Tuesday, July 29, 2014

What about our water investigations?

This is a Tuesday "Slice of Life" for Two Writing Teachers. Check out their website for lots more reflections on teaching.


I thought I'd make this a "throwback Tuesday" - and share about the fun I had this past May with documenting the children's water investigations...I meant to do this many weeks ago, before the school year ended. Why not take a summer morning to share?

This past spring, I participated in an educator's open house at School Within School (SWS), a D.C. public school that is Reggio Emilia inspired. Here, Principal John Burst offered this nugget of wisdom about the school's beliefs:

If it is not documented, it didn't happen.

My understanding is SWS teachers are careful to observe students at work, and create real-time notes and displays about their work, which serves to

  • inform the teachers as to what the children are thinking, questioning, considering, and 
  • extend the curiosity and motivation of the children, as they see their work valued and respected through this documentation. 

Obviously, a 'win-win' - curriculum and learning can only get deeper and more meaningful with this kind of engagement.

I really wanted to try this - what would it be like to document for and with the children? - not simply for myself and their families (as I do through this blog), but real-time, on-going, "let's see what we are learning" note-taking for the children to see.

Our school follows a graduated release of teaching responsibilities, and by the end of the school year, the Resident is developing the curriculum and leading the class. My Teaching Resident, Melissa, was leading a water investigation unit. I realized that this was the perfect opportunity for me to try my hand at documenting - I was already in the supportive role of stepping back and observing, now I would take photos and notes and create an on-going, real-time record of the children's exploration.

What am I documenting?
I focused on the students "wonderings" - What were their questions? What were they curious about? What did they want to know more about?
I also focused on the teacher's goals - What did Melissa want to emphasize? What was the purpose of the activity? Why is it worth doing?

One of the very first actions we took - creating a space for the documentation to be seen. We covered the front wall of our classroom with black banner paper, hanging an orange sign "UNDER CONSTRUCTION" at one end and entitling it "Our Water Investigations." Both children and families watched this documentation grow over many weeks, which sparked many conversations about the children's learning.

To jumpstart our water exploration, we walked to Meridian Park and collected water samples from its reflecting pool.

We talked about the waters we collected. How do they look? What do we see? Is this water clean? May we drink it? How did the water get in the pond?

The students shared their wonderings about water – How do you know pond water is dirty?
It’s muddy!
There are ants!
My Daddy says so!
You might get sick!

The students were adamant that the water was for ducks, fish, and turtles to drink but not for us.

How did the water get in the pond? How is this water different from the water we drink? From other waters?

How can we make the pond water clean? 

The students also showed an interest in drains. 

Water goes down drains!”
There is a drain in the pond.”
There is a drain in my bathtub.”

The water investigations incorporated all senses, all learning styles. Often during Gathering, Melissa would introduce various water topics to the whole group, spotlighting a specific experiment that would she would lead that day. In whole group, we did a lot of dramatic play. For example, the children traveled – via dramatic play – to a rainforest, ocean,  and waterfalls, imagining each of these environments. We even danced in [pretend] rain. We recreated the sounds of a rain storm using our hands, thighs, and vocals. 

(I loved how this dramatic play fun provoked the children to wonder aloud. They wondered about animals that live in these environments – wanting to know more about sharks, squids, dolphins, clams, alligators, fish, sea horses, and whales. They also wonder about waves – Where do they come from? Why do they crash onto the shore?)

Here's the playful way Melissa introduced the concept of filtering at whole group -

As provocation, Melissa presented a container of water that was filled with all sorts of debris –leaves, dirt, even some cardboard. She whipped out her toothbrush and suggested that she was going to brush her teeth with this water. This playful provocation led to many loud, vocal responses – “No! That water is dirty! It is nasty!
How do you know? What is wrong with this water? Why can’t I use it? What can we do to make it cleaner?
Several students were adamant that the easiest and quickest way was to “pour that water out and get a new container from the sink.
Melissa persisted – “How can we make this water cleaner? What can we do to this water?” Then, she showed the water filter that is in our own classroom drinking water container. “Let’s investigate water filters!

Over the course of several weeks, during centers, Melissa worked with students in small groups. The children filtered water, separated mixtures, examined buoyancy, studied dissolution, and observed melting, learning a great deal about water properties. The children worked like scientists, developing hypotheses and testing these. 

They observed water in clear cups - What do we see? Feel? Smell? Hear? Taste?

The students explored water mixtures with found objects (bottle caps, corks, metal pieces, rocks, beads) and food coloring. This lead directly to students wondering about “sink or float” – and continued experimentation with found objects. What sinks? What floats? Why? What is different? What is the same?

