Electricity is a great topic of study for the elementary school science classroom. With an emphasis on practical home safety rules in place, Gillen Brewer's older students study electricity in some detail by learning basic circuit terminology and different ways of constructing a circuit. However, electricity is also a great illustration of the cause-and-effect principle for students in the middle of our program. The materials are engaging, the effect is clear, and the result is exciting. The Pepper Plants and the Venus Flytraps are further incorporating this electrical cause-and-effect work into their models of urban, suburban and rural communities by using electricity to power lights, windmills and vehicles.
Observation and experience are at the heart of our science curriculum. From a task analysis perspective, the five senses are the component skills of observing and experiencing a topic in science class. Like other essential skills, instead of assuming that our students will develop these skills on their own, we approach the five senses from a direct instruction perspective (i.e., the use of straightforward, explicit teaching).
The Strawberry Plants and the Coconut Trees are in their five senses units now. As you can see below, each sense is explicitly taught, linked to a body part, and then supported with concrete, hands-on experiences with that sense. For the sense of sight, materials like binoculars and magnifying glasses highlight the experience of seeing and provide rewarding and interesting feedback for close attention to an object. In this way, the senses are related back to the concept of Whole Body Listening, which is reinforced throughout the program for students at this age.
Some of the most valuable learning experiences our students encounter happen outside the classroom. Winter break is a great opportunity to purposefully engage in some science-oriented activities, either around the house or outside in the city! I'd like to share a couple of ideas for fun winter-themed explorations:
Finally, here's one that we might not try at school but would make for a fun winter treat!
At Gillen Brewer, we seek to connect our students with learning experiences in their community. The Art Farm in the City, a small petting zoo, is located just a block away and has been a wonderful resource for our students over the years. The school has an ongoing relationship with the Art Farm and with Gabby, the Art Farm's lead outreach professional. Over time, the school and the farm have worked together to identify specific types of activities that help our students access the content of the farm's outreach curriculum. We have also shared special education best practices to make sure that the programming is a good fit.
For instance, research shows that concrete, hands-on experiences are beneficial for our students, so Gabby incorporates more of these types of activities into her work here. During a recent visit about birds, Gabby used a gross-motor approach by giving the students real feathers and giving them the chance to pretend to fly like a bird. After the feathers activity, the students got to handle a real parrot, dove and chicken. While many of our students are proficient readers, real animals often grab their interest more effectively than texts. Finally, Gabby used a read aloud book to include a literacy angle and to keep the pace of the 30-minute session moving sufficiently along. In general, a variety of activities helps to make the lesson accessible for a neurodiverse group of learners.
Over the course of our many field trips, community walks, trips to Asphalt Green and the park, and other community experiences, we have worked in similar capacities with museum educators, librarians, physical education instructors and others. Although the Art Farm does work with other special education programs, the majority of their programming serves typical students. Experiences with community members in more typical settings can present challenges and anxieties for our community, but we understand that our students benefit greatly from those experiences. Thus, we seek to act as translators, connectors and advocates as we help our students explore the world around them.
The Strawberry Plants and Coconut Trees are experimenting with magnets. Magnets provide immediate tactile feedback, making them an ideal material to experiment with for our younger learners. At the same time, magnets also do unexpected things, like repelling each other or not attracting some metal objects. These variations provide us, as teachers and parents, with natural ways of differentiating lessons or activities and making a material meaningful for all of our students.
A recent lesson focused on an experiment to test whether or not certain objects were attracted to magnets. The Occupational Therapy department shared a new material: magnetic putty! The putty is infused with iron and responds to a magnet, which made for a high-interest end to the experiment. This is consistent with our goal to be a truly integrated program; although a science experiment may not always be conceived of as an opportunity for interdepartmental work, incorporating a high-interest and developmentally appropriate material can make all the difference in helping a student with limited interests participate in the lesson.
This year, all of Gillen Brewer's classes are named after different kinds of plants. In connection with thsi theme, students across the school learned about a variety or plant-related topics in science class, from plant parts to photosynthesis. Students participated in hands-on gardening projects, practiced responsibility by taking care of the plants, and conducted simple experiments with the plants themselves to demonstrate the effects of a lack of sunlight.
We firmly believe that our unique populations of students learn best when there are strong connections between the various subject areas and therapeutic disciplines. When science class is connected to the search for a class name, the content is meaningful. This helps students with attention, language and learning issues to connect to the content and learn new information. We pride ourselves on being an integrated program, from cross-curricular projects such at these to the integrated reports families receive biannually.
As parents and educators, we are constantly seeing programming and coding workshops for children. This is for good reason, and it applies to a wide variety of children with different strengths and challenges. Programming and coding give our students the opportunity to think logically, solve problems, work in a team, and learn basic computer skills as they help their robot navigate the classroom. Be sure to see this in action at the Art & Robotics show on Friday, August 11! If you are interested in pursuing extracurricular coding programming in New York City, check out www.robofun.org.
Our summer robotics program is underway. The students in Sam and Linda's classrooms are hard at work designing, engineering, and problem-solving as they assemble a moving and programmable robot. Robotics combines relevant everyday technological skills (i.e., how to use a USB cable and a laptop) with higher level mathematics (concepts such as rotation, degrees, timed events).
Our curriculum adds a focus on social thinking and pragmatic problem solving. It can be difficult to work with a partner, to compromise, or to accept a teammate's idea instead of your own. We begin each class by highlighting examples of good teamwork and encourage this practice throughout the project. When social issues arise, our teachers interface with the counseling staff to enlist their expertise in helping the students understand the perspectives of others. This interdisciplinary approach ensures that students are simultaneously accessing both relevant academic content and social-emotional skill-building.
Emmy and Michelle's classes are designing and building water bottle rockets this summer. The students start with a recycled plastic bottle. After observing rockets, the students create their own design. We practice brainstorming to help students come up with ideas. We also employ strategies to assist students with categorization and ideation, which are skills many of the students are working on with their speech-language pathologists. Check back for updates are the construction process gets underway! In the meantime, check out this video of what is possible with a simple water bottle:
New York City Council Member Benjamin Kallos, representing District 5, visited Gillen Brewer School on Monday, May 22 to personally receive letters from the Battleships, Clouds and Otters classrooms. Every student wrote the Council Member a letter containing suggestions about how the city could use renewable energy in creative ways. These suggestions were based on experiments conducted in class, where the students tested out real solar panels and windmills. Some students suggested that solar panels be placed on top of tall buildings. Other students used meteorological maps to learn that New York City does not have a windy climate, and therefore may not be ideal for electricity-generating windmill projects.
Although we are a self-contained special education school, we are simultaneously eager to connect our students to broader experiences in the community. These interactions give our students real-world opportunities to practice many of the skills and strategies they are working on in therapy rooms, academic groups and classroom settings. Public speaking, turn taking, and social/pragmatic thinking are just a few of the skills required to participate in a project like this. We thank Mr. Kallos and his office for taking the time to visit our students.
Braque posts photos and resources here to accompany many science units and explorations.