Monthly Archives: July 2013

Thematic, Integrated Centers Can Enhance Your Science Teaching

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Thinking Like a Scientist

My kitchen windowsill tells a lot about the kind of mom/teacher/learner I am. Besides the assortment of usual suspects (small appliances, wine rack, utensils holder, cookbooks) on the counter, right now you will find other goodies:
  • a warbler nest in a glass dish, nestled against a garden snail shell and blue jay feather;
  • a box of hummingbird nectar mix;
  • two cakes of fancy suet for my bird friends;
  • a big plastic container with the empty chrysalis of a black swallowtail butterfly that we released first thing this morning;
  • the dried body of a parasitized spotted leopard moth caterpillar in a jar, awaiting necropsy.
We have field guides and giant magnifying glasses strategically placed around the house, and save every plastic and glass container, “just in case.”  Even the less scientific among us have been caught checking over the latest critter in a jar — the investigative spirit is contagious.
With a few simple additions, you can turn any classroom (whether at home or in a school) into a classroom full of scientists. In this article, I will use examples from my former kindergarten classroom to show some easy changes that can be made to your learning space, today.

For more on observation, invitations and science centers, see “The Nature Corner: An Invitation to Observe” (c) Kim M Bennett, 2012

Simple Changes Lead to Big Thinking


Looking for a great professional book to help you achieve greater scientific thinking in your instruction? Check out The Essentials of Science and Literacy, reviewed on this blog.

Not Just Another Fun Science Activity…

The ideas presented above are not just fun activities with a science twist. With the addition of the proper materials, they can be used to address important science, numeracy and literacy standards.

Below, I will show you a second grade integrated science center that includes 25 fiction and non-fiction resources, realia, and other materials that can be used to teach about life by the seashore. You will see that it combines a number of the suggestions from the list above, to provide a multimodal learning opportunity that has multiple access points, and meets the needs of all students in the classroom.

Theme Basket for Four, for 2nd grade: “Life on the Seashore”

This thematic library is constructed using the theme basket approach, in which students interact with different types and levels of text in order to support their comprehension of the main, grade-level selection. It is designed for four students, the ideal number of students for this center. The theme basket approach will be explained ever-so-briefly in this post; if you’d like more information on the research behind it, please see “Blending Multiple Genres in Theme Baskets.”

Attached you will find an Excel spreadsheet with detailed information about these texts.

Standards to be addressed:

  • 2-LS4-a. Make observations about the variety of plants and animals living in an area and identify the specific places they live in order to make comparisons between different areas.
  • RI.2.9 Compare and contrast the most important points presented by two texts on the same topic. (2-LS4-a),(2-LS2-a)
  • SL.2.1 Participate in collaborative conversations with diverse partners about grade 2 topics and texts with peers and adults in small and larger groups.

Component 1: The Container


  • One large plastic beach tote
  • Two colorful, large beach towels

The storage of the text set in a beach basket makes this center both portable and helps reinforce the theme of life on the seashore. The inclusion of the beach towels also adds to the theme, as well as helping to define the center in a setting where a permanent library is not possible, such as family living area, an afterschool program or a shared classroom.   For more ideas on creating beach-themed interest centers, grades N-2, see Early Life Foundations. [Photo Credit: (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2019]

Component 2: Early Readers


  • A Day at the Beach: A Seaside Counting Book  (Sandy Seeley Walling; Grade K)
  • At the Beach (Mandy Stanley; Grade K, board book)
  • Fun Dog, Sun Dog (Deborah Heiligmann; Grade K)
  • Sea, Sand, Me! (Patricia Hubbell; Grade K, poetry)

The texts in this component are purposely selected to be well below the grade level of your class. If you are planning a theme basket for a different grade, you can adjust the level of these texts up or down, but these should always be picture books, even when working with high school level students. The purpose of these books is to provide needed background information, through visuals, for students to understand the core text. Include one copy each of enough selections for each student in the group to have a different book.

All students read all of the texts in this section, regardless of their independent reading level. They may read them independently and pass them to a classmate, read them in partners or read them aloud to one another.

Component 3:  Picture Books


  • On My Beach, There are Many Pebbles (Leo Lionni; Grade 1.3, fiction)
  • The Berenstain Bears at the Sea (Stan & Jan Berenstain; Grade 1.4, fiction)
  • Super Sand Castle Saturday (Stuart J. Murphy; Grade 1.7, realistic fiction)
  • Brave Norman (Andrew Clements; Grade 1.8, realistic fiction)
  • George’s Store at the Shore (Francine Bassede; Grade 1.9, realistic fiction)
  • Mermaid Dreams (Mark Sperring; Grade 1.9, fantasy)

The texts in this component are all picture books, and all fiction (NOTE: If preparing this basket for older elementary or secondary students, use children’s chapter books , such as Dolphins at Daybreak, by Mary Pope Osborne, for this component). The purpose of this component, like the last one, is to provide background knowledge to support the core text, and to provide choice – an important part of engaging readers. Narratives are easier for students to comprehend than non-fiction texts at the same grade level, providing a needed scaffold for the meatier informative text in the core selection.


