Julia Steiny: Learning to Write Teaches Westerly Students Science

By Julia Steiny

Back in December 2009, excited 4th graders at Westerly’s State Street School sat down to take a practice science test. Like little sports jocks, the kids approached the task as if it were training for the big game coming in the spring, the statewide science NECAP.

Julia Steiny

In 2008, the whole Westerly district had performed so poorly on that test that teachers actually volunteered their time to form a K-12 Science Task Force focused on redeeming their sullied academic reputation. (See last week’s column about this Task Force.)

Then, insult to injury, in 2009 State Street’s scores tanked again.

The heat was on. State Street had already started implementing the Task Force’s recommendations, including its strong emphasis on teaching writing.

Wait. Writing? That’s English, not science. But more on this in a moment.

Westerly’s students had struggled particularly with the “inquiry” part of the NECAP, where kids to do a hands-on task and draw conclusions from what they see in front of them.

State Street’s Principal Audrey Faubert says, “Science (NECAP) is only given at the 4th grade (and later at 8th and 11th), so K-3 weren’t exposed to the rigors of testing. We decided to give all the kids an inquiry task to complete. And the faculty also took some of the released test items from the RIDE website. Even though they’d been teaching inquiry with the science kits, it was interesting for the teachers to be on the other side of a test.”

But the spotlight’s glare was on those 4th graders.

Faubert smiled sadly, “The room was buzzing. The kids thought they did fantastic.”

Working in pairs, the school’s entire teaching staff scored the kids’ work. The results were enough to induce clinical depression.

But as it turns out, the school’s good efforts hadn’t quite paid off yet. The Task Force was onto a good thing when they decided writing was key to learning science. State Street’s instruction had only just started to take root.

Here’s the problem: Old science was about answers. When a test asks a question like: “How does wind change sand dunes?” somewhere in the science textbook was an answer that the kid was supposed to have memorized.

New science is about thinking and reasoning. The way Faubert puts it is: “The (NECAP) science test is a thinking test, not a knowledge test. Science isn’t about recall any more, but about synthesizing information.” New science poses essential questions, such as the sand dunes example, but now the kids need to derive the answer themselves, by sorting through data. Teachers provide techniques, tools, research methods, and experiences. But like scientists themselves, students must do their own research and figure out what their discoveries mean.

Writing is always the product of thinking. Writing forces a kid to organize her thoughts to be expressive and communicate clearly.

Middle school principal Paula Fusco says, “Prior to the work of the Task Force, we’d left writing up to the English teacher. But whatever the kids did or didn’t know, they weren’t able to communicate their understanding of science.”

To work on that understanding, Fusco says, “We’ve been taking the vocabulary out of NECAP – infer, predict, explain. So the kids aren’t afraid of the words they’re encountering.”

The ability to define “predict” doesn’t help at all if the ability to MAKE a prediction isn’t also a familiar habit. Kids need to demonstrate, by their writing, that they understand what they need to DO when the test asks them to predict, infer or explain.

Similarly, Fusco’s teachers began to work with the kids on “sentence starters” to guide their thinking – However, In conclusion, Whereas, Therefore.

Fortunately, Westerly’s students were in the habit of writing in science journals. But they had used them mainly to record observations. Faubert says, “Every teacher brought in examples of their students’ science journals. Oh, here are the strengths and weaknesses right in our own notebooks. We’d never had the kids prove their thinking in their journals. Think like a scientist, based on what’s in front of you. Prove your thinking. Prove your thinking. We said that so many times.”

At the end of the day, teaching the kids to EXPLAIN their predictions and reasoning was the clearest way to teach them habits of scientific thinking. And those explanations also helped the teachers assess kids’ understanding and misunderstanding.

By February, State Street dared to try another practice test with the 4th graders. Again, the staff scored it together. Ahhh, much better. So much so, Faubert felt more confident about improving on the 49 percent proficiency they’d managed in the prior year’s test.

In fact, when the results were released last Fall, State Street kids hit 80 percent proficiency, 8th highest in the state, out of over 150 schools that take that test. (And Westerly is the 8th lowest-income community in the state.)

Superintendent Roy Seitsinger’s take on the situation is this: “Nobody (meaning veteran educators) signed up for what we’re doing now. Most of the people weren’t trained to bring students through a thinking process. Now the educators’ job is to teach kids how to sift through all that information and to be critical, reflective and make decisions. We have too much information and not nearly enough sorting skills.”

Therefore, in conclusion, learning to write promotes scientific thinking. Other districts would do well to take notice.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at GoLocalProv.com. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

Julia Steiny
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools. Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant. After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal's weekly education column. Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUB. For more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement in the US and internationally.
Julia Steiny