In college, I had to take a Spanish class as part of my dual major. I wasn’t psyched about it as learning a language has always been challenging for me. I’m not sure exactly why, but trying to learn how to speak in another language has always proved difficult for me and my brain. So, on day one, I went into class thinking that it would be just like the last Spanish class I had taken during the previous semester. Oh boy was I wrong. The teacher walked into the room and began talking completely in Spanish with no translation. My peers and I shared odd and scared expressions. Are we in the right class? What is going on? What is he saying? Do we have to write down everything he’s saying? Ahh, I thought, this is terrifying. After my brain acclimated to this new way of thinking and learning, I began to really get into the class. I actually started to enjoy learning Spanish. It was becoming easier for me. By the end of the course, every student in the class was almost fluent in basic, conversational, Spanish. It was amazing. Despite the very horrific start to the class, we all felt a strong sense of accomplishment. The teacher had found a way to engage and reach each and every student in the class. He had made learning a new language something I wanted to suddenly start doing. While I don’t remember much Spanish from that class, I do remember the feeling I had leaving the course. I felt cared for and attended to. The teacher made sure that I understood Spanish and could speak it by the end of the course.
As a teacher, I strive to make my students feel the same way that my Spanish teacher made me feel over the course of the class. I want my students to understand what they learning while also feeling successful, safe, and cared for. In STEM class, I often find it challenging to be sure I am reaching each and every student in my class. The ELLs in my class struggle to understand new concepts covered as they have never learned them in their native language. Their prior knowledge is limited and so it is very hard sometimes to help them understand the concepts being covered. So, every time I begin a new unit in STEM class, I try to find new and inventive ways to introduce the concepts so that every student in my class gains at least a basic, foundational understanding of the big idea being covered.
Yesterday in STEM class, I introduced our new unit on Climate Change to the students. As this concept is often confusing for all students to really wrap their minds around, I wanted to make sure that I found a meaningful way to explain the concept to my students. I began by asking the students what Climate Change means. What is Climate Change? This allowed me a chance to assess the prior knowledge of my students while also correcting any inaccuracies they have about the concept. This question proved to be a valuable way to begin the unit as many of the students confuse global warming with Climate Change. So, I made sure to explain the difference between the concepts so that any confusion would be eliminated. I then asked the boys to think about why Climate Change is an important issue or topic of discussion. Why should we care about Climate Change? The students seemed to understand why Climate Change is a big idea that all people should know and care about. I was impressed. To help the students really solidify their understanding of Climate Change and what is causing our weather on Earth to change so rapidly, I then put on a little show for the students.
I placed some sand in a bowl to represent Earth. I then put a hunk of ice on the sand before placing a cover over the bowl to represent Earth’s atmosphere and ozone layer. I then aimed a blow dryer at the bowl, explaining how the gasses in Earth’s atmosphere create a shield to help block the sun’s harmful ways from entering our atmosphere and planet. I explained how the sun’s rays enter the atmosphere and then exit again in a cyclical nature. I made sure to state how this process was happening long before humans inhabited our planet. Then, when humans began inventing and growing, carbon gas was being emitted into Earth’s atmosphere at a very rapid rate, creating a wall of sorts, within the atmosphere. The carbon molecules linked with the other gasses in the atmosphere to build a one-way wall. Earth’s rays could enter the atmosphere but the heat wasn’t allowed to escape Earth like it once did prior to the evolution of humans. At this point, I removed the cover and replaced it with a piece of plastic wrap. I then aimed the blow dryer at the bowl. The students were able to see how the heat from the blow dryer was now melting the ice at an alarming pace. I then got into an explanation on the ozone layer and how that helps keep much of the sun’s harmful rays away from Earth. I then allowed the students to ask any follow-up questions they still had about Climate Change and how it has happened over time on Earth. One of the ESL students in my class asked a clarifying question about how humans caused Earth’s climate to change so quickly. I drew a diagram on the whiteboard to help this student understand what happened. This seemed to really help. By the end of this portion of the period, every student seemed to have formed a pretty strong foundation of knowledge regarding Climate Change. I was excited as I had finally found a way to engage and reach every student in my class regarding this new STEM concept. All of my hours of reflecting and refining my approach paid off. I gave myself a mental high five and did a little dance. Yah for me!
What was it that helped this dream become a reality for me in class yesterday? I believe that because I began the class by briefly explaining the concept through clarifying the limited prior knowledge that some of my students had regarding Climate Change, I was able to set my students up for success. I gave them a basic definition of the concept to help them begin to question and process this new information. I then used a visual display and model to specifically explain, in detail, the concept of Climate Change and how humans brought it into existence. This helped the students take that basic understanding of Climate Change and solidify it within their minds. They began to see how it came to be and what caused it. This tangible representation seemed to help my ELLs really make sense of what could be a very confusing idea. They saw, on a small scale, what Climate Change is all about. I then provided the students even more time to process this new concept so that they could ask any clarifying questions they still had regarding this new big idea. Breaking the introduction of this new concept down into manageable chunks seemed to help the students fully understand this very complex idea. Rather than just talk at the students about a new idea or topic, having them see the concept come to life, helps those students who struggle to process information auditorily. This approach to introducing a new idea allowed me to reach each every student in my class. Isn’t that what we as teachers should be striving for? We want to help all of our students be and feel successful and I feel as though the introductory lesson I implemented yesterday allowed just that to happen.