Friday, January 7, 2011

Seashell Investigation

The various illnesses my family and I experienced in December, coupled with the holidays, made posting impossible for me. I'm sorry for my absence. Today I'm back and intend to post regularly again.

Earlier this school year, my son's field trip to The Lloyd Center for Environmental Studies was postponed due to bad weather. In lieu of the trip, I offered to visit his class and teach a lesson on seashells. Lucky for me, his teacher welcomed the idea. I arrived that morning with a milk crate full of related books and posters and a bin full of seashells I've collected over the years for use in my own teaching.

As frigid winter months drive many people in the north indoors, I thought I'd share this activity as a way to help you and your kids stay connected to nature. Of course, I encourage you to get yourself and your kids outside for at least a few minutes every day, but sometimes that just isn't possible.

What follows is an overview of what we did. It works best if you have 3-5 children working together, but even one child working alone or with you can have fun and benefit from this task.
Materials needed:
  • An assortment of seashells, ideally ones that are local to you. (FYI... if you live inland or don't have seashells, many other natural items can be substituted such as rocks, leaves, nuts, pine cones, seeds, etc. I'd suggest that whatever you choose, select items that come from the same ecosystem).
  • Magnifying Glass (hand lens)
  • blank paper
  • pencil and colored pencils
  1. Place a small assortment of seashells (or rocks or leaves etc.) on a table in front of the children. Give them time to examine and talk about the shells.
  2. Ask them to sort the shells however they choose. With younger children, you might want to brainstorm ways they could be sorted (size, shape, color, texture, kind/species, etc). As they work, encourage them to explain their reasoning to each other, but don't interject your ideas. Let them run the show. (For more on this, see my post titled  "Top Ten Ways to Promote Science Inquiry.")
  3. For an added challenge, you can ask them to sort however they choose but not tell you the rule. Then you have to try to figure it out.  This is fun but will also point out flaws in their thinking. For example, some children will want to sort by size. They'll make a piles for "big" and "small" without specifying how big or how small. When this happens, I choose the biggest shell in the "small" pile (Or the smallest in the "big" pile) and ask why it isn't in the other group. I might say, "I think this shell is big. Why do you think it is small? How could you help me understand exactly how you sorted?"
  4. Once their interest in sorting starts to wane (frequently after 10-20 minutes depending upon their ages), ask each child to choose one shell (or rock or leaf) to examine closely. They might choose the one they like best or the ones they have questions about. 
  5. Ask each child to look really closely at his/her shell and draw it in as much detail as possible using pencils and/or colored pencils. Ask them to also describe it using words. (Note: young students will benefit from you providing a paper clearly set-up for observation with a blank section on which to draw and lines on which to write. Kids grades 4 and up can likely set the paper up on their own). Encourage kids to do whatever they want first- draw or write.
  6. After they've observed with their naked eyes for a few minutes, provide the magnifying glasses. This will extend their observations even more. (Again, see Top Ten Ways to Promote Science Inquiry for more information).
  7. To extend the childrens' language skills, encourage them to use metaphors or similes to compare their shells or parts of their shells to other things. To get them started, you might say, "My shell looks like a ___________. (Similes use the words "like" or "as." Metaphors don't).
  8. Check in with kids and offer comments as they work. Try to avoid phrases like "Good Job." Instead focus on noting specific things they drew or wrote. For example, "I see you really noticed how those lines meet at one point on the shell." Or, "I never thought of describing a shell as looking like a breaking wave before." Even if the drawings are not truly representational of the shell before them, there are positive things to say. For example, "You included all of the different colors on your shell."
  9. Once the kids have completed their descriptions and drawings, ask them to write down any questions they have. "What are you wondering about?" (Writing and drawing will take from perhaps 15 to 30 minutes for most kids. Really little ones, like pre-K or K, may be done in as little as 5 or 10 minutes). Share the questions.
  10. Read aloud a book, or short section of a book, about shells. Encourage kids to look for answers to their questions as you read. My all time favorite book is A First Look at Seashells by Millicent Selsem. Unfortunately, it's out of print, but I get it from my library. It's worth locating.
  11. Encourage the children to record answers to their questions that are in the book. Any unanswered questions can lead to further investigations.
(Note for Massachusetts teachers and homeschoolers: This investigation addresses several Life Science standards. Grades Prek-2; standard 2 and 4. Grades 3-5: standard 1. If you take the lessons a step further you may also address adaptations, life cycles, or characteristics of living things. If different items are used such as rocks or fossils, other earth science standards may be addressed).
Have you tried an investigation such as this? Can you suggest additional items that might be used for sorting?

Teachers and homeschoolers: Is having the state standards cited right in the post helpful to you? Should I continue to do this?

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