A Foray into “non-traditional instruction”

This year, with the Ecology unit in my Grade 9 Science classes, we focused heavily on invasive species. So after seven weeks of class (we have each class every other day), I think I gave a total of 4 traditional lessons. Instead, we researched invasive species in Ontario, hiked into the park adjacent to the school to locate, identify, and map out the extent of invasive plants such as buckthorn, dog-strangling vine, Norway maple and European reed. We did further research on why these things are a problem, and then (with, I’ll admit, just a bit of prompting) the students discovered that local garden centres are selling several plants that are on the official Ontario invasive species list.

So we decided to do something about it. The students have been writing letters, and then peer-editing, and compiling and synthesizing the best bits into group letters, which I then went over with them in a serious way to ensure the message was clear, the tone was appropriate, and the information was factual. During this process several students asked “we’re not really going to mail these are we?” To which I replied there is no point in writing them if we aren’t going to mail them. Knowing these were now “real” letters, and not just mock letters for my benefit, got most of them working to make sure they were of high quality.

They are composing letters to the city councilor, the mayor, the parks department, the provincial Ministry of Natural Resources, the Minister of natural resources, the premier, the local MPP, the local federal MP, the federal Ministry of the Environment, and the CEO’s of the major garden centres. If we don’t get at least a couple of responses, I will be disappointed.

We have spent as much (if not more) time talking about the importance of a well-structured argument, the tone of a letter, conciseness, how to edit, and how to find out who to send letters to as we have on community interactions and nutrient cycles. And yet, this holistic approach hit as many of the curriculum expectations – though not as explicitly – as a series of lectures would.

For a unit assessment, I decided to go with two things, a poster where they can “brag” about the action they have taken to help with invasive species, and a portfolio of sorts. This is what I have asked of them to demonstrate what they have learned:

The Portfolio must include an item (either works or notes you have produced, or items that you have found) and an explanation of how that item can be used as evidence for each of the following open ended questions. The explanation part for each should be at least a few paragraphs – you are, after all, trying to convince me that you learned something:

  1. Something you learned that you found interesting or surprising
  2. Something you were particularly proud of learning, producing, or creating, or something you found particularly challenging
  3. What you learned about the dynamic nature of ecosystems
  4. Something you learned about the impact of human activities on the sustainability of ecosystems

I don’t know quite how I will evaluate this yet, I think I need to have the students help me with that. We’ll see how it goes.

It was kind of strange teaching like this, I’ll have to admit, but rewarding for the students (well, the ones who have taken it seriously) and me. I liked doing something real, and having the kids see for themselves the extent of invasiveness. But the sad thing is now we will be switching topics, and I have no idea how I can do something like this for the basics of atomic structure and the periodic table.


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  1. Pingback: Followup on non-traditional instruction | Teach Science (.net)

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