Although a major shift in my grading practices is my focus this year, for the day-to-day work in the classroom I'm wanting to do a far better job teaching kids to use informational text and develop their vocabulary.
We've been reading small chunk at a time, spending most of that looking at the pictures and diagrams. I know that sounds a little odd, but kids aren't trained to pay attention to the graphics in most textbooks. In science, those pictures really are worth a thousand words. I need kids to spend time interpreting them. I had a kid remark this week that "I like how we look at the pictures in this class." It's a habit I hope to develop in them so they can be more independent about it. Our reading sessions last no more than 15 minutes, so about the time the kids are getting bored/antsy, we move on to another activity.
As for vocabulary, I'm trying a variety of things. I used a Frayer model for the term system, as this term is how our science standards are organized. We did a think-pair-share with the model. I was disheartened, at first, with the "think" portion. I thought that system would be a general enough term that even if kids didn't know how to place it in the context of science, they would at least have something come to mind. Few did. As we continued to process the word, I perked up. We ended up with a great discussion.
I placed the term system up on our word wall, another strategy I'm being more purposeful about this year. I realize that word walls are typically associated with elementary classrooms, but the benefit at secondary is that kids already have some training in how to use them. They just need to know where to look in my classroom in order to "use their words." My main problem at this point is paring down the mass of vocabulary terms in science to just the most important to place on the wall. I really don't want to put up more than 5 or 6 in a given week (and from what I've read, even that could be too many). I'm using one colour of paper for content terms (system, ecology, biotic...), another for process terms (variables, hypothesis...), and another for word parts (Greek and Latin prefixes, roots, and suffixes).
Finally, I had a bit of fun with my kids on Friday. We had just started reading a passage on ecosystems. The first paragraph contained the word species. It wasn't boldfaced and it wasn't a term we had seen before. I stopped reading and asked the class if there were any terms in that paragraph which were unfamiliar. Blank stares. I directly asked about species. Students volunteered some ideas for a definition and through collective wisdom, most classes had a fairly good concept. We didn't draw the Frayer model, but we did talk about some examples (e.g. horse, donkey) and non-examples (e.g. mule). I wondered aloud if kids could think of any other non-examples---and they were able to supply a few, naming the cross of animals involved (lion + tiger = liger).
It was the end of a long week, and I was feeling punchy. I just couldn't help but ask them: What do you get if you cross an elephant and a rhino? They thought I was dead serious. You could see the look of wonder on some of their faces that such an animal might exist. You can imagine the looks of surprise and shy smiles when I delivered the punchline: 'Elephino. :) (Did she just say what we thought she said?!)
Who says vocabulary has to make for dull learning?
UPDATE: A reader was kind enough to send me the link to the video below. It's the Muppet version of the "Elephino" joke.