An Introduction to Science Classes at Ecole Bilingue

by Michael Rossman


Dear Parent,

       Welcome to science at EB for grades 3 to 5! As your child will be learning with me for three years, I'd like to give you some idea of what to expect from our weekly classes and their cumulative flow, and how to support his or her participation. As these notes also cover some practical matters related to the science curriculum, you may want to keep them for future reference.

[The science curriculum, in general]

       The curriculum I teach has been developing for 23 years. It covers most of the standard subjects for these grades, and much more besides, in somewhat unconventional ways. Though its perspectives are as modern and sophisticated as I can offer to students so young, its spirit derives from the English and French natural scientists of the nineteenth century, their eyes wide with wonder at the sense within their grasp as they observed acutely and laid hands on in experiment.

       While the curriculum offers a rich introduction to scientific concepts and procedures, its purposes go beyond testable knowledge and skills. I want my students to realize themselves as scientists in this spirit -- to encounter the world with omnivorous curiosity, growing more confident of their abilities to make sense of what they consider and to follow inquiry where it may lead. I hope to spark their interests in every sense, superficial and deep; I want them to find science wonder-full, exciting, a passport to vistas expanding in every direction. Having come to see science also as worship, as art, as political practice, I share this as best I can. I want them to realize that there are many ways to engage with science, and that each can find their own; I want them to know that their own engagements and contributions to our curriculum matter. I want them to become responsible and critical citizens of science, and to conserve water.

       Though such an agenda can hardly be satisfied in our brief time together -- amounting to one hundred sessions over three years -- its underlying sense informs the curriculum even more deeply than content considerations do. Roughly speaking, I figure that if their spirits are engaged, they will learn enough content, from many sources; and experience generally confirms this. It is essential also that my own spirit be engaged, and so I approach science class as a place to play and experiment with science and with teaching, sharing my own interests and inquiries with them.

       Though I often bring reference materials and constantly urge them to read, in my class students do not learn science from a book or other media, or by using packaged curricular materials keyed to standardized instructional modules. They learn mainly from real things, directly exploring the world around them, helping me bring as much into the classroom as we can -- interesting rocks and moldy fruit, creatures of all kinds living and dead, ailing appliances, clever toys, yesterday's bruises. I supplement this wealth with household chemicals and a variety of primitive and sophisticated scientific tools. My emphasis is on direct experience: we handle things, smell them, taste them, smash them, boil them, take them apart.

       If my students find class engaging, it is also because the curriculum deals regularly with a variety of charged topics, using their inherent interest to open many doors of inquiry. We handle snakes, slugs, and spiders; consider injuries, diseases, decay, and death; experiment with acids, poisons, fire, explosions, and electric shocks; dissect dead animals; discuss drugs and reproductive anatomy, the functions of spittle and snot, and what may be learned from creatures' feces. Such charged topics emerge naturally in a context responsive to students' interests, if one doesn't discourage them.  Though I keep their pursuit in balance with other approaches to content, they enrich the curriculum considerably, and play a central role. For through the many particulars of such inquiries, we rehearse a lesson fundamental not only to science: that everything is worthy of inquiry and rewarding in understanding, once we set aside blurs of prejudice and emotion to actually consider what is before us.

       I must emphasize that I am careful not to expose my students to physical dangers beyond the risk of a broken microscope slide; that I discourage reckless attitudes and unsupervised experiment; and that I am actively respectful of their feelings in dealing with charged topics. In my class, no one is required to touch, taste, watch, or do anything they find distasteful or upsetting. I present charged material as an opportunity, to engage at their own pace. I do invite actively, but I don't force, and other students' examples are a stronger influence. More often sooner than later, nearly everyone lets the tarantula walk on their hand, and is thrilled to find it light as a feather.

