as a Springboard
the March/April 2000 issue (vol. 13, Issue 4) of Connect,
a publication of Synergy
In my third-grade
class, I use observation as a springboard for the development of
the inquiry process. The school year begins with several lessons
that help students develop their observational skills. Children
start by doing various activities that involve close observation
of different kinds of objects. They may observe something as familiar
as a cracker, for example, or something that is less familiar to
them, and then have the class match their description with the
Each child begins
the year with a large composition book. Recording their observations
in this "science journal" leads to the questions that drive students
to craft their own investigations. These investigations ultimately
lead to a meaningful understanding of the content being presented.
The journal becomes the place for documenting observations, writing
questions, and suggesting inquiries. These journals become part
of each child's portfolio, which is shared with parents during
conference periods, and then become my source of evidence as to
whether science standards have been met.
school year, I guide my class through a number of activities designed
to develop their observational skills.
by making miniature ecosystems from clear, two-liter soda bottles.
First, we cut off the top five inches of the bottle. Then students
fill the bottoms of their bottles with an inch or two of small
pebbles, a sprinkle of aquarium filter charcoal, three to four
inches of garden soil, and two or three backyard plants such as
ferns, baby tears, and grasses. Water is added until the soil is
moist, and the cut-off top of the bottle is put back in place to
cover each little terrarium.
When the terrariums
are ready, they are placed on the windowsills so that they get
enough light. Then students draw pictures showing what the newly-planted
ecosystems look like. As the school year progresses, students continue
observing and recording changes in their terrariums. They observe
the water cycle, seasonal activity, and plant cycles. As some plants
die and others sprout from seeds hidden in the soil, questions
begin to appear in student journals.
from Betty Mott's class at the Tam Valley School Creek
The value of
have many opportunities to practice observations in order to come
up with the questions that I call "wonderments."
Once a week,
my students have the opportunity to write their "wonderments" in
their science journals. They begin with the date and then write
a question about something they've observed. For example:
why when you see someone in the room yawn, you yawn?"
why snails leave a slimy trail?"
"I wonder why
the plastic cup sticks to the plastic plate when the cup and
the plate are wet?"
why the pH of the creek is 9 today?"
come from anywhere, although many come from a student's experiences
during science class.
down the question, the student draws a detailed picture representing
the question, followed by a possible explanation. Students often
go back and change their explanations after having many experiences
messing about or collecting evidence. They begin to see that a
question is a bridge between what they know and what they don't
know, or want to know.
For my third-graders,
all this observation, questioning, and recording of information
leads to a year-long study of a nearby creek. Because it's a seasonal
body of water, it offers a lot of dramatic changes for students
to observe. It's also a great place to write poetry and to draw.
Our study begins
with a "Meet-the-Creek" trip. Students conduct a few simple tests,
collect data, establish "creek manners," and become year-long stewards
of the creek. At first I model what needs to be done, then they
record the weather, the colors they see, air temperature in the
sun and shade, and the pH of the water. Students also draw at least
two of the plants and animals they notice.
On our return
from a creek visit, one student, designated as the "debriefer," calls
on the other students to name or describe the plants and animals
they noticed. This information, along with weather conditions,
Polaroid camera shots, information about the pH of the water, and
any other data collected, is entered on a computer and becomes
part of our Web site and each student's individual creek journal.
With each visit,
the students become more proficient and capable. More questions
are written down, and more tests and responsibilities are added
to carry out. Students carry their own test supplies and have small
white dry-erase boards to record their results. They share the
data they collect, putting all the information on their observation
forms, even if they did not conduct a particular test themselves,
so each has an overall picture of the creek.
Once the rains
start and the creek begins to flow, other tests are added so that
everyone in the class is working on a test and has a job. It is
important that each student have a responsibility. When all the
children are actively involved, you do not have to concern yourself
with discipline, as the inquiry itself keeps them interested.
The creek study
takes a new direction every year. Each class has its own personality,
and the children raise different questions, so each inquiry is
different. Students decide the direction of the year-long creek
The first year,
for instance, we monitored temperature, weather, plants, animals
and change. The second year, students wrote poems and drew creek
pictures with pastels. These poems and drawings were published
in a Tam Valley School Creek Poetry Collection, and shared at a
school board meeting. This year, our third year of this investigation,
began with questions from the students: "How can we keep the creek
clear of litter?" "What can we do about all the dog litter that
is increasing at such an alarming rate?" "Where do the spiders
go in the winter?" Questions about the pH level led to an investigation
about pH and how it affects the plant and animal life of the creek.
More questions came forward, along with the need to collect and
discuss the evidence observed at the creek.
the air after the first rains when the students observed some dramatic
changes. The pH returned to 6.7, but there seemed to be no fish
in the creek. Where had all the fish gone? Why had they disappeared
when there was more water now than before? Why do the fish in this
creek seem to prefer muddy water to clear water? All of these questions
have become valuable starting points for our creekside investigations.
Three years into
this process, I have found that observation activities provide
a strong foundation for beginning the inquiry process in the classroom.
This process gets kids directly involved in their learning. It
motivates them to look for answers, solve problems, and formulate
their next steps in learning. It doesn't happen overnight, and
there have been both successes and failures along the way. It requires
that a teacher be willing to take learning risks along with his
or her students, and to provide the structure and tools necessary
to assure accountability for learning while meeting state and local
Tam Valley School District
Betty Mott is
a 3rd-grade teacher at Tamalpais Valley School, Mill Valley, California.
to post this issue of Connect granted by Synergy
Learning International, Inc.
San Francisco, CA 94123