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EL Education's Anne Vilen Talks Science Writing With Larry Ferlazzo

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Anne Vilen is a writer and school coach for EL Education and an author of Learning that Lasts: Challenging, Engaging, and Empowering Students with Deeper Instruction (2016). Previously, she taught language arts in middle and high school and served as director of program and professional development in a high-performing charter school. Here, she discusses the importance of weaving in writing throughout lessons science projects on Larry Ferlazzo's Ed Week blog. 

Response: How to ‘Weave Writing Throughout Science Lessons’
By Larry Ferlazzo on April 23, 2018 1:07 PM

(This is the last post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

How do you integrate writing in science classes?

In Part One, Mary K. Tedrow, Amy Roediger, Dr. Maria Grant, Diane Lapp,EdD, Mandi White, Tara Dale and Becky Bone shared their responses. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Mary, Amy and Maria on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here. By the way, you can also now listen to the show on Google Play and Stitcher, in addition to iTunes.

Today, Anne Vilen, Sheila Waggoner, ReLeah Cossett Lent, Jason Wirtz, Amy Benjamin, Jennifer L. Altieri and Fred Ende contribute their suggestions.  I’ve also included comments from readers.

Response From Anne Vilen

Anne Vilen is a writer and school coach for EL Education and an author of Learning that Lasts: Challenging, Engaging, and Empowering Students with Deeper Instruction (2016). Previously, she taught language arts in middle and high school and served as director of program and professional development in a high-performing charter school:

The meme above went viral just a few weeks after Adam Savage said it on the popular science program Myth Busters. His off-the-cuff statement is funny, of course. And, it’s also true. Accurately communicating the results and implications of one’s experiments is what makes it possible to replicate, test, and even question scientific experiments. If methods are not documented, if data are not recorded, if patterns and relationships are not “written up” into scientific papers or shared through exhibitions and proposals, then scientific work has no impact. It’s just “screwing around.” But how do you get kids to do it in science class?

Writing for a Purpose

Most science teachers integrate some form of note-catcher into their science experiments. Some even go so far as to have students write lab reports using their own data that follow a standard scientific form, including an abstract, procedures, results, discussion, and conclusion. Challenging students to write in this way is a good start, but still squarely “in the box,” especially if the experiment students are doing is a cookbook lab from which all students pretty much get the same results. This isn’t what real scientists do.

You can start moving “out of the box,” bring authenticity to the task, and weave writing throughout your lessons by having students keep a science notebook. A science notebook, like the one illustrated in this video, is more akin to what scientists do in a real laboratory

Preparing for an Academic Conversation, Day 2: Constructing Arguments Using Science Notebooks from EL Education on Vimeo.

A science notebook a chronological repository not just for experimental data, but for the scientist’s learning and thinking about scientific evidence. As teacher Hillary Mills says in the video, “a science notebook serves a very real-world scientific role--the need to go back and check yourself.” When they revisit data, a diagram, or a conclusion drawn from a previous experiment, students also learn to see the minutia of each lesson or experience in a broader context, and to ponder the big ideas behind each lesson. They are seeking answers to real questions rather than just following a procedure.

A science journal is a good place to capture thinking and data, but students--just like scientists--also need to synthesize their findings into more formal writing. Scientists routinely synthesize their findings into journal articles, models, infographics, white papers, and advocacy-driven arguments. Students can try their hand at these kinds of writing too. Especially when written for an audience beyond the classroom, such real-world assignments will motivate students.

A first step toward supporting students to write well in any of these formats is to find and share a model of the same sort you want students to write. ModelsOfExcellence.ELEducation.org provides dozens of examples of high-quality, student-produced scientific writing and illustrations from all grade levels. Just to sample the cornucopia of the possibilities on this website, investigate these:

Tidepool Treasures: Kindergarten and first-grade students from High Tech High Elementary North County in San Diego learned about the natural phenomena of tides and the tidepool habitat. They created a beautiful interactive kit of tools and games and illustrated books about the topic, then led a public exhibition of their work.

Greenprint: High school scientists in Massachusetts used evidence-based arguments based on their own data to persuade city officials to change their energy policies and actions.

Wheelchair Hand Drive: High school students wrote about, drew, and built models of a better wheelchair, then explained the physics to the President at a White House science fair.

Learning the Art of Science Writing

Providing and critiquing models like these will help students envision and understand what scientific writing looks like. Students will also need targeted lessons in scientific writing. Although they may have been learning to write for years, most students (and most language arts teachers) are unfamiliar with the styles and formats of scientific writing.

Even in first and second grade, students can learn to describe the wonders of the natural world with precision and accuracy, as this second-grader does in a report on “The Cow’s Behind.” What reader could resist reading about the cow’s behind?!

Middle and high school students can be challenged to investigate the voice of science writing much more deeply. They can and should learn to use the scientific vocabulary appropriate to their topic in their writing. Scientific writing is also an opportunity for students to learn the difference between passive and active voice. Though active voice is preferred much of the time, scientists use passive voice to describe experimental work (because the action is more important than the actor).

Other science writing lessons at all grade levels may include:

Using subheadings and print features to organize a paper

Using captions, charts, tables, and graphs to represent data and “illustrate” what’s happening in the text

Attributing information to other scientists

Citing sources

The characteristics of scientific style for a specific type of product and the “voice” of scientific writing are most helpfully captured in a rubric that you and your students can refer to throughout the drafting and revising phase of a project. Regardless of students’ grade level, accuracy, detail, and use of evidence should figure prominently in rubrics for scientific writing. These are the characteristics that ensure the writing is not just “good writing,” but also good science; both are essential to scientific communication.

Give Students a Seat at the Table of Scholarly Conversation

A “real audience” of stakeholders in a scientific issue can motivate students and encourage them to value the act of writing as much as teachers do. Scientists don’t just “do science,” they also communicate their ideas and their evidence to the scientific community and the community at large. When students use their writing to gain a seat the table and become part of a scholarly or public policy dialogue--like the students who produced the Greenprint report described previously--they embrace the hard work of drafting, giving and receiving feedback, revision, and rehearsing a presentation.

Whether students are writing a Ted Talk, a white paper, an infographic, or a science museum exhibit, they’ll need time to polish and practice presenting. Providing that time and a thoughtful structure for giving and responding to quality feedback is time well spent. Begin by asking: “What can my students contribute to the scientific conversation?” Then, stop screwing around and get them writing!

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