By. Leona Williams, Brandywine School District
Forwood Elementary School’s journey to becoming a green school started with a simple question. During a nutrition lesson led by a college intern, a student of mine asked, “How did you make the strawberry?” While the intern explained it came from nature, this question clearly showed that there were children in our school who didn’t understand their food’s origins. I soon got involved with the National Wildlife Federation’s Eco Schools USA program to help all students develop an understanding of natural science and conservation as our elementary school’s Green Team Leader.
As a school, we began the Sustainable Food pathway in 2016 with the support of a Whole Kids Foundation grant and a partnership with Healthy Foods for Healthy Kids. The partnership with Healthy Foods for Healthy Kids provided students with grade level specific science curriculum, not to mention fresh salad ingredients grown outside our cafeteria window. Our initial focus on food led to schoolwide energy conservation education, recycling in the cafeteria and in classrooms, and a sensory garden that provides multiple learning opportunities and a place for mindful moments.
Since becoming a 2017 Delaware and U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon School, hundreds of Forwood Elementary students and their families have developed greater environmental awareness and accepted daily roles in protecting the world around them. As a teacher, I began to wonder how I could further connect student understanding of these responsibilities to science and deepen their knowledge of sustainability while supporting their overall academic performance.
As a Next Generation Science Teacher Leader, I trained with authors of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and had the opportunity to align curriculum and develop assessments. However, I have been drawn to utilizing knowledge developed through experiments, research, and communication with experts to enrich writing. Writing instruction has regained emphasis in our school district, and I learned to use genre-based writing strategies to support student writing with assistance from Dr. Zoi Philippakos of the University of Tennessee – Knoxville. She worked with our district through the Developing Strategic Writers research project. I jumped into this writing experience as a fifth-grade teacher, combining virtual and hands-on experiments related to ecosystems with research on the multiple impacts fossil fuel use has on the environment. I used Lexile adjustable articles from Newsela to support student understanding of oil drilling and fossil fuel burning. Students wrote reports that combined information, and I challenged them to suggest alternatives. Despite the numerous solar panels on nearby homes and wind turbines on the Philadelphia Eagles stadium, students were unaware of these clean energies.
However, if our school was going to develop environmental awareness, we would need to do a better job addressing NGSS standards and giving students more opportunities to communicate their understanding. Teaching fourth-grade during the 2017 – 2018 school year , I collaborated in a design-based research project with Dr. Philippakos to examine the effects of genre-based strategy instruction on the persuasive writing of students in English Language Arts and science. We collected baseline data and I taught genre-based writing lessons. I used science content to build background knowledge and support students’ ability to make a claim on a scientific topic and use evidence to support that claim. Dr. Philippakos then evaluated student growth. Results from this research are currently in press and show improvement in students’ writing quality. Findings also reveal challenges students faced with the use of graph-related data in their explanations.
Writing instruction drew from published work by Philippakos, MacArthur, and Coker (2015) and research by Philippakos and MacArthur. I began with modeling specific strategies for each genre. In class, we planned using FTAAP, noting the Form, Topic, Author, Audience, and Purpose (Philippakos, 2018), and then brainstormed ideas. In this writing program, graphic organizers uniformly have a Beginning, a Middle, and an End. The Beginning section engages and introduces readers to topics. The Middle shares reasons and evidence for persuasive writing, facts and details for report writing, or similarities and differences for comparative writing. The End effectively closes the writing piece but leaves readers with something to think about. We practiced writing using graphic organizers and followed up with a peer review rubric, becoming familiar with the tools of each strategy. Then we transferred learning to engaging science-based prompts I created. It was helpful that all resources were readily made and available without the need to develop them.
During this research collaboration, students skyped Dr. Russell Burke, an ecologist and herpetologist from Hofstra University, to learn about the plight of the diamondback terrapin. A Google poll before instruction showed that 100% of students wanted a pet turtle for the class. Then they learned how people have impacted the environment and lives of terrapins and wrote persuasively to protect them. Following instruction of Foss Structures of Life, students transferred learning to report writing, including structures that support the survival of animals in their natural habitats.
Studying energy, I used National Science Teacher Association recommended resources, such as Buried Sunlight: How Fossil Fuels Have Changed the Earth by Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm, and numerous sources found on Energy Kids, a government website to support understanding of renewable and nonrenewable energy. Harry Spotter and the Chamber of Windy Myths, a play spoof of Harry Potter, taught my students about wind energy, including how to site wind turbines. After discussing the impact that even clean energy can have on wildlife (e.g., birds in migratory paths), we noted the impact versus fossil fuels is much smaller. I instructed students about solar energy then challenged them to solve a fictitious energy problem at Hogwatt’s School, to include five facts they learned about this renewable energy form. They added Ron Wisely to the mix of characters and wrote engaging informational narratives. Basing their writing on science, students had common experiences that allowed me to respond collectively to their needs while also supporting them individually in science and/or writing.
“It is important for students to be given opportunities to write across the curriculum about information they read. When they do this in science, they are able to utilize knowledge about genres to construct their responses and use content knowledge and mathematics to support claims they make. Writing in science supports their critical thinking and their ability to use observational data, statistics, graphs, and information they read as evidence. And the most important part is that the learning is authentic!” shared Dr. Philippakos.
This year, fourth-grade students wrote compare and contrast essays on renewable versus nonrenewable energy. They continue to connect what they do in school to their current conservation responsibilities and their future roles as global citizens. Becoming a U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon School has shaped the habits of our students; however, enhancing their understanding of human’s impact on the environment comes through the integration of science in writing.
Philippakos, Z. (2018). Using a task analysis process for reading and writing assignments. Reading Teacher, 72(1), 107–114. doi:10.1002/trtr.1690
Philippakos. Z. A., MacArthur, C. A., and Coker, D. L. (2015). Developing strategic writers through genre instruction: Resources for grades 3-5. New York: Guilford Press.
Traga Philipakos, Z. A., Williams, L., McLurg, G., Robinson, L., and Munsell, S. (in press). Writing in Science: Integrating writing Strategy Instruction across the curriculum. ALER Yearbook.
Leona Williams, a fourth-grade teacher at Forwood Elementary School in Wilmington, Delaware, has been a Next Generation Science Teacher Leader since 2014. She was recognized as a science finalist for the Presidential Awards of Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching in 2016 and 2018 for her Ecosystems and Energy Units, respectively. Under her leadership, Forwood was named a 2017 Delaware and U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon School. Leona is a certified Naturalist. In 2018, she was Brandywine School District’s Teacher of the Year, Delaware Nature Society’s Outstanding Environmental Educator, and Delaware Association for Environmental Education Field Educator of the Year.