The “Teacher in Space” – Still Touching the Future

Christa McAuliffe and The Space Shuttle Challenger

I’ve seen numerous “tweets” today, on the 30th anniversary of the event, from people sharing where they were when they witnessed or heard about the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. I was teaching 7th grade in Oakland, California, and our principal called my classroom to make me aware of what had happened since we weren’t watching live. We tuned in and watched the coverage for awhile and then discussed what had happened. The fact that Christa McAuliffe, the “Teacher in Space,” was a crew member added layers and significance to the discussion.

Twenty some years later my class had the privilege of having Grace Corrigan, Christa’s mom, visit our classroom. (the link takes you to a post about that day)grace4.jpg

We only had one day to prepare for her visit so we learned a bit about Christa and the history of the Challenger, including watching video of the tragic liftoff, but then spent the rest of our limited time writing questions to ask her. We were told Grace would love to answer questions so that’s what we focused on. What to ask and what not to ask  … what is appropriate and not. It was a more powerful learning experience than I expected and the students (4th graders) did a great job. Earlier in the year we had worked hard on speaking up and not showing nervousness, as much as possible anyhow, and that really paid off. You can read about the day we had – here and here

One of our major takeaway’s however was realizing how much we learned about incorporating technology just as part of how we learn and work. When my class first went 1:1 with laptops … it was all about the laptops and what they could do … they were a shiny, bright object students couldn’t stop staring at. But now, however, because they had easy access and used them routinely, the technology had become more like a pencil … just things we use when needed without thinking about them much. And that was true of the other technologies and applications we commonly used – video-conferencing, cameras, blogs, wikis. The shiny-ness and bright-ness hadn’t totally worn off, but now more often than not, partly because of ubiquitous use, they are just powerful tools we utilize in our learning.

As part of Grace’s visit students researched the questions they were writing and wrote them out on their laptops and our printer. We shared her visit live on Skype (audio only) with collaborators in Virginia and New York. We recorded and posted her visit as a podcast and video-cast (I recently changed internet providers and will have to re-post those at some point). Students took the photos that illustrate this post and the other posts I’ve linked to. And, as we often did, we blogged about the experience as part of a process of debriefing and archiving learning we were finding valuable. GraceCorBlogPost


We did all those things not so we could use the technologies, but because using the technologies helped us learn and made it possible to share and collaborate on our learning globally.

An incredible learning experience meant for 28 students broke through the walls of the classroom that day.

A great day and way to learn and share about history and science! (and so much more) Christa’s legacy and message continue to “touch the future.”

Learning is messy!

Solid Professional Development + ALL the Materials to Implement Powerfully = Student Learning

The PD We Need

One of the major downsides of 15 years of NCLB and RTTT has been the silo-ing and narrowing out of subjects, especially in elementary schools, and brutally so in the most “at risk” schools. Beside students missing out on the most engaging subjects, after 15 years of NCLB and RTTT, the basic and  support materials for subjects like science, and therefore STEM, have either long since been thrown out, or are painfully out of date.

Throw in the Next Generation Science Standards that have been adopted by my state that (thankfully) are performance based standards … standards that cannot in any way be met by reading about them and answering questions or taking a multiple choice test (YES!!!) … standards that require students TO DO science and engineering and then be assessed via being able to model or in other ways demonstrate their learning. Even the state assessments are being designed (supposedly, hopefully) so students have to model and demonstrate learning instead of bubbling answers.

I remember only too well during my 30+ years as a classroom teacher the frustration in receiving professional development (PD) in language arts, math, science, art and pretty much every other subject, and being supplied the necessary materials for myself during the training, only to be told at the end of the day that, “We don’t have the supplies you need to take back to your students, but maybe you can talk your principal or PTA into funding the materials you need to do these great activities in your own school and classroom. Good luck!!”

With that in mind we work hard to write grants to fund not just the PD we deliver in STEM, but also to provide ALL the needed supplies and materials to implement the lessons and activities in the classroom. Teachers consistently give us feedback on how much that means to them and how much more successful they are at providing quality learning experiences for their students when they are not spending valuable time begging and rummaging for resources.

Unfortunately we are not always successful, we are too often told that the grant would have supported the PD, but monies have already been allocated to schools for books and materials and they have to provide that themselves (did I mention my state is too close to 50th every year in supporting education with resources?) so we are not funding your grant at all, or only the part involved in delivering the PD.

