What is Comprehension?
Recently, I was in a first grade classroom, where the teacher was introducing a non-fiction text about the desert. He began by asking the students to share what they already knew about the desert. The students’ responses were sparse, and not very encouraging to the teacher.
So we took back the readers, passed out big pieces of drawing paper and art supplies, and asked the kids to draw everything they knew about the desert, THEN tell us, instead. The results (in pictures and words) were phenomenal: camels, oases, chameleons, dust devils, heat waves from the sun, and many other details that the students could not articulate before drawing. We were astounded at what these 6-year-olds knew about deserts.
What does this tell us?
This tells us that, in order to understand something, we have to first envision it in our minds, and (sometimes) in front of us. It also tells us that many students can envision something well before they can talk about it.
Geology and the Stone Walls of New England
Our science focus this week is on patterns. For this exercise, we will use the patterns of the stone walls that are so familiar to us here, in New England, to demonstrate the use of a photo scavenger hunt to create a deep understanding of a concept.
Dr. Robert Thorson, Professor at the University of Connecticut, has made a career of studying the relationship between the geology and history of New England. I had the great pleasure of attending church with Dr. Thorson and his family, and had the opportunity to discuss one of his pet projects, the stone walls of New England, on one occasion.
As a geologist, Dr. Thorson found that the stone walls of our region helped him understand the geological history of the area in an indirect way, because the evidence was neatly arranged for him to view, by centuries of farmers just doing what they do: preparing the soil for building and planting. Invariably, when one tries to sink shovel or plow into the soil anywhere in the Northeastern United States, the familiar “clink” of metal to stone is heard. These stones, ranging from pebbles to multi-ton boulders, are termed glacial erratics, and originated when Ice Age glaciers scraped the surface from areas to the north of us, depositing the rubble as the glaciers melted and receded. Because most of our stone walls were built before the advent of gasoline-powered machinery, any rocks that were removed from the soil were moved by sheer muscle power, of man or beast, and were not carried any farther away than necessary. The result is a honeycomb of bedrock samples, lined up in tidy grids, pretty much where they were deposited by the glaciers of ancient history. Studying the rocks in these walls gives us clues about the bedrock from which they originated, as well as the flow of those ancient glaciers as they receded.
Using Photos to Deepen Understanding
When studying a big topic, like the stone walls of New England (or volcanoes, or the Amazon River, or the desert), students often demonstrate a superficial knowledge of these concepts, at the start. This weak concept imagery can lead to partial understanding of the concept, over-generalizations or even misconceptions. A teacher can use carefully chosen words to guide students toward a fuller understanding of the topic: what Lindamood and Bell call the “gestalt,” or the “whole,” of the concept.
The 12 Structure Words of Visualizing and Verbalizing can be used to make students think deeply about a topic, stretching beyond the superficial to a better understanding of the concept of stone walls.
The following is an example of how these words can be used with middle schoolers, adolescents or young adults, as a springboard for writing, or to demonstrate an overall understanding of a scientific or historical idea.
The Assignment: Stone Wall Photo EssayWhat are stone walls? What do they tell us about the natural history of Connecticut? What do they tell us about the history of European settlement of Connecticut? How does the geology of an area influence human settlement and activities?
- Internet connection/computers
- Digital cameras
- Index cards with the 12 structure words (for each group)
- Variety of display options: Pinterest boards, PowerPoint slide shows, video montage, display boards…
- Student-developed scoring rubrics
Students may work independently or in pairs for this learning task.
Distribute the 12 structure words to each group, and allow time for groups to brainstorm ways to demonstrate how each word connects to the stone walls of New England. All groups must use all words, and be able to explain the connection! As students generate possible photo ideas or questions they have, they may jot the ideas on the back of each word card, for future reference.
Students take a few minutes to revisit their ideas, adding as new ideas arise. Then, they begin collecting images (from the Internet and via the cameras) to correspond with each structure word. As needed, they will conduct research online to answer questions they have.
Students also begin building a scoring rubric to evaluate their final products, based on how well they answer the essential questions, above.
With all images collected, students compile their images into the display form they have chosen.
Assessment: The Significance of Stone Walls in Connecticut History
Student Projects — Students present their photo essays, while their classmates use the student-generated rubrics to evaluate each other’s work.
Written Assessment — Written essay answering the essential questions.
Our Photo Essay
Some Technology “Teachable Moments”:
- We got most of the photos from three family outings to local nature trails, which are part of the Nipmuck Trail system. Help students develop an efficient tagging system for their images, enabling easy location during project work. [See our hikes at the bottom of this post]
- For the three images we pulled from the Internet, we made sure to use ones that were licensed for free use, and linked them back to the website as directed. Teach students how to use Creative Commons search to find such images.
- Many home educators have their students create free “dummy” emails when they set up sites that require an email address (e.g., through Yahoo or Gmail). That way, their real email is protected.
- The Shutterstock image was not the image we were hoping to find. If students have an idea they just can’t find the image for, let them create a storyboard of what the image would look like.
- My middle schoolers love to use Window’s “Snipping Tool” and other screen clipping apps to capture images. Make sure to talk to them about copyright laws and permissions for image use.
For More About Our Stone Wall Hikes…
See the following stories for more on our nature hikes along the stone walls of Connecticut:
Don’t forget to share your photo scavenger hunt ideas on the Simple Science Strategies Blog Carnival