Tell Me a Story, Putting Ideas into Words in Science Class

A student writing The Story of Fossil Fuels. This was an experiment to see how story creation could help kids learn scientific concepts.

A student writes The Story of Fossil Fuels. This was an experiment to see how story creation could help kids learn scientific concepts.

Thinking,_Fast_and_SlowLast year I read Daniel Kahneman’s, Thinking, Fast and Slow, a book about the two main thinking pathways in the brain. As I read the book, I couldn’t help but think about the implications of this work for my teaching. One of Kahenman’s main points is that our brains are basically wired to create stories; we almost can’t NOT create them when presented with new information. The reasons for that are fascinating, and have to do with how much effort it takes to hold information in our working memories. But one takeaway from that work, for me, was that stories are a device to help us to see, and to remember, the relationships among large amounts of information.

Minds Made for StoriesRecently, I read Tom Newkirk’s book, Minds Made for Stories. He was also fascinated by the power of stories and how this is linked to who we are as humans. In a short conversation with me at the NCTE14 (thank you Vicki Vinton, for introducing me!), Newkirk conveyed his sense of awe at just how automatically we create stories, and what that might mean for how we read and write expository text.

Newkirk’s book is a great read and has formed the backbone of some of the teacher-inquiry that I’m doing in my classroom these days.

If our minds really ARE made for stories, then what does that mean for how I teach science? (Or reading, or writing…?) What if I offered students some compelling stories (or some compelling problems or questions) and then, crucially, cleared space for them to create and revise stories in class? What if these stories could become the containers for the new information they were learning? Might clearing space for learners to create stories be time well spent?

In a previous post, I wrote about reading together Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm’s, Buried Sunlight, in science class.1 As a culminating activity, in lieu of a “test” taken individually, I decided to give the kids a large piece of blank newsprint to be filled as a small group.

I gathered them around and outlined their task: tell me the story of fossil fuels, where they came from and what their presence means for us today. We brainstormed some key ideas that might need to be included in their story. Ideas like these — buried underground, plants, plankton, millions of years ago, carbon chains, photosynthesis, Sun’s energy — emerged from our short brainstorming session.

Then they set to work in groups of 3-4. My work was to roam the classroom helping groups figure out the big ideas they wanted to convey, how to work on a project like this effectively in a group, and to prod and probe their thinking as it evolved. I also documented their work through notes and photos.

What I observed was learning that deepened the more they dug into the task. I saw children grappling with how to put the ideas they had heard (and seen) through the interactive read aloud into their own words and their own drawings.

As they told and retold the story to themselves, they discovered parts of the story that did not hang together, places where they could not explain the cause of an effect, or a step in a process, or describe well enough the world they sought to draw on the paper. That brought them back to the text — one copy for the entire classroom! — which they gathered around to re-read and re-interpret.2

The posters that emerged were different, though the story was the same. As they presented their work to each other (we did a gallery walk around the classroom) the students remarked on these differences and looked closely at the drawings that each group had produced.

Here's one example of the posters that emerged from this activity. As the process went on, the blank paper provided a space to deepen the thinking by linking ideas to each other, and by adding details to explain key ideas.

Here’s one example of the posters that emerged from this activity. As the process went on, the blank paper provided a space to deepen the thinking by linking ideas to each other, and by adding details to explain key ideas.

The other adults who come into our classroom and I felt that this activity helped ALL of the children reach a deeper level of understanding. Did everyone understand everything at the same level? No. But those who struggled with understanding the information came to see the links between the pieces of information to a greater depth. I think it was because they got the chance to place the information in the context of a story that the relationships between the parts were made more explicit. And, because it was done collaboratively, the children couldn’t just tell any story (perhaps filled with inaccuracies and gaps), they had to tell a version that “held up” to the scrutiny of their community of scientists, their fellow classmates.3

I came away with a greater sense of how important it is for me to make the stories in science class very explicit, to highlight, not bury, the problem, conflict, question, or oddity that brings us to study what we are studying. But I also learned that I need to clear space for the children to put their ideas into words, and, crucially, to give them the opportunity to collaborate and revise as they create the stories that will become the vessel that contains the new information they are learning.

  1. I stayed away from the textbook version of this big idea for fear that it would do more harm than good. Thomas Newkirk has a great chapter in Minds Made for Stories about textbook writing and how it intentionally buries the story (for lots of reasons), which makes textbooks incredibly difficult to understand. A reader has to read very actively (and have lots of background information) in order to figure out the problem, question, or oddity — the story — that lies underneath the desiccated textbook language.
  2. I’m kind of glad that we only had one text. It forced the kids to move from table to table, which, I observed, helped foster a “cross-pollination” of ideas. Scarcity also seemed to raise the value of the text, too. It became a sought after commodity. “Where’s the book?” was a question often heard throughout the two days we worked on this project.
  3. In this way the process mirrors the scientific method.