Fortunately, we have from time to time been successful at receiving grants that fund the PD AND required supplies. Recently we received just such a grant (but got turned down for an even bigger one for the very reason stated above).

Another issue that diminishes the impact of PD is when it is not grade level specific. Certainly not all PD has to be grade level specific, but what we have found over the years, is that especially in subjects like science and STEM (and art, PE and others too to varying degrees) that teachers have so little content knowledge and experience in teaching them (again thanks NCLB/RTTT) that they struggle taking PD in those subjects back to the classroom successfully if the examples and lessons demonstrated and experienced are not mostly specific to their grade.

The good news is the grant we received this fall, and we started delivering PD for this week, is both grade level specific AND supplies the necessary materials AND includes several follow-up day long trainings during the year.  It doesn’t get much better than that. PD We started with 2nd grade teachers on Monday teaching them about the materials they were receiving to use with their students and what to do with them … but at the end of the day we walked them into our warehouse and they picked up boxes and plastic containers of materials and a literacy component and links to a support wiki page and Flickr photo site we will build during their trainings and year long classroom experiences … the smiles were wide. Supplies

And then, get this, they get the consumable supplies that they use up replenished each year by us … they don’t have to take the time or expense to do that … just focus on the lessons and the learning.

This is the PD teachers need. It’s a model we’ve found to be successful, now we have to get the decision makers to buy in.

This scenario will repeat itself through 2 cohorts this year for every grade level K – 7 (hoping to go Pre-K – 12 next year (note that grant folks – teachers need the materials too!!!). And all teachers trained get access to all the materials for at least the next few years.

Learning is messy!

Edutopia Post About the High Hopes Project!

A few weeks ago I was asked to submit a post for Edutopia (Supported by the George Lucas Educational Foundation) about our “High Hopes Project.” It was a challenge based on my schedule right now, but on the other hand it forced me to be more thoughtful in explaining what is a multi-layered project. I was restricted, thank goodness, to 800 words or I might still be writing. You can check out the post here. It does the best job so far (according to my biased opinion) of explaining the project.



Learning is messy!!!

Pathways To Space 1st Launch Day

Recently we obtained a Space Grant that has enabled us to offer a class we are calling “Pathways To Space.” It is a 32 hour/2 credit class for middle school science teachers.

During our 1st class teachers constructed their own tissue paper hot air balloons. By taking the class they qualify for free supplies to have their students build their own tissue balloons that will be launched at the Reno Balloon Races next September. IMG_3375 IMG_3369 IMG_3368










The second night of class this past Thursday they constructed solid rockets from kits, and water rockets constructed from 2 liter soda bottles, cardboard for fins, and clay for weight in the nose cone to keep them going straight. IMG_3414 IMG_3423







In later classes teachers will learn about high altitude ballooning and planes. Today we had our third class, which was an all day Saturday extravaganza. We met out at White Lake north of Reno, Nevada, to launch our balloons and rockets. Below I’m posting photos and  slow motion video of both a water rocket launch and a solid rocket launch. In addition here is a link to many photos and videos from our day.















Water Rocket launch

Solid rocket launch

After our launches we headed to the campus at the University of Nevada, Reno, and visited the Planetarium and several museums. Next we headed over to the Reno offices of the National Weather Service where Chris Smallcombe gave us a tour of the facilities.








Next we observed the launch of a weather balloon. They launch 2 balloons every day – at 4:00 AM and 4:00 PM. The balloons climb to above 100,000 feet along with an instrument package that records temperature, humidity, air pressure and more. The instruments send their data back to the weather service in real time.













After watching the balloon rise out of sight we were done for the day. This Thursday we will learn about electromagnetic radiation and high altitude ballooning. We might even start to design and build the payloads we will launch to near space later in the month.






Learning is messy!



Online Presentation: STEM – What Does That Really Look Like In The Classroom

On Saturday, April 25, 2015, I’ll be delivering an online version of one of my most requested presentations: “STEM – What Does That Really Look Like In The Classroom.” I’ll share real STEM projects right from my classroom. The projects will showcase  integrated examples that demonstrate how hands-on STEM provides engaging and motivating opportunities for collaboration and problem solving that when coupled with students communicating and presenting their process and results leads to powerful language arts and math learning. This work isn’t shoehorned into your day, it becomes your day, at least for periods of time.

