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Rightfully Present

Using trade books and 3D learning to encourage students’ sense of belonging

Science and Children—March/April 2023 (Volume 60, Issue 4)

By Bailey Nafziger

Rightfully Present

Imagine yourself walking into your first day of school, fresh from a summer spent outside with your friends and family. You anxiously find your seat and see that “Science” is on the agenda for this afternoon. Your absolute favorite! When the time comes, you are the first with your hand raised to share the wealth of experiences you accumulated over the summer from your time spent in the trees while out camping and meticulously picking wild strawberries. After a strong conclusion, your well-meaning teacher comments, “What a great opinion.” Opinion? Your ideas about nature, its role, and how to take care of the Earth has been embedded in your life since as far back as you can remember. Your way of knowing, your epistemology, has been silenced. Your culture has been unintentionally marginalized by your teacher for the rest of the class to hear. Would your interest in science survive?

Unfortunately, this account is not completely fabricated. Unintentional sidelining of indigenous knowledge is one reason Native Americans continue to be underrepresented in STEM fields (Cech, Metz, Smith, and deVries 2017). Even at a young age, students are asked to choose: their culture or modern science. All students deserve a rightful presence in their science classrooms. Unfortunately, not all classrooms are set up to help amplify student voices and encourage a sense of belonging for minority youth. A science classroom culture that extends a rightful presence to all students is constructed through tapping into student experience, culture, and interest. By using our student’s cultures, we level the playing field in equity and access to help every student feel like they rightfully belong (Calabrese, Barton, and Tan 2020).

This unit looks at plant biology through a Native American lens and took hold when I realized how a simple schoolyard nature walk can trigger student motivation. I have done this lesson at multiple school sites including ones in the desert. Look for spaces with multiple types of bushes, trees, or grasses. Keep safety in mind by being aware of what harmful plants and animals are in the area and be aware of any student allergies. The beginning of the unit engages students with a read-aloud. The use of a trade book written by Cherokee author Traci Sorell (2018) frames the Indigenous language in present tense and helps all students understand they (and their cultures) deserve to be in the science classroom (Bang and Marin 2015). While reading We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, students are encouraged to share their observations, experiences, and engage in sense-making observations. Not only does it invite all students to engage in science, it also increases students exposure to a literature-rich environment and promotes sense-making. As a teacher, it also poses a great opportunity to listen for student strengths. Use the opportunity to listen for students who hold a strong naturalist intelligence as it can be used in other settings to motivate and engage. Characteristics of students with strong naturalist intelligence include caring about the environment, being in touch with nature, and being particularly adept at identifying plants and animals. While the area is often praised in a science classroom, rarely are these students given the opportunity to move past recall into deeper, sense-making activities that celebrate their diverse mindset.

Student observations and questions guide the rest of the unit while the teacher serves as the facilitator using sentence stems and discourse moves to probe student thinking, elicit creativity, and invite students to participate through multiple access points.


The unit begins with a read-aloud by Cherokee author Traci Sorell. In her book, We are Grateful: Oysaliheliga, Sorell (2018) goes season by season expressing gratitude for the gifts of each season through the Cherokee perspective. The author describes traditional practices in the present tense signifying that Native American cultures are current, well, and hold an important place in our world. Students are prompted throughout the read to identify connections they have with the story. The teacher should use common reference points around the community to compare areas that prove people show gratitude to the environment (e.g., parks, arboretums, or walking trails) and evidence of areas that show people have not shown gratitude to the natural world (e.g., new construction sites or any area that has human interactions have negatively impacted the ecosystem). Transition to the Explore portion of the lesson by having students think-pair-share how we can show appreciation to our school community and how that can benefit the local ecosystem. This is also a good time to informally preassess student knowledge of the disciplinary core idea of interdependent relationships in ecosystems, specifically regarding the needs of plants.


The goal of the lesson is then introduced to the students: Use students’ observations about local vegetation to create questions, design investigations, and answer their questions to help take care and show gratitude for the school’s natural ecosystem. After the read-aloud, the conversation is fairly unstructured, focused on student observations and questions, but should guide students to the question of: “How can we show we are grateful to the plants?” The teacher-directed class discussion can lead students to the understanding that to show how grateful we are to plants, we can learn about them and how to take care of them (see Table 1).

