Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Elements of Story II: Plot Structure and Lab Reports

How’s this for a serendipitous connection? Yesterday afternoon I posted about the importance and ubiquity of story structure, and last night, Tai and I found it in a lab report.

Backing up a step or two
Tai is actually back in school, mostly because of family stuff. But I’m keeping up with this blog because I still have ideas, and in fact, I got to apply one to his homework yesterday, which was “Write a 5-6 sentence conclusion for the science experiment”. Remember those? 

Tai’s teacher is actually doing a pretty thorough job with the scientific process, having conversations about variables and recording data and using the data to support a conclusion. The hard part is that the experiments seem to be about things the kids already know intuitively, so it’s hard for them--well, it’s hard for Tai--to separate what he thinks he knows from what his data shows him, because it often matches on the surface.

For example, what is the relationship between rate of evaporation and surface area? If equivalent volumes of water are poured into different shaped containers such that the surface area of the water varies with each container, from which container will the water evaporate the fastest? 

Kids worked with a beaker, a bowl, a dish, and a graduated cylinder, whatever that is. Having several years of life experience, Tai and his friends predicted correctly that more water would evaporate from the dish than from the other containers because duh. And lo and behold, their “hypothesis came true”--language that makes me cringe (though Tai insists that this is what his teacher has told him to say). A hypothesis is not a wish. Also, a hypothesis is not a prediction--something I didn’t catch until now, I have to admit.

The writing part
Tai’s homework was to write a conclusion to a lab report about this very experiment--minimum of 5 or 6 sentences, please. Tai complained about this for 30 minutes, during which he went through about eight variations of the following tortured conversation with Tad:  

“Use the data to show that you’re right.”
“But the data is already there in the chart. Anyone can see that I’m right.”
“Pretend they can’t see the data.”
“But that’s stupid. What’s the report for if they can’t see the chart?”
“Pretend you’re telling Jiji (my dad, Tai’s grandfather) about it on the phone.”
“He already knows the answer. Plus why would he even care about evaporation?”

Which is totally beside the point. But that is one problem with school, isn’t it? No authenticity. On the other hand, sometimes you have to practice on stuff that seems meaningless so that you can use those skills effectively for more meaningful stuff:

I just love that clip. Such a life lesson.

Finally Tai managed to scrawl furiously:
“My hypothesis came true because the water in the dish evaporated the fastest. It had the least water in it.” 

At which point Tad gave up and asked me to come and help.

Bird by bird. Step by step. I asked questions, he answered them, I typed is answers:
  • What did you hypothesize? (I should have said predict.)
  • Tell me about the different parts of the experiment. What did you set up?
  • How did you know how much water was in each container at the end?
  • So, the data. How much had evaporated from each container at the end of the experiment?
  • Which container of water had the greatest surface area?
  • See how the data back up what you found?
I turned the computer over to Tai, who changed his transcribed answers into sentences. Then I convinced him to change “came true” to “was correct”. Finally--and again, top down, so not ideal, perfect “let the writer figure it out on his own” editing--I suggested he move “My hypothesis was correct” to the end. The result:

I hypothesized that the one with the most surface area would have the most water evaporate from it. One container was a graduated cylinder, one container was a beaker, one container was a domed lid, and one container was a flat-top lid. From the graduated cylinder, 6 ml evaporated. From the beaker, 7 ml evaporated. From the dome, 19 ml evaporated. And from the flat lid 27 ml evaporated. The flat top lid had the most surface area and the flat top had the most water evaporate from it. Therefore, my hypothesis was correct.

There’s still lots of room for improvement. He confuses prediction with hypothesis (my fault for not catching that). It is still vague and still doesn’t clearly draw the connection between surface area and evaporation or attempt to explain that connection (because I only asked about the dish). 

But it does summarize the data and connect the data with a prediction. And it doesn’t sound make science sound like wishful thinking. At least, not as much as before.

And--here’s the kicker--it’s a story. That was the big ah-ha, the shining moment of the evening. When Tai wrote “Therefore, my hypothesis was correct” at the end, I saw it:

The prediction =  problem or conflict: will this prediction be correct? 
Summary of conditions and results = the steps along the path/plot toward solving the problem. 
Connecting the results with the initial conditions = the solution to the problem, or the climax. 
The “therefore” sentence = the conclusion/resolution.

“Hey, Tai, look!” I pointed it out to him, and he said, with actual excitement in his voice, “Oh, yeah! I get it!”

So next time we have a frame to work from. 

Remembering to work on one thing at at time. Now is the time to practice and get confident with incorporating data into the structure--which is a story. 

I will hold back, I will hold back, I will hold back on explaining the difference between a limited prediction and a general hypothesis, and from having him make the connection between the data and general hypothesis in writing. Those will come. Those will come. Those will come.

No comments:

Post a Comment