Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Reflections on Rainbows (and Refraction) on a Snowy Day, Part II

Processing the documentation from our rainbow investigations, I am reminded of how powerful drawing and design can be for children to express and clarify their understanding of the world around them.  As an ever-present, always available language with which to communicate, art in our classroom serves many purposes – to develop stories, as a strategy to solve mathematical problems and support mathematical thinking, to express children's creativity, individuality, emotions, and sense of humor.  Visual language supports so much knowledge for children. It is an essential mode of communication for so much of what happens in elementary education.  Art helps to make the imagined - and the intangible – real, and helps distill reality’s complexity into manageable parts.  No matter how free-flowing or improvisational it may be, art is intentional. It helps to slow thoughts down and make them more fully realized, no matter how rudimentary the design or complex the concept.  Teaching scientific concepts without allowing children to process their thinking through drawing or materials is unimaginable when you sense its full potential in the co-construction of knowledge.  Taking students’ dictations after they have created their drawings makes clear how valuable it is to allow them to literally "draw out" their thinking. 

Throughout all of our project work , there are cycles of revisiting and re-communicating ideas – through experimenting, peer dialogue, listening, questioning, and re-thinking ideas in different languages.  In our circle discussions following our experiments with light, the children revealed that they were coming to consensus about their understanding of light – that it travels in a straight line unless something gets in its way, and when that happens, it can be reflected (bounced off) or changed (refracted to make a rainbow), depending on what kind of surface it hits.   The children were invited to draw and/or write their theories about what was happening – both in the garden (reflection) and with the hose (refraction). 

G. shows how mirrors can bounce light
R. shows the pathways of light between two mirrors

M. relates what she learned about
outdoor vs. indoor sources of light

E.K.:  The light is trying to get to Hawaii.  It came from the sun and went to the mirror, then bounced to another mirror, and then went onto the paper.  Each of the mirrors is a station.  At each station, the light gets prepared to go to the next station. This helpful travel metaphor was used by other children in their drawings as well:

E.K.:  The sun reflected the light, then it goes to the mirror.  Kind of like when I am going to the sun, and tying a string to the sun, then I’m pointing the string to the mirror and then tying it there, and then tying it to the other [mirrror]…There’s a path to space, to earth, to people. 

T: Light is like a path. 

W and T:  The sun is like a train station.  The light is like the train that is leaving.  The light is going to Earth.   
I's picture of reflection 
Drawing the invisible path of light's rays made sense once the children had the experience bouncing it from one reflective surface to another.   

After bouncing it from mirror to mirror and then onto black paper, some children took their query further:
could light be transmitted through paper?

(left):  J. took a flashlight to see if it could go through paper, and found out that it could. 

(below): G. found out the same thing when he tried a similar experiment with thick watercolor paper:

Something different happens to light when water is involved...but the conditions have to be just right...
Rainbow Recipe:  N.B. lists the ingredients to make a rainbow
C:  The sun and the water are mixing together to make a rainbow.  You can put your hand through a rainbow.  The light is clear. The water is clear.  

Many students observed that when the spray of the water from the hose was “skinny and straight,” the water would not refract the light - but when it was spread out in a fine spray, it would create a rainbow. 

Once the children saw the rainbow produced by the water spray, they expressed their theories about where the color was coming from in their drawings:

G. had the idea that the colors of the rainbow are in the light from the sun, coming down from space

I [above; dictation]:  Understands that the "size" (sic) of the water matters.  Can you make a rainbow in an ocean? No, that's too much water.  A puddle? Too less (sic).  A cup of water?  Too little.  The colors in space (like the northern lights) need the sun.  They reflect off the water into the rainbow and form the rainbow.  

A.L. [above; dictation]:  The colors in the sun travel in the light to the hose.  They find a secret passageway into the hose and they come out in the water to make a rainbow. 

L:  When there is a rainbow, the sun goes into the water and the sun has all these colors in it. 

As we observed in our later experiments with prisms, while rainbows can be observed (with or without water), it can be hard to pin down precisely which colors are produced.  Asking the children to record their observations when we created a rainbow with the water - without actually using colored markers or pencils - proved to be a real challenge.  

L.S.:  I see orange, yellow, blue, purple.
W. sees yellow, purple, blue, and orange.
J. sees only red, yellow blue 


or not 


That is the question....

While a few of the children already knew that the colors in a rainbow are ROYGBIV (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet), it was not widely accepted in our class before our experimentation.  After observing and recording the colors on their own, after producing a "real" rainbow, many children found it quite hard to capture all the colors in the light spectrum, and so we will continue to work on this.  

Giving children the chance to learn and observe through trial and error and then allowing them to share their thinking through drawing allows us to see their construction of knowledge more fully - what might they be missing? Where can we take the learning from here?  What new experiences could further their understanding?  Re-communicating ideas, revisitation, and refinement are all part of the journey.  Designs - discourse - documentation...purposeful and mindful work reinforces to children the essential idea that learning is a process without end. Creativity and curiosity should propel that goal.  

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