It’s 7:45am, and thirty-two 10th-graders slump into their seats for first period chemistry. The topic of the day—the period table—seems far removed from the students’ daily lives. “Some of my kids live day-to-day,” their teacher later told me. “And now they’re supposed to care about atoms?”
I often hear this type of question from science teachers in schools grappling with socioeconomic and racial inequalities. These educators know that their students’ perspectives often go unseen and unheard in the curriculum. The teachers also know that relevant content can provide students a bridge to academic knowledge. But with the compounding demands of standards, testing, and accountability, few teachers have the time or the professional development support to redesign their units this way. And where would they even start?
A big opportunity lies in three small words: ethics, well-being, and community. Reframing content around these concepts can create a meaningful context for DNA, soil structure, molecules, and other seemingly useless topics (at least from some kids’ view). Here’s an overview of the process teachers say give them a fresh perspective on their content as well as new approaches to delivering it.
First, I ask them teachers to put the standards aside. Yep, that’s right. I explain that we’re not going to plan around standards. Sure, it’s heresy, but I insist that we start by using our three words as a new lens for science topics. I promise the group that the strategy will enable them to unearth the underlying connections to students’ lives. The standards will follow.
With understandable hesitancy, science teachers ‘overlaid’ the words onto their disciplines, resulting in intriguing questions that led teachers in new directions. Here’s a short, multi-voice excerpt from one conversation:
- So where’s the chemistry in the kids’ communities?
- What about that abandoned factory? I hear the soil’s toxic. That can’t be good.
- Yeah, and how ethical is it that our kids are exposed to that? You know the kids in [other town] aren’t facing that.
- So let’s have kids investigate this—the chemicals, interactions, exposure, impacts.
Now we had our relevance. But what would the unit look like? And where were the standards?
Our next step was to define and sequence the core understandings that students would need to tackle these problems. For example, teachers realized that the periodic table would serve as a necessary foundation. (There were some standards!) From there, teachers identified opportunities to develop student mastery of other requirements. For example, to understand chemical reactions or soil remediation, students would need to design investigations, test their findings, think in systems, create models, and… the list goes on.
Fast forward: The teachers fully developed the unit with clear outcomes aligned to activities and assessments. Not only was the unit relevant, the rigor of the inquiry demanded and required that students learn and apply standards and skills (including Common Core).
“This is a different way of teaching,” said one educator, looking concerned. “It’s going to stretch me—and the kids.” (He’s absolutely right.) “But I think they’re going to be all over it.” That brought a smile to his face. And mine.
Too often, low-income students and those of color lack access to the challenging learning opportunities that create pathways to college and careers. Transforming topics with three little words can take a big bite out of this equity problem.