The following post was written by 2017 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Shiona Drummer, a 7th-grade life science teacher in Macon, Georgia, after her expedition to the Arctic. The Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Program is a professional development opportunity for Pre-K-12 educators made possible by a partnership between Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic Education.
Where I teach in Macon, Georgia, the majority of jobs and careers either deal with insurance or mass production in a factory setting. To better prepare our student population for the modern economy’s developing careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, my school is now moving toward STEM certification. While STEM is great, I believe that STEAM is even better because it provides a more holistic approach to teaching.
Maybe this opinion stems from the fact that although I was a biology major in college, I also expressed my creative side through acting and artwork. Remembering the positive effect this multidisciplinary education had on me, I have tried to find ways to incorporate science, technology, engineering, the arts, and math into most of my life science lessons to keep students engaged. The response from my students has been overwhelmingly positive, and they will even make suggestions to me about how we can incorporate STEAM into our learning objectives.
I have found that my students tend to take charge of their own learning most when they’re able to express themselves creatively—especially when they are given a task to complete without a strictly controlled product or outcome. As a teacher, this is a wonderful thing because the process and products are differentiated and show my students’ personalities.
This school term, I’ve focused on engaging my science students in writing projects. For example, I provided students with visual representations from my Arctic expedition and challenged them to write an original piece based on that imagery. I provided students with a checklist of seven things that had to be included in their writing such as originality (original work), clarity, use of adjectives, etc.—but I made sure not to tell them the specific type of product I wished for them to submit.
I was able to ease some of my students’ initial nervousness about not being given an explicit end product by showing them exemplars that demonstrate mastery of the objective. In response, my students wrote and shared poems, short stories, songs set to the beat of their favorite tunes, and even a “biome-in-a-box” project complete with a nursery rhyme depicting the sites that I photographed while on my expedition. Please take a look at several poems that my students were inspired to compose based on my picture from the Arctic of a polar bear that seemingly met a tragic end.
As a result of giving students structured creative autonomy, I have discovered their curiosity has increased, their buy-in has exploded, and they are more open and willing to share their personalities. These activities have further engaged students in learning science concepts because they have the opportunity to take in knowledge and specialize their response to the learning. In other words, they choose the way they “show what they know.”
My colleagues and I have found this technique will work on various grade levels and with a myriad of topics. For example, a colleague of mine uses imagery to encourage writing across the math curriculum at the 6th-grade level. After showing students a picture from The Wizard of Oz, he challenges students to estimate the total number of bricks on the Yellow Brick Road if the segment pictured was one-eighth of its total length. He also uses the picture to teach about ratios—how many bricks are there in relation to each character? Finally, his students incorporate a math concept into a poem, short story, song, or other creative product.
Overall, my suggestions for success are simple: always give students options in the delivery of their submissions and make learning provocative by grabbing students’ interests from the onset. By putting the ball of learning in your students’ court, you empower them to incorporate their personal vision into their learning outcomes. Please give this strategy a try, and let’s discuss the outcome and potential extensions! I welcome collaboration and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Strategy Share series features innovative teaching ideas developed by Grosvenor Teacher Fellows following their field-based experiences on voyages with Lindblad Expeditions.