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KITES: Storylines and Writing Prompts

submitter: KITES Project: Kits in Teaching Elementary Science
published: 2002
posted to site: 02/22/2002

Kits in Teaching Elementary Science

East Bay Educational Collaborative
317 Market Street
Warren, Rhode Island 02885
(401) 245-4998 x315

Storylines and Writing Prompts

The KITES Writing Project, under the leadership of Chris DeCosta, has developed a writing resource for each of the 20 kits used in the project. For each kit, there are:

  • two full writing prompts developed around the major themes of the national standards in writing:
    • report writing
    • narrative accounts
    • procedural writing
    • response to literature
  • A set of "quick-writes" for each lesson - these are 5-minute warm-ups students can do at the beginning of class
  • A full word-wall, with all the scientific vocabulary used in the kit
  • A set of criteria used to evaluate the student's writing

Samples from 3 of the STC Kits are included (below) - Weather, Sound, and Electric Circuits.

In addition, teachers in the KITES projects have been experimenting with developing their own storylines for each kit. Rather than hand them a finished product of a storyline, the focus is on having each teacher experience for him- or herself the organizational thinking that goes into tying each lesson in the kit with the appropriate science concept. The benefit in storylines is not so much in being able to follow someone else's idea of how to organize the materials, but to identify the patterns of organization for yourself - individually. Storylines are much more than simple flow charts which lay out the order in which lessons are taught. The real value of storylines is seen when individual lessons are organized by which concept they most closely identify with.

In How People Learn, John Bransford points out some of the differences between "expert" thinkers and "novice" thinkers. He says that "experts notice features and meaningful patterns of information that are not noticed by novices." The difference between world-class master chess players and merely great players lies in their ability to perceive chunks of meaningful information.

    "Chess masters are able to chunk together several chess pieces in a configuration that is governed by some strategic component of the game. Lacking a hierarchical, highly organized structure for the domain, novices cannot use this chunking strategy."
    How People Learn
    p. 33

    He goes on to say that "experts have acquired a great deal of content knowledge that is organized in ways that reflect a deep understanding of their subject matter." (emphasis mine). If our goal is for students to develop a deep understanding of their subject matter, how much more important it is for teachers to be aware of this organization, and to point out the connections to the students. It won't happen by accident, not in the minds of the students, at least.

    In developing a complete set of storylines for our project, I found that some surprising features emerged. A real "Aha" occurred. At least for the STC kits we use (50/50 STC/FOSS), major subconcepts are re-visited several times in different lessons throughout the module. In teaching the lessons sequentially by lesson number, teachers need to be aware that the unit brings them back to previously covered sub-concepts and that this provides a natural opportunity to go back to that concept. Brain research has shown that the mind constructs knowledge by comparing current perceptions of scientific phenomena with previously experienced similar occurences. The construction of knowledge takes place when the working memory builds the neural pathways that makes and enhances those connections. It is a teachable moment of such importance that it should not be lost. In our project, we are advocating that teachers list the concepts on the blackboard as they are first encountered, but more importantly make the connection when they are revisited.

    An example of a storyline development activity is included for each of the 3 kits provided. It can be done in a number of ways, but in this situation two sheets are provided to the teacher; one with the big ideas and subconcepts, as identified by the kit developers. The second sheet has a sequential listing of the lessons to be taught. A simple cut-and-paste activity follows where groups of teachers discuss which sub-concept each lesson belongs to. In some cases, there are more than one. This is in fact what happened in my own experience when I did it electronically on my computer, and is where my "aha" came in. So whether is is done with actual scissors and glue sticks, or just by pencil and paper notations, we have found it to be a powerful experience. And there may be disagreement between teachers on where the lesson belongs in the flow of things, which actually leads to some good discussions. We've found that there is no one "right" way to do a storyline (which is often the impression given when someone else hands you a finished document). There is great value is in the process, not just the product.

    This work was supported in part by the National Science Foundation Grant #ESI-9453159. The ideas expressed in this work are those of the author and not necessarily those of the National Science Foundation.

    Samples from the Weather, Sound, and Electric Circuits STC Kits are listed below. To view these, click on the following links:

    STC Electric Circuits Storyline Development

    STC Electric Circuits

    STC Sound Storyline Development

    STC Sound

    STC Weather Storyline Development

    STC Weather

    NOTE: These files require Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this, you can download it for free at the Adobe site by clicking on this ADOBE link.