National Writing Project

Why Science Teachers Should Write

By: Marsha Ratzel
Date: September 28, 2011

Summary: Marsha Ratzel, a middle school teacher of math and science, explains why it's so important that students write as a way to learn science—and why science teachers should write as well.

 

Science needs people who can explain what they're thinking so that the rest of us can understand the world. That's one of the reasons students write in my science classes.

As students start to strain to learn about science, their work revolves around trying to express what they know, what they don't know, and asking questions. Hard work for anyone, really. Using writing as a window to that thought process helps them sort and sift through their thinking.

First, it requires them to create word pictures of what they imagine is going on within the science phenomenon they're studying. For example, can they describe how the giant plates of the world move—and move so slowly that it's almost impossible to detect—and then how that small movement causes earthquakes? Painting that picture through writing requires a strong ability to use technical terms and know how they are related to each other.

As they struggle to make the picture come alive, they will find that their thinking sharpens, and suddenly they get it. It's not magic, but it certainly seems magical because this process gives voice to thoughts that might have otherwise been trapped in their heads. (For more, see Writing: Not Just for Language Arts ).

If students believe that you practice what you preach, then you should write to be a good model.

Students tend to believe that you practice what you preach, so you should write to be a good model. Writing makes you humble because it's easy to do—but hard to do well.

When I write, I become more sympathetic to my students' stresses and anxieties about their writing. I share my writing with them and ask for their opinions and feedback. Amazingly, they have wonderful ideas and very good probing questions. I think all this establishes us as working partners—co-learners of a sort, which is affirming to students, I believe.

Writing, Reflecting, and Building a Dialogue with Other Teachers

Writing about teaching science is different from writing about scientific ideas, though, so I want to be clear that I don't believe what I write does anything directly for science. Still, I find that writing furthers the practice of science teaching and teaching in general.

The more transparent my teaching practice becomes through writing, the more I can dialog with other teachers about what makes a good science lesson, the content we're studying, and how we go about leading students to learn about science. If I can share what I'm doing and read about what others are doing, I can discover more ideas and become a better teacher. In a perfect world, I would be able to sit down and talk face-to-face with other science teachers, but that's not always going to happen. Writing about my practice allows me to do most of the same things, though, except through text.

I've been able to build a personal learning network of other teachers as a result. We ask each other questions; we push each other to explain more and deepen our thinking; we trade ideas, fixes, and work-arounds. By writing, I find collaborative partners.

For example, right now I'm searching for other teachers who want to Skype together about weather in our local areas. I've found a North Carolina teacher who is willing to give us first person weather accounts of how hurricanes impact their area while my students will share about tornadoes. It was writing about science that brought us together.

The last reason why I think science teachers should write isn't limited to just science teachers. It's the whole idea that writing about what you do is a reflective, highly introspective process. Writing forces you to organize your thinking. It helps you create words that describe your rationale and makes you construct word pictures that illustrate what you're trying to accomplish.

Reflecting back on what you did gets you into the mindset of analyzing what worked, what didn't work, and what you should do better the next time. It helps you improve your own teaching practice. Since you're the writer, you can make those improvement steps bite size so you can incrementally get better and better.

Once you incorporate writing for reflection and collaborating with other teachers into your routine, millions of possibilities begin to open. Ideas take shape and come into focus much more clearly, and I think writing gives you clarity that other mediums cannot do. Writing empowers me to be more effective in what I do with students and in my classroom.

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