I have been through a lot of changes in my experience as an educator. I started out thinking I would be a kindergarten teacher after taking a career survey in 11th grade. I decided in my freshman year of college that I would rather teach first grade, after witnessing and understanding the chaos that is kindergarten in the fall. My Field Theory and Exploration class included observations in a first grade class. I did my Reading Practicum with first and second graders, pulling out for reading level testing and practice. My student teaching was in a first grade class.
Then I started substituting, and I was thrown in front of K-12 students on a day to day basis. I landed a Long Term Substitute (LTS) position as a 3rd grade ESL inclusion teacher for 6 weeks. I was recommended for a 4th grade LTS for an 8-month leave for learning and emotional support. That summer, Reading SD cut 80 teachers, not including LTS or temporary staff. I was unable to get a full time job, despite being highly requested as a substitute for Reading, Exeter, Muhlenberg, Downingtown, Oxford, and Avon Grove School Districts in Pennsylvania. I was still interested in teaching 5th or 6th grade science and math.
I interviewed in Philadelphia for a 5th grade science position, which was actually filled just prior to the start of the interview. They recommended me to a 7th grade science position. The students had been with daily substitutes from January through April. Their teacher had died, putting me in a very awkward step-mom-like position for my first full-time job. I stayed there for about 2 years. I helped rewrite the science curriculum K-5 and 7 for the 11 schools in the charter company. I had helped with an increase in both math and reading scores, mirroring techniques and skills in my science class as best as I could. We collaborated regularly to help make the transition for students from class to class as easy as possible.
I then taught for 2 years in an alternative-education school in Philadelphia. Teachers never overlapped content from one class to another, working largely in a content-specific silo. I taught biology, chemistry, health, physical science, and geometry. Again, I tried to incorporate literacy and math skills in my classes. There was no collaboration from class to class, and classes were 8-week sessions. I had a new group of 16-23 year old students every 8 weeks, with a total of approximately 150 students in each group.
Last year, I started teaching 9th grade environmental science in Philadelphia. Again, I incorporated math and literacy skills in my lessons. I even included Keystone-style prep questions in our daily warm-up activities. This year I was asked to teach 5th grade science and social studies. My team includes the previous 8th grade English teacher and the 8th grade math teacher, who happened to be the 7th grade math teacher I worked with in my first position. I think this transition, although adding yet another to the list, could be the point where all of my experiences lead to a peak in my career.
For my Masters capstone project, I spent the spring and summer of 2017 researching multidisciplinary lessons and developing the 5th grade science and social studies curriculum for this school year. This blog will summarize the research and curriculum design. My presentation on February 9th at the Rubicon Curriculum Summit will go in depth as to how the plan is being implemented, modifications that needed to be made, and ideas for further implementation.
Research- What’s the Problem?
Excerpt from the capstone project:
The emphasis on reading and mathematics test scores brought on in the wake of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2002 have pushed science and social studies to the background in many elementary schools, leaving children without the critical thinking skills and content knowledge these subjects develop. With the pressures of standardized testing linked to federal funding, the low income schools most dependent on that funding cram their days with reading and math in the elementary classes (Olson, 2006; Stedman, 2010; Winstead, 2011). Many states, like Pennsylvania, give standardized tests in mathematics and reading each year from grade 3 to 8 (Pennsylvania Department of Education, 2016). The Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) website neglects to even mention the Science PSSA on their own website description. Science is tested in the PSSAs for fourth and eighth grade only. There are no elementary standardized tests for social studies at all in Pennsylvania (Pennsylvania Department of Education, 2016). According to the World History Center, a project of University of Pittsburgh, only South Carolina and Delaware have reported a standardized test for social studies in elementary grades (World History Center, 2010). Since science and social studies are largely absent in high-stakes testing, they often get put on the back burner in elementary curriculum, leaving children without both the skills and content knowledge learned in these courses (Pederson, 2007).
The gap in reading and mathematic abilities for high-poverty schools causes stress for passing the standardized tests, which are often linked to federal funding. Standardized tests are used as a means of a performance comparison to determine grades, teacher job security, and school funding (Ladd, 2009: Winstead, 2011). According to Winstead (2011), in NCLB, low performing schools end up with lower funding for resources, putting them at a disadvantage in their attempt for students to reach proficiency.
“High-performing schools or schools that meet appropriate and significant gains yearly on standardized tests, as noted in gains achieved in overall student and subgroup scores, are awarded additional funding by the federal government. Those schools that continue to under perform are labeled for school improvement and can eventually be closed if they do not make specific gains in scores from year to year” (Winstead, 2011, p.221).
