by Stephanie Nowak
3rd Grade Teacher, Mentor City Schools
Wonder and curiosity are inherit. From birth children learn by exploring their natural world. For many years the hands on learning approach, or Piaget’s theory of constructivism trumped, what we now call “Blended Learning.” This type of learning combines hands on or inquiry based learning while integrating technology. This “new approach” is often referred to as Genius Hour, Problem Based Learning, Engineering, Design Thinking, Tinkering, and Makerspace. This shift in teaching utilizing technology as part of “Hands On Learning” (aka Blended Learning approach) provides opportunities for students to utilize their natural curiosity in order to produce knowledge and form meaning based on their experiences. Whatever you coin it, this process is rooted in constructivist theory. It’s hands on, engaging and when done successfully can yield amazing results.
Survival of the Fittest
If you are surviving today’s educational demands you are doing so at an alarming rate and pace. You want to be innovative, but who has time when you are mandated to teach the core subjects for the majority of your day, attend PLC’s, and constantly assess and monitor data? Now add to the mix district and building initiatives and the task becomes daunting. You feel like you are on Survivor. You find a way to survive even when you feel like you are failing. You find a way to survive when the joy of discovery has been put on a shelf, replaced with test preparation, running records, and formative assessments. That’s where I found myself, in survival mode.
I have taught third grade for 23 years for Mentor Public Schools. I continue to grow and try new things but this has been a balancing act. With state mandates it’s become increasingly harder to do “Hands on Learning,” even though, I know how meaningful and effective it can be. In addition, every minute on my daily schedule has been assigned. It can make you feel like you are just going through the motions, working hard, looking for the finish line. I knew I needed to find a way to use my passion for science and integrate that passion into the existing curriculum. I was losing this race and my passion was slowly deteriorating.
Finding Your Passion
Curiosity can be a very strong motivator. Through the years I began creating units that not only aligned to the standards cross curricularly, but were tech savvy, engaging, hands on, and utilized a blended approach. I was asked to share this approach and I hope I convince you to be a risk taker and try it within your own classroom. I have always been curious, I see connections, and when I don’t see them I look for them. I model this within my own classroom. For example have you ever wondered why our climate is getting warmer? Why are scientists studying Ohio Brown Bats fearing that they will become extinct? What about “Where did Amelia Earhart disappear to? Do Goldfish have a memory longer than three seconds? Can you build a house out of soil that the Big Bad Wolf can’t blow down? These questions may seem totally random but each is designed to create enough curiosity to engage the learner. The bonus is that each question and the unit that evolved from it are cross-curricularly aligned to Third Grade Standards in ELA, Math, and Science.
I believe that Science is the hook and technology the bait for a balanced literacy experience designed to meet the diverse learners in our classrooms. Literature and science combine to engage, excite, and drive instruction. Technology can connect our world by bringing science to life. This is key to finding your passion again, while meeting the diverse needs of learners, and integrating initiatives.
What do you do with an IDEA?
I wish I had written this book by Kobi Yamada. That’s exactly how to approach an integrated approach to learning. What do you want to do? What excites you? What do you expect the kids to learn? Is it aligned? Is it connected? My advice, start with an idea and then use the backwards design approach to create your unit. You will start to see so many connections and each year the unit will become stronger. You probably have a favorite “idea” that you have used in the past but just don’t have time for, well, it is time to resurrect that idea. By doing this, your passion is reignited and that passion shows in your teaching and your students motivation to learn.
Sharing that Passion
I’ve been fortunate to belong to the Ohio Department of Education Science Network Regional Leaders for the last four years. I also am the District III director for SECO (Science Education Council of Ohio). These are just two platforms of many of which I’ve been given the opportunity to share. It starts with passion and mine is contagious. I’ve presented at the local, state, and national level. One of the units I’ve created is being developed by my NRL’s at the Ohio Department of Education. That unit is Save Lucy the Bat.
It started in the fall of 2015, I stumbled across Save Lucy the Bat, an interactive book online. This book is about White Nose Syndrome in little brown bats, a disease that is killing Ohio’s, and many others states, brown bat population. What we aimed to do was educate ourselves and others on this deadly disease and the impact it is having on the bat population. 98% of bats affected die. Without these creatures, our insect population isn’t controlled which can also affect our crops. With no natural predators, farmers have to rely on insecticides. Most kids and adults are scared of bats. The students looked past their fears and misconceptions and began to want to help.
I have always had a fascination for bats. In the past my students have researched them, read about them, and spread the word to their friends and family that bats are more helpful than they are harmful. With the age of technology, I decided to try to Skype with an organization devoted to these furry little mammals. My intent was to educate my students on this fascinating creature.
The Save Lucy website is designed to allow children to explore bats and conservation by reading Lucy’s Story, then joining Lucy’s Club, where young users earn points by completing various conservation projects. This skype was the only motivation my students needed to connect to their learning. From that point on, my reading workshop centered around nonfiction text, writing persuasive paragraphs, and journaling on the behavior of bats after watching live bat cams. In Science I used Nearpod to introduce the design process building and designing bat houses. I then used a Green Screen App called Touchcast for the students to create videos sharing their persuasive writing.
The unit continues to grow each year. This past year’s class created slide shows to persuade others to help Save the Bats. This example is just one of many that shows the power of Blending Literature and Science Together with Technology. My advice, start small, learn from others, share your ideas and your passion. By reaching out to others I captured my passion and helped ignite the passion of fellow educators. What I’ve noticed the most is that my hard to reach students thrive when I approach literacy through Science. This isn’t a new concept, just a concept that needs to be find its place again in the educational culture today.
Show me the Evidence
My wise friend Char Shryock once told me if you can provide evidence of a child’s learning you are meeting the majority of the OTES indicators. This was my AHA moment! This strengthened my desire to integrate a blended learning approach that was evidence based. In her presentation on Evidence Centered Design, Char states that, “Evidence Centered Design can inform a deliberate and systematic approach to instruction that will help to ensure daily classroom work leads to all students meeting Ohio’s New Learning Standards.” In order to support claims, we must gather evidence–what can teachers point to, underline or highlight to show that students are making progress toward doing what we claim they can do? Blending learning using this focused engages students and enriches learning.
I believe I’ve shown you the evidence, I’ve shared my passion and my approach to learning. I hope this motivates you to take something you are passionate about and resurrect it. You can follow me on Twitter @StephNowak3 and I can be reached at Nowaks@Mentorschools.org. I have several of my projects on my Blog that you can read about to get ideas for integration into your own classroom. I believe in paying it forward so if you want assistance in any way please reach out!