NSTA Virtual Conference STEM Today For a Better Tomorrow

My presentation is just one of many. The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) is producing an entire day virtual conference on STEM they are calling, “STEM Today For A Better Tomorrow.” 

From their web page:

“The future is bright for careers in STEM. However, too many students do not have a strong foundation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to pursue careers in these fields. In the STEM Today For a Better Tomorrow virtual conference we make the case for the role that STEM education plays for students interested in following a STEM career.”

The conference begins at 10 am Eastern Time and offers a wide range of speakers and presentations. The agenda for the day with descriptions of the sessions is posted on the site as well. One I am looking forward to is offered by Captain Barrington Irving. I recently  co-taught a model hands-on STEM inquiry lesson to teachers demonstrating the power of integrating language arts, math and art. As part of that lesson teachers in the class read an article about the exploits of Captain Irving:

Barrington Irving“In 2007, Captain Barrington Irving became the youngest person to fly solo around the globe. On his 97-day journey, he flew 30,000 miles in a single-engine plane called Inspiration. “


“Barrington Irving Will set the stage for the conference making the case for STEM education as a path for students’ pursuit of STEM careers.” 

Note that attendance to the all day virtual conference costs $99 to non-NSTA members and $79 dollars for members. You can read a description of the conference and see the agenda for the day that begins at 10 am Eastern Time and continues until 6 pm Eastern Time.

Learning is messy!




The “High Hopes Project” Explained

This is cross posted at the “High Hopes Project” blog
Lake Tahoe to Pyramid Lake from about 29,000 meters (95,000 feet)

The “High Hopes Project” is designed to be a model global STEM learning project. But what is it really and how does it work? Who is involved? How can my students and I be involved?

Last year we dropped GoPro cameras 45 feet deep in Lake Tahoe and pulled them up to almost 30,500 meters (100,000 feet) attached to a high altitude weather balloon to investigate how that would work. No students were involved in that trial.

Well that has changed. We (see below) are planning launches from several Reno and Fernley, Nevada, area schools this spring. Tentative dates are the last week in April, and from crystal clear Lake Tahoe in June. These launches will include payloads designed by local students. At least 2 of the payloads will carry the “High Hopes” of the world to near space and release them. Teachers and their students (that’s you!) can participate by writing and submitting your “High Hopes via a Google Spreadsheet or via Twitter.

We are collecting “High Hopes” for your school, community and the world, from students and others around the globe – we’ve already received hundreds from local students, but also students from as far away as Norway and France.

Here are more specifics about the project including ways for you or anyone to join in:

Sparks High School students are designing and building a water pressure gauge to track water pressure from 45 meters (150 feet) deep in Lake Tahoe to the surface. An air pressure gauge will monitor air pressure to 30,500 meters (100,000 feet) or higher. Students from around the world will be invited to research to determine what will happen to the water and air pressure during flight, and we will share the data we bring back so they can assess their understanding.

Sparks High Students are also challenged to engineer a way to reel in the 45 meters (150 feet) of line with the cameras and water pressure gauge up to the bottom payload. Leaving the cameras dangling far below could cause instability during the flight, so this is an important engineering problem to solve. The students also designed the actual payloads to carry the “High Hopes” of the world up to 30,500 meters (100,000 feet), and then release the tiny strips of paper they will be printed on to spread in the atmosphere – Now they’ve turned those payloads over to Sparks Middle School students to install the release mechanism they are designing.

Sparks Middle School students will be learning about writing computer code and designing a system utilizing Ardunio micro-computers.  They will conduct low altitude tests using model rocketry to determine an effective way of accurately measuring altitude using the Arduino system and then use the knowledge gained from these tests to design a system to release the high hopes of the world at at least two different altitudes as the balloon is in flight.

Students at Cottonwood Elementary in Fernley (a K-4 school) are designing special high hopes to glide or helicopter to the ground – these high hopes will be launched at a lower altitude, around 6100 meters (20,000 feet) so the atmosphere is thick enough for them to take flight. They will also perform experiments utilizing bio-engineering to find a substance to treat the paper with so it decomposes as fast as possible once the “Hopes” hit the ground. The elementary students will utilize their new blogging skills and other means to encourage everyone to submit their “High Hopes.”