       When I do a dissection, most crowd close to watch; some stand near, withdraw and return; and one or sometimes a few may find it too upsetting to attend. They are free without prejudice to go read a science book until we are finished, after we pause to agree again that feeling sad about a squirrel's death or nauseous at the sight of its intestines doesn't make one a wimp. Sometimes we talk about how it is possible to have several feelings at once -- disgust at the thought of its guts, delight at their delicate mesentary web, sorrow and curiosity and awe -- and how one learns to keep them in balance. For though science and its study can be presented as devoid of emotion, we learn and practice it as whole people.

[Some curricular particulars]

       As my classes are open to students' input and inquiries, and my own finds afield, their weekly content and progress is somewhat unpredictable. One might engage their sprawling richness simply as a compost-heap of science, and be well-nourished by its random fertility. But our curriculum is given deeper order by several main themes of inquiry, persistently pursued and interwoven.

       One focuses on the molecular-atomic basis of matter and its behaviors. After admiring the earth's crystal fruits, we learn how to grow crystals ourselves. The slow process introduces us to water's molecules, their three states and transitions; to order, disorder, and heat-energy; to solutions, salts, and toxic properties. This base-camp of concepts prepares us to discuss the atmosphere's composition and simpler dynamics; and to recognize the crystalline structure of rocks as a guide to their species, opening our study of how they form and the active geomorpology of our region. In time, the many rocks and shells brought as specimens lead us to follow the CO2 molecule through the warming atmosphere into the vast salty solution where the carbonate strata of life accumulate.

       We follow it too from our lungs through photosynthesis, assembling models of sugar molecules, learning how plants compound them into starches and structure, recovering them from starchy food by the enzyme action of our saliva, burning them back down to water and CO2 in gross replica of the subtle process powering our cells. Beyond this, our chemical exploration is limited mainly to simpler oxidation reactions, their products, and uses; to metals' properties and how these are won from ores; and to etching carbonates and metals with acids made in our stomaches and from fruits. But we follow molecular complexity impressionistically as we inquire into carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, and the genetic script of life itself.

       Molecular motion is our key to deciphering a wide range of thermal phenomena, from conduction and insulation to pollywog growth and spring itself; and to understanding sound, hearing, and vibrational pitch. From the motion of smaller bits, light is born; we imagine an extended "light piano" to grasp the vibrational octaves extending from our own infra-red radiance down to radio and TV waves, up through sunburn's ultraviolet and X-rays to nuclear creation; and play with the octave we can see, charting light's reflections in mirrors, focusing its energy with lenses, building kaleidescopes, recognizing the prisms behind the rainbow. Electron motion extends our practical curriculum; we learn how to push electricity, guide it, store it, measure and translate its energy. I defer play with electronics to an elective after-school class, and punt computers entirely, favoring more basic technology. We run electrons in circles to generate magnetic fields and simple motors; push them through resistant metals to generate heat and light; marvel at the many permutations of these basic tricks in the endless flow of discarded appliances; and sometimes manage to fix one. As for the many other domains of physics, I largely scant them, apart from occasional numerical lessons in leverage and its applications; for these few already illuminate more than we can pursue.

       Another main theme might be labeled "adaptive biology" to embrace several systematic threads of inquiry. To ground their caring for our planet, my students should know and care about the life around them. We begin near the beginning, with water from the gutter, discovering a luminous universe of protozoa and algae, and the microscope as a tool for all manner of inquiries. These single cells guide our imagination and understanding as we follow their differentiation into all higher life. As we pass beyond flatworms, students join me in bringing specimens. We admire the Jerusalem cricket's strong mandibles and learn to fondle it without being bitten; we make a moist colony for sowbugs with babies; we follow the functional thread of mucus from worm to snail to salamander to our noses. Over several years, this semi-random flow affords us a relatively systematic survey of the commoner local invertebrates and cold-blooded vertebrates -- providing tangible ground for unfolding discussions of the taxonomic order of life; the functional adaptations that distinguish the phyla and interesting species, and their bases in cellular physiology; the role of selective adaptation in the evolutionary drama orchestrated through clever molecules; and a wide range of ecological issues.

