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Preparing Tomorrow's Leaders

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    Lauren Parent

Since becoming an Expeditionary Learning teacher, my approach to teaching science has completely shifted. Before, in my effort not to be a “boring” teacher, I focused almost exclusively on the fun side of science. My students may have loved my class, but I’m not sure they learned many skills.

Things changed when I began teaching at an EL school. Through learning expeditions, I was able to join the fun side of science with the skills students would need to be prepared for college and to think critically about the scientific conundrums of our time. One day they may well be involved in making decisions about the policies that affect global climate change, natural resource consumption, pollution, or genetic engineering. They need the hard facts in order to be well prepared.

Learning Expeditions and the Common Core: The Perfect Marriage

Learning expeditions are a perfect way to teach science. My students use real-world information from original scientific research, newspapers, and the Internet to solve real-world problems. They understand the purpose for their work, and they view the hard work of research and skill-building as an opportunity to solve important dilemmas.

The introduction of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is pushing my practice even further. The standards emphasize that we are all literacy teachers, no matter what our specialty or subject area. On the daily lesson level, the CCSS for Literacy in Science (grades 6–12) have helped demystify the teaching of reading and writing. I am teaching the literacy that is authentic to my academic discipline. The standards give me the clarity and confidence to teach my students how to read scientific papers and write like scientists, and they directly address the skills my students need to gather and communicate information. It’s still a difficult process for students to read for information, but with EL instructional strategies and the scaffolding of the Common Core, my students are reading and writing more effectively.

This trimester, we will begin a learning expedition called “Stand Your Ground.” Students will learn about the hydraulic fracturing process and its impact on policy and people as the state of New York decides whether to lift the moratorium on this controversial practice. Students will be building models and conducting experiments, but they will spend just as much time, if not more, digesting informational texts to distinguish the difference between fact, judgment, and belief.

In order to meet Common Core standards (see sidebar), I will focus on the following:

•  Text Selection: I will choose texts carefully. We will scale the “staircase of complexity” required by the Common Core so that all students begin with more accessible text and gradually build up to reading complex texts at or above grade level.

•  Readers’ Workshops: We will unpack complex texts with close reading lessons that give all students access to the material. This means we will regularly read the same text multiple times, paying attention to key details, and focusing on important academic vocabulary.

•  Text Variety: I will use a literacy approach for reading texts, diagrams, experiments, charts, and graphs. Close analytical reading can be applied to all types of texts that are important when studying science.

•  Focusing on Argument, not Persuasion: The CCSS emphasizes writing “arguments” in which students state a point of view and support it with evidence. As the final product of the “Stand Your Ground” expedition, students will create white papers to inform multiple groups about the different aspects of hydraulic fracturing. Students will be required to identify judgments, beliefs, and facts in their reading. Their white papers will include only evidence drawn from text, not from their personal bias.

•  Vocabulary Instruction: I will teach the domain-specific and academic vocabulary students need to access the texts. I will focus intensively on those words that will help students understand the text we are working on and that they are likely to encounter in other texts.

I have every reason to believe that this literacy-focused work will be just as surprising and interesting to my students as the models they create and experiments they conduct. Thanks to EL and the Common Core, my current students will be more prepared than my students from a decade ago. They will be able to engage in a world in which they have to constantly understand and evaluate the information they encounter. When our students become our leaders, they will not be asked to cite evidence to support their claims. They will do it naturally because we taught them how. 

Jessica Kauffman is a fifth- and sixth-grade teacher at Tapestry Charter School in Buffalo, New York. Prior to joining the staff at Tapestry, she was a founding teacher at Expeditionary Learning Middle School in Syracuse, New York.