Frank Wells, Mike Myslinski, Bill Guy and Dina Martin
Science in Thousand Oaks
Ashley Cooper’s ninth-grade science class students at Thousand Oaks High School are recapping some of the evidence for evolution they studied before their vacation. Today’s classwork will culminate with homework in which students will write an essay following the Common Core State Standards writing rubric on informative writing, and demonstrate proficiency in core English language arts standards specific to science and technical subjects.
Cooper, an enthusiastic 14-year veteran, begins by choosing students to read aloud from a short illustrated piece, “A Close Look at Darwin’s Finches.” The text contains complex terms like “phylogenetic” and “adaptive radiation,” but the students don’t seem to struggle. They show they grasp the material when asked to identify which diagrammed bird would be able to eat the largest nuts, and to infer something about the variety of insects on which the finches may have dined.
The class then helps Cooper develop a graphic organizer of evidence for evolution on the front board. Students use their own layered construction paper “foldables” they have previously created on this subject, as well as the Prentice Hall biology textbook, to recall evidence categories they will later use in their essays: fossil records, homologous body structures, vestigial organs, natural selection, geographic distribution, and embryology. After a brief discussion about each category and its connection to evolution, Cooper has the students break into groups of three or four to come up with supporting points for each area.
Cooper tries to limit her lecturing to once a week. “I try to be more the guide on the side and less the sage on the stage,” she says. She prefers having students work in smaller groups because it’s more likely everyone will pull their own weight, especially when a project outcome is involved.
After the group discussion, Cooper asks students to report out. She adds some of their observations to the graphic organizer on the board. The class period has gone by quickly; lunch is just seven minutes away, and she wants to give students some brief time to start their homework assignment. She tells them she wants their five or six paragraph essays to explain some of the evidence for evolution. She goes over structure by drawing out the constructs of an essay from the students.
“What’s your first paragraph going to tell the reader? That’s right, it’s your hook or thesis.”
“Who’s your audience? What kind of voice, tone and vocabulary are you going to use?”
“Your conclusion should wrap things up. So what? Now what?”
The students start writing, and Cooper tells them her class will be open during lunch for them to continue working or get help.
Cooper says incorporating language arts across the science curriculum does take more time, but the payoff is worth it. This isn’t the first time students have been asked to write or integrate what they’ve learned. She’s had students write taking different sides of various bioethics issues like embryo stem cell research, animal testing, physician-assisted suicide, and the use of genetically modified organisms in the food supply. She’s also had them debate each other in front of the class.
Students feel such projects, including today’s essay, help them learn the material better.
“It really brings it all together for us and gets us to really process what we’re learning,” says Gianna Lucareli.
Her classmate Justin Debeikes agrees. “It’s better than just doing worksheets and quizzes.”
The past year, Cooper has been part of CTA’s first Teacher Leadership Cohort, a program that identifies strong, passionate teachers and develops their advocacy skills around improving professional practice. The Unified Association of Conejo Teachers member is a strong believer in Common Core, and despite the fact that textbooks are not yet aligned to the new standards, she’s making it a point to adjust her teaching and curriculum.
“I’m trying to develop at least one lesson per unit per year that incorporates the new standards,” she says. She believes her district is on the right track with Common Core implementation, and the key is to have the change teacher-led rather than a top-down effort that brings in a lot of outside consultants. “Teachers are the real experts. We know our students, our districts, our subject matter, our resources, and any constraints we’re under. We’re the ones who will make this work,” she says.
The bell rings, and students pack up and begin leaving. Cooper again reminds them to take advantage of her class being open at lunch. Many of them have sports meets and band competition after school, which will eat into the time they have to complete the assignment. As the students leave, a tall boy named Derrick makes his way to the front. He politely thanks Cooper for today’s class. “He does that every day,” she says. “It’s really kind of nice.”