       In fourth grade, we engage another kingdom, inquiring into useful rot. We begin by learning to culture gardens of bacteria and molds, gathering their variety from the air, penicillin from moldy oranges. Our inquiry then branches. On one track, we employ bacteria and yeasts in transmuting apple juice first to apple wine (hard cider) and then to cider vinegar, following their progress with molecular models and our noses, sometimes extending this primitive biotechnology to distill brandy. The CO2 bubbles sparkling the cider connect us to the soda-pop can and their role in volcanic eruptions, modeled by shaking the can first. The alcohol invites us to begin the scientific discussion of drugs, respecting the diversity of family attitudes and the complexity of the subject. The vinegar can be used to etch rocks, coins, and shells; but most bring it home for table use, as the results are at least palatable and sometime of gourmet quality.

       The other branch of fungal inquiry leads us through the rotting pumpkins of Halloween, and the rich ecology of creatures they nourish, on to backyards and the local hills, whence my students return with a wonderful variety of mushrooms, making spore-prints to help identify them. I return with more certain bags, past local markets featuring the few edible varieties I prepare in class. Sometimes there is bounty to share among the staff; the French teachers are more grateful to accept than most Americans, being less prejudiced about such wild fare. Every other year, I orchestrate a cheap mass purchase of mushroom-growing kits, and most of my students cultivate shitake or oyster mushrooms at home for months.

       Though lower life forms generally come to class alive, most birds and small mammals -- apart from pets -- arrive dead. The carnage of unfettered cats and cars is more evident to children than to adults, and students bring in a flow of specimens affording us a roughly quantitative survey of local species. Their bodies are a treasure of curriculum. We mourn the creature's death; we identify it by evidences of gender, age, and wear; we learn to read the features that tell us how it lived; and go further. Even with mixed reactions, dissections remain the most popular feature of the curriculum, for good reason. Though what's under the skin is sometimes too messy to deal with, usually my blade reveals an amazing landscape, tidily wrapped in gossamer tissues, with no loose blood. On repeated occasions, we trace the heart's great vessels, the ureters from kidneys to bladder; tug isolate tendons to work the muscles of tail and hand; take turns inflating the lungs; study the last dinner and parasitic roundworms in the stomach, clean and inflate the long intestine, discussing its residual use in high-quality sausage; and tidy up, leaving the skull to the sowbug colony to clean as an elegant trophy for the student who brought in the specimen. All along, we compare the bodies with each other and with our own, feeling where cartilage yields to bone in our ribs, using electric sparks to work the nerves controlling the muscles that curl our fingers, consulting charts, discussing the functions and afflictions of our parts. By fifth grade, most students have gathered a relatively systematic familiarity with their own anatomy and physiology, considering their ages. Late in the year, we extend it by discussion of human reproduction and the changes awaiting their adolescence, already begun for some.

[Methods, models, results]

       As all this cannot possibly be taught in a hundred brief sessions, this survey would seem a grandiose fantasy for one who is merely teaching a little science to little kids, if it did not also record my experience. For it's remarkable how much of this material we do manage to cover. In fair part, this is due to the structure of the curricular process. Each of our main threads of inquiry runs through our whole time together; and the threads intersect continually, weaving a fabric of learning somewhat as their subjects are woven together in the world. In any class on a given day, we are apt to weave further stitches with three or four threads; by the day's end, the tables groan with specimens and experiments' debris.

