Wicked Cool: Science in English Class

file_000-2“It was wicked cool.”

That’s how one 10th grade student at McCutcheon High School summed up the collaborative learning experience orchestrated by English teacher Jennie Ruiz and science teacher Chris Pfledderer.

Ms. Ruiz’ students had read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the non-fiction account by Rebecca Skloot of the journey of the cancer cells taken by researchers at Johns Hopkins in 1951 from a living patient, Henrietta Lacks. These cells produced a medical breakthrough: For the first time, human cells grew successfully under laboratory conditions. The cells continued to grow in the lab, and samples were shared throughout the world, enabling scientists to conduct experiments they’d not been able to before. The cells still grow today, though Mr. Pfledderer explained that they’re no longer pure because of all the work that has been done with them. In fact, he said, other cells are more often used today—bacteria and insect cells—to conduct research, but the HeLa cells, as they are called (for Henrietta Lacks), were the first.

file_004-1-copyThe lab took two days to complete. On the first day, Mr. Pfledderer demonstrated the procedure for staining the HeLa cells so that they could be viewed under the microscope. He supervised as students dropped a suspension of cells onto a slide from a height of several feet, hoping that the force of the fall would break open the cell membrane and nucleus so the chromosomes would be available to stain. Then the students waited for the slides to dry. file_005-3

This may have been the hardest part of the experiment. Waiting, blowing gently on the slide, and resisting the urge to hurry the process taxed their patience. “We need a hairdryer!” I heard one boy say. (Never mind that the force of air would have spoiled the slide; the printed directions clearly stated that heat should not be used to hurry the process.)

When the slides were finally dry, Mr. Pfledderer explained, the students would dip the slides three times into Stain #1, wipe the bottom of the slide, and then dip it three times into Stain #2. Finally, the slide would be immersed in distilled water. Students would leave the slides on a counter in Mrs. Ruiz’ classroom to dry overnight.

file_007-2The next day, Mr. Pfledderer rolled a cart of microscopes into her classroom.  He reviewed the process of focusing the three lenses and reminded the students to move the slide—slowly—on the stage. “A tiny movement by you will be a giant move through the lens,” he explained.

Pairs of students grabbed microscopes and searched for outlets around the room. The English room rapidly became an informal lab as students placed their slides and searched for chromosomes.

“You won’t all get one,” Mr. Pfledderer had cautioned them the day before. “We hope some of you will.”

Hands waved, voices called out for the science teacher to look at the purple blobs the students discovered on their slides.

file_000-3“That’s a floating piece of cell membrane,” he told one pair.

“Just a blob,” he told another.

“Yep! That’s a chromosome!” he congratulated one duo. With that, other students flocked to see the chromosome on their slide. iPhones emerged from back pockets and purses as students took pictures by pressing the aperture of the phone to the eyepiece of the microscope. file_002-2

Henrietta Lacks was a poor, black woman, and her cells were grown and distributed without her consent or her living family’s knowledge. That fact has spawned controversy, for not only are the cells famous, but biotech companies have profited from using them. Until Ms. Skloot wrote her book, the Lacks family had received none of the profit.

The case poses important ethical questions for science: What obligation do researchers have to obtain consent for tissue preservation and use? Who should benefit monetarily from discovery and invention? In other words, who should profit from scientific progress?

Laws, in fact, were different in the 1950s, so Johns Hopkins—which has since established a scholarship in Henrietta Lacks’ name—did nothing illegal. The cells from a living cancer biopsy had grown unexpectedly, miraculously even. The goal was scientific research, and the windfall cell reproduction eventuated in discoveries related first to the polio epidemic that was sweeping the country at the time and later benefitted research into leukemia, AIDS, chemotherapy and gene mapping, to name a few. In short, many modern advances in science and medicine are indebted to HeLa cells and thus, in the point of view of some, to Henrietta Lacks.

The question is a knotty one with no easy or practical solution. Rebecca Skloot, the author, has established a foundation to support education and other needs for Henrietta Lacks’ descendants.