Students then head out to an outdoor space on campus to begin their exploration to collect data and engage in the science and engineering practice of asking questions and identifying problems. Choose a location with a couple types of trees or landscaping plants. I have done this lesson at multiple elementary schools that vary between xeriscape to highly irrigated, and it has never been a problem finding useful specimens. We typically spend about 20 minutes outside and students are asked to gather three to five leaves of their choice. The teacher’s role is to listen to students and continue to ask probing questions. The teacher’s role is not to give answers at this stage. Be vigilant to ensure students are not damaging plants or taking too much of any tree with the simple reminder of we are grateful for these trees and their gifts. We need to make sure we are responsible in what we take from it. Our goal is to learn about them to help them, so only take what you need.

Back at the classroom, students engage in the science and engineering practice of analyzing and interpreting data by drawing, labeling, and sharing the models in their science notebooks. Typically, students begin looking to the teacher to answer questions. It is a great time to prompt students to note any and all questions they have in their notebooks, which can also serve as an assessment to students engaging in the science and engineering practice of asking questions and identifying problems (see Figure 1). If available, provide hand lenses for students and probe them into inspecting the details. Instruct students to draw and label pictures of their leaves. I typically provide students with the example of how to “zoom in” on their drawn models and predict what they would see if they were to look at the sample under a microscope. Positively acknowledge students who are honing into details of the plant including the “veins” in a leaf, different coloration on the top and bottom of a leaf, or the difference in texture between an upright branch and soft leaf. For higher level learners, prompt them to create analogies to compare the texture, size, or color of the plants. When students have exhausted their observations, transition into having them create a list of lingering questions.

Table 1. Teacher-facilitated conversation guiding students to how we can show we are grateful for plants.

Ms. Vela

How was the story organized? Let’s do a think-pair-share.


My partner and I both said it is organized by season.


I agree with Maud, they started with the fall and ended in spring.

Ms. Vela

I noticed that too. The last line says, “every day, every season, we are grateful.” Right now we are in Spring. Did anybody notice the purple flowers today by the cafeteria? I was pretty grateful for them. Who else do you think is grateful for those pretty flowers?


I saw a bee on one this morning! I bet they are grateful.

Ms. Vela

Interesting! Does anybody agree, disagree, or have something to add?


I agree with Sarah because bees eat the pollen. Do they eat the pollen?

Ms. Vela

That’s a great question, Tevan. Who can help us out? What do the bees have to do with the pollen?


The bees eat both the pollen and the nectar.

Ms. Vela

Anybody agree, disagree, or would like to add on to Karsyn’s thoughts?


I agree with Karsyn and would like to add that plants must be grateful to bees too because the bees help pollinate.

Ms. Vela

Interesting! So bees are grateful for plants and plants are grateful for bees. Give me a thumbs up or down if you are grateful for plants. Turns and talk to your neighbor about why you are grateful for plants


We’re grateful for plants because we get to eat them and they give us oxygen.

Ms. Vela

I agree with you, Maud. So, how can we show plants we are grateful for them?


We can take care of them.

Ms. Vela

Excellent. Let’s do that, but first we need to learn a bit more about them so we can take care of them.

Figure 1
Student notebook examples.

Student notebook examples.


At this point, students are excited to share their findings! Allow students a short amount of time to informally share their questions with small groups of peers. Ask students to listen for questions that are similar to theirs to promote active engagement with classmates (see Table 2). The whole class gathers together as we work to create a list of questions we are interested in finding answers to. Students share their questions as the teacher creates an anchor chart to refer to throughout the rest of the unit. While facilitating the group conversation, guide students back into thinking of the crosscutting concept of cause and effect and the core disciplinary idea that plants have interdependent relationship with their ecosystems and depend on water and light to thrive. Write student questions down word for word and do your best not to clarify or add in vocabulary not yet discussed.

When the list is exhausted, open up the floor to students to start to answer these questions. Now is a great time to identify those students with an affinity for thinking like a naturalist. Use consensus discussion strategies for students to agree or disagree with one another and determine if they are satisfied by the answers provided by their peers. Throughout the explain phase, student-centered discussion allows students to teach their peers and answer questions together. It also serves as an opportunity for the teacher to elaborate on the process of cause and effect in ecosystems. For example, if a plant is growing in one direction, there has to be a cause. Or, if a pattern is observed that leaves are typically darker on the top of the leaf then the bottom, there has to be a cause. If it is not crossed off the list or students cannot reach a consensus, that question will be the guiding question for the Elaborate section of the unit plan.