       Science is more often taught by dividing it more narrowly into constituent topics and skills, and focusing on these in disjunct, sequential units of instruction. Such means have a significant place in my practice, as noted at times above. But their customary use presumes a certain model of learners and learning, evident also in traditional scholastic methods of teaching language skills, which I think seriously underestimates my students' capacities. In contrast, the model informing our weaving is based on early language acquistion, in which learners are immersed in surrounds of practice too complex and coherent to fully describe, and manage largely through their own self-organizing capacities to construct their own grasp and practice of language, in ways distinctively individual yet universal enough to join in our common discourse. In like manner, science is a language, with vocabularies of facts and concepts, grammars of procedure and perspective; and my classes offer as rich an immersion as I am able to tend. As their flows are torrential and deep, I don't expect even the brightest students to grasp or retain even half of what we cover. But some things are grasped by all, and each elusive thing by some, as each grasps all he or she can as we go along, forming internal structures of comprehension nearly as individual as their personalities, yet with enough deep commonality to continue our conversation.

       How should one evaluate the results of this approach? Our time together is too brief and precious to spend on the sorts of routinized testing that characterize more parsimonious approaches to bits of learning, and can measure only a few dimensions of the achievements transacted in our process. So I must confess that I judge my students' progresses by their evidences of comprehension and the light in their eyes, as they follow me through wonderland. On standardized national test batteries, concurrently and subsequently, most score highly enough in science to make us all proud -- an achievement reflecting not simply input from my classes, but their motivations to assemble sense from a much broader surround. Yet I am more heartened by feedback from colleagues in field programs, who find visiting groups of my students not only unusually well-informed, but singularly ready to engage with them and the environment in active and appreciative inquiry, as I hope you will find your child.

[Parent support]

       I rarely assign homework as such, in part because more than enough is already assigned to them. Instead, I regularly point out opportunities for homeplay, arising from experiments or questions in class; and urge my students to pursue their interests. I am stern; I tell them that all their life long, they'll be facing the problem of how to free enough time from what is required to pursue what they desire, and wish them good practice at this. In this context, if your child is not irresponsible about other work, you may well find even the most rudimentary home engagement related to my class to be worth encouraging, as much for the sake of his or her spirit as for science.

       The experiments I suggest require no means more exotic than candles and the stove, utensils and containers whose fate is not important, and ordinary household tools and substances. Their stronger requirement is a sense that the disorderly process of playing with science will be warmly tolerated in kitchens, etc., ordinarily dedicated to other purposes; and that a parent will be glad to supervise when appropriate, as when fire is used or in making sure that clean-up is done properly. As students often complain that their home experiments with moldy bread, chicken bones, etc. are discarded as garbage, reinforcement of my advice to label such work properly may be helpful. Clarifying such matters in advance will encourage your child, and peace of mind.

       As I often explain quite remarkable facts (matter is mostly emptiness, yummy yellowjacket larvae are healthier fare than cows, everyone glows in the dark, no simple criterion distinguishes men from women), and sometimes point students to conundrums of culture that are not simple to resolve (why may French women go topless at the beach if American women may not? why may men here go topless at all, if their sensory tissues are similar and some can even produce milk?), you should not be surprised to find your child wondering about almost anything. Despite my best efforts at contexting and explaining, you may find some matters only partly digested and perhaps misconstrued. As in such instances with other subjects, any help you can give your child in forming his or her interpretations will be valuable. I trust that you will find such occasions entertaining and productive, rather than alarming. I would appreciate your feedback about any that prove difficult, as well as those that prove rewarding.

       Besides sharing your own knowledge, there are many ways to enrich your child's science education -- excursions, kits, books and videos, computer programs, supplementary courses. I applaud them all, with some reservations about over-programming of time and expectations, for such learners deserve a rich ambiance. But I think the most valuable thing of this sort you can do for your child is to learn yourself, with him or her in attendance. May you pause among the pulls of adult life to wonder about some vital or trivial feature of the environment you share; may you be able to make time for the stumbling luxury of learning something about it, as directly as you can, more for your sake than your child's, giving him or her a good omen of life as a learner.

           /s/ Michael Rossman
          Science Specialist, Ecole Bilingue

[Practical matters]

     (A long appendix on practical matters related to my classes.)

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