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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

Science Instruction in the Age of the Coronavirus

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 10, 2020 15 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series.)

The new question is:

What does science instruction look like in the age of the coronavirus?

I’ve previously posted on Reading & Writing Instruction in the Age of the Coronavirus and a series on math instruction during this crisis.

After this science series, I’ll be running a similar one on social studies instruction. After that series concludes, it’s likely that—for awhile, at least—I’ll return to “our regularly scheduled broadcast.” In other words, I’ll go back to posting questions and responses on teaching issues that relate both to physical and online instruction. Of course, that is likely to change again when we enter whatever the new school year brings us....

I’m adding this post to approximately 50 written commentaries, podcasts, videos, and visualizations that I’ve shared over the past two months and can be found at All Classroom Q&A Posts on the Coronavirus Crisis.

Today, Tara C. Dale, Mandi S. White, Justin Lopez-Cardoze, and Ross Cooper share their experiences.

Online collaborative learning

Tara C. Dale is currently a high school science teacher and instructional coach. Mandi S. White works as an academic and behavior specialist who was a classroom teacher for nine years prior. They are co-authors of the book, The Science Teacher’s Toolbox:

As science teachers, our first thought when we realized we would be teaching remotely was, “How will students interact with the content and each other?” Students should be doing more than merely listening in a science classroom, passively receiving information, but instead should be experiencing science by actively working to solve problems or collect and analyze data. In an online setting, how will students work collaboratively and do science?

Working Collaboratively

If you were to walk by our classrooms prior to the quarantine, you would have seen a number of activities, such as students building seed-dispersal contraptions, researching the environmental drawbacks of dams, or using hydrochloric acid to mimic the effects of acid rain on limestone statues. What do these diverse projects have in common? Collaboration!

Research shows time and time again that students learn more when they work together. After much research and brainstorming, we began using these strategies to encourage student collaboration during remote learning:

  • During conference calls, instruct students to have private chat conversations with one friend before you randomly call on a student to ask a question. This also increases student participation. What could go wrong? When students can privately chat throughout the meeting, they may not be engaged. To minimize this off-task behavior, we suggest you research the options that your conference-call technology has in regards to private chats. Some allow this to be turned on and off during a meeting.

  • Allow and encourage students to complete work with partners. We found that students are going to work together, regardless if we allow it or not, so we decided to embrace their natural instincts. Knowing that some students are not engaging in school during this period, we decided to allow our students to choose their partners.

  • Assign work that requires at least two people. For example, there is a TikTok and Instagram challenge called Don’t Rush where people create before and after videos, usually showing how they look without makeup and how they look with makeup. They transition from one person to the next by throwing a makeup brush out of the camera’s view and then showing the next person catching the brush. You can search on YouTube for examples of Don’t Rush Challenge videos. How can this trend be utilized in your classroom? Here is how we did it:

We assigned students to compile before and after videos of physical and chemical changes. One student group began their Don’t Rush Challenge video by showing a student who was presenting a raw egg before and then a cooked scrambled egg to indicate a chemical change. The student then took the whisk and threw it to the right, out of the camera shot. The next student caught a flying whisk from the left side of the video and then presented soap in a soap dispenser as the before video and the soap mixed in water as the after video, indicating a physical change. This continued until every student in the group had passed the whisk twice.

We differentiated this lesson for several groups of students. For younger students, we required them to complete only one example, and they didn’t have to connect their videos with flying objects. If students didn’t have access to video technology, they had the option of writing a script for their video. There is usually no speaking during the videos, only background music, which makes this assignment less intimidating for ELL students or those with social anxiety.

Doing Science

Our next challenge was to help students experience science. We found many free online labs. Although these experiments generally lead to the correct answer, preventing students from learning from their errors (a positive side effect of performing labs), at least these online labs provide students with data they can analyze.

Here are a few of our favorite online lab resources for students of all grades and abilities. Unless indicated, they cover all three branches of science (physical, earth, and life sciences).