One payload will include colorful party balloons inflated to different sizes. We challenge students everywhere to research to determine what will happen to them as they rise through atmospheric layers to 30,500 meters (100,000 feet). Onboard cameras will record what occurs and we will share the photos/video obtained so students globally can see what transpired. In addition, we will monitor temperature and other data during the flights and share that data as well.

The High Hopes Project is planned as a model global STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) project so teachers, students and the community are better educated in the powerful learning a quality integrated STEM approach provides. There will be creative writing ideas, math and more offered along the way. These lesson ideas and challenges will be linked on our project Wiki page. Check back often to see new information and challenges.

You Can Participate too! Teachers and students (really anyone!) can participate by: 1) Brainstorming, writing and submitting their “High Hopes” for their school, community and the world. 2) Participating in the science, engineering and math challenges we offer. 3) Follow our progress via the various social networks we are utilizing to inform and include the world (see links below).

There are other aspects of this project that are developing and we will share later as well.

Additionally, we have partnered with the University of Nevada, Reno, Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science Departments. They are experts in launching high altitude balloons, but are also encouraging undergraduate and graduate level engineering students to work with and mentor students at Sparks High School, Sparks Middle School and Cottonwood Elementary School.

This is a collaborative project between Nevada’s Northwest Regional Professional Development Program, the 21st Century Division of WCSD, the Lyon County School District, the Washoe County School District, the University of Nevada, Reno,   and students from around the world.

Here are links to our online resources – this is how we are modelling the “T” part of STEM – these links will also provide you much more specific information about the project:

Our blog:

Our Web Site:

Our Twitter page:

Our Flickr page:

Our YouTube Channel:

Learning is messy!!!

Balloon Inquiry: What Will Happen And Why?

This was originally posted at the High Hopes Project web site.

Note the 4 party balloons that all started out the same size before they were inflated, on their way to 30,500 meters (100,000 feet ) from a balloon flight last year. On our upcoming flight we will inflate 4 of the same size balloons – the first balloon will be inflated to about 1/4 of its capacity (like the yellow balloon in the photo), the second balloon to about 1/2 of its capacity (see the green balloon above), the third to about 3/4 its capacity (Note the orange balloon), and the fourth balloon will be inflated close to full (Note the red balloon above). What will happen to them during the flight? What are the characteristics of the atmosphere that may effect them and what, if any, will that effect be? Explain your conclusion.

When we launch the “High Hopes” high altitude weather balloon we will include this experiment. We will have a camera recording what happens to the balloons and share those images with you after the flight in late April or early May 2015. So do your research about our atmosphere, discuss with your collaborators, do some heavy thinking, then write what you think will happen. You could even leave your written thoughts here as a comment if you’d like.

Learning is messy!


Making and Taking Flight

When experienced using a truly integrated approach, STEM learning is, I believe, the most powerful language arts program there is. The reason so many still struggle with STEM is that they approach it as an “add-on” … something else they have to make time for instead of embracing it as a culture. Yes, it takes time to cultivate that culture where students have learned to work together to solve problems and make things. It also means changing how you run your classroom and you have to give up, at least some of the time, the siloing of subjects and your daily schedule.

Unfortunately, demonstrating and providing experiences for teachers that include even a smattering of the possibilities during a 75 – 90 minute presentation is quite possibly impossible. But we keep trying to do so because we keep being asked to. My boss wants me to set up some 16 hour classes next school year (I’m already overbooked for this year) that will provide more time to experience what that is like from the student point-of-view, so that is definitely on my radar for next year.

Yesterday we were asked again to do our best to make that connection between ELA and STEM at the local Reading Conference for teachers. Here is how we went about it:

We believe it is key to have teachers learn their ABC’s. Not as in the alphabet, but as in Activity Before Content. So we began with an activity. The science reading our students (actually the teachers in our session) would take on was about flight and specifically dealt with lift, drag, thrust and gravity. We did not front load the vocabulary as is common practice, instead we used the activity to give them schema.

We passed out a balsa wood prop plane to each group of 3 to 4 teachers and instructed them to put them together. We gave no other instructions.

