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.

Real Talk

A quick post this morning about a short conversation with a child that helped me see how he was thinking about a text he was reading. A conversation like this tells me so much more about what is going on in the mind of a child than does some norm-referenced number on a standardized test.

A boy, a very capable yet reluctant reader, came up to me and said:

Boy: Hey, I just got Gregor the Overlander from Kadin and I’m liking it.

Teach: Cool. He thought you might like it. I’m reading it now and I’m liking it, too. What do you like about it?

Boy: I’m noticing that it’s a lot like Amulet.

Teach: (I hadn’t thought about that before…) Hmm. What do you mean?

Boy: Well, in both the kids go into a basement and end up following a path into another world. Also, in both there’s a parent that’s missing. In Amulet the kids have to go after their mom that’s been taken away by this creature. They have to go try to save her. In Gregor, the kids fall into this hole into another world. I think they are going to find their father down there. Maybe they’ll have to try to save him, too.

Teach: So, I’m seeing the start of a theme here, are you? There’s something about kids being on their own, about the roles being reversed here. Parents usually take care of kids, right? Maybe these are different kinds of stories?

Boy: Yeah! The kids are the ones who do all of the really good stuff in Amulet. They have to save the parents.

Teach: And they discover they have something inside them that they didn’t know they had.

Boy: Yeah! Emily has the power of the stone. And Navin can drive all kinds of things. I wonder if Gregor and Boots will have some kind of powers?

Teach: That’s a good question. If the books are similar, maybe he will discover some power he didn’t know he had…When you’re reading keep that question in mind. Does Gregor (or Boots) have a power that makes it really important for them to have fallen down that hole? I’m curious now, too.

Also, you got me thinking about something else. In Amulet they arrive in a world that is in real trouble. They don’t really understand how much trouble it’s in right at first, but they eventually figure out that things aren’t really going well down there. I wonder if the world Gregor and Boots have fallen into is in trouble, too? What do you think?

Boy: It sure seems like it, but I haven’t read very far into it yet.

Teach: Well, maybe that’s another question to keep in mind as you are reading? Is there some trouble in the Underworld that Gregor needs to try to figure out? Let me know what you think as you read more, okay? Let’s talk more after we get farther into the book.

*  *  *  *  *

Several things struck me about this conversation. First, this boy is comparing books; that’s Common Core-y as my friend, Sara, says. Second, these books mean something to him, which is probably why he feels the desire to compare them. [He probably had a question like this in his mind: Why does this book feel like that book?] Third, our conversation was initiated by him and I entered it as a fellow explorer, rather than as a teacher-with-the-answers. True, I have more experience with these texts and so I pushed him to think about some stuff that he might not have come to on his own, but the flavor of the conversation was as a real conversation with give and take and discovery. And my push was tinged with the flavor of a fellow explorer.

Finally, as we talked a small group of other kids gathered to listen in and to add in their thoughts. They became fellow explorers, too. This momentary gathering of people helped this boy see that what he was saying about a book could be interesting to others, that ideas can hold attention. For me, it was another example of how important it is, in my interactions with the children, that I be a human being first and a pusher of curriculum second. It’s nice when these roles coincide. But if I have to choose, I’d choose the real talk, trusting that at its core are the elements necessary to build a better reader and thinking person.