• Anita Demitroff

Treasures Under Our Feet: Teaching Rocks and Minerals

There is a paradox. When we teach about something that is so much a part of our lives- such as plants or rocks and minerals- the less likely we are to make it hands-on. We just tend to take these items for granted. As a result, in the classroom, they can become yet another topic dealt with in an abstract, text-based way. However, there are activities that can make rocks and minerals more palpable and motivating for you and your learners, in both Primary and Secondary. And they don’t necessarily entail lugging in loads of heavy stones!

The starting point here is to make sure that learners are clear about the difference between rocks and the minerals found inside those rocks. Rocks are visible; we can see them in their engineered and natural state. Minerals may be invisible, but we use them to make an infinite number of components and other materials. When talking about this difference, we can focus on language points related to composition. What is the difference between made up of, made from and made of? How many verbs can we think of in this family: formed by, made up of, composed of, with the verb to be, and other verbs like consists of and comprises?

Let’s go back to the Science. One reason you don’t need to bring rocks and minerals into class is because they are very much present in our surroundings. Older Primary and Secondary students are no different from their younger classmates in that they respond to our attempts to show the nature of certain items around us. A useful exercise is to describe our homes or daily routines and then list room by room where rocks and minerals are present. Just in our bathrooms, we use marble and quartz as building materials, but the ceramic fittings are made with minerals. Cosmetics and toiletries have minerals too. We think of chalk as a classroom item, but we also use it as an abrasive for our toothpaste! If we need help with this listing task, there are plenty of online guides, like this one and this one.

Then we can go out into the wider world to see how rocks and minerals are used in construction and decoration. Just as we may ask our learners to search for plants, they can go on a rock quest to find examples in structures and in nature itself. Noticing is an essential part of learning. We can pass a building every day and not stop to appreciate the sparkly flecks in its quartz. Mica is the mineral that makes rocks shine in Galicia (NW Spain). However, under our feet is humble gravel. It is estimated that we walk on over 112 tonnes of gravel in the course of our lives (UK Minerals).

We do have to start to understand the processes that created these rocks, to distinguish between how the igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic varieties are formed. Catherine Dommegan from the English Vision Academy in Tui (Galicia, Spain) got her teen learners to represent these processes in a drama sketch using props from her classroom. They read the explanation and then try to re-enact the actions in simple terms, using the Active and not the Passive Voice (C1). For instance, they put their arms on top of each other to represent the layers of sedimentary rocks. Another group of students mimed a volcanic explosion and then mingled in a cluster to show how igneous rocks are formed. Any misunderstandings are easily concept checked and vocabulary, like layers or to settle, is reinforced. Moreover, we can be creative in finding props to represent the concepts.

A lecturer at the University of Santiago (Galicia, Spain) used to tell trainee teachers that we don't need to bring an elephant into the classroom to teach the colour grey. Some hands-on activities can have a high elephant scale: they may be messy or costly or both. The first tip we can provide for rocks, from personal experience, is that there may be a collection of rocks and minerals hidden away in the school laboratory. If we do decide to bring in samples (for example, from a flooring company or personal collection), we should ask if we can store them on the school premises. We find it is also useful to bring in personal items like necklaces made of precious stones, like jade or jet (really a mineraloid); learners are usually careful handling these items. How do second-hand shop dealers distinguish the light jet from plastic beads? They try to push a pin heated with a match into it!

Pick up a piece of jet. It's light!Close observation and handling allow us to re-examine our preconceptions and see everyday things in a new light. We may ask if a rock can float and most learners will respond with “I don't think so!” Then they can witness a simple buoyancy test with a bowl of water and a pumice stone (available in apothecaries and eco-shops). It floats!

A final consideration concerns the mathematical concept of scales. Older learners are just getting their heads around what the numbers for weights and other dimensions mean in real terms. As fun facts play an important role in our textbooks and presentations, we need to stop and contemplate equivalents. For that reason, statistics with comparisons make a bigger impact. The ten tonnes of minerals we use individually every year is equivalent to seven cars, for example (UK Minerals).

How many cars make up the equivalent of the 112 tonnes of gravel mentioned earlier? Also remember that the numerical form of large figures may vary among world areas: a billion in Spain is different from an American billion, so write out the numbers!

When it comes to teaching, nothing is written in stone, but we do insist that even a little bit of hands-on can lighten up a class. In the post-pandemic period, our older learners are just as tired of screen and text as their younger peers. With a bit of realia, they can get a feel for topics like rocks and minerals.

Have you done hardness and scratch tests or other experiments with rocks? Share them with us and help us rock our learners’ world!

By Ana Demitroff

Bio: Ana has been in the classroom longer than she cares to admit, but she still gets a kick from the experience and continues to learn from her colleagues and students at the You First Language Centre.