Writing in Science: Persistence Makes Perfect

“You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it.  That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.”  –Octavia E. Butler

Writing is an integral aspect of Science. It is embedded within the Scientific Method and the Engineering Process. Like experimentation, writing requires precision, organization, and perseverance. Whether crafting research papers, observations, or lab reports, scientific writing

This is a look at the Scientific Method through a  writing lens.
This is a look at the Scientific Method through a writing lens.

requires students to demonstrate a deeper understanding of many complex procedures and phenomena that people often take for granted. Examining an idea as simple as breathing can lead to an exploration on the human respiratory system, the molecular composition of gas particles, or the interaction between humans and the environment. This curiosity and exploration is a  key element of learning in the Science classroom, as it is imagination that drives Science beyond it’s limits.

Students are naturally curious, and a in my classroom I find that the more knowledge they acquire, the more questions they have. My role as a Science teacher is to bring context and structure to questions students have about the world around them.  The payoff is found in the “Eureka!” moments that students experience during a carefully planned experiment. However, once these students experience these moments, they must be able to go beyond experimentation and explain what it is they learned. This is where the scientific writer is born.

Scientific writing requires students to ask questions and use experimentation, prior experiences, and content knowledge to develop claims that answer the questions. This is a messy process that requires in-depth research, proper tools, and willingness to engage in trial and error to get the desired results. But while students are eager to “get their hands dirty” with Science experiments, they are paralyzed with anxiety when asked to write about them. As many middle school teachers can attest to, this anxiety comes in form of perceived apathy and work avoidance.

Students writing observations as they simulate human digestion in test tubes.
Students writing observations as they simulate human digestion in test tubes.

My philosophy on writing in my classroom is as follows: Question everything, persevere until you find an answer, and record every step of the journey. At the heart of all we do, I want to them to embrace the curiosity of the world around them and articulate the discoveries that they work so hard to reach through experimentation. This is difficult, however,  as the Boston Public Schools’ middle school science curriculum does not have many lessons on explicitly teaching writing.  There is a discrete set of science content standards that I must teach in my subject area, and I struggle with balancing reading, writing, and content specific concepts. Add in the fact that when implementing any new protocols, I also need to differentiate for English Language Learners and students with disabilities, and, as a second year teacher, I feel the same paralyzing anxiety around writing as my students. This has required me to look outside of my curriculum, and seek the guidance of colleagues.

In the upcoming weeks I will be working closely with a team of teachers to document my experiences with teaching writing across the curriculum. I will be guided by the principle theories presented in the Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) model in which classroom writing tasks can be presented through two lenses: writing-to-learn and writing-to-demonstrate-knowledge. When writing-to-learn, students will focus on key concepts ideas as opposed to grammar, spelling or style elements of writing. In Science, this form of writing can be used during quick-writes in a lab notebook, observations during an experiment, or sorter vocabulary-driven writing assignments. Other times, students will be asked to demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of concepts covered over the span of several weeks. When preparing these formal writing assignments such as research papers, lab reports and informational papers, students will be employing strategies focused on writing-to-demonstrate knowledge.

Clearly, anxiety is not an issue for this student when examining different types of rocks.
Clearly, anxiety is not an issue for this student when examining different types of rocks.

It is my hope that utilizing these targeted strategies will help to lessen the anxiety many students feel around writing, resulting an ability to persevere when tackling  complex subject matter. I want my students to see that writing is nothing more than thought manifested into a physical form.  If they can think it up, then they can write it down.

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