Wednesday, August 11, 2004

What I Did With My Summer Vacation

I planned my curriculum.

And it was fun.

After meeting with Mr. Richter to discuss Earth Science and teaching in general (see post below), I stayed in the coffee shop with a laptop, the region's science syllabus, a notebook, and one of my textbooks for next year. For about three hours, I read through the ideas in the science syllabus for teaching Life Science, and started planning.

If you remember the work I did in July, the Life Science curriculum poses some challenges. It is supposed to be split between two years of middle school, but I cannot count on my students having had what they were supposed to in fifth grade. Combining the fifth grade topics with the eighth grade topics yields 67 weeks worth of material! What to do?

The issue feels political to me. Some teachers would take a look at the list of objectives and cut away - echinoderms! ZAP! mollusks! ZAP! evolution! protists! fungi! ZAP! ZAP! ZAP! In no time at all what would remain would be cells, plants, birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, arthropods, fish, maybe bacteria, some basic ecology, the human body... the gross, controversial, and very small or obscure would disappear. I happen to like the gross, controversial, and very small or obscure. Ecosystems don't work very well without organisms that most of us never think about - protists, echinoderms, bacteria - or find unappealing - fungi. Human history is a long and sordid tale of people overlooking or ignoring those forms of life that we don't happen to like, with disastrous consequences for them and for us. My students have so many misconceptions about bacteria - some of them downright dangerous, given the threat of antibiotics resistance - that I want to give the unicellular buggers a thorough treatment. And evolution, well, I hope I don't have to explain why it's important to teach that (and well)! Also - if I cut the easy-to-cut stuff, and so does the next teacher, and the next - could a student graduate from high school without ever having heard of some of these organisms?

OK. It all feels important. But I know enough about teaching to know that the fly-by approach - cover, cover, cover - tends to result in no one knowing much about anything. Better to go in-depth on fewer things. So, what to cut? What to squish? What to find some innovative way to embed or connect so that it gets neither cut nor squished?

Basically, the topics include:
  • the cell
  • ecology
  • kingdom animalia - mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, fish, arthropods, echinoderms, worms, sponges, cnidarians, mollusks, etc.
  • kingdom plantae
  • kingdom protista
  • kingdom fungi
  • kingdom monera
  • human body systems
  • genetics & evolution

My gut instinct, what excites me and will therefore, I think, interest the children, is to use ecology as a lens through which to look at the environment around us. It doesn't hurt that the science syllabus agrees with me. So, I started by sketching out a 7-week unit plan in which the students visit the New York Botanical Gardens three times, each time conducting a field survey of a 1 m by 1 m area, identifying species, counting them, and noting changes since the last visit. I'll need to call the NYBG and run this by them, but I did a workshop there a few years ago and so I think I'll get permission to stake out survey areas for my students. In between visits, the students will study ecology topics like population, food webs, energy flow, recycling of matter, etc. They will build a compost column to observe decomposition at work, model different biomes by varying sunlight, heat, and moisture conditions in different soil samples, then planting seeds of different kinds and observing growth patterns. They will dissect owl pellets. And they will analyze their field surveys using the concepts developed in the classroom. At the end of the unit, we'll share our findings in a Bronx Ecology Fair.

Phew!

On to the animal kingdom. I started out planning a unit by picking and choosing among the activities suggested by the science syllabus. I quickly concluded that the students would be shaving (like the hairy mammals we are!) by the time we finished if we took it phyllum by phyllum. What to do? I divided the animal kingdom into two groups. I would plan lessons for mammals, birds, amphibians, and reptiles, using these groups to introduce concepts like vertebrate/invertebrate, ectotherm/endotherm, sexual/asexual reproduction, and to model the kinds of things that are useful to know about animals. After covering those groups, I would assign the remaining phylla to groups of students to research. Here's the part that's going to be a lot of work for me, and a bit of an experiment: I will create a packet of activities and resources for each group, including two or three lab activities that will allow each group to really get to know their phyllum. That means I will have to be ready to run six different labs at once! Having survived the science fair, I think I can handle it, but suggestions are very welcome. Each group will prepare a display board about its phyllum, and will prepare a lesson to teach the class what they've learned. I am thinking about having the students lead their classmates through one of the labs that they tried. The idea is that all the students will know the basics about a few types of animals that you encounter day-to-day, plus a lot about one more phyllum, and will have at least heard of all the different groups through the work of their classmates. What do you all think?

One project that I'm really excited about is partnering with the Communication Arts teacher to have the students research and write op-ed pieces about reptiles. People have a lot of misconceptions about reptiles; I need to refine the topic ideas, but I think I can come up with several choices for op-ed papers.

In the end, these units may still be too long. My new strategy is to dive in, sketch out a unit plan for each topic, and then see what I've got in the end. Then I can re-think and revise, cut, combine, and eventually I'll have a plan. Of course, the plan is always open to change, based on what the students bring to the class, prior knowledge, questions, etc.

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