9 thoughts on “Tell Me a Story, Putting Ideas into Words in Science Class

  1. This collective study of one document is fascinating and certainly close reading. Students found the need to go back to the document because there were gaps in understanding. Not only close reading, but authentic close reading! Scarcity does help the focus and a good starting point for creating that “vessel.” I am so intrigued by how you did this and want to try it with social studies. I love how you did this as an assessment. I could also see using this as an activity prior to individual writing work.

    • Julieanne,
      I like your idea to use this as an activity prior to writing. I really do think that the collaborative nature of the task — perhaps coupled with the way they could show ideas through short text and visuals — helped the students tell the story. Also, the drawing slowed the task down, which gave them more time to think and talk. All of that contributed to a deeper, more textured end product, I think.

      This may seem whacky, :), but I’ve been toying with the idea of using a big piece of paper like this to “log” small group discussions of books, too. (It could be the same book, as in a book club, or it could be a comparison of different books. Probably it doesn’t matter.)

      Sometimes I wonder if the face-to-face conversations privilege a certain way of talking/thinking that is faster and more verbal than some of the kids are comfortable with. For instance, I noticed that more kids were involved in the conversation in this kind of side-by-side, fundamentally creative activity. Analysis and explanation emerged as a by-product of the need to create something, to fill the space. Just thinking…

  2. Oh I agree about using this for reading. I do think that many need time to process their thinking and talk is too quick. Also students don’t take time to really listen to each other (something we are working on). Writing promotes so much. The fact that this big space allows for pictures helps that student that thinks that way too.

  3. I’m slowly making my way through Newkirk’s book – so much to mull over and figure out in there! I am fascinated by the work you have been doing in science, Steve. This idea really resonated with me:
    “But I also learned that I need to clear space for the children to put their ideas into words, and, crucially, to give them the opportunity to collaborate and revise as they create the stories that will become the vessel that contains the new information they are learning.”
    It was evident that this is exactly what your kids were able to do, given your scaffolding and stepping back. I see this in my social studies work as well – when I teach via allowing my kids to enter into the story, make it their own, talk about and revise their constructs about people and events, magical things happen. Mainly, what they learn sticks with them and has meaning.
    You are doing powerful work and I thank you for sharing what goes on in your classroom so that I, too, can learn!

    • Thanks so much for stopping by, Tara. I’ve really enjoyed the work with informational text you did with Notice and Note-esque type thinking on your blog. It’s powerful for the kids to get the opportunity to really dig in and think about this stuff. It strikes me that one key element of your post (and mine above) was that the kids needed some time to live with the text and their thoughts, to give it time to “stick” and to create meaning.

  4. Steve,
    Thinking and recording “thinking” is critical. Sometimes we (adults and kids) are more intent on “rushing through” the task and forget that not everyone needs the same amount of time! This sentence is sticking with me –
    “But those who struggled with understanding the information came to see the links between the pieces of information to a greater depth.” That’s evidence of learning! Narratives are critical!

    • It sure was great to talk with you and Julieanne on video chat this afternoon! I’ve been thinking a lot about your insights about how important it is to put the story into words. In the same way that writing helps us to see where our thinking is thin or vague, or it helps us see the relationships between things that we hadn’t noticed before, I suspect that a story helps us to see what we do not yet know, or how one thing is connected to another. Thanks for all of your ideas this afternoon (and always!)

  5. All the traveling I’ve been doing these last weeks has interfered with my blog post reading. So I’m so glad I finally had a morning to catch up with yours! Both this one and the one about misconceptions seem to be about children revising their understandings about the world by chewing on new information and then figuring out how to connect the parts in a complex way using talk and writing both as tools. And I totally agree that analysis is a by-product of understanding, which has to come first—as in you have to put the pieces together first to see the whole in order to understand what each part plays.

    And, unsurprisingly, I loved the Seymour Simon & Nicola Davies study! There again, I think understanding might have to come before description – and I can only imagine what the description might sound like from kids who have been given such a gift of time and ownership to understand. Now I just have to figure out how to connect you and the Opal School . . .

    • Wow. It sounds like your trip(s) have been very good, too. I visited Opal School’s blog and am thinking about the questions/thoughts raised over there. I love the work they do there and, of course, you know I love the work that you are doing, too, though I can hardly say that enough.

      I was struck by how the big picture and the details of description were almost in dialogue with each other. Sometimes we learners, especially if we are novices (ain’t we all, in something??) DO too quickly go to the big picture, I think, which can become almost dismissive in its categorization. The description slowed us down in some interesting ways. By looking closely at the details, by trying to find where the stem starts and the leaves end–a kind of categorization, I suppose–and by trying to put our thoughts into words through our description, we brought ourselves toward a greater appreciation of the “whole” piece of grass. And, given the comments about corn and turf grass, toward a greater appreciation for the whole concept of “grassy-ness”, too! So, in a strange way, the parts helped us see more of the whole, and trying to see the big picture showed us where to look for the parts. Interesting, this, and cool.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.