In 2014, over half of the nation fell below proficiency in reading, and there was is a clear gap in between income levels as well, showing a 26% increase in the number of fourth graders in high-poverty schools performing below proficiency, in comparison to low-poverty schools (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2014). Reaching proficiency is a constant uphill battle for students who come to school already behind (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2014). Despite how hard a student may have worked all year, a student can remain behind for the rest of their educational career (Silvernail, et al, 2014). If the student has an independent reading level of first grade equivalent starting in fourth grade, they would need to make four years’ growth in reading by Spring to make proficiency. By the time that student reached summer break, they would be expected to reach 5th grade reading level, adding yet another year’s growth to their workload. This Sisyphean task leads to schools cutting back on social studies and science to make time for remedial reading and mathematics, hoping students can reach proficiency (Olson, 2006; Winstead, 2011; Fitchett, Heafner & VanFossen, 2014). Under NCLB, schools were required to make Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) to at least show growth in their goal towards proficiency (Winstead, 2011). Science and social studies content could be used to help support reading and math skills, rather than being bumped out of the curriculum time.
Noting flaws in NCLB, the laws in education have shifted to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) which is set to go into effect in the 2017-2018 school year. States are currently submitting their plans for the next school year on how they will demonstrate growth and accountability aligning to the new ESSA. Under ESSA, elementary schools must submit information for rating the school including an academic achievement indicator, a second academic indicator, English language proficiency, and an indicator of school quality or student success (Klein, 2017). The academic achievement indicator is the reading and math test scores through standardized tests, while the second academic indicator can be reading and math growth, closing academic gaps, or science and social studies test scores (Klein, 2017). The science and social studies scores can also be included as a part of school quality and student success (Klein, 2017). This change in accountability may help address the lack of support science and social studies received in the wake of NCLB. However, this would require more standardized testing for Pennsylvania, which only tests science twice and never tests social studies (Pennsylvania Department of Education, 2016). More standardized testing for students who already spending 18+ hours on standardized testing yearly is not necessarily the route education should move toward (Strauss, 2015). However, the ability to include science and social studies, though optional, provides a silver lining for science and social studies teachers and supporters (Klein, 2017).
With the introduction of Common Core State Standards (CCSS) launched in 2009, a shift was made in the Language Arts standards toward inclusion of informational text, rather than focusing on literature alone. The CCSS are intended to prepare students for access to information in college and career settings, practicing comprehension and communication of informational text, including science and social studies (Common Core State Standards Initiative, 2017).
“With the ELA standards, English teachers will still teach their students literature as well as literary nonfiction. However, because college and career readiness overwhelmingly focuses on complex texts outside of literature, these standards also ensure students are being prepared to read, write, and research across the curriculum, including in history and science. These goals can be achieved by ensuring that teachers in other disciplines are also focusing on reading and writing to build knowledge within their subject areas.,” (Common Core State Standards Initiative, 2017, para 18).
In the newer curriculum sets tied to Common Core, science and social studies are starting to make a dent in the reading block through nonfiction stories and expository text in comparison to older curricula (Moss & Newton, 2002). As students are exposed to more nonfiction stories and informational text in their language arts classes, we may see an increase in their content knowledge of science and social studies (Leal, 1993). However, the increase in exposure to random topics does not replace the skills learned in science and social studies courses. Science and social studies help practice and apply meaningful skills that help students understand the world around them through asking questions, testing theories, analyzing ideas, and drawing conclusions about what they uncover (Husni & Rouadi, 2016).
Science and social studies teach meaningful skills and provide context for math and reading, so they are crucial elements that deserve curricular space (Duncan, 2011; Husni & Rouadi, 2016). With the achievement gap seen between lower income and higher income students, a greater divide is established as students lose out on the application of skills in science and social studies (Winstead, 2011). Science and social studies teach our students valuable skills that they will need as adults. In science, students learn to ask questions, investigate, think critically, and problem solve. According to Bill Nye (2016, para 1), “Everybody in the space program, everybody who’s a doctor, got interested in science when he or she was seven or eight years old… not when they were 16 or 18. That’s where you spend your money: science education in elementary levels.” The most important thing that science education can do is teach our children to think through problems (Grant & Fisher, 2014). Instruction should be designed so students can practice the development of questions and design a process to answer their question through inquiry (Grant & Fisher, 2014). Science can teach students to think, question, analyze, and draw conclusions to help them make informed decisions about their world. Although the 21st Century is already underway, schools are finally adopting ‘21st Century skills’ to better prepare students for their future careers. According to Thoughtful Learning (2017), students need more problem solving and critical thinking practice in order to be prepare for the future workforce.