  • PhET - students participate in simulations that also include math

  • Explorelearning - students are assigned Gizmos, which are simulations; also covers technology and engineering

  • GeoScience Online Teaching Resource - a list of websites broken down by topic for earth-science classes

  • HHMI BioInteractive - topical resources for earth and life sciences that includes videos, activities, and authentic data that can be analyzed; specializes in high school and AP classes

  • The Science Bank: Online Dissections - a comprehensive list of online resources where students can perform dissections on many species, such as fetal pigs, cats, crayfish, sharks, and frogs; also offers human anatomy online lessons

  • Molecular Expressions - interactive tutorials of virtual microscopes, focusing on many topics, such as microscopic creatures, lunar samples, computer chips, and superconductors.

Moving to an online classroom has been a learning experience for both us and our students, but we try to keep in mind the core teaching strategies effective for science classrooms. We know our students tend to be more engaged as they participate in cooperative learning activities that challenge them to solve problems and complete interactive tasks, so we plan online lessons and find resources to make this happen.

The importance of “joyful learning”

Justin Lopez-Cardoze teaches 7th grade life science at Capital City Public Charter, a P-12 EL Education network school in the District of Columbia. He is also the District of Columbia State Teacher of the Year for 2020:

On March 12, I stood in the 7th grade hallway at Capital City Public Charter School watching my students change classes. Suddenly, I noticed Kristian at her locker grabbing a Polaroid camera. I rushed toward her with both curiosity and urgency.

“Are you going to take it from me?” she asked hesitantly.

She and I had both heard the news that would soon change the entire educational landscape of our country. Did the school rules about using personal technology during class time matter that much?

“Are you kidding me?” I answered, “Let’s take a photo right now!”

Soon, a wave of 7th and 8th graders crashed in front of her locker, fighting for a position in the picture of the last time we would be together until, well . . . we still don’t know.

Image Credit: Kristian C

Less than 24 hours later, the same hallway that sparked an entropic festival of student presence fell silent. I remember standing outside my room and feeling a sudden void. When a large group of your family suddenly disappears into a fog that may not clear anytime soon, it’s a somber manifestation of emotions, impossible to process.

And now? Here we are.

How do I teach science during the age of COVID-19? I teach to the photograph and not to the book (Not that there’s a book for this scenario anyway, right?)

The photograph illustrates joy, community, and connection, key principles of teaching and learning in an EL Education school. Those are the aspects of teaching and learning that are still the most important to me, even though we aren’t in the same classroom anymore, or even in the same building. Joy, community, and connection guide my planning and instruction in virtual lessons just as they did when we were together.

One way that I built community and joy is to showcase my scientists by embedding their pictures into my assignments and shouting them out in emails to their parents for demonstrating prodigious critical-thinking skills. My students need to see themselves and their peers as capable scholars throughout this era of uncertainty. Students want to feel special, recognized, and appreciated—especially middle school students. Even a global pandemic can’t stop me from making this my top priority as an educator.

Second, I design activities to promote joyful learning, not to enable trivial work completion. For science teachers who are familiar with The NRC Framework, I recommend aligning assignments with Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs) and Cross-Cutting Concepts (CCCs) and intentionally create tasks that allow students to flex their conceptual and skills-based muscles. Try focusing on one SEP and one CCC in one assignment, then select another SEP/CCC pair in the next assignment. For example, I noticed that cause and effect relationships, a signature cross-cutting concept within the framework, was a challenging concept for students to grasp. To bring cause and effect into focus, we spent an assignment creating our own food webs and determining how the sudden increase or decrease in a particular population affected the entire ecosystem.

For the most part, I teach content that I’ve already facilitated in the course. I am at peace with this decision and I’m sure my students and families share this peace. I’ve found diverse and interactive methods to review content that we’re familiar with. For example, by allowing students to share their screens with the community, they can support their peers in problem-solving skills. Students enjoy practicing and showing off their knowledge. It makes them feel connected to each other and more confident in their learning, which sets them up for more advanced lessons in future grades.