We noted that every group actually read, discussed and followed the directions on the package! 🙂

Once finished, teachers were asked to discuss and write about the construction experience, then what ways their plane could be “adjusted” to achieve the longest flight possible. We had them share a few of their answers but made no comments on whether their ideas would truly make a difference. Then we found an empty hallway for the 50+ participants to fly the 18 planes we had passed out. We also gave them a 10 meter measuring tape and had then bring the science notebooks we had them make along, but again, did not tell them what to do with them if anything.

The groups staked out spots to fly and we observed intently.

Most groups decided to throw their planes after winding the propeller rubber band what seemed to be the “right number” of spins. One group launched their plane from the ground because they felt that throwing it wasn’t consistent and could skew the data they were collecting. Then we started to see groups were counting the number of turns of the propeller so that their data would be “more comparable.” Next some were making tweaks to the wing position and so on to achieve a straighter flight and more. So they were discovering things about flight and how their planes functioned through experience, NOT because we took class time to lecture and demonstrate the “right” way.

It was a 75 minute presentation, so that was all the time we had for flying. We returned to class and had them journal about their experience for 3 minutes or so and then did a quick debrief. During our discussion it was noted that these planes are not a perfect way to do inquiry science/engineering because there is no way to control all the variables. Even if you wind the propeller the same number of turns each time the way the rubber band winds up is different and could effect the flight. releasing the plane if you give it a toss is problematic because you can’t be sure you gave it the exact same toss and released it at the exact same angle. When it lands (usually crashes) the wings and tail get moved … did you put them back exactly where they were the last time? Launching from the ground is easier to control overall, but did you let go of the propeller and the plane at the same time and way each time …. and more … you get the idea. So this is a great and motivating way to teach the steps of doing inquiry, but just realize the data produced is slightly unreliable at best.

Note that if you did this activity in your classroom, what we did during the presentation would be how you would introduce the activity. You are just letting students have time to become familiar with how these things work. Next you would get into why this isn’t a perfect inquiry piece but ask them for ways to control the variables as best as possible so we can learn how to get the longest, straightest (or whatever you and they decide to learn about – maybe all of these and more). Perhaps you would agree to launch from the ground behind a line. Do you measure to where the plane ended up, or mark where it first hit the ground? All these decisions lead students to understand how inquiry is done … let them figure it out as much as possible with you playing the role of “reluctant guide” – only helping with advice or opinions when you judge you just have to to move things along. HAVE students take photos, video clips, take notes … even though they will balk at that to keep making flight after flight …. solid science and engineering require descriptive note taking and data collection.


Next we handed out some leveled science readers that had the same article about flight, with the same illustrations and charts, just written at different reading levels. Teachers were then instructed to read the article closest to their grade level (K-1, 2-3, 4-6, 6-9 or so) and take notes on the connections between their activity and what they learned from the reading. When they shared out teachers mentioned how the vocabulary was more interesting and meaningful to learn about because they had experienced them during the activity ( lift, drag, thrust and gravity). In addition because the article was about a flight around the world in a propeller powered plane they understood more of the issues the main character had experienced … and they were just more motivated to read it period because they had assembled and flown their own plane.

We quickly made the point that what they had just experienced in 40 minutes would easily be 1 to 2 weeks in the classroom with all the flights, data collection, journaling, creative writing possibilities, analyzing the data in math, re-enginnering to achieve longer or straighter or finding out what the “best” number of turns to put on the rubber band is and on and on. Imagine connecting with another class anywhere in the world doing the same inquiry and sharing data and discussing results and stories of the good, bad and ugly of what happened during all the flights. How could you bring art in? History? Guest speakers?

We next shared some of the connections to the Next generation Science Standards and shared some other resources and our time was up.

Learning is messy!!


The STEM Missile (really MSTL)

In my job as STEM Learning Facilitator I travel hundreds of miles each month around the 6 counties in my region, but at times all around our state. One of the toughest challenges we face is the technology integration piece.  Many (way too many) educators still possess minimal skills or knowledge in integrating technology, have limited access to technology, are blocked from most online collaboration enabling applications, are unaware of what is available (since it’s blocked) and misinterpret laws protecting students from online dangers. In addition, any use of technology (“We go to the computer lab for 30-45 minutes a week.”) is perceived as implementing the “T” in STEM effectively.

Furthermore, each school district has it’s own network, protected by their own security systems, and they tend to not relinquish access to those networks easily, even for someone coming in to train their educators.