The elaborate section can take anywhere from two sessions to a whole quarter. I usually use grass seed because it is cheap and sold in larger quantities. Potting soil and dixie cups are items that can easily be donated. Students create simple investigations to test the needs of plants. My favorite progression is to do an investigation where the whole class works in small groups to create and follow the same procedures followed by at least three other investigations with less scaffolding, eventually leading to each small group of students asking and answering different questions. Figure 2 is the worksheet we go through together and student tape into their notebooks. If doing a whole-group investigation or demonstration, the teacher may choose to project one copy for the students to follow, but as students become more comfortable, they can complete the template by themselves, partners, and/or small groups.

Classroom conversations exploring observations and creating questions.


We noticed that the one tree was leaning away from the building.

Ms. Vela:

That’s a great observation! Why do you think that was?


It had more space?

Ms. Vela:

That’s a great thought. What else do plants need to survive? Let’s do a think-pair-share.


My partner said plants need water, sunlight, and nutrients.

Ms. Vela:

Does anybody agree, disagree, or want to add?


I agree with Tony. I would also like to add that since plants drink from their roots, it cannot be because of water.

Ms. Vela:

That’s a great point. So, we are left with sunlight and nutrients. What do we think?


I think it is sunlight. It was planted so close to the building that it may get too much shade.

Ms. Vela:

Hmm…does anybody agree or disagree with Maud?

Ms. Vela:

It looks like we are not completely sure. Do you want to create some tests to find out?

Figure 2
Student investigation organizer sample.

Student investigation organizer sample.


So far, the unit has been guided by informal evaluation using think-pair-shares, the anchor chart full of questions, and student journals filled with diagrams and observations. A claim-evidence-reasoning (CER) is the tool of choice for a summative assessment in my classroom. The CER format has plenty of graphic organizer and sentence stems available online for any grade level (see References). Figure 3 was written in a student’s notebook and addresses the grade 2 standard 2-LS2-1: Plan and conduct an investigation to determine if plants need sunlight and water to grow.

Figure 3
Student CER sample.

Student CER sample.


Easy tweaks to the CER delivery and format can be used as enrichment and give students the opportunity to showcase their strengths. Students who are verbally strong may prefer to read and elaborate on their CER in a Flipgrid video. Videos can be created through virtual learning or as a station in the classroom. Sentence stems can be provided for students to comment on one another’s to offer agree, disagree, seek clarification, or offer suggestions. Older students may engage in the same debate but on a discussion question posted online.

Students with a strong spatial intelligence could expand on the “E” part of evidence using pictures or graphs. Students quantitatively strong could focus on metric measurement and potentially focusing on how to organize their data. Best yet is when a student surprises you with strong naturalist tendencies. A station can be set up for the students to further develop their talents guided by the budding naturalist.


This unit was born from a Friday afternoon “nature walk” and grown for my native American students. Everyday there are more quality resources available for teachers to amplify the voices that are a bit different from the traditional view of science. The use of trade books is one example. Students always surprise me with the level of motivation they have during this unit. It could be in part because they are engaging in a culture of reciprocity. Our school grounds are full of vegetation that provides for us and other animals. This is our opportunity to show our gratitude and learn to care for them as well. The small adjustment in perspective for the purpose of science could be the change that helps some minority students envision their future in the field of science.

Bailey Nafziger ( is an assistant professor at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, Georgia.




Bang, M., and A. Marin. 2015. Nature-culture constructs in science learning: Human/non-human agency and intentionality: Nature-culture constructs in science learning. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 52 (4): 530–544.

Calabrese Barton, A., and E. Tan. 2020. Beyond equity as inclusion: A framework of “rightful presence” for guiding justice-oriented studies in teaching and learning. Educational Researcher 49 (6).

Cech, E.A., A. Metz, J.L. Smith, and K. deVries. 2017. Epistemological dominance and social inequality: Experiences of Native American science, engineering, and health Students. Science, Technology, and Human Values. 42(4): 743–774.

Sorrell, T. 2018. We are grateful: Otsaliheliga. Charlesbridge.

CER graphic organizer:

Claim Evidence Reasoning Sentence Starters:


We Are Grateful Otsaliheliga Cherokee Language Read Along:

Earth & Space Science Multicultural Pedagogy Elementary

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