“To hold information-age jobs, though, students also need to think deeply about issues, solve problems creatively, work in teams, communicate clearly in many media, learn ever-changing technologies, and deal with a flood of information. The rapid changes in our world require students to be flexible, to take the initiative and lead when necessary, and to produce something new and useful,” (Thoughtful Learning, 2017, para 4).
Schools are now trying to integrate these 21st Century Skills into the classroom. Science instruction is a great area for teachers to help students practice these integral skills, easily aiming toward problem solving, communication, teamwork, and technology.
In social studies, students learn about the past, various cultures, government, and current history in the making. According to the National Council for the Social Studies (1988, para 16), “Basic skills of reading, writing, and computing are necessary but not sufficient to participate or even survive in a world demanding independent and cooperative problem solving to address complex social, economic, ethical, and personal concerns.” Teachers need to use science and social studies to help students develop skills needed in everyday decision making (Yali & Hoge, 2005). With social media, information is shared faster than ever. People aren’t stopping to check the validity of what we read before clicking “share.” Educators need to teach students about the successes and mistakes of the past and how systems like the government and economics work so they can make informed decisions as an active member of society. Current and future generations need to know how to compare sources and check information given online and in interviews. According to Mendez Hinojosa (2015), students need to learn to critically assimilate the information they are given.
“The risk of substituting knowledge for the information. Simplifying messages, after ensuring the speed, economy and intelligible transmissions, can lead to the trivialization of the events and the shallowness of the interactions. It’s not enough knowing how to access information; it requires a cognitive work that allows its transformation into real knowledge and the development of powerful cognitive resources to turn reflection, critical assimilation and creation into new information,” (Mendez Hinojosa, 2015, p. 185).
Propaganda thrives when the civilians are uninformed and blindly follow any source given (Snow, 2014). Students need to learn how to find information, but also how to decide the relevance and credibility of sources they find. Science and social studies can enable students to think critically and ask questions about the world around them.
In order to teach a student to the best of our abilities, schools need to teach the child as a whole. The education system has broken content into silos that do not communicate or transfer skills from one to another (Aulls, 2003). As high stakes assessments have given priority to the math and reading silos, science and social studies have less time in the curriculum and important skills are being left out. Valuable skills are gathered and practiced across all of the content areas taught in school, so why not support and blend them as much as possible? Schools have already made steps away from test-only and lecture-only classrooms by including visual learning in the classroom (Raiyn, 2016). The next step in reaching new learners is to utilize multidisciplinary lessons to help foster connections the content areas have in the real world. Students do not go into the world and have an hour of math followed by a block of reading. Students will need to apply various skills and subject-based concepts at the same time. A simple trip to the store will include science and geography while driving a car, reading signs and labels, and math while paying for the purchased goods. While there have been some existing problems, the proposed curriculum attempts to repair these problems.
Using the available materials our school provides, as well as external materials I purchased on my own, I developed a curriculum to help align my science and social studies content to the skills and concepts being covered in the language arts and math classes. The idea was to create a smooth transition throughout the students’ day where the concepts they were learning had a more unified feeling, rather than the traditional silos. Having 3 separate teachers for different content areas can result in a lack of transfer of skills and knowledge. In my presentation, we will discuss how that was worked in practice so far this school year.
I went through the English Language Arts materials (Wonders Program) and the math materials (Go Math!) and designed my units in a way that could blend in with their topics and pacing. For example, Unit 1 Week 1 in 5th grade Wonders is Getting Things We Need. The essential question for that week is, “How do people get the things that they need?” I designed my first social studies unit to be about the early people of Pennsylvania and how they got what they needed to survive.
My main resources for social studies were the Pennsylvania Studies text and a few books from the My World series. My main resource for science is the Interactive Science text. I have used this science program in 7th, 11th-12th, and 9th grade in the past. Students respond well to the interactive notebook format.
I designed 16 science and social studies units, providing 4 units per quarter. I broke down some of the units into 2 parts. Each part consisted of a 7-day cycle. Many teachers who have used the Wonders program have expressed that the “one week” in Wonders is longer than a school week. I used the 7-day cycle to help accommodate that need for extra days.
