Four Ways To Actively Engage Students With Anchor Phenomena

Create anchor phenomenon lessons that establish the expectation that students are the primary actors in their learning. It’s time to move away from “presenting phenomena” and instead, embrace strategies that actively engage learners and launch strong student-driven storylines.

Actively Engage Students With Anchor Phenomena For Student-Owned Science Storylines

4 ways to actively engage students with anchor phenomenaYou have to do more than CHOOSE an anchor… you have to USE it. When I was beginning to incorporate phenomena into my lessons and units, I spent a lot of time thinking about choosing my phenomenon. Of course, that seemed like the logical starting point… and it is super important! Choosing the “right” phenomenon for your students and your content sets your storyline up for success. (Aand failing to do so can lead to a lot of frustration and aimless wandering).

But there is another really important step that happens after you choose it.

And that is using it.

Moving Beyond “Presenting A Phenomenon”

I used to think about that first engagement experience as “presenting my anchor.” In fact, I used that language when I would teach other teachers about using their anchors. “Presenting.” The problem with presenting is it puts the work on the teacher.

Our goal, however, is for our students to be “doing the work” with the anchor phenomenon. So if we want to effectively launch a student-owned science unit, we have to actively engage our students with the phenomenon from the get-go.

First, that means ditching the “presenting the phenomenon” approach. Then, it means rethinking our strategy to better foster an interaction between our students and our phenomena.


Enter: The Anchor Experience.

Today, when I design my anchor experiences, my goal is to pull students into the content through personal experiences, emotional connections, and/or world-at-large relevance. (I try to hit all three as best as I can.)

There are so many ways you can present and engage students with anchor phenomena. And there is no right or wrong way as long as your students are actively interacting with it and leaving with more questions than answers.

Below, I have highlighted a few of my favorite approaches!


Spark Emotional Connection To Phenomena Through Storytelling

📖  Who doesn’t LOVE a story? You can cultivate an emotional connection to the content through novels, children’s trade books, primary accounts, or even videos.

It’s important for our students to realize that science is ultimately a HUMAN story. The natural world is not disconnected from our lives. It directly impacts us and is directly impacted by us. So let’s put the story back into the science to build our students’ engagement and connect with those who may not see the role of science in their lives.

For example, as you investigate cells and body systems through infectious disease, you might read The Birchbark House* or 1793*.  Or as you study the water cycle and human impacts through an investigation into the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, you might read The Mess We Made*.  You can introduce heredity and genetics with Condor Comeback*.  Or you may consider showing (all or parts of) The Martian* as you dive into the solar system.

*As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

If you would like to see how this can be woven into an anchor experience, check out these iExploreScience curriculum resources:

The One Who Survived

In this lesson (part of the Body Wars unit), students read and/or listen to excerpts from The Birchbark House, a historical fiction novel that tells the story of a young Ojibwa girl named Omakayas. Her story begins on an island in Lake Superior in 1847 and follows Omakayas through the arrival of smallpox and a deadly winter. The excerpts selected for students to experience highlight Omakayas experiences with smallpox — her first exposure as a baby and later, as one of the few unaffected by the virus during the winter epidemic. Students are prompted to make observations and generate questions about viruses, infectious disease, and the body as a system. Grab this lesson here.


Why Aren’t Some Eggs Hatching?

Invite students to explore a nonfiction children’s book (Condor Comeback by Sy Montgomery) to learn the story of the California condor’s near extinction and recovery. After initial observations, students are ready to explore and analyze a pedigree chart. Through this activity, they generate questions and draw preliminary conclusions about variations in inherited traits. Specifically relevant to this phenomenon, students focus on chondrodystrophy in the condor population. The text frames the student experience to help them understand how their genetics learning fits in a larger context — the survival of a species.


Take On New Roles To Explore Phenomena

Play a part!

Role play isn’t just for preschoolers — we all experiment with different roles and perspectives throughout our entire lives.

(Who doesn’t like dressing up for Halloween, playing first-person video games, or attending your neighbor’s Great Gatsby party? We all find ways to play a part.)

So give your students the chance to do it in your class.

Make them cold case investigators digging into the fossil record, journalists reporting on nuisance flooding, government scientists investigating a missing species.

Give them a part to play.

Cold Case Controversies: The End Of The Cretaceous Period

Invite students to become science detectives and present at the Cold Case Controversies Convention — the biggest science event on the block. This year’s convention theme is CRIMES AGAINST BIODIVERSITY! Throughout this learning journey, students investigate the end of the Cretaceous Period. They dive into not only what happened but also how we know it — by studying rock strata and geologic time, the rock cycle, and force and motion. Students also explore how those events impacted life on Earth, digging into the flow of matter and energy in ecosystems and the catastrophic consequences of disrupting that balance.


Earth’s Rising Tides

Challenge students to take on the role of new newspaper journalists at the Blue City Chronicle who must “vet” opinion pieces about sunny day flooding in the city and the proposed solutions to the growing problem. However, before they can take on that challenge, they need to familiarize themselves with nuisance flooding. In this anchor experience, students operate as journalists investigating a set of evidence designed to launch the learning journey into Earth’s tides, the Sun-Earth-Moon system, and climate change.


All Phenomena Is A Mystery… But Emphasize It!

All phenomena are mysteries. They are things we are asking our students to explain. But when we make a concerted effort to FRAME the phenomenon as the mystery it is…

Well, we’re all curious people, right?

Provide students with details of the event and the first clues for them to investigate. Then, lead students forward through the storyline, uncovering new clues that generate new questions and provide new answers. Silent Night: An Ecology Mystery is an oldie-but-goodie activity that can be used in this way!


Problems Can Serve As Phenomena

Phenomena can be problems that students can work to find solutions for. Why? Because problems create relevance — they connect to our lives and also give us a purpose.

Presenting phenomena as problems creates a rationale for students to learn and understand. After all, they have work to do with that knowledge.

In the Curiosity Spark #PollinatorProblems (releasing February 2022), students investigate pollinator decline and the arrival of murder hornets. (What’s not fascinating about that!?) But then, they are tasked with taking the first steps toward addressing the problem (ultimately, a part of their three dimensional storyline assessment) — and those first steps are mapping out what they need to know to design a solution.


Put Your Students In The Driver’s Seat From The Get-Go

With student-owned science, our goal is to shift ownership of learning experiences to our students. It means releasing control and allowing our students to “take the wheel.” We need to take this approach from day one. From the very moment learning begins, students should be experiencing the expectation that they step up.

Oftentimes, we “present a phenomenon” through a potentially passive approach — watching a video, looking at a picture, observing a demonstration, or reading/listening to a text. While we ask them to make observations or ask questions, their engagement is still somewhat limited.

Shifting our approach doesn’t necessarily mean ditching these tools. There is nothing inherently wrong with videos, pictures, and texts! But it does mean considering how we can actively involve our students in connecting with the phenomenon.

How can we frame the activity to push the interaction between students and phenomena forward? How might we capture students’ interest on emotional levels? How could we foster recognition of a phenomenon’s relevance — a recognition that arises from within our students?

Your anchor experience sets the stage for your entire student-driven storyline. It shapes the learning journey, from the flow of content to the roles of teacher and student. If we can create experiences where our students are active learners, questioners, and wonderers from day one, we can establish a baseline expectation that students are the primary actors in their learning. And that ultimately is our goal.