When the lab was over, Mrs. Ruiz asked the students to reflect on the experience. One student wrote, “To be honest, when I was looking at the cells, I didn’t think about the person behind them. I was just looking and feel like that is what the scientists were doing. They were just doing their jobs, like they did to all of the other cells in the lab.”

The student continued: “Yes, I believe that they [Henrietta Lacks’ family] should have gotten money because they were poor.” But, he asked rhetorically, “If they were rich, would you have the same feeling toward them not getting money?”

Another student wrote, “Doing this kind of made me feel bad because these cells once belonged to a woman who didn’t even know that people like 10th grade English students would be looking at her cells. Even though I felt bad about that, I still had a lot of fun and I think it was a very good learning experience. I also enjoyed how it connected English to science.”

And this entry: “I didn’t really understand what HeLa cells would look like until now. Would they look like normal cells? Would they look immortal? Monster like? Now that I have seen and witnessed HeLa cells, I know that they are just the same as yours and mine would be.”

Watching the lesson unfold, I could see that Mrs. Ruiz and Mr. Pfledderer had brought non-fiction reading to life and may even have sparked an interest in science that wasn’t there before. Students thought seriously and deeply about what they had read and experienced, and that is the goal of education. 

Wicked cool.



A New Frame

Recently, my husband and I took a piece of art to our favorite framer. The print had been hanging on the same wall for so long it was part of the background, something we didn’t even see anymore. A remodeling project had caused us to rethink the way we had displayed many of the objects in our house, and that is how we came to reconsider the way this particular print was framed.

When the framer took the piece apart, we realized that it had originally been framed when we were 22 years old, newly married, and not knowledgeable enough to know that a fine art print should be mounted on an acid free board and hinged at the top so it would appear to float. We hadn’t known enough to tell that framer of so many years ago not to tape the print on all four sides to a piece of ordinary cardboard.

“I haven’t seen something like this in a long, long time,” our framer remarked as he removed the old metal frame and lifted the mat.  We could clearly see the adhesive that pinned the print to the board.  On top of that, the mat itself was not acid free, and it had left a burn line all around the print itself.

Fortunately, the piece could be restored and appropriately reframed.

As I listened to the framer talk about methods for framing art and thought about our own need to reconsider the way we were displaying this particular piece, I was put in mind of the remodeling project going on in education.

Some of the things we do as teachers spring from habits and approaches we developed when we were novices. It’s a complex thing, teaching, and in the beginning, when something works, we are so pleased and relieved that we keep on with the practice until it becomes so much a part of what we do, we don’t even know we are doing it. In other cases, we continue a practice because it appears to do what it is supposed to do. It’s hard to make yourself change when you think what you are doing works.

But with the introduction of the Common Core State Standards, teachers will have to undo the habits of years.

For example, for years English teachers have relied on textbook companies to lay out a scope and sequence they can follow with confidence —solacing themselves for capitulating to a company by remembering that the textbook companies are advised by practitioners and scholars.  If we use the anthology conscientiously, many teachers reason, by the end of the year we will have exposed our students to the most important writers and their most accessible or well-known stories and poems.  And, if we progress at a brisk pace from August to May, we will have “covered the curriculum.”

However, a wide but thin acquaintance with great writers does not result in students who are enthralled with literature.  This approach doesn’t whet their appetites for more. It does not give them a deep understanding of any of the writers they’ve read, and it doesn’t particularly develop their critical reading skills.  What it does do is produce students who can play Jeopardy.

The Common Core State Standards present us with an opportunity to “reframe” our English courses.  They ask us to read deeply, rather than broadly, and connect texts and text types to each other and to other disciplines. They ask us to do close reading in our literature classes and approach informational text with a focus on the content, not on prior experiences that may not even be relevant to the topic. The Common Core standards ask us to have our students write more often and use evidence from the text to build an argument.

It isn’t really that we are teaching content and skills we’ve never taught before. The picture is still the same. But it’s framed differently.