So to enable us to do a much better job of delivering quality professional development (PD) we came up with the idea of a mobile lab to control for many more of the variables of access and hardware that have frustrated us and the participants in the PD sessions we offer.

I’m not going to spend time here explaining fully what led to the choices we made, but know there was thought that went into those choices. Cost was a big factor.

We chose to go with 21 Acer Chromebooks. The lab also contains 3 Verizon Mobile Hotspots so we have connectivity almost everywhere we take the lab that isn’t filtered, and 21 waterproof digital cameras so we can model integration and archive teachers’ learning to their own free Flickr accounts which we set up during trainings. The wireless hubs also enable showcasing and utilizing applications like blogs, wikis, Twitter and more during trainings and presentations so educators and administrators can perceive their education value. Thankfully, this also tends to foster discussion about safety and other issues that we can then deal with in an open way based on at least this initial experience.

MSTL Chromebooks


Right now the lab sits in plastic tubs, but part of our plan is to develop a cheap, light transportation system that will also keep the components of the lab in good shape. We already have some ideas for that that I plan to share later.


(Below right) 21 Fuji digital cameras being charged for the first time – we chose these because they have fewer moving parts (the lenses don’t open and shut like most point and shoot cameras do these days), they are waterproof to 10 meters deep and are purported to survive being dropped from 5 feet … so hopefully they will take a bit more rough handling and if the opportunity arises could be used underwater … we’ll see. MSTL Cameras



We’ve already had some success, even before obtaining the MSTL (Mobile STEM Technology Lab), in persuading one reluctant school district to open up blogs, wikis and Flickr on a trial basis to one school. We had discussions with teachers, administrators and school board members and demonstrated the educational value they were missing and explained that they would not be losing their E-Rate funding (a common misconception) if they allowed access to any social networking applications.

That promising experience actually helped us secure the funding for the MSTL.

We tried out the MSTL in a training last week in a classroom in the center of a high school with a very low, heavy metal ceiling and lots of suspended metal ductwork. We suspected in advance that that would slow connectivity, and it did, but we also know that most of the training sites we utilize don’t have that issue (and we’ve used the hubs in these locations and achieved good connectivity), so we are confident. I’ll keep you apprised of how things go!

Learning is messy!

Close Reading? OK, How About Close Doing?







 “Reading” Sebastien Wiertz

Close reading is one of the “strategies du jour”.

From the Common Core State Standards in ELA:

1. Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

In addition from the Harvard Writing Center:

The second step is interpreting your observations. What we’re basically talking about here is inductive reasoning: moving from the observation of particular facts and details to a conclusion, or interpretation, based on those observations. And, as with inductive reasoning, close reading requires careful gathering of data (your observations) and careful thinking about what these data add up to.

In pretty much all trainings and presentations I deliver about STEM learning, I stress how STEM is language intense. I go so far as to state that it is one of the most powerful language arts interventions available. But that is only true if you take advantage of the language learning (and loads of other learning possibilities) that STEM provides.

STEM learning is somewhat its own enemy because often the activity or experience involved is so interesting, intriguing or engaging (or all 3) that the students get excited and talk about it excitedly (and often parents voice how excited their child was when they came home) and teachers assume everything (or enough) important was learned. What is probably more often the case is that the lesson/learning experience was just about the STEM learning and integrating the language arts either isn’t part of the plan, the time to integrate isn’t perceived as important, or the usual issue of not feeling there is time rears its head.

This is a powerful learning opportunity missed. Really opportunities missed. Let’s focus on just one. Instead of “close reading,” we’ll refer to it for lack of a better name as “close doing” (but we could call it “close making” or “close observing” or other possibilities).

I point out repeatedly how too often field trips or major hands-on activities (doing or making activities) are planned to be experienced  as either stand alone experiences or end of unit experiences with little to no emphasis on how they tie to the overall learning plan. Will the learning be integrated into all subjects or are those connections just assumed to be made? What if instead these experiences were provided early on in the unit? Example: Students are learning about animals- adaptations, habitats, and so forth. After a bit of learning about what adaptations and habitats are, we take a trip to a zoo or wildlife park to observe and learn about animals. Students are required to take notes and ask questions about the animals habitats and adaptations and take digital photos and video clips of animals, but also information displays and more.