Melissa wanted to introduce the children to the scientific process. Let me highlight one experiment - on dissolution. The teaching goal: Students will be able to predict, test, and observe what happens when water is mixed with another substance. 

They were particularly interested in the process of dissolving. Several mornings were spent mixing, stirring, and shaking a variety of materials into water. We used oil, food color, salt, cinnamon, pepper flakes, sand, and oatmeal.

What happens? Does the material disappear? Does it grow? Does it simply swirl about? Does it sink? Does it float? Why might that be? What kinds of substances and materials dissolve in water and which ones don’t?

For each experiment, students created a simple hypothesis. For example, do you predict this [salt, pepper, cinnamon, etc.] will dissolve in water? The students signed their name in the column that matched their prediction. [These children are developing excellent pre-literacy skills.] Then, the children would experiment with the materials and re-evaluate their original hypothesis. 

I was fascinated by how completing the hypothesis seemed to increase the children's engagement in the process itself - they wanted to repeat the experiment over and over, testing the results. 


Tell Me About Your Water Investigation

As children completed an experiment, we further challenged them to

1) Retell their work to a teacher
2) Write/draw what they did
3) Attach their findings to the “science boat”

Let me share just a few ...


We did water experiments. We need, we use. Water, see the water. And other materials. Sand and shells, rice, water, hot pepper, brown thing with sugar mixed up in there. That’s about it – that’s what they’re using. You mix and you get to put your hands in there and that’s about it.”

          “We tested if it is going to disappear or not, but the salt disappeared. Then we did the sand and we thought the sand would, but I thought the sand would not disappear, and it didn’t! And we did pepper after that, and the pepper didn’t disappear either so what came after the pepper? Rice, then I thought the rice wouldn’t disappear and it didn’t disappear still. So we got cups and tried different materials, I used a sponge and then I used some of the brown stuff, I mean the coffee holder and they took some of the sticks out then I tried the paper towel and it took only one stick out.”


I did water yesterday. At the time, too spicy and then it turned into pepper. I did a little bit. I put a little bit of salt and a little bit of sand and then the rice came down. The sand disappeared. The salt was empty.


The first thing we tested out was the salt. And we did a lot of investigations. So it really dissolved. But the other thing we tested was the sugar but when we mixed it up, it did dissolve. And the third thing we tried dissolving was sticks. We tried and tried and tried and tried the sticks, but they were not dissolving. So we tried an investigation and tried rice and it didn’t dissolve. Then the sand didn’t dissolve. And then there was one more thing. I think that’s it.”


“I liked the first one. Sink or float. We used sponges; no, no sponges, actually. We used an apple in the first one, an orange in the first one, and a key in the first one. I can’t remember any other things we used. We were trying to see if it would sink or float. The key I told you about, that sunk. We used a key there and it sunk. We used cork and it floated. And, of course, a top floated. Two corks and two tops floated.”


I was trying to filter the water that I put the dirty stuff inside. I got the water bottle and then I first put sponges and then I put all the dirty water inside. Any of it went through but the yucky stuff didn’t go through.”


Over the six weeks of this unit exploration, there were water-related activities throughout the room, whether sensory table, blocks, dramatic play, books. At the writing center, the children practiced emergent writing and recall through written reflections on their experiments. We created a large "Word Wall" of new vocabulary from our experimentation. Preschoolers considered how words are spelled, sounding out the word and predicting its first and subsequent letters. 

(We observed students using advanced language, including dissolve, evaporate, disintegrate, investigate, melting, hypothesis, experiment, and predict.) We are cultivating an awareness about words, growing our vocabulary, enhancing our pre-literacy skills. We are cultivating writers!

In the art area, we created a large boat out of cardboard. We painted with watercolors. We painted a large ocean mural, creating our own sea creatures for the display. 

In the dramatic play area, we dressed as scientists, wearing goggles and holding magnifying glasses. When the boat was completed, we played on the "USS Big Cats" (and we posted our scientific findings on this boat).

Through several table-top games, we challenged the children's mathematical understandings. Melissa created one based on the Dr. Seuss’ story One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish – Children match a numeric fish to a particular pond. There were also many extensions/variations to this game, involving counting and quantifying – How many fish total are in your pond? Can you collect fish numbered one to ten for your pond?

Creating a boat in the block corner.

Of course, we had some engineering fun: 

1. Who Sank the Boat? by Pamela Allen

Our challenge was to build a boat that could support five animals [5 counting bears], using our recyclables and tape. [In order to encourage more successful creations, we added corks and aluminum foil to our basic supplies of egg cartons, paper towel rolls, plastic lids, etc.]

2. Twenty-One Elephants and Still Standing by April Jones Prince

Our challenge was to construct a bridge out of recyclables that was strong enough to support five toy elephants.

