A Closer Look is a special program for teachers that uses science to help students develop observation and literacy skills. See our workshop registration page for signup information.

Taking a Closer Look

It’s a typical day at the New England Aquarium. A large group of middle school students on a field trip are visiting the Nile crocodile exhibit. Most of them look briefly at the tank, comment on the crocodile, and move on. One or two notice a group of six kindergarten students sitting on the floor in front of the same exhibit tank.

Accompanied by a teacher from the Boston Public Schools and an Aquarium staff member, these students are focused on the fish moving around in front of them. They are writing and drawing furiously on their clipboards, and constantly relate their observations to the group. The students ignore the huge crocodile, a distraction if ever there was one, and remain completely engaged in the task at hand. The kindergarten students continue this level of concentration on their work for the entire 20-minute activity.

Teachers as Learners

The group activity described above is part of an Aquarium professional development program for teachers called A Closer Look funded by a grant from the Annenberg Challenge Fund for Non-Profits. We developed
the program in response to a teacher initiative from the Eliot School and a challenge from principals of the Cluster I schools seeking to use the Aquarium as a resource to support teaching and learning goals.

The objectives of the program are:

  • To develop tools for teachers that focus student interest during field trips and develop key science and literacy process skills
  • To offer pre- and post-visit classroom ideas that develop observation skills and science concepts and promote literacy skills

In the first session, teachers are the students—they perform the activities and observations. In subsequent sessions, they observe and assist students in similar activities. Aquarium staff present activities and materials to facilitate observation and recording. Teachers discuss the techniques and tools used and
how they would adapt these ideas for their own classroom needs.

Teacher Reflections

“Looking at one fish, I found my power of observation was more intense, and I was able to see more. When I centered on the fish, he became my fish.”

“By focusing on one fish, I felt a sense of responsibility. I took ownership of the fish. I studied the color, shape, how many inches, how it moved. I found the probing questions helpful.‘What are you looking at?’ encouraged me to look harder.”

“I really liked the idea of focusing on an exhibit and one fish…This will help children to write, describe and use their observational skills.”

Techniques and Tools

We developed a variety of activities based on the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks. Staff members used techniques derived from their own teaching experiences as well as those suggested by participating teachers. In the most significant feature of the program, Aquarium staff demonstrated the use of questioning and probing to motivate students to draw, write and refine their observations.

Sample activities from A Closer Look

The Results

The pre-visit activities allow students to demonstrate their familiarity with the subject matter, and the follow-up activities show students they can build on this knowledge. The activities encourage students to relate their own bodies and behavior to characteristics of the animals they see, and provide them with the vocabulary to ask questions.

In comparing the work of students on their first visit and on their second Aquarium visit, the participating teachers noticed the development over two sessions.

“I see a big difference in focus and the results of the activities which introduced concepts and background knowledge.”

“I was impressed with the volume of what they wrote. The drawings were not as stylized and were more detailed.”

Teachers came away with ideas about how they would prepare for and conduct a field trip experience for their students. Many said that they would like to combine both a survey (looking at all the Aquarium exhibits) and this focused approach (looking closely at one exhibit).

We wish to thank Chuck Murfitt, Diane Cloherty, LaNelle Harvey, Tony Kelly, Kathleen Biggins and Ann Houlihanof the Eliot School, Geraldine Terrizzi and Frances Stuart of the P.J. Kennedy School, Elaine Hatfield-Thompsonand Deborah Carr of the Sam Adams School and Veronica Andrews and Shellie Nee of the East BostonEarly Education Center for helping us develop the A Closer Look activities.