Monthly Archives: February 2013

“I Teach Science Through Reading and Writing.” Yes, But…

With a greater focus on rigor and depth over breadth, the Common Core State Standards have transformed what gets taught in this great nation’s schools. In Race to the Top states, nowadays you can not attend a professional development workshop, conference, or webinar without coming across the terms, “literacy,” “fluency,” “next generation assessments,” or “Annual Professional Performance Review.” Unfortunately, such an important yet at times myopic focus has its casualties. Have we “Thrown the baby out with the bath water,” particularly when it comes to inquiry-based elementary science?

In a former life I served as a District Science Coordinator, working closely with all teachers of science, particularly elementary teachers who sometimes saw science as threatening and bothersome. Threatening due to a lack of content knowledge by the teacher, and bothersome for the required preparation of materials and subsequent cleanup following science laboratory activities. For some of our teachers, other than the traditional butterfly metamorphosis unit or beans in the ziplock bag taped to the glass windows, science was something you had students read or write about with books. These problems are only being exacerbated in some Race to the Top states today.

With a laser-like focus on literacy and the high stakes nature of assessments and teacher Annual Professional Performance Reviews, I am fearful scientific inquiry is going the way of the dodo bird. At the expense of having children analyze, inquire, and design, we are instead having students closely read text, write from multiple sources, develop mathematical fluency, and ready themselves for next generation assessments. I’m a big-time fan of the common core instructional shifts, and teachers can and must practice them regularly, but not completely at the expense of inquiry-based science. Fortunately, there are some outstanding resources available to maintain fidelity to the common core shifts while honoring children’s naturally inquiring minds about the scientific world.

Back to my former work as a Science Director, to address the threatening and bothersome aspects of elementary science instruction, our district adopted the National Resources Council’s Science and Technology for Children (STC) Program. The constructive, literacy-embedded nature of STC kits ensured students the opportunity to analyze, inquire and design experiments while also developing their reading, writing, and speaking skills. Teachers had a nicely contained set of plastic boxes containing all necessary materials and equipment (For our students, kit arrival day was like Santa Claus coming down the chimney. They were so excited!). Most importantly, each teacher got a fully articulated teacher’s guide along with a full day of professional development on how to use the kit. Remarkably, within three years, our K-6 teachers were doing three kits a year (Each kit had 16 lessons) and a service through BOCES that replenished all materials!

There are other kit programs out there for educators to use. A colleague recently told me about the Engineering is Elementary Program that embeds engineering and technology into engaging elementary science activities. I’ve also heard good things about the Full Option Science System (FOSS) curriculum and Great Explorations in Math and Science (GEMS) kits. There are others as well. The point is our children deserve the chance to learn and study the natural and physical world through activity, and though a balanced approach to literature and informational text has added science content to the elementary classroom, children still need to act and play the role of scientist. Children learn in so many ways when left to their own devices to study scientific phenomena, whether it be forces (wind, elastic, gravitational) that propel a Lego sports car or factors that promote growth of Wisconsin Fast Plants. So, though I’m thankful you teach science through reading and writing, please be sure students have weekly opportunities for scientific inquiry. You won’t be disappointed with the results.


Resources and Thoughts On Pushing Students Up the Staircase of Text Complexity

Years ago I started a cross-country ski team in a small rural school district nestled in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. To grow the program, I shamelessly encouraged and cajoled every student I could to join the team regardless of experience on skis or level of fitness. I remember working particularly hard on one reluctant 8th grader who told me he had a breathing problem that surfaced whenever he over exerted himself. I checked with his parents who said there was nothing wrong with his lungs, and if “William” wanted to join the team, he could. So, “William” indeed showed up for what proved to be an abbreviated season for the boy. You see, “William’s” problem turned out to be a lack of endurance. His “breathing problem” surfaced during day two when, while running alongside him offering my encouragement, he blurted in a frustrated manner between gasps of air, “See Mr. Danna. I can’t breathe. I have a breathing problem!” At which point, he stopped, walked off the field, and bid adieu to the idea of cross-country skiing.

The parallels between understanding the need to push students along the staircase of text complexity and my former student athlete’s endurance difficulties, “William” are uncanny. In “William’s” case, he had evidently never been pushed to over exert himself. When his lungs kicked in during physical exertion to oxygenate the muscles, he backed off fearing the worst.  Looking back, I probably could have done a better job supporting him through the first few days of practice. More one on one coaching and time to explain how his body works in response to physical activity may have kept him on the team (“William” did find basketball and his capacity to perform athletically in high school). But what about those students who struggle with reading? How do we get them to handle frustration and exceed their low expectations of themselves to read? How do we prevent them from quitting the team? How do we grow their background knowledge, fluency, phonemic awareness, and comprehension skills? By keeping students within Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development while pushing them up the Staircase of Complexity.