Both boats and bridges were tested at the water table.


Each day, the children were filled with inquiry and wonder. Consider their words when Melissa set up an exploration of ice within oil:   

It will dissolve because the ice will make it dissolve. The oil might do it, too. All the ice will turn to red. The oil will turn yellow, too, if it can dissolve.” (Seymour)

The ice is breaking because I am breaking it with spoon.” (Shaan)

It will turn into yellow because it’s oil.” (Evan)

It will probably dissolve, because it might and it my jarMaybe it is going to melt when I mix, because it going to get mixed with some ice.” (Charlie)

I think it will dissolve and melt. It will melt, because....” (Eloise)

It will disappear because the ice is so heavy.” (Lavinia)

It’s going to dissolve and disintegrate because it will melt really fast because it has ice in it.” (Ian)

It will dissolve because it will do everything because it will dissolve in real ice water. Sometime when I look at ice, it doesn’t dissolve and sometimes I know it will.” (Jasmine)

It will mix...I think it will mix and then it will pop [the ice].” (Nico)

It’s going to melt because warm melts cold.” (Helen)

I think it’s gong to melt since because I think the oil is going to eat up the ice. It turns darker when I put red in it.” (Bernie)
It will get a little drippy, it’s going to melt because ice is made out of water.” (Caroline)

It might turn into a different color because it might evaporate the color...Inside is hot.” (Zuren)

I think it will turn blue...I think the ice is going to melt.” (Micaela)

It’s going to turn pink, because I love pink.” (Lily)

It will turn green because the ice is kind of green.” (Amelie)

I got green ice and dark green water and the ice got smaller and smaller, it melt.” (Ellie)

Maybe the oil is gone, it turns green because it’s black. The ice melts when water comes out.” (Julian)

Exploring evaporation by painting walls with water.

My foray into documenting children's on-going work about water certainly showed the wisdom of John Burst's quote:

If it is not documented, it didn't happen.

Because we were documenting, lots happened!! Melissa's original unit plan was for approximately three weeks of lessons. However, the children became so engaged in their exploration, we ended up spending more than six weeks on this unit. I believe the children's engagement was magnified by seeing their teachers' investment in the value of their work - as shown in our on-going construction of the documentation wall. When the children arrived at school in the morning, they would stop and look at the documentation and begin asking questions (a frequent question was - Can we do this experiment again?). 

We hadn't changed the way the classroom was structured or our daily routine; the room was still filled with individual choice and hands-on learning. What had changed, however, was the children's focus - documentation helped to highlight and delineate specific aspects of the learning and seemed to give the children a clearer sense of purpose to their play. They are thinking like scientists!

I have no doubt that documenting our work helped to make our teaching stronger, offering clarity to both Melissa and me, helping us to plan better for the children's interests, spotlighting where our teaching was going well, and indicating what needed to change. 

Additionally, the documenting was a wonderful conversation starter for families, giving them a clearer idea of what their children were exploring and enjoying during the school day.

Now I am wrestling with 

How might I document on-going learning on a regular basis, not just at the end of the school year, when my Resident is leading the teaching?

Lots to think about!


  1. I imagine the documentation was very motivating, Maureen. At my school, students are consistently reflecting about their work, daily, weekly, monthly, etc. Perhaps a board that showed the work like you had for the water would be helpful? Don't know, but loved seeing all this, remember your posting earlier about some, and reading the questions you have.

  2. Thanks for sharing. Our Early Years program is very good about their documentation, from the kids point of view, during (rather than after the fact). I will have a student teacher for the first time next year, perhaps I will take your lead. You have planted a seed!

  3. I only wish I could have seen this documentation!
    This summer our SWS retreat focused on Pedogogical Documentation and Reciprocal Listening. One of the things that you do (but did not list as a tenant of documentation) is make visible the teacher's point of view and research within the project. This is what transforms the unit into a co-constructed project, EXACTLY what you documented above, "Melissa's original unit plan was for approximately three weeks of lessons. However, the children became so engaged in their exploration, we ended up spending more than six weeks on this unit." A unit of study is just that, a unit. Through documentation what emerged or became visible was a democratic learning environment which took into account the teacher's research, the childrens' theories, the parents' understandings and the value of the work. Bravo! Powerful work all around. "In this process, pedagogical documentation will encourage us-as it has the teachers in Reggo- to make the familiar seem unfamiliar, to make invisible assumptions and values more visible, and to make explicit the thoughts that are largely tacit in the way in which we govern and are goverened. We will gain insight into the possibility of seeing, talking and acting in a different way and hence being able to cross boundaries..." From The Hundred Languages of Chindren, Chapter 12