Some content will be taught earlier than it used to be—various grammatical concepts, for example, are supposed to be introduced earlier than they often are now. By high school, teachers should be able to conduct conversations about style and discussions of writing technique that are predicated upon students knowing the vocabulary and structure of English grammar. As it is now, we repeat basic grammatical concepts year after year, and by 10th grade, some students still don’t know what we’re talking about. Is it just remotely possible that this is because we repeat ourselves so much (parts of speech in grade after grade, for example) that kids realize they really don’t have to dig in and learn the material?

Some modes of rhetoric will be emphasized—like argumentative writing—and others—such as narrative writing—will be called for less often.  But shouldn’t our students know how to set up and defend  an argument? Shouldn’t they know how to spot specious claims? Detect holes in arguments? Shouldn’t they know how to use quotes and statistics and examples—and how not to misuse them? And narrative still has a place, make no mistake. Narrative writing is still specified in the Common Core. It’s the emphasis that has shifted.

Students will be doing research with more frequency than usual. But that doesn’t mean a series of full-blown research papers four times each year—rather, the skills involved in research can be teased out, presented sequentially, and the ante upped gradually.  Teachers can challenge students to learn a variety of presentation modes—including those in the multi-faceted world of technological presentation. Students can develop their expertise with technology skills just as much as they can develop skill with  traditional print forms of reporting information.

The books we ask the students to read are supposed to reflect higher lexile levels—but really, it isn’t just the lexile level. There are other measures of complexity than that, so many of the texts we use now, we’ll still be using when we teach the Common Core. And if our texts are more difficult, no one is arguing to throw the kids a book and let them flounder. Instead, we’re asked to support the students with appropriate instruction—scaffolding, it’s called.

Novels we typically teach will no longer be stand-alone units of instruction. As teachers, we’ll look for and connect the books to poems that reflect the same themes, to essays that address a shared topic, to informational texts that elucidate ideas pertinent to the story. Assembling readings that are related by topic or theme and creating instructional tasks that ask kids to think deeply about a subject is actually fun and refreshing for the teacher. Why not start with a book we already teach—an age-appropriate and complexity-appropriate one—and collect other texts (poems, essays, magazine articles) that complement it and lead students on to an exploration of the common theme? What would be new? Maybe some of the readings, but not the anchor text. Not the need to build vocabulary,  develop comprehension, or teach writing and research skills to go along with the readings.

With the Common Core, we’ll make interdisciplinary connections, and even, in the best of circumstances, teach collaboratively with our colleagues. As it is now, the curriculum often overlaps from discipline to discipline and creates redundancies that dull our students’ appetite for learning. I am thinking of a unit I created once that began with the excerpt in our American lit text from William Bradford’s “Of Plimoth Plantation.” It was a unit that called for students to envision what they would do in a new world. (That was its name: Starting Out in a New World: What Would You Do?)  I presented  the students with information they didn’t already know about the Mayflower and a list of resources the intrepid souls on that boat had (and didn’t have). The activities of the unit took the students deep into Bradford’s text and other primary sources from the Puritan time period, texts which were available on the internet and in print in my room.

The enthusiasm that I expected for the task wasn’t there. Why not?

My students had studied the Pilgrims in elementary classrooms every year of their lives and then considered the Puritans again in 8th grade American history and then again in 11th grade American History—and here I came with yet another “unit” on this topic from the country’s far, far past.  What might have happened if the American history teacher and I had collaborated? Might we together have generated some excitement among our students instead of both of us hearing questions like “Hey! We’re doing this in history (or English)? Why do we have to study it here?”

The Common Core was introduced several years ago, yet I am still hearing resistance—and in some cases, foot-dragging–in the hope that it will all just go away.  I hope it doesn’t.

The Common Core Standards do not ask us, really, to throw out our old art. Instead, they ask us to reframe what we’ve always had hanging on our walls.

This could be fun. It’s all in one’s frame of mind.

