Science Writing Can’t Survive on Charm Alone

I was asked to do a one-hour science immersion class at the In a Large Room Retreat last month, and it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable classes I’ve ever done. I was asked to spend 25 minutes doing one lesson with the attendees, and then answer questions for 25 minutes. I used a lesson from my form 3 astronomy guide about the sun.

I set up the lesson by telling them what a student would have learned in the last lesson, and showing them an image they would have seen. My immersion students were picking up right in the middle of the book, and even in the middle of a chapter, so I wanted to give them some foundation. I also prepared them with a few vocabulary words they would see as they read.

I had hoped to read the assigned text aloud because the author of The Planets uses very poetic language, and I thought the parents might have a hard time with it as they may not be used to the style. But I lost my voice on the first day of the retreat and could barely be heard, so I asked the participants to read it to themselves. I think I allowed 10 minutes to read the four-page passage, but I requested that they take it slowly, reading for understanding even if they didn’t get to the end of the section by the time we needed to move on.

When they were through, I asked for an oral narration for the sake of time. I suggested that instead of narrating the passage in order, participates should just tell all the facts they could remember. What did they learn? I had written down six things I thought they might comment on, but the class narrated about fifteen ideas or facts they had read!

I then read aloud a passage from Writing to Learn by William Zinsser.  Zinsser had just quoted two pages of Archie Carr’s So Excellent a Fishe, when he commented:

That’s pleasant writing; we’re there on the beach at Tortuguero, rooting for the turtles and hoping they won’t meet a wari on their crawl to the surf. But the writing couldn’t survive on charm alone; it works because it’s grounded in scientific observation and fact. What sticks out in our mind is the hundred eggs, the digging buzzards, the returning coyotes, the signaling sea.” (p. 129, emphasis mine.)

The students in my immersion class had a similar experience. Dava Sobel, the author of The Planets, has a way with words. It’s pleasant writing. But what stuck out in the minds of my students that day was the facts.

We were not done with the lesson because I always allow a few minutes for students to dig deeper into one idea before ending a lesson. This time we learned a bit more about the counter-intuitive way the sun rotates and how the solar wind creates the northern and southern lights. But an idea was distracting me while we were completing the lesson.

What if I gathered each of the facts that the participants narrated, and I explained them. Maybe I enlisted the help of a colleague to get my explanations just right, and I included a diagram or picture where it might aid the student’s understanding. Is that not the precise description of a textbook? They start with the facts they think the students should learn and then build out. A living book is quite the opposite. The author starts with a big idea and then through charm, as Zinsser says, or simply passion, they tell what they know. The facts glide through, but they are clothed in gripping ideas.

Additionally, how many pages do you suppose it would take me to explain fifteen facts about the sun? I think it might be more than the four standard size pages my students read for this lesson. So not only would I have to lengthen the reading assignment but I wouldn’t have the narrative to carry the reader along.

Some of you might have thought that if your student is to learn the massive amount of common scientific information, he must forgo the living book to make better use of his time. In other words, more can be learned in a shorter amount of time by using a textbook than can be learned when rambling through a living book. I would assert that the opposite is likely true. If you want your student to learn as much as possible, with the added benefit that he may even care about what he learns, you really must avoid textbooks and use living science books instead.

5 thoughts on “Science Writing Can’t Survive on Charm Alone

  1. Kim

    Thanks for sharing this. I enjoyed the article because I am starting high school and want to continue the use of living books versus a textbook. We are using your Astronomy this year and are enjoying the set up to help us on our living science journey. Can’t wait to use Weather next for my form III daughter.

  2. Debi Z

    This is so true! I absolutely love this 🙂 I would imagine that it took a lot of courage for you to step out of the textbook paradigm (oddly common in the CM community when it comes to high school science) and truly trust Mason’s methods. I sincerely appreciate your pioneer spirit in this area!

    1. Nicole Post author

      Thank you, Debi. It wasn’t easy but it was necessary, because my “big kids” weren’t making it. The people I worry about are the ones whose kids CAN handle the textbook. Just because they can, doesn’t not mean we should inflict that on them.

      1. Debi Z

        Absolutely! My science geek got mad at me after she graduated and started looking at her friend’s science text books (insert the usual homeschool science company here) and wondering why I didn’t “let” her use them. She devoured them! When I asked her, however, if she thought she would have loved them as much of she didn’t already have relationships with the ideas, she realized I had done her a favor 🙂


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