with an appropriate transition word.  When students were finally confident enough to lift their pencils, Belinda churned out: “In fact, the particles of a solid are packed tightly…But, the particles of a gas move freely at high velocity.”

Incorporating purposeful transition words and tier-3 science vocabulary, Belinda was writing with ease, detail and command over the science concept at hand.  For her, form and structure opened the door to her inner scientist.

Second-guessing the changes to my work…

Doing back flips on the one hand because these kids were actually writing without complaint, on the other I was asking myself, “Has the rigidity of the writing structures I put in place robbed my students of their sense of ownership, creativity and individual voice? Have I stamped out their freedom in the name of form?”

Again, I had my work cut out for me.

I wanted to maintain the integrity of their science writing while also invite students to try their hand at incorporating voice and visualization techniques.   Teaching conceptually-difficult content, I found myself leaning on analogies and drawing from student experience to make the input more comprehensible.  It seemed figurative language was an entry point for students to express science concepts in an imaginative way.   I knew that when students could start framing their thinking through comparative models, their content learning would be apparent.

Student data speaks volumes…

For Felipe, who typically wrote with as few words as possible, license to be creative gave life to his writing style.  In a classroom discussion contrasting the density and speed of particles in solids, liquids and gases, Felipe shot his hand in the air: “Isn’t it like cars on freeway?  When there is a lot of traffic, cars are squished together and can barely move like particles in a solid.”   Uh…..yeah.  Exactly.  Stunned at his ability to craft a perfectly-paralleled simile, I urged him to continue on that line of thinking and describe what the highway would look like if it represented a gas.  He rose to the occasion, “The highway would be empty, like at midnight when only a few cars are on the road going as fast as they like because they have the space.”  As a result, his rather bland, minimalistic writing style increased dramatically in maturity and complexity.  By final edits, he had an imagery-rich scientifically-accurate writing sample with accompanying visuals.

This inquiry made clear the power of developing explicit language structures and meaningful scientific practices.  By tackling content, language, structure and voice in separate, strategic sessions, we transformed the culture of writing in our classroom from what was once a defeatist “Lady, you must be crazy” to an empowered “Yeah, we can do this.”

By year’s end, negative affect was no longer a burden.  Engagement increased effortlessly.   And most important, students were crafting complex sentences to explain equally sophisticated concepts. Specific scaffolds adopted from Fulwiler freed “blocked” writers and increased their confidence as analytical thinkers.  And finally, drawing from my own learning process and the need for comprehensible input , I incorporated analogous models into our science discussions and figurative language into our essays.  This instructional move opened up unexplored opportunities for illustrating student learning creatively and stretched their developing abstract minds.