Next Gen Navigator
By Dan Adler
Posted on 2020-12-17
I miss the before times. When I think back to school before March 2020, I see myself hovering around groups in the lab, using “surprise attacks” of back-pocket questions to elicit developing understandings of puzzling phenomena. Or I see myself in the classroom, trying to hide in the corner as my students discuss new evidence and challenge one another’s thinking as we seek better understanding of how the world works.
When I think back to school after March 2020...well, different story. I remember learning to press Mute All when sounds from students’ homes entered our “classroom”; the sticky note my wife placed above my computer that says, “Please stop shouting,”; and slowly forgetting what my students looked like before they became identical black boxes.
I also remember the slow erosion of sensemaking in my classroom. Class wasn’t a total waste of time. Some children learned some things. But we were largely reading articles, watching videos, and playing with a large suite of new tech tools. We weren’t doing the rich scientific thinking that would allow my students to learn and grow as much as they deserved to.
I resolved to improve for the fall, and like many, registered for approximately 398 webinars. Most helpfully, I attended an NSTA Web Seminar series on distance-learning strategies. I cannot summarize all of the nuggets of wisdom I gleaned from that series here, but I’d like to name three. One, students are most engaged in scientific thinking when they have the chance to use science and engineering practices to make sense of puzzling phenomena. Two, there are online tools that allow students to engage in sensemaking. And three, it’s less about the fancy tools you are using with students, and more about you selecting tools with purpose: tools that allow your students to engage in sensemaking, even from those terrible black boxes.
With that third message in mind, I thought about my 2020 curriculum through a different lens. Rather than hunt for online labs to replace normal investigations or seek out new and shiny tech tools that students would enjoy, I looked at my curriculum, and I tried to determine what tool or tools would best enable the sensemaking that the curriculum and the standards called for. That reflection ultimately led to my 2020 tech tool of choice for sensemaking at a distance: Nearpod.
Nearpod is a digital tool that allows teachers to create interactive lessons, either through the Nearpod website or by using the extremely helpful add-on for Google Slides. The more I learn about Nearpod, the more convinced I am that I’ve hit the sensemaking jackpot. The Nearpod features allow me to create engaging opportunities for my students to use the science and engineering practices to grapple with phenomena and exercise scientific thinking.
Here’s an example of how I’ve used Nearpod to promote sensemaking in my classroom. I began the school year with a unit inspired by the NSTA Daily Do “Why Are There Fish in the Desert?” in which students figure out how a desert could yield catfish and other ocean fossils. Our essential question was “What can we learn about Earth’s past from an ocean fish fossil found in Kansas?”
First I wanted to share with students a video from the NOVA series Making North America in which amateur fossil hunters discover a 14-foot-long fish fossil in Kansas. This fossil find was the anchor phenomenon for the unit. Nearpod has a tool that lets you embed video into your presentations and insert questions that will pop up as the video plays that you can use to check for student understanding.
Next I wanted to give my students an opportunity to react to what they’d seen. One of my favorite thinking routines in science class is See-Think-Wonder, in which students grapple with an intriguing or puzzling phenomenon by making careful observations, inferring what those observations mean, then asking questions. In the classroom, I’d have students record their own thinking, then share their thoughts with others. Nearpod let me create that experience virtually using the Collaborate Board. Students create and post their thoughts on “sticky notes,” then “like” their classmates’ ideas by clicking on a heart icon, similar to how Instagram or Twitter works. This sharing of ideas immediately when the unit began allowed students to create a rich set of data for initial explanatory models, as well as share a slew of useful background knowledge. (Note that the Collaborate Board seen below is from a different unit.)
Later, I wanted my students to generate explanatory models to try to make sense of how an ocean fish fossil could be found in Kansas. Nearpod has a Draw It tool that is ideal for students to use to create models! Students can easily draw in different colors and add text, all on their own whiteboard. Meanwhile, the teacher can view every drawing at once, then share exemplars (based on represented components, interactions, and/or mechanisms) with the class by simply pressing a “Share” button.
At the end of this anchor phenomenon routine, I wanted to create a driving question board that we could return to throughout the unit. That meant it had to live outside of one Nearpod slide deck. For this task, I chose Jamboard—a GSuite tool that allows students to record their questions on “sticky notes.” Fortunately, Nearpod is also an effective aggregator. Using the Web Content tool, teachers can add any website to a Nearpod presentation. So when it was time to use the driving question board, students interacted with the Jamboard within Nearpod, eliminating the need to open new tabs.
Often we end class by reflecting on our learning. I use the Open-Ended Question tool in Nearpod to ask students how what we learned has helped us get closer to explaining how our anchoring phenomenon occurred. Yes, I could do this in the Zoom chat—but doing it in Nearpod limits the need to move back and forth between Zoom and another digital tool, and I can use a timer and participation meter to keep the lesson moving forward and the whole class engaged during online learning.
Nearpod is not a perfect sensemaking solution. (If anyone has one of those, please tell me about it immediately!) For example, when I want students to engage in lengthy argumentative writing, we can just do that in Google Docs. (Although as I described earlier, I usually embed the link to those Google Docs into Nearpod using the Web Content tool!) But I deeply appreciate that Nearpod’s various tools for interactivity and engagement also happen to give my students the opportunity to use science and engineering practices to make sense of phenomena. While I look forward to returning to our school - the actual brick building, that is - I do believe my students are engaging in scientific sensemaking this year, and I have Nearpod to thank for that.
Dan Adler is a sixth-grade science teacher in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and the UP Education Network Science Lead. He is a former recipient of the Milken Educator Award in Massachusetts. Recently, Adler was named a Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST) finalist in Massachusetts. Adler’s pedagogical passions include supporting English language learners, creating science songs, and making the worst science puns his students have ever heard.
Note: This article is featured in the November/December 2020 issue of Next Gen Navigator, a monthly e-newsletter from NSTA delivering information, insights, resources, and professional learning opportunities for science educators by science educators on the Next Generation Science Standards and three-dimensional instruction. Click here to sign up to receive the Navigator every month.
The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.
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