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Focus on Teachers: Mark Weese, Authentic Literacy Work in Science

November 19, 2013

One of the major instructional shifts that the Common Core State Standards require is for literacy to be taught in history/social studies, science and technical subjects, not just in English Language Arts (ELA). 

During my travels around the country, I sometimes hear people worry that this means all teachers should teach like ELA teachers.  In the words of Georgia science teacher Mark Weese:  “At first, I was worried we’d all be teaching novels in science.”  Other science teachers expressed concern that the essence of science—inquiry through labs and experiments—would be replaced with students reading textbooks and writing essays.

These concerns are real so we need to remember the following important, but somewhat hidden, explanation of this shift in the CCSS document:  “Literacy standards for grade 6 and above are predicated on teachers of ELA, history/social studies, science, and technical subjects using their content area expertise to help students meet the particular challenges of reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language in their respective fields.”

Mark Weese’s classroom at Ebenezer Middle in Effingham County, GA is an excellent example of what this CCSS shift can look like in science.  Working with the Literacy Design Collaborative (LDC) over the past two years, Mark has developed a number of science modules.  His lessons incorporate lab experiments with student research of scientific articles and student writing of a science-oriented work product.   One of his modules, The Effect of Algal Blooms on Marine Ecosystems, was recently deemed an LDC Exemplar through a jurying process involving science teachers, researchers, content specialists and literacy experts.

”When I created my module of the Effect of Algal Blooms, I wanted to incorporate many of the current Georgia standards into the lessons as well as integrate a module that was real to the students,” said Mark, describing his module creation process.

Mark’s module asks students to research scientific articles on the cause and effect of algal blooms off the coast of the United States.  Students then conduct their own experiment that simulates the creation of a dead zone similar to the ones they studied.  The module culminates in students writing letters to the Environmental Protection Agency.  In the letters, students make claims based on scientific research and back up their claims using real experimental evidence.

“One of the ‘strategies’ I use to engage students is to ask them whether or not they thought the articles they read were accurate or believable in their argument and scientific evidence. The students immediately jump to ‘Let’s set up a trial in our classroom,’” Mark told our team.  “Once students confirm the research, I ask them ‘What should or can we do about it?’  This leads straight to wanting to write a letter to the EPA.   Students are now writing for a purpose and a real audience.  What made it easy was that the students took ownership of the writing and research process. They came up with the ideas, and they facilitated it. “

According to Mark, his students received a response from the EPA along with articles, books and a thank you for the work they are doing.

“I think new ideas come out in education all the time. But for teachers who have been teaching for 20 years, or even just 5 years, anything new usually feels like ‘Oh, this is just the next thing.’ But LDC is not a ‘new thing,’” Mark concludes.  “This is how we should have been teaching all along—more student discussions, more student thinking.  It gives you the resources to incorporate literacy in a short amount of time.”

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