By the way, you should see the print my husband and I had reframed. It seems like a whole new piece, but really, it isn’t. The frame is new, and so we look at the piece afresh—but suddenly, it has come to life again: strong, vibrant, exciting our imaginations.  I see no reason why reframing for the Common Core shouldn’t have the same impact.

Spring is the Best Season

Once, at a conference for American teachers and teachers from the Newly Independent States of the former Soviet Union, I met a teacher from Kazakhstan whose students had won a national recognition for their performance in competitive debate. This, in a formerly Soviet state—a country that had once upon a time brooked no controversy, tolerated no dissent. She gave a presentation about her strategies to mystified Kazakh colleagues whose shy, meek students would not disagree with them on the smallest of matters. How, they wondered, could Kazakh students, raised to be voiceless and compliant, come to debate their peers so skillfully as to win a national debate contest?

“That’s just it,” the teacher explained. “We began with the smallest of matters.”

The first topic of debate the teacher had put before her students was this: Spring is the best season.

“Spring is the best season,” the teacher declared. “Raise your hands if you agree with me.” Every hand went up.

“Raise your hands if you disagree.” No one raised a hand.

“No one disagrees?” she asked. “There is nothing about spring that you don’t like?” She waited. Finally, one tentative hand lifted.

“Well,” a little girl offered hesitantly, “in the spring, there is mud.”

And that is how this wise teacher began: small.

Students “debated” whether a particular food tasted good, whether a book was worth reading, whether a clothing style was attractive. In increments, she led the students to genuinely controversial topics and deeper, more incisive arguments until finally, they were debating serious topics in formal forensic style. She had had to warm the students to controversy, show them that nothing was to be feared from disagreement, and then teach them the skills of debate: researching and analyzing an argument, evaluating evidence, developing a claim, formulating effective support, using concession to advantage.

American teachers today are tasked with preparing students for a new kind of standardized test. Students will be asked to read and respond in writing to a variety of documents they will be given on unannounced topics in science, social studies, the arts—really, any area. On the new tests of students’ proficiency in the English Language Arts—coming in 2014-2015—students will need to read documents on the spot, formulate a claim, gather evidence from the readings to support their position, and use all their skills of analysis and evaluation to write a cogent, coherent essay defending their position. (At least this is what we are hearing now will be the format of the new assessments.)

What this means for instruction in the language arts classroom is a much more intense focus on reading and writing, with particular emphasis on argument.

Let’s leave politics aside. Ditto opinions about whether this is a valid way to assess a student’s progress or whether scores on these tests should be used to determine a teacher’s effectiveness. For now, too, set aside questions about the logistics of evaluating these writing-intensive tests and reporting the results in a timely fashion.

The immediate question is this: Are these skills students should have?

We live in a contentious society. Prominent people use public platforms to spout unsubstantiated opinions. Politicians twist the meaning of other people’s remarks, make snide insinuations, and sometimes tell blatant lies. Even ordinary people become irate without cause and seek redress for their grievances before they even try compromise or consider reconciliation. Would it be good to train our students to question claims, spot flaws in logic, evaluate evidence, counter arguments and expose specious claims? It would. If future citizens cannot read with understanding, write clearly and coherently to varied audiences, talk back to statistics, question authority, speak truth to power, and argue responsibly, where will our democracy be? To my mind, the new agenda is not an issue. It may even have evolved as a solution to the temper of our times.

But are we teaching these skills now in our classrooms? Can we do it?

Getting there will be easier than it was for the Kazakh teachers because our students don’t have to be led to argument. They love to debate and don’t back away from controversy. They’ve been raised in the land of free speech and exercise that freedom without trepidation. What my students need help with is what this new curriculum mandates: reading, writing, and thinking clearly. The new Common Core standards, subscribed to by forty-six states, present an interdisciplinary, grade-by-grade outline of the skills our students need to be “college and career ready” (new education-speak for “prepared for the future”) and the ones our country needs them to have to remain in its right mind.

We can do this—and we will. One step at a time. One grade at a time. One skill at a time. Start small, start young. Spring is the best season.