lesson plan

There’s Poetry in an Atom: Writing Creatively About Science

The following lesson plan was written by Nicole Moore and Ryan Moore for Don't Forget to Write: for the Elementary Grades (Jossey-Bass, 2011), a collection of lesson plans compiled by 826 National, a network of nonprofit organizations dedicated to helping students, ages six through eighteen, with expository and creative writing, and to helping teachers inspire their students to write. This lesson plan is intended for three sessions for a total of six hours.

This class seeks to make the sciences less esoteric for those who like to write, and to make writing more manageable for those who love science. Too often students are told that they will be naturally better at one type of thinking than the other, but this class sets out to show that everyone is capable of bridging that divide in their brains, and has the power to think creatively about something naturally logical.


 

Materials

Laptop, LCD projector (optional), flip chat (optional), access to videos on YouTube, worksheet, poem, short story, comic


 

Session 1

We begin the class by showing a video of Daniel Radcliffe (better known as the actor who played Harry Potter in the movie series) singing the periodic table on a British television show. His enthusiasm is contagious, and inevitably some of the students start giggling or bopping their heads along to the rhythm. Afterward, we ask: Why would a young, handsome, famous actor choose to declare his apparent love for the periodic table on a television show? The students have all kinds of answers, ranging from the notion that since he’s famous, he can do whatever he wants, all the way to thinking that he’s trying to be ironic. We ask about the song itself: Is it catchy? You bet. Why would someone want to create a song out of memorizing the periodic table? Because it sticks in your head, and if you need to know that sort of thing, a song will last longer than just the words by themselves. After this first discussion, the students begin to see that creative people can love logical things, including orderly, dependable science.

After that, we ask for students’ own opinions about the two major aspects of this workshop: writing and science. As students talk, we write their responses down on a flip chart or chalkboard, using a Venn diagram. First we talk about the challenges of both: on one side of the chart stands “writing,” and on the other is “science.” As the students list their personal challenges with one or the other, we write down what they have to say either under the writing section, the science section, or in the middle, showing that this challenge applies to both. This serves a couple of purposes: first, it helps unite students who face similar challenges in both subjects, and it also creates evidence of the similar feelings that both subjects incite in students. Many students are surprised to see that the challenges they face in science are the same challenges that other students face in writing, and vice versa. We repeat this exercise with the positive feelings associated with both, and students can see again how success can look similar for both subjects.

Now that the students understand the obstacles and rewards of both subjects, we ask the students to brainstorm a list of scientific topics that are particularly interesting to them. These will range from ROYGBIV (the acronym that represents the order of colors in the rainbow) to parasites to pterodactyls. Err on the side of having too many ideas rather than too few, and encourage students to mine topics they might have covered recently in their science classes. As the ideas are flying, write them down on the whiteboard or blackboard. Once the students have thrown a goodly amount of ideas into the air, pair students up and ask them to choose one of the topics on the board. The student pairs are given about 5—10 minutes to quickly free-write on their chosen topic. This free-write can take on just about any form: poem, song lyric, comic, or vignette. The idea is to start getting those minds cranking out creative views of scientific ideas. At the end of the free-write, invite students to share their work out loud with the group.

The students should now start to feel more confident about this whole enterprise, and this is a good time to share with them some more examples of creativity inspired by science. YouTube is overflowing with excellent examples: in our workshop, we used music by They Might Be Giants, from the Here Comes Science album; a video of Tom Lehrer singing about pollution; and clips from the children’s TV shows Beakman’s World and Bill Nye the Science Guy. As you show the clips, ask students to jot down notes about anything that stands out to them: it might be a term, an effect used, a personal reaction, or a question that they still have. After showing each clip, ask students to react to the material. What was the concept being introduced? How was it addressed? Who do you think they were trying to teach? Why did they choose to present that particular concept in a certain way? Student are more media savvy than you might realize; they will quickly see that complicated concepts need the time and visual component that video clips provide, whereas concepts that just need a little memorization make really catchy songs.

We finish the first day with time to free-write. Students may choose a topic from their group brainstorm, or they may choose to write about something that was brought up in the songs or videos they just experienced. They can choose any genre they feel comfortable with—the point is to get words on the page, and to encourage viewing their topic in nonliteral ways. Students are against invited to share what they’re written, and other students can offer constructive feedback to each other. 


 

Session 2

Building upon the confidence to grapple with logical ideas in fanciful ways, we jump right in and ask the students to consider creating figurative descriptions of particular scientific topics. (A quick review of certain terms, such as alliteration, simile, metaphor, and hyperbole is helpful.) Ask students to create an alliterative description of atoms; a simile representing the movement of ions; a metaphor illustrating how a snake jaw words; and a hyperbole explaining what parasites feed upon. Feel free to make up different examples, of course, or let students pick! After each prompt, invite students to share their responses. You will be surprised how quickly they are able to draft beautiful phrases, even about ugly parasites!

Now that everyone has practiced using particular types of figurative language, we discuss with the group the types of messages that are best conveyed by different types of writing. Students offer the types of themes that they feel are best delivered in songs, comics, short stories, and poems. We pass around examples of a poem and a short story, both based on scientific ideas, and ask the students to share why they think the respective authors chose that medium for their message. Everyone starts to see the benefits and limitations of each type of writing, and we combine this with the discussion from the first session about why artists might have chosen a song or a short video clip to explain their particular scientific topic. The periodic table makes an excellent song, but it might not make the best short story. In contrast, explaining how cloning works would fit well into a comic book or a short story, but it might feel rushed in a poem or song.

We finish the second session the same way we finish the first, with a nice chunk of time for the students to settle upon a topic that interests them and free-write. They can continue writing about the topic from the first session, or they can choose something new. We use a worksheet that encourages the students to follow the same procedure in their writing as is used in developing scientific experiments. They first decide what they will investigate, and after they have observed their item of interest, they develop a hypothesis about its behavior. They are guided to develop some kind of test for this theory, and then report on these findings in the form of creative writing.

The focus of today’s writing is to increase the use of figurate language. Really encourage the students to stretch as they make their scientific topic relatable through their writing. Perhaps they should personify the fossil of a triceratops, or maybe they need to add some sensory details to their poem about how baby birds learn to fly. At the end of the free-write, students read aloud what they have so far, and their peers offer constructive feedback. Students are asked to continue working on this particular piece, and have a second draft of it in time for the third and final session.


 

Session 3

This session is dedicated to the students writing and editing as many pieces as there is time for. After every editing session, students may share their progress and solicit additional feedback on the piece they are currently working on. At the end of the session, students are invited to share their favorite pieces, and all bask in the glory of having written creatively about science.


 

Links

Here are some of the links we used during the workshop:

Daniel Radcliffe and the periodic table:

www.youtube.com/watch?v=rSAaiYKF0cs

Tom Lehrer on polluton:

www.youtube.com/watch?v=JPrAuF2f_oI&feature=related

Beakman’s World on gas density:

www.youtube.com/watch?v=w7G4o2alLww&feature=related

Bill Nye on the Earth’s Crust:

www.youtube.com/watch?v=oTFX8Gn9K-c

Bill Nye on volcanoes:

www.youtube.com/watch?v=tfXGbzgGJ74&feature=related

They Might Be Giants (TMBG) in “Science Is Real”

www.youtube.com/watch?v=ty33v7UYYbw

TMBG on the sun:

www.youtube.com/watch?v=me06I9GDM_k&feature=related

TMBG on the rainbow:

www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gf33ueRXMzQ&feature=related