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High School Lesson Plan: Finding Science in AN AMERICAN CHILDHOOD by Annie Dillard

Annie Dillard's memoir about growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1950s offers wonderful opportunities for connecting English and science classes. Dillard's passion for learning about science, nature, and the arts is expressed in literary but accessible language. Literary science writing provides many students with another entry point into science, which some may consider dry and forbidding. One particular chapter (page 136-146) tells of Dillard's interest in collecting rocks. This chapter describes the properties of various rocks that students study in Earth Science. It also describes the science of rock formation and changes in the Earth's crust.

In this lesson, students read excerpts (or the entirety) of the Dillard memoir, preferably aloud with the teacher.

Grade Level: 9-12

ELA: (New York State)
Standard 1: Students will read, write, listen, and speak for information and understanding.
Standard 2: Students will read, write, listen, and speak for literary interpretation.
Standard 4: Students will read, write, listen, and speak for social interaction.

Science: (Illinois)
Recognize and apply connections of important information and ideas within and among learning areas.
Express and interpret information and ideas.

Organizing Theme:
Dillard's memoir expresses the writer's childhood fascination for learning about science, nature, and the arts.

Essential Questions:
Why does Annie Dillard write about the subjects that she chooses?
What are the unifying themes throughout the memoir?
How can Dillard's memoir help us deepen our understanding of science?

What the Lesson Looks Like:
This lesson, which may be done collaboratively by an English and an earth science teacher, shows two different science texts: the Annie Dillard memoir (especially pages 136-146), a literary version of science information, and science information found in a text or review book. What is the difference in the language? Information? Presentation? Format? Organization? By comparing the two texts, students will attend to the information closely, and such attention will facilitate comprehension and retention.

1. Distribute copies of the memoir and give a brief overview, reading selected parts aloud.

2. Give students the following homework assignment: Get the "lay of the land" of this memoir, flagging chapters and passages that you think other students would enjoy reading and learning more about.

3. Have the class exchange suggestions about parts of the book they would like to study as a group. The class and the teacher should establish consensus on several chapters that they would like to read as a group.

4. Optional: The students can read the balance of the book on their own.

5. Reading: Employ the following instructional strategies for the selected chapters.

  • Pre-reading: Summon forth prior knowledge.
  • Pre-reading: Introduce new vocabulary, including phrases; establish the difference between lay and scientific vocabulary.
  • Pre-reading: Establish reader expectations.
  • While reading: Read aloud with enthusiasm and expression (teacher and students).
  • While reading: Keep the students mindful of reader expectations-what do they expect to happen next?
  • While reading: Point out scientific concepts that are couched in literary description. Identify information in the literary text that corresponds to that found in the science text.
  • While reading: Keep the students mindful of the need to visualize-can they picture what is being described? Does this help them to understand the scientific concepts?
  • While reading: Keep the students mindful of the need to personalize-can they relate the reading to personal experience?
  • While reading: Make marginal notes on Post-It notes.

6. Because this is a memoir, discussion invites personal anecdotes by readers. Give the students the following reflection prompt: Have we ever experienced what the writer has experienced? Felt what she has felt? Seen what she's seen? Then have students list the following kinds of responses that come to mind after having read and reflected upon the selections in a reader response journal: memorable images; a sentence that helps you understand something about minerals; new words, including scientific terminology; scientific concepts.

Culminating Activity:
Science Writing: Tell students to use the terminology found in the vocabulary section or glossary of their science text in writing a piece modeled after a segment of AN AMERICAN CHILDHOOD. In other words: tell them to write a first-person memoir as though they were someone intensely interested in some aspect of science that they have made part of their life. Tell them to be sure to employ as many scientific terms and concepts as possible, but to do so in a way that invites the reader to share their interest.

Students may read other literary science writers. Excellent passages can be found in the works of James Michener (HAWAII, ALASKA), Lewis Thomas, and Rachel Carson; and in other works by Annie Dillard.

The following are segments of AN AMERICAN CHILDHOOD that can be used as the basis for discussion and inquiry in the subject areas indicated.

Social Studies: pages 3-5: In this segment, Annie Dillard writes about the topography of her home town, Pittsburgh. Particularly important to her are the rivers. How have rivers played a social, economic, and ecological role in your region of the world?

Social Studies: pages 73-77: The history and culture of Pittsburgh: Who are the "patron saints" of Pittsburgh? What is the city known for? What were/are its key industries, and how did these industries shape its culture and economics? Consider the great art museums and public institutions of the city of Pittsburgh.

Art, Biology: pages 78-83: In this segment, Annie Dillard refers to several nonfiction books, such as the NATURAL WAY TO DRAW and FIELD GUIDES TO PONDS AND STREAMS. Find these books and peruse them. Do you share Annie Dillard's enthusiasm for what they have to offer?

Earth Science: pages 100-110: What causes tornadoes? What are the effects of tornadoes?

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