There are six selections available, from which each student will select two to read independently.  All are narratives set on the beach, to provide needed background information about the sights, sounds and activities common at the beach – important for students who may lack these background experiences.

Component 4: The Core Text



One Small Square: Seashore. $8.95 at Barnes & Noble (click to order)


This component includes two grade-level options for the core text, one at the beginning of the complexity band, and one at the end. A teacher could vary the main selection, depending on the time of the year the theme basket was used, or use both selections, changing the core selection depending on the needs of an individual group, and keeping the remainder of the theme basket constant. Titles are hyperlinked to purchase information.

These two selections have very similar content, enabling a teacher who uses both to have a whole-class debrief where students jigsaw the specific content as a whole group.

All students will read/interact with the core selection, so multiple copies of the same text will be included in the basket.

IMPORTANT NOTE: In any classroom, the literacy needs of individual students vary greatly, and you will be tempted to change the grade level of the core text to meet the reading level of the students. Don’t! The purpose of the varying parts of the theme basket is to provide scaffolding for students to understand the core selection, which should always be grade level. Rather than changing the grade level of the core text, vary the manner in which students interact with the text: read-aloud, book on tape, literature circle,  supported small group read, partner read, independent read.

Component 5: Advanced Texts


  • Hello Ocean/Hola Mar (Pam Munoz Ryan; Grade 3.1, bilingual, realistic fiction)
  • Beach (Elisha Cooper; Grade 3.9, poetry)
  • Sand Dollar Summer (Kimberly K. Jones; Grade 4.5, fiction)
  • Interrupted Journey: Saving Endangered Sea Turtles (Kathryn Lasky; Grade 4.6, non-fiction)
  • At the Beach (Novato; Grade 5.4, realistic fiction)

For this component, above-grade-level selections are provided for advanced readers or other motivated students to read independently. The component presents a variety of genre, to address multiple interests of the students, and includes texts from one to three years above the target grade level of the class. (NOTE: When preparing a theme basket for middle grades, include high school level texts; when preparing for high school students, include young adult and adult [but age-appropriate] titles).

These texts are optional student reads, but not optional for the theme basket.  Include enough title for all students to have a book, and a choice.

Component 6: Non-fiction, Reference and Non-Traditional Texts


  • When the Tide is Low (Sheila Cole; Grade 2.7, non-fiction)
  • Sea Shells, Crabs and Sea Stars (Young Naturalists Series, Grade 3.8, field guide)
  • The Seashore Book (Charlotte Zolotow; Grade 4.5, field guide)
  • Photo album with magazine images and photographs about the seashore
  • Plastic sand pail full of beach “finds:” shells, dried seaweed, sand dollars, skate egg cases, sea glass, beach pebbles, etc.
  • Container of plastic seashore animals (from the local dollar store or toy store)
  • Materials for labeling

The point of this theme basket is to help students understand the grade-level core text, and meet the grade-level science and literacy standards, regardless of their reading level. The items in this component are specifically designed to guide students to those two goals, and extend the learning of all students.

  1. Students love field guides, and looking things up. The field guides (the three texts) will naturally lead students to research and compare the beach objects included in the center, even though the reading level of the texts might be well above the independent reading level of the students.
  2. Inclusion of a photo album or other picture file helps support the comprehension needs of the earliest readers, and also encourages student-to-student discourse about the science content.
  3. Inclusion of real objects helps engage students in the content, and helps students to move from concrete (real objects ) to representational (images) to abstract (words) comprehension.
  4. Young students need to be able to demonstrate their understanding in four ways: by acting it out, by showing with objects, by showing with pictures, and by showing with symbols (words and numbers). The addition of items for replica play helps students demonstrate their comprehension of the core concepts in a developmentally appropriate way.
  5. Adding labeling materials leads students to use their science literacy in an authentic way (my students used to make “museums” whenever we studied something in social studies or science).

I once worked with a fourth grade teacher who did an amazing job using visuals to scaffold the learning of his struggling readers by carefully selecting images that he stored on his Smart Board, and allowing students to take a tour through the photo gallery as part of their centers time. seashore


For More Information

The teacher would design a series of tasks associated with the core text of the basket, and supplementary tasks that the students could complete using any of the basket’s contents. For examples of lesson plans that can be used with the core texts, please see the following links:



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