Discovery: A Teaching Life

“I tell them,” Steve Walsh, tells me, ‘Hold it like you hold a wounded bird.’ That seahorse has been handled by a thousand kids, and it’s still intact.” I have been in classrooms where teachers won’t let children handle rocks for fear they will break them, and Steven Walsh is entrusting his 4th graders with the most delicate of objects. Turns out, you can trust kids.

Thousands of children have held and marveled at this.

A thousand children have held and marveled over this delicate seahorse.

Children serve as curators of a box of wonders, an old-fashioned wooden sewing notions cabinet or jewelry box, the likes of which can probably be found in abundance at flea markets and garage sales. Inside are specimens of living and non-living artifacts, a seahorse preserved in shellac, a wide variety of shells large and small, rocks and minerals, fossils, petrified wood, starfish, coral. It’s like a mini-Field museum or the memory palace of Matteo Ricci.

Discovery Box

Discovery Box

“I want them to be naturalists. I want them to ask questions,” he tells me. “I have them draw their specimen first, make them really look at it. Then I have them write questions about what they are seeing. I ask them, ‘If it could talk, what would it tell you?’” Side by side with this old fashioned and traditional focus on making naturalists, of having kids analyzing and categorizing stuff, little of which we find in today’s schools, is 21st century technology. Each child has an iPad, and they use it to pour over Google images, trying first to identify and then to learn about their artifacts by locating articles. They compare one thing to another … a seahorse to a seashell. Like countless generations of naturalists, going back to Leonardo de Vinci, they draw their artifacts, both sides of the starfish, for example, and label the parts with their functions. These young scientists are not your grandmother’s naturalists. They use 21st century technology to make their identifications.

Seahorse TechTeacherStarfish Scientific DrawingStarfishTechnologyNautilus

I’m there when a boy asks what kind of shell the girl next to him is holding. He says, “it’s not a conch.” (4th grade) The girl browses images on Google and finds a picture of three different sizes and markings of Nautilus shells, and the children immediately recognize it as theirs. And that leads to the Wikipedia article on the Nautilus. I’m guessing that this information will get stored away in those files they have in their brains to someday be connected to new observations, new knowledge.

Steven Walsh is one of the treasures of Tonti Elementary School in Chicago. Of course, I wanted to know more about this remarkable teacher. Graciously, he not only answered my questions, but he also shared a signature activity of his in case other teachers might be interested in replicating it in their own classrooms.

Steven Walsh, Science Teacher

Steven Walsh, Science Teacher

1. What set you on the path toward becoming a teacher and specifically a science teacher?

I was an anthropology graduate student in Alaskan villages and on a number of occasions I was asked to take over classrooms for lack of a teacher. Both my parents were teachers so I decided it would be good to have those skills.

2. Why do you do the Naturalist activity and how has it evolved over the years? What are you hoping your students will learn?

Mr. Arriaga, principal at Tonti School, asked me to teach a research class and after about six weeks it evolved into a research/science class. I was gifted a huge jewelry box half-filled with rocks and seashells. I added a wide variety of fossils, a small meteorite, and a few more rocks and seashells. Every six weeks I teach a new science class to 4th and 5th graders at Tonti School. I ask every student in these two classrooms to select a specimen (sometimes, two, from about 100 specimens). The directions and rubric I gave to the students early-on are given below. As I learned about facilitating such a curriculum, I have changed it here and there to suit various classrooms and to try out new ideas. Interested teachers could start a unit like this and it would evolve over time with their particular experiences.

3. How did you build your collection? Is there a special story behind any of the artifacts you’ve collected?

I have an anthropology and a little bit of a paleontological background. I bought dinosaur bone marrow and eggshell and other fossils from private companies while excavating with scientists at dinosaur dig sites. I have bought and have been gifted Native American materials. Also, I have worked and lectured at several museums and inherited fossil material that was no longer deemed appropriate to keep, but still had much educational value. Perhaps my greatest gift came when the Chicago Academy of Sciences closed its doors. I received five museum quality models of early hominid and hominoid skulls. I happened to be giving a lecture there on human migration into North and South America. I believe that because I had some knowledge in this area and that I was a K-12 science teacher that they felt this material would be put to good use. Up to the present I believe over a 1000 young students have seen, touched, and learned something about those skulls.

4. What advice do you have for teachers just beginning their careers in the science classroom?

My feeling is that any self-contained elementary school teacher can become a science teacher. Even though I have some special stuff, any teacher could start a collection of natural (science) specimens and learn and grow with their students. I probably have doubled or tripled my knowledge of these specimens by just working with 4th and 5th grade classrooms over the last three semesters. Besides the natural science curriculum outlined above, I believe the TIMS (Teaching Integrated Mathematics and Science) 1st through 9th grade experiments are fundamental as physical science building blocks for all students. While the mathematics program, Trailblazers, absorbed some of the basic ideas, the TIMS experiments are important in their own right for students to learn, and is a gateway to scientific thinking.

5. Is there anything else you want to say?

I could go into more information on how I refined the curriculum, but I believe, wherever a teacher starts they will find success. Teachers could contact me directly if they have any practical questions. Likewise, if teachers want more information on TIMS, they can contact that program at UIC  and look down the page and find TIMS. I’m a strong practitioner in the field, and I might be helpful, too.

Treasure Box for Budding Naturalists

Treasure Box for Budding Naturalists

Fifth Grade Student Guide for Fossil, Seashell, or Rock Research Hunt

Step 1) Engage: – Pick an object and interact closely with it by drawing it from different sides or perspectives. Write interesting questions about the object. What kind of family does it come from? If it was once alive how did it breath, eat, move, and interact with others?

Step 2) Explore: – After your research questions have been checked by the rubric with your teacher then research the questions about your object in books and on the internet so that you can answer the questions and tell a story about your seashell or rock or fossil.

Step 3) Explain: – Share what you have learned by writing a story that answers your questions about your object and draw one or more pictures that helps show how that animal lived, or where the rock was found, a long time ago. Receive your rubric score for your written presentation.

Step 4) Elaborate: – Take your turn placing your picture or pictures with the pictures of other students creating a mural. As you place your picture(s) tell a story about your object and explain it with your picture. This larger work will become a classroom display. Receive your score for your oral presentation.

Step 5) Evaluate: – Students and teacher reflect on this whole unit. What was the most fun? What was the hardest part? When did you learn the most? How would you do something different if you were going to teach this lesson in the future?

Rubric for Naturalist Activities

Rubric for Discovery Box

You’ll notice that Steven Walsh uses the 5 E learning model. You can learn more about that here, where you’ll find an expanded version and some very helpful tools for building your own inquiry lessons, lessons that will engage and enchant your students.

Imagine the stories these children tell at home after a magical day in Steven Walsh’s class.

~ Penny

You can learn more about the Golden Apple STEM Institute here.


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Filed under 5 E Model, children as scientists, new science teacher, science teaching, Tonti Elementary School

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