Each day begins with a journal entry. The journal entry helps to promote writing as well as gain access to prior knowledge or review of content. Students write what they believe the answer is to the journal question at the beginning of every class. I encourage students that I am not checking if it is right, I am checking what they think. The questions are often worded as an opinion question to avoid too much anxiety.
At the end of each class, students write a rating for how they felt in class that day.
- 1- I’m lost in the sauce. (I didn’t feel too good.)
- 2- I can do this with help.
- 3- I’m good.
- 4- I’m a BOSS! I got this.
I then read and respond to their journals at the end of each week.
Current Events- Day 1
On the first day of each cycle, the students will read a news article that relates to the content of that cycle. It helps keep students aware of what is happening currently and how that applies to what they are learning. A great resource for this is Newsela, which provides multiple reading levels for the articles as well!
New Content- Day 1-4
For the first few days of each cycle, students will get direct instruction and small group practice on the new content. This part of the cycle is heavy on note taking, reading, and writing comprehension questions. This is also when students would be conducting labs and watching short videos on content.
CAFE- Day 5-7
This is where students are able to break out of the traditional mold seen in their classes, particularly with classes like social studies. I used the idea mapped out in The Daily CAFE, which is a Language Arts design for student engagement, but applied it to science and social studies. I had done a workshop on The Daily CAFE and the Daily 5 back in 2010. I really liked the way students were able to make choices about their learning. I watched this implemented in Elementary classrooms with students on various levels.
In my version of the CAFE, students only do CAFE after having learned something about the topic in the new content days at the beginning of the cycle. During CAFE, students get a Menu that lists out the tasks they need to complete. The menu goes through new vocabulary, new people, reading practice, comprehension practice, skill practice, and word problem practice.
Students also have the opportunity to read a nonfiction text with the topic of their choice for each CAFE. I have a large selection of leveled reader books sorted by content that students can choose from. The students then write a short review of the book they read.
The students have a Summative assessment for each unit, which falls during the CAFE days as well. Students will answer the essential question for the unit in an essay format using a modified version of the Step Up to Writing format. This low-pressure writing assignment helps avoid the anxiety students can develop for science and social studies tests. Since the students are given very little science and social studies instruction during their years in K-3, they often feel stressed and unprepared when they reach those classes in middle school. The fear of failure and the unknown can easily break a student’s confidence in science and social studies classes. Students are allowed to work on the essay over the CAFE days. They just can’t have the same answers as any of their classmates.
During part 1 of the unit, students will have a short writing assignment. For part 2, the students will write the Summative Essential Question Essay. The essay includes 2 pieces of text evidence to support their response to the question.
Pre- and Post-Tests
In order to see how students have grown in content knowledge throughout the class, students will take a quarterly pre- and post-test on 4 units. The students take the Unit 1-4 Pre-Test during the first week of school, with reassurance that we are just trying to find out what they already know so I know what they need. The test consists of multiple choice questions from the 4 units covered. Students do NOT get the pre-test back, but they do get scores. After Unit 1-4 is taught, students will receive the same test as the Unit 1-4 Post-Test. Scores can then be compared to see how students grew in content knowledge. This would be repeated for Unit 5-8, 9-12, and 13-16. This helps practice standardized test-taking, but not as often as it is typically drilled for students.
- Unit 1 (SS)- Pennsylvania’s Land and People
- Unit 2 (Sci)- The Nature of Science
- Unit 3 (Blend)- Design and Function (A New Nation)
- Unit 4 (Sci)- Growth and Survival
- Unit 5 (SS)- Growth and Expansion
- Unit 6 (Sci)- Ecosystems
- Unit 7 (SS)- The Civil War
- Unit 8 (Sci)- Weather
- Unit 9 (SS)- Historical Figures
- Unit 10 (Blend)- Resources and Landforms
- Unit 11 (SS)- Pennsylvania Industry and Change
- Unit 12 (Sci)- Protecting the Environment
- Unit 13 (Sci)- Earth and Space
- Unit 14 (SS)- Pennsylvania Today
- Unit 15 (Sci)- Properties of Matter
- Unit 16 (Sci)- Force and Motion
Discussion Questions for the Curriculum Summit
- What challenges would you expect to see with implementing this curriculum?
- What modifications would you think were needed once the school year began?
- What curriculum have you used in your classroom in the past?
- Who made the decisions about your curriculum?
- How could you use this curriculum format for your classroom?
- What ideas do you have for future implementation of a curriculum like this?