Finally, bells and whistles are for the birds. Like most of us teaching and learning at home, I feel an almost-visceral need to slow down in order to conserve energy. Remote learning takes endurance and patience. So, I keep it simple—from the directions I provide to the amount of work I expect from students. Instead of long assessments or complex reading assignments, I create interactive slideshows that allow students to learn content and apply scientific skills at home. As they view the slideshow, they complete engaging checkpoint slides that demonstrate their understanding of what they have learned. In addition, I build character exercises into the slides so they can encourage their peers to stay strong while building a sense of belonging despite being in physical isolation. I have found that the more students have fun and interact with each other, the more likely they will engage in their remote learning.

As I approach the two-month mark of facilitating distance learning, I’m now finding myself imagining what the future holds for our schools and classrooms. I remain optimistic: We can get back to those smiles, poses, head tilts, and laughs once we return. In the meantime, it’s our responsibility to keep the joy flowing for ourselves and our youths through distance learning. We’ll persevere. One frame at a time.

Project-based learning

Ross Cooper is an administrator in the Chappaqua Central school district and the co-author of Hacking Project Based Learning:

Now more than ever, students and teachers (and possibly parents) should be engaged in teaching and learning that helps everyone involved to fall into somewhat of a predictable routine. This isn’t to say content and learning goals should be predictable, but rather, we can bring consistency to the learning process through the use of solid but flexible frameworks. For example, literacy has Reading Workshop and Writing Workshop, math has the three-part lesson structure, and design thinking is also always an option.

For science, let’s take a look at two familiar choices: one we can use if we’re taking a lesson-by-lesson approach to instruction, the other if we’re leveraging more of a holistic approach with project- based learning or performance tasks—the term sometimes used to refer to shorter, more structured projects that tend to focus on only a few academic standards.

The 5Es of science instruction is an inquiry-based model that promotes learning through investigation and exploration—a model that can also be used for the planning of just about any lesson. The 5Es include: Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, Evaluate, and we can think of these as phases of the learning process—a process that will most likely span across a few days, at the least.

While descriptions of what these five phases involve can be found with a Google search (or by accessing the above link), here are a few questions, with some commentary, to think about for distance learning:

  • If we’re going to use the 5Es, is it worth first discussing and exploring this process with students (if we haven’t done so already) before it’s applied to an actual lesson?

  • As we engage students in the 5Es (especially younger students), can we make it clear for them—verbally and visually—which phase we’re on? Students seeing where they are within the context of the overall lesson can bring about a sense of comfort.

  • For distance learning, explore is undoubtedly the most difficult phase to tackle. Rather than having the mentality, “This can’t be done!” how might we modify exploration—with and without technologies—in ways that lend themselves to our current situation?

If we’re looking to tackle project-based learning or performance tasks, GRASPS gives us a solid starting point. Originally appearing in Understanding by Design (2005) by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, each letter of GRASPS corresponds with an element we can consider when designing our instruction: Goal, Role, Audience, Situation, Performance, Standards. While a considerable amount of planning will probably need to be done prior to launching such a unit, all of this planning means there is then less for the teacher to proactively plan during the day-to-day. Instead, we’re able to spend more time being responsive to the needs of our students.

Once again, here are three questions to consider as it relates to distance learning (and our first question from the 5Es can easily be adapted for GRASPS):

  • Especially from a distance, students may need voice and choice in order to become engaged and empowered. That being said, which “letters” lend themselves to student voice and choice? When giving an assignment, could some letters be predetermined by the teacher while others are decided upon by students?

  • Taking the unit’s learning goals into consideration, will we first need to filter in more background knowledge than normal to counteract the fact that it could be more difficult for us to support our students throughout the learning process.

  • As students are working through their projects or learning tasks, how might we constantly engage them in the formative-assessment process by gauging where they are with their learning and then adjusting our instruction accordingly?

Of course, the 5Es and GRASPS can also go hand in hand. For example, throughout any project-based-learning experience, direct instruction can be provided in anticipation of a need (proactively) or when students demonstrate a need (reactively). Either way, this direct instruction can in fact take the form of an inquiry-based lesson, with the 5Es serving as its framework.

And, finally, whether we use the 5Es, GRASPS, or something else, we’re well on our way to being empathetic to the needs of our students (and possibly parents) by offering learning experiences that offer, at the least, some form of routine—routine we’re all craving in this time of need.

Thanks to Tara, Mandi, Justin, and Ross for their contributions!

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