Trips like these are usually exciting for students and even lead them to wonder and wanting to learn more. But often (as stated above) this also marks the end of the unit; “That was fun kids, next week we start learning about the planets!” Here’s where I propose “close doing” comes in. Using students memories, notes and photos (which I always archive somewhere like Flickr (free) so students, families and collaborators have access to them) we make close observations about each animal – what were some of the characteristics of each animal that helped them adapt (claws, fur, shells, eye size, … ) – colors, but more – not just white, but creamy white and white like a cloud or milk – even emphasize really what color white was it, cloud white? Pearl white? Cream white? Which is the best descriptive color, or texture, or simile to something man-made for example.

All the senses should come to bear: What did animals, their parts, their habitats, etc. look like, feel like (or look like they feel like if you couldn’t really touch them)) smell like, sound like … go deep! This takes time AND should probably happen during your language block, not just a science period (but could be both) because this is language study as much as it is science. Students should be taught and challenged to be close observers and inferrers. Just as close as they have to be when they are close reading.

The same is true for the hands-on activities- the doing and making experiences the students have. What did you observe during that experiment or construction/engineering piece? What were all the happenings, colors, actions, reactions and so on that you saw and explain what each one had to do or didn’t have to do with the overall result?  Thinking “close” about how you observe and do and problem solve and more, about any of these aspects of a project or unit. (NOTE: You wouldn’t do the super intense “close doing/observing” with every part of the project – that’s as stifling as overdoing close reading – I’m saying consider picking some part of the learning or doing and do it every once in a while – a couple/three times a year maybe – then you have built and practiced those essential skills and have those “close doing” schema experiences to relate to in other subjects as well).

Just like it takes many readings and lots of probing questions to facilitate “close reading” skills and thinking, the same is true of observing and noting all of what was observed and/or done in “close doing.” Getting students to note all the meaning is the goal here too.

The vocabulary that comes from these experiences is amazing … and because it is based on schema all the students build together, and have in common, it becomes a valuable reading instruction resource later; “Remember when we saw that bear at the zoo and he seemed both scary and cuddly at the same time? How does this character remind you of that? Or how is this character different than that?” OR “Remember how we noted that the bear’s fur was brown like the bark on a redwood tree?” Why do you think this author chooses the colors she uses to describe the buildings and streets in this chapter?”

Then, because students have thought and taken notes about not only facts, but color, texture, actions, behaviors, and much more, they are scaffolded to write incredible descriptive poetry, stories, captions for the photos they took, narrations for videos that share and assess their learning and so much more.

“The second step is interpreting your observations. What we’re basically talking about here is inductive reasoning: moving from the observation of particular facts and details to a conclusion, or interpretation, based on those observations. And, as with inductive reasoning, close reading requires careful gathering of data (your observations) and careful thinking about what these data add up to.”

Remember this quote about close reading above? Re-read it and note how it fits with STEM learning. Ingesting  that motivating, hands-on learning and taking the time to “interpret” it – then sharing through text or video, or podcast, or any number of other publishing portals … and preferably shared online to promote and obtain the benefits of connected and collaborative learning as well – emphasizing that “close” idea, just not only with text.

Let’s change out some of the words from the definition of close reading from above:

Think about and do closely to determine what the research, experience, investigation and inquiry says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific _ evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the research, observation, collaboration, inquiry and experience.”

So what I am saying is, is that STEM or inquiry learning is just as important and valuable a language arts learning opportunity as reading text, if the vocabulary and writing and research are emphasized and connected to close thinking and inferencing skills. And it provides another avenue or method to connect students struggling to interpret text to thinking about and explaining meaning and learning. Not saying it takes the place of reading text, just that it is as important to do because students are just as weak at interpreting, citing and inferring from other inputs, and articulating from them is just as important.

And if you build students “close doing” skills, the next time you are doing “close reading” – you have built schema for being successful at that as well: “Remember how long it took us to come up with “redwood bark” as a great description of the bear’s fur? How frustrated we were for awhile? But then when we came up with that and saw how near perfect it was as a description … how excited and motivated we were? That’s what we have to do now as we think about this text passage.”

Also note – if you are trying to jam STEM learning into a crowded schedule (STEM is a culture, not a time of day or day of the week), here is your valid reason and method to truly integrate it.

Learning is messy!