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Expeditionary Learning: Using Visualizations in the Classroom

NORMA PEEK Grade 6 Science TeacherWashington Heights Expeditionary Learning School, New York City

My name is Norma Peek. I am the 6th grade science teacher at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (W.H.E.E.L.S), which is located in the Washington Heights section of New York City. I teach 81 students; 27 have been officially classified as English Language Learners. However, I feel that all of my students are English Language Learners because they all come from households in which Spanish is the dominant language. 
In an Expeditionary Learning School, each year, all the students in the school are required to explore a topic in depth by doing research, taking field trips, meeting and talking to experts and at the end of the year they produce a final project which they present orally to their peers, teachers, and scientists. This year, the topic for the Grade 6 Expedition Project was: "What Effects Do Humans Have on the Environment?" Two questions came up when I first introduced my students to the project: How do we know that the climate is changing? and How do we know that the changing climate is caused by humans? 

At the beginning of the school year, I attended the Educators Evening at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). New York City teachers were invited to preview the new Climate Change exhibit that was opening at the Museum and to get materials for their classrooms. Included in these materials was information about a program that AMNH was doing with the National Oceanographic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to teach the New York City Department of Education's 6th grade unit on Weather and Water to 6th grade English Language Learner (ELL) students. The NOAA program included a class field trip to the Climate Change exhibition, a meeting with a Museum scientist, and research resources and materials (globes, maps, and digital visualizations) to teach the unit. 

I felt this would be an ideal program for my ELL students. It would enable them to better understand what weather is and help them understand the difference between weather and climate. When I learned that the program also required students to do a final project on climate change that they could use for our school's Expedition Project, I signed up. 

Visiting the Climate Change exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History and showing my students the AMNH Science Bulletins helped answer my students' questions about climate change. Using the visualization materials that the NOAA program provided helped my students understand the science of weather and climate and helped increase their English vocabulary, enabling them to use some, if not most, of the terminology they learned.


I like to find out what my students already know about a unit before I give them any formal lessons on the unit, and I usually do this by having them work in small groups to make concept maps.


So before we started the unit on Weather and Climate, I had each group make a concept map answering the question: What Is Weather?

Grade 6 students' concept maps about the weather

After the concept maps were completed and the groups presented them to the class, I showed them a video Wonders of Weather – "Things that Fall from the Sky" and "Hurricanes" to capture the attention and curiosity that had been generated by the concept map activity. After discussing the video, each student wrote a five-paragraph research report on an extreme weather condition.


After exploring extreme weather conditions, I taught the lesson about the seasons, the Earth's revolution around the Sun, and rotation on its axis. I used the AMNH Earth's Seasons Science Bulletin to teach this lesson.


This lesson was followed by a lesson on latitude and longitude with terminology that students needed to know for an activity they would be doing on their field trip to the Climate Change exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History. A plan for the Latitude and Longitude lesson can be found at the top of this page.


The resources provided by the NOAA program were very helpful in teaching the weather unit to my ELL students. The globe was a very useful resource in helping students learn about latitude and longitude, the seasons, climate zones. It helped them visualize what they were learning. By the end of the unit, my ELL students were able to locate the longitude and latitude of various cities on the globe, and particularly, the longitude and latitude of where they live now, as well as the cities or countries they came from.


After we went to the Museum and listened to Dr. Adriana Aquino, a working scientist, talk about her research work with South American armored catfish I made use of the AMNH Science Bulletins to help students visualize the different areas of science and what scientists looked like.


The Science Bulletins showed the scientists at work, doing their investigations. Students became familiar with the names used for scientists involved in specific areas of science. An example is paleontology, which is the study of fossils and the scientists who study them are called paleontologists.


On the field trip to AMNH to see the Climate Change Exhibit, students began gathering research and information for their final projects on the impact of humans on the environment. Back in the classroom, I taught a lesson in which I used the concept map strategy to explore what students learned at the Museum. Students worked in small groups to create concept maps to answer the question:What is climate change? They used the information they gathered to begin their final projects.