This was written by Marsha Ratzel, A National Board-certified teacher in the Blue Valley School District in Kansas, where she teaches middle school math, science, and sometimes social studies. To read more of her writing about her teaching practice, visit her blog Reflections of a Techie. A version of this was published on the blog Voices From the Learning Revolution, where teachers, librarians, IT specialists, principals, district leaders and consultants contribute ideas about connected, digitally infused teaching.

By Marsha Ratzel

I want a sharp, logically designed, power-packed unit to start off the year, to set the bar high and give my students room to find out what they’re made of. Hurricanes provide the perfect focus for an multi-disciplinary unit that uses technology in various ways.

The season for these monster storms is just hitting its stride as school starts, so it’s a perfect fit. Violent weather is engaging and matches the odd fascination that tweeners have with disasters and things that make many of us look the other way and cringe. Our focus on hurricanes also allows me to utilize the technologies that many of my students already use at home.

To design the unit I looked back to last year, when I experimented with teaching science through the lens of current events. That worked well, allowing me to cover each of my science objectives while overlapping with my grade-level colleagues on interdisciplinary skills that are critical to our students’ long-term success.

Some of my goals were to:

Help kids grow their sense of curiosity; improve their ability to ask a question and then find the answer; lure them into reading a nonfiction science trade book (i.e., one that hasn’t been assigned by the teacher and is not a textbook); and have them write well about what they’ve learned and the underlying scientific reasons behind the phenomena they’ve observed.

A biggest disconnect I see with my students is that the techie tools I use at school frequently don’t match up with what they’re doing at home. They’re busy “txt-ing” or using Facebook to IM each other. Anything to have dialogue. So if I want to capture the attention of this age group, conversation and social interaction have to play a big part.

It’s also important to put them in the driver’s seat so they feel some sense of success and power. Learning becomes contagious if students are able to go home and share something with their family that wouldn’t be expected. I always tell them that “when your parents ask you what you learned at school today, shock ‘em with this.”

We rehearse how to explain the science idea we’re working on (using the tried and true Turn to your Shoulder Partner and Explain technique) — and we do it enough so they’ll sound relatively expert at dinner. They love to shock their parents — and parents love to be shocked (about science studies, at least).

If I use something like Twitter, I can capitalize on the immediacy of what’s happening in the news RIGHT NOW. Very tween-like. And it also gives me a wonderful entrée into a conversation about convection currents, evaporation, energy transfer, density and a whole host of other curriculum standards. I constantly sneak in these and other concepts as we’re learning how to track storms as they make their way across the Atlantic Ocean.

Hurricanes are cross-curricular

It’s not hard to cross disciplines when researching hurricanes. Think of the social studies skills of latitude and longitude or the impact on economics and culture. There’s plenty of math, and there are ample expository writing opportunities where students have to identify a main idea with supporting details that come from the current events that frame our studies. And, of course, there is the practice of scientific inquiry as students “wonder” about why hurricanes have such large amounts of energy.

Putting my students in the roles of hurricane chasers, storm trackers, news reporters or municipal officials trying to protect their citizenry keeps them busily at work and gives me time to listen to their conversations and monitor their progress.

Students love to track storms. They’re eager to learn how to read position, wind speed and other data points as the monsters make their way across the Atlantic. They love using and doing science!

I have them search to find credible sources and guide them towards new uses of the iTunes Store, where we find things like Scientific American’s 60-Second Earth podcasts. We discover other audio that’s regularly published by NASA and the severe weather center of NOAA, and where to download KittyCode’s Hurricane 3.5 App.

So how can I improve this hurricane unit?

As I redesign last year’s unit for this year, I want to include more opportunities for students to show learning, and I’ll likely turn to ideas that engage the kids with technology. As I look through the surveys and student work samples, I can see that they thoroughly enjoyed making presentations with digital tools like Voicethread.

A big problem is that sixth graders don’t understand the difference between Google and the actual URL location of a resource. Here again, I can immediately see the problem and prepare a mini-lesson to correct these errors, which are very common to this age group. She’s also capable of getting other students to critique her VT to help her improve the product.

Student survey data tells me that I need to build more of these kinds of “collegial” experiences into the unit. This year, I will appoint different sets of students to be archivists. Each group will have a different function: to use Twitter, to blog and/or capture through digital pictures/video what we’re learning and publish it to our community of parents, stakeholders and other interested parties.

I know that there will be loads of energy, that all that noise and commotion will be focused at learning science, having fun and – for me – feeling like students “get” how the world works.


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