With the arrival of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), English and Math teachers have been busy at work. Still, science teachers, who are impacted by both the Common Core standards and Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), are in a unique position as well. Thankfully, with a greater understanding of the Common Core science section, science teachers can prepare their students for both CCSS and NGSS simultaneously, and still infuse their classrooms with the rigorous, thought-provoking content that makes science classrooms so unique.
How does science play into the Common Core?
Science (and history, actually) technically falls under the ELA portion of the Common Core standards. Science-specific standards begin in the 6th grade. The science standards can be distinguished by the letters “RST”, which stand for “reading standards in science and technical subjects”. As the acronym implies, these standards focus mainly on literacy. Among other things, the standards assert that students should read age-appropriate science-level texts, understand domain-specific terminology, and distinguish between “fact” and “speculation” in science articles.
Though your science classroom is likely infused with literacy already, implementing the 10 RST standards may still seem daunting. The 3-step method described below is one I used myself as the science department chair at KIPP San Jose Collegiate. This procedure will help you pinpoint department-wide areas of growth and give you discrete steps to address those needs.
Step 1: Determine Your Areas of Strength/Growth
To devise a meaningful implementation plan, the other science teachers and I first identified which standards our pedagogy addressed well and which standards were lacking from our classrooms. We structured our discussion by using a “Needs Analysis Worksheet”. I modified this worksheet for the rest of my department by writing in the science-specific standards, and then asked teachers to rank their efficacy of teaching those standards.
After reflecting individually, our team compared our rankings. Together, we listed 2-3 department strengths and 2-3 areas of growth. For example, my department recognized that we all teach standard RST.4, which asks students to “determine the meaning of symbols, key terms, and other domain-specific words…” We knew, for example, that students in all grades were familiar with the words hypothesis and pH, or that we regularly reviewed science vocabulary in our classrooms. On the other hand, our team acknowledged that we struggle with standard RST.6, which asks students to “analyze the author’s purpose in providing an explanation…” Though we often had students read science texts, such as published journal articles or news articles, we rarely asked students to ascertain the author’s reasoning, bias, or opinion.
Step 2: Standards Brainstorm Session:
Now that we had established which standards we hoped to focus on more as a department, my team and I began to brainstorm the “how”. This was the most helpful part of our strategy session by far. We went through our “Needs Worksheet” standard by standard and shouted out teaching methods that could be used. We weren’t thinking about the question in the frame of our own classrooms and we didn’t dive into our individual content areas; instead, we brainstormed general ideas for incorporating these standards in science. After generating a long list of science literacy strategies, we discussed ways we could implement these in our individual classrooms. Here are some of our ideas:
- Have students read a science news article as their “Do Now”. This will not only help students build their reading skills, but will also expose them to the modern applications of the science they are learning. You can scaffold this activity for English Language Learners (ELLs) by printing out different articles for your class that span different reading levels, and intentionally (but subtly!) handing different articles to different students. You can review the content in each of the articles, so students think you merely want to discuss different topics and don’t realize there is a greater reason behind which article they were given.
- Offer students more opportunities to identify bias in written texts and science videos. Tell them they can disagree with an author! I did this in my class with this vaccines assignment, which helped push students to think critically about the sources they were reading and watching.
- Read a book with your students! Our chemistry classes read “The Disappearing Spoon”, physics classes read “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind”, biology classes read ““The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” and environmental classes read “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”
- When students are peer editing each other’s lab reports, ask them to highlight their peer’s hypothesis, thesis and concluding statements in different colors. This will not only help the original author distinguish if these were clear in their lab write-up, but it will help the revisor practice identifying these components in a text.
Step 3: Plan, Plan, Plan!
After these sessions, I typed a “Needs Analysis Summary” and our brainstorming ideas and sent them out to the team. I also brought physical copies to each of our planning sessions thereafter, since they served as great guides when revising our long-term plans over the summer or while creating new unit plans. Plus, continuing to discuss these topics as a department helped foster even more collaboration and facilitated our vertical planning, ensuring that the necessary Common Core skills are reinforced in each science course.
Though science teachers don’t need to prepare their students for a Common Core science exam, they can still use their classrooms as a way to reinforce key literacy strategies that will help students succeed on their other exams and in life. Discussing these standards as a department helped me realize that I was not alone; I could tackle this change with my colleagues, and with a greater community of science teachers who, like myself, want to do what’s best for their students. If you have any additional ideas around the Common Core and science, please include them in the comments below!