Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Hands-On Science, History, and Social Studies

This past month I became much more aware of how “stuff” can help students learn.   First of all, the junior high students are studying life science this year, and we were on the leaf/vexation/xylem/phloem chapter.  I grabbed a six inch thick tree limb someone had brought in for science last year, drew a heart on the heartwood, and then we all looked at it, and I pointed to it as we learned about the sap wood, heartwood, bark, xylem, and growth rings. It was so much better than just looking at the pictures in the book.
When we studied leaves, petioles and veins, I asked them to all bring in leaves the next morning for science.  They did, and we had a great collection which we used every day until the end of the unit.  We had examples of palmate and pinnate vexation, opposite leaf arrangement, petioles, vascular seedless plants (ferns) and much more. I showed them how to “pet the petiole” on a real leaf.  When they kept getting non-vascular plants wrong I literally through moss at them.  (I had this leftover from the Viking Honor Roll Party).  I believe they learned much more by actually touching and looking at these pieces of plants.  
Next, the elementary students were learning about echinoderms, mollusks, and fish.  We had a backbone we looked at for the vertebrate part.  There was a fish tank in the room so we looked at the fish “breathing” the air out of the water and pumping their gills.  I got on Ebay and ordered a five-inch starfish, a mini starfish, a sand dollar, and a sea horse for only $9.95 plus free shipping.  They arrived a day or two before the test and we had so much fun looking at them and learning about the stomach on the star fish and the coat of armor on the sea horse.  Their test grades on this unit were the highest this year so far.
The week before we were studying lizards.  I took our bearded dragon out of his cage and we all looked at his “ears” -- the holes near the back sides of his head.  And we touched his scaly, dry, poky skin.    And I had two turtle shells we looked at also when we studied reptiles.  This is a great way to learn.  
In social studies we are currently on the “Age of Invention” in the Threads curriculum (which I highly recommend by the way).  We are reading a book about Eli Whitney.  Now, I don’t have a cotton gin, but before Eli made that, he made nails, and then hat pins.  I brought in the hat that my grandmother wore to my mother’s wedding-- complete with the big hat pins still in it.  We carefully passed one of the big ‘ol hat pins around.  Besides having a discussion on how hat pins are similar to nails, we also had a discussion on why most women in America would have still covered their heads in church in the fifties, and about why we wear head coverings.  I do not believe that third grade is too young to be learning about these things.  

A mantilla worn by my Catholic great-aunts.
Before the Eli Whitney book, we were reading a book about steam ships and Robert Fulton.  He was also a wonderful artist, and before he was designing steamships, he was designing jewelry.  Jewelry that was made out of metal and hair.  Hair?  Yes, hair.  This gave me an opportunity to tell my students how during the Victorian era the women would save their hair.  They had little containers they actually kept it in on their dressers, and then they would braid it, make bracelets out of it, and other gross things like that.  Then I pulled out one of my favorite things.  
Back around 1920 when the whole flapper-bobbed hair movement was going on, my great-aunt and her mother cut off their long, beautiful hair.  And they saved it in a box.  My sister and I found it when we were going through their stuff and I kept it for just such a moment as this.  I pulled the long, braided pony tail out of the box and they all made funny noises.  Then we had a discussion on why they cut their hair in the first place (following the fads and fashions of this world), and why they kept it in a box all those years.  It must have been a big deal for them to cut their glory off or they would not have saved it.  

Fossils- clockwise; gyrophae, bivalves (clams) spirals, fossilized shark's teeth, ammonites, and fossilized excrement

Quaker oats (we were studying William Penn), cotton in the boll and on the stem (we pick it out of the sharp bolls and then pull the seeds out when studying slavery), a light bulb we broke open when studying about Edison, a Western Union telegram, a medieval bag (before pockets were invented) and glass insulators

 I have three prerequisites for using “stuff”.
  • It must have something directly to do with what we are learning.
  • I will hopefully obtain it free, or close to it, although I do buy things at “real” prices sometimes.
  • It must be handy, so that as I am reading and I can grab it quickly, show the students, and not have to go hunting for it.  
There are two really easy, fun ways to do obtain good “stuff”.

*Have your students bring it in for “science”.  (For more information on this see the post entitled, “Morning Devotions and Science”.)  Our students have brought us many of our science items including birch bark, cedar tree chunks, shells, femurs, butterflies, quartz, marble, granite, fossils, feathers, and much more.  Many of the interesting science items we have were brought in by students.  If I find an item interesting I ask if I can have it.  We do encourage our students to keep their own shoe box of interesting science stuff for themselves.  Usually they pick up more than just one and are willing to donate it to our collection.

*Go to garage sales, thrift shops, and relatives’ attics.  If I ever find anything unusual or interesting for cheap, I buy it and store it.  I have used everything that I have collected numerous times, and there were many times I wished I had kept or purchased other items.  
Clockwise from top left; shelf fungi,  a toad, a cocoon, a bird's nest with eggs still in it, a sheep skin, a wasp nest, a honey bee comb, a moth, a monarch butterfly, a gecko, a snake skin, bird's wing (this came in handy when we studied birds), and a turkey feather.

I am in the process of packing a cute little antique train suitcase (which I purchased at a garage sale for $1) full of little antique items which I just might need for a lesson someday.  It includes hankies, hat pins, an ink fountain pen and an ink well so far, and I will keep adding to it.

Looking at and discussing items from what you are studying makes history and science come alive for your students, as do interesting stories.  
Granite, quartz, more granite, pyrite (fool's gold), and pumice

The only real problem with having “stuff” like this is storage.  But, I think it is so important that I make room for it.  

Culture- a boomerang from Australia, a Chinese newspaper, Chinese calligraphy, coins, two authentic Native American Indian scrapers, unknown Aztec artifact, mummy with removable organs, a pyramid, and canopic jars.  

*For science experiments I look (not read) through the entire text book in the summer, making a list of all the items I will need for experiments throughout the year.  Then I collect it all and store it in a bin at the back of the classroom next to the fish tank.  Everything I need, and I mean everything, from empty bottles to matches, is right there handy when I need it.   My students love to help find what we need and get things out.

*For all the other “stuff” for science and history, we have a long bench under our large mural wall map.  Underneath it are cabinets. (The young man looking at the map in the picture is standing on top of the cabinet bench.) I put all the rocks and fossils in one labeled container, the feathers and shells in another, and bark, pieces of wood etc. in another one.  Then they are right there handy when I need them.  I can just pause for a few seconds and grab what I need.  

I am not so organized that I know ahead of time what I need.  I either pause and quickly grab it from a bin or from under the benches and show it to them, or write on my hand with ink and remember to bring it from home the next day.  

Students will learn more, and remember it much longer, if they can actually see and touch what they learn about in books.  As teachers, if we can show them tangible, three-dimensional items, much more intrinsic learning will take place, and our students’ understanding will go far beyond just remembering what answers to write down on the test.  

Students remember:
10% of what they read
25% of what they hear
95% of what they touch

We used these when studying flying mammals.  The little one has rubbery wings like a real bat, and you can see the finger bones.  The big one has velcro and his wings wrap around him to show how a bat sleeps.

Architecture!  I often use these when discussing something from history.  I like to pass whatever we are discussing around so that each student can hold and touch it.  It really does help them remember what they are learning about.

When studying the Trail of Tears, we learned about the "Cherokee Tears".  These are little rock crystals that legend claims formed when the Indians' tears hit the ground.  I ordered these on Ebay as well after we read about them in class.