In case you’re looking for definitions of text complexity, the New York State Education Department (NYSED) defines CCLS ELA/Literacy Instructional Shift Three,  Staircase of Complexity, as, “Students read the central, grade appropriate text around which instruction is centered. Teachers are patient, create more time and space and support in the curriculum for close reading.” Achieve the Core identifies Shift Three, Regular practice with complex text and its academic language, as “Rather than focusing solely on the skills of reading and writing, the Standards highlight the growing complexity of the texts students must read to be ready for the demands of college and careers. The Standards build a staircase of text complexity so that all students are ready for the demands of college- and career-level reading no later than the end of high school. Closely related to text complexity–and inextricably connected to reading comprehension–is a focus on academic vocabulary: words that appear in a variety of content areas (such as ignite and commit).”  The only difference between Achieve and NYSEDs’ definitions for text complexity is that NYSED separates out Shift Six (Academic Vocabulary) from the definition. In any event, the definitions are self-explainable. But what happens in the classroom?

Developing students’ capacity to move up the staircase of complexity requires careful planning by the teacher. Understanding the qualitative measures, quantitative measures, and reader-task considerations of text complexity is a pre-requisite for instructional planning, and to do so effectively requires knowledge of one’s students. What is their reading level, fluency, comprehension skills, areas of interest, etc? What diagnostic tools are being used to ascertain student readiness and ability to read? What forms of strategic or progress monitoring are in place, and how are struggling readers supported to ensure they stay within the upper limits of the Zone of Proximal Development when interacting with complex text? Is Daily Five part of the program? Echo reading? Guided reading? Elbow to elbow reading? Are teachers differentiating by content, process, and product? So many questions for such a complex process.

I’ve read somewhere that learning to read is like learning to ride a unicycle while juggling at the same time. Reading is extremely complex, particularly when we are asking students to bounce off the upper level of their Zone of Proximal Development while learning to tolerate frustration. Fortunately, there are a myriad of research-based strategies out there for practitioners to draw from when engaging students with complex text. has a really nice “Steal these tools” link with helpful materials, and EngageNY has a well populated link to resources page. A must-see site I have my graduate students explore is the New York City Department of Education’s Common Core Classroom. In fact, a recent assignment in one of our classes led to a student’s discovery of TextProject, which offers outstanding resources for educators including Exceptional Expressions for Everyday Events. As we know, the information is out there on how to engage students with complex text. It’s simply a matter of separating the wheat from the chaff. And with that wheat, one can help the “Williams” of the world exceed their low expectations and thrive in a rigorous, literacy-centered environment that includes regular interactions with complex text.

Note: For individuals curious about research-based quantitative measures available to educators, check out Findings regarding tools to measure quantitative components of text complexity.

Are We and Our Daughter Ready for College??

My wife calls momentous life changes “Seasons of Life,” while I prefer the “Chapters” analogy. Whichever way you slice it, this week was a big one for our small family as we dropped off our precious daughter at college for her first semester of school away from home. I had no idea it would be so powerful. Over the years, whenever my mom would nostalgically describe how she cried all the way home from Tennessee after dropping me off at Maryville College, I would simply smile and chuckle. I didn’t get it, until now. And yes, the ride home was a melancholy one.

I could wax on about whether or not Maggie can use text-based evidence to support arguments, if she will write from varied sources, or if she’s fluent in her mathematics and can apply mathematical concepts in real world, unpredictable settings, but what’s the point? My wife and I, in tandem with her school teachers, have done all that’s possible to develop her academic skills and understandings. Instead, I hope and pray she fits in and finds her niche in the complex community she has been thrown into. That her new classmates are kind, open-minded, and curious, and that she makes time to take care of her physical, spiritual, and emotional needs. She’s not in “Kansas” anymore, and the Oz-like wonder of a strong liberal arts college presents great opportunities for exploration and creativity.

We’ve done our part, and that chapter has closed. Over Maggie’s 19 years, we did our best to provide a rich structure that helped shape her character, intelligence, and personality. I like to think we provided a firm foundation for Maggie’s future success by getting her ready for school, something Colin Powell speaks about in his Ted Talks presentation on Kids Need Structure. It’s a 50-50 deal though, and our influence has waned with the increasing role of her teachers and peer group. With each year in school, we became more dependent on good teachers and strong friendships to develop Maggie’s personal and academic growth. Fortunately for Maggie and other Warrensburg Central School students, the quality of instruction and the level of nurturance are exceptional in our small rural school district.

And so it goes. Our daughter will now explore a brave new world with lots of other young adults. There will be fewer boundaries and so the lessons learned will be markedly different and sometimes harder than those under the guiding hands of home and community. I hope she and her class mates have a sense of self-efficacy to plow through the roadblocks that life and school throw at them, and that they emerge four years later en masse to change the world for the better. I hope they also realize how privileged this college experience is for them, and that they take every advantage such an experience offers. Meanwhile, my wife and I will pay more attention to Facebook to vicariously watch over our little girl.