I'm fascinated by exploring how readers tie together words on a page and images in their heads. Drawings really help to show a teacher what students are imagining as they read and how they are building mental models. (You can see this Visualizing Assessment for an example.) Sketch-to-stretch is one of my favorite content area reading strategies.
In his chapter in the book Literacy in the Arts Gary Woolley writes, "Imagining story ideas during reading links information in working memory and makes the encoding and recall of information more efficient." I've seen this with my students as they read both narrative and expository texts--drawing pictures and attaching new vocabulary to concepts help students to go beyond shallow surface processing.
It's interesting to see how this plays out in the real classroom. To get ready for our cavern field trip, we read a text about caverns. Students first drew what they thought caverns look like. This picture is pretty typical--a few cave features, lots of lovely artwork, but nothing that shows how caverns form or what they might be like inside.
Then students read a text about caverns. Interestingly, they did not spontaneously go back to their original drawings to add more. It took a great deal of prompting on my part to encourage the groups of students to go back to their pictures: "Do you know the names of some of the cavern features now? What could you add to your cavern picture?"
On Monday, we went on our field trip to the cavern. I felt the power of the preparation when students gasped as they went in: "Oh, Mrs. Kissner! It's beautiful!"
The words that had been lacking after the reading selection were being used now, even before they were introduced by the tour guide. "Is that flowstone? I think it is."
"Mrs. Kissner, where is the limestone?"
"I feel the water! I'm going to grow rocks on me!"
"Oh, which are the ones that grow down? Stalac somethings."
It was a really neat experience and really enhanced by the students' interest. When we returned to school on Wednesday, then, I wanted to take the time to process what we had done.
"Let's go back to our cavern drawings," I started to say. But then something changed. Maybe it's seeing all the awesome projects in my Twitter feed, maybe it's my experience with STEM club--I changed the task from "Let's draw a cavern" to "Let's find a way to create a cavern."
Kids started to collaborate, forming loose groups. Some students did created drawings, but they were rich, multi-layered affairs, with keys to symbols and labels. Other students turned to paper engineering. How could you make a cavern out of construction paper? It became quite the engineering challenge as students experimented with rulers and cardboard to create three-dimensional scenes. Luckily I had a parent volunteer in for the morning, so she helped as I pulled out more materials (aluminum foil! wax paper! rubber bands! Playmobil people!) and engaged students in conversation about what they were doing.
Here are some products:
The second cave experienced a real-life sinkhole, as the house caused the whole thing to sink in at first. "Mrs. Kissner! It fell apart!" This was a great connection to sinkholes, which I was going to teach about anyway, so it was a very productive setback. I pulled everyone together for a few minutes after music class to talk about the sinkhole and show some videos of how they look in the real world.
On the other side of the room, I was worried about one group that had a cup of water. Then they explained: "The cave that we went to had a room that was carved by water and an underground lake, so we're putting an underground river in ours."
It was interesting to see how they dealt with the task of creating a cave in three dimensions, and how this task allowed them to explore the concept in new ways. Their creations were different from the typical "class project" in that their products were not uniformly beautiful, but all showed some learning.
-What details about this task will stick with kids in 3 weeks, 3 months, 3 years? What big ideas will they remember about caverns?
-What STEM concepts did they learn while working on their caverns?
-How did the real life experience and the reading interact?
-Luckily, I had started packing away some books for the end of the year, and so I had some empty shelf space for temporary cave display. But what will I need to do next year to make room for these kinds of projects?