Home Education Magazine
January-February 2001 - Articles
Science A La Carte - Michele Winkler
"When you create an environment where learning can happen, learning happens."
- Maria Montessori
On a cold Wednesday morning in late October, my homeschool science class met for the first time. Eight children laughed and jostled their way into the room, flopping down into a loose circle. Taking a deep breath, I picked up my carefully prepared notes and launched into a lecture about trees. Trees was a perfectly appropriate subject for late autumn in southern Idaho, our streets ablaze with color.
"...and when the weather grows cold-what season is that, Breck? The leaves begin to fall." The laughter had stopped. I noticed their eyes glazing. Where had I lost them?
I continued, a hint of desperation in my voice. "And as it gets even colder, the trees lose all of their leaves and become bald!"
That caught their attention. Molly, a kid who never spoke, raised her hand and actually volunteered information.
"My uncle is bald," she announced. Everyone nodded appreciatively.
"One of our neighbors is bald," Josh informed the group, who had grown still and attentive. More hands went up. The hirsute properties of various male acquaintances were animatedly discussed. They might not know a broadleaf from a conifer - the subject of the day - but they knew when a topic captured their interest.
More firmly than gently, I got them back "on course." These were good children, polite and respectful. When they realized that I was determined to feed them an allotment of facts about trees, they did their best to digest them. But I had lost them. The excitement with which they had discussed the merits of hair versus none had fled, leaving me with shells of children making the best of their captivity. Looking at them, I remembered all too clearly being trapped inside a classroom, aching for the bell.
"Time's up," I said, my words freeing them just as the school bell had released me thirty years before. With a whoop, the children dashed outside to climb the trees they had ignored so assiduously during the lesson.
Sadly, I stared out the window. As a former science and technical writer, I felt confident that I could make natural science interesting and relevant for my daughter and her friends. I wanted them to look forward to science class. I wanted eagerness and arguments - not over the lab equipment, but over hypotheses. I wanted to watch young eyes grow big with excitement as we prepared our experiments and waited to see if they would turn out as we had predicted.
Though I loved to watch children interact freely, I did not want my science class to turn into a bi-monthly playday. We already had plenty of those. Nor did I want the docile manners and glazed eyes that I remembered from my own childhood. I had volunteered to teach this class because I felt that group learning enhances certain subjects. How could I provide my students with information that I felt was useful and valuable, while respecting their individuality and interests?
Talking to other homeschooling parents only confused me. The unschooling faction hinted that I was mildly traitorous to attempt such a structured class in the first place. Homeschoolers comfortable with packaged curriculum didn't understand my dilemma. If the children behaved well and understood the lesson, what was my problem?
We suffered through several more classes in the same vein, until, in late November, a new girl joined the group. While the children played outside, demonstrating a remarkable capacity for physics as they bounced on the trampoline, I confessed my frustrations to her mother. A former daycare teacher, she asked me if I had ever thought about using learning stations.
Learning stations! At the cooperative preschool that my daughter had attended, the whole environment was set up this way. After spending a year watching busy and contented children work and play there, I eagerly adopted the idea for my own home. Nearly every morning I set up learning stations - Playdoh and puzzles for my toddler, more eclectic projects for my eight-year-old daughter.
Something about teaching a "class" had caused me to mimic the style in which I had been taught, instead of relying on my own intuition. Then and there, I decided to try a new approach. No longer would I force-feed my students an allotment of facts about a designated subject. Instead, I would offer them a science buffet.
"Light and Color" was the topic for our next class. Before the children arrived, I arranged our large playroom into six "Science Stations." One had books, another a make-your-own word search. Two contained art projects, two held experiments. I was surprised at how much less preparation time this approach took, but soon realized it was because I was leaving the work to the students instead of doing it for them.
We began in our usual circle, but I abandoned my introductory lecture. Instead, I asked questions. What makes colors? What is a primary color? The game I invented to clarify the concepts of reflection and absorption was a big hit. When the giggles subsided, I invited them to explore the Color stations.
Within minutes, the steady hum of absorbed children filled the room. They giggled while they made color scopes (toilet paper tubes covered with colored cellophane) and looked through them, recording their observations on the lab sheets I had provided. Some spent a long time making color mosaics, or experimenting with contrast and camouflage. All of them hovered around the color mixing table. I had to raid my pantry several times for extra food coloring, paper plates and towels.
Watching the children move about the room, I was struck by how they surpassed my expectations at every station. If I told them to put a piece of colored cellophane over the edge of a tube, look through it, and record the results, they didn't stop there; they would add layer after layer of mixed colors and add those observations as well. At the color-mixing station, they may have started by dripping a few drops of colored water into an ice cube tray, but that was just the beginning; soon every paper plate and napkin I could find bore witness to their creative genius.
The real reward came two hours later. "Time's up," I announced. Everyone ignored me.
Once "science stations" became our main method of learning, the rest of the year passed too quickly. Not all classes were alike; some subjects lent themselves well to experiments, some to observation, still others to games and songs. However, I always provided at least four choices of activities and kept our opening circle to five minutes.
The night after our last class, my husband was shocked to find me poring over curriculum catalogs.
"You're going to do it again?" he asked, sounding just like he did when I told him I was pregnant with our second.
"You bet," I said smugly. "I've got it down to a science."
© 2000 Michele Winkler
January-February 2001 Issue
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