Britt Smithson, who holds a wide range of science education experience, started coaching new secondary science teachers through the VISTA program last year. It’s her job to guide a fledgling teacher through the first chaotic, critical months of teaching.
In the 2013-2014 school year, Smithson was paired with Jennifer Falin, a science teacher at Louisa County High School in Mineral, Virginia. Helping new secondary teachers is a major focus of VISTA.
One of the first things the two collaborated on was the concept of connecting content. “Connecting content is how we layer information so that it all ties together into the themes of science throughout the year,” says Smithson. “This is often a hard concept for new teachers to understand.”
The reason it can be a difficult concept for teachers, according to Smithson, is because in college teachers often learn content separated by course.
“The teachers learn the minute details of biology, evolution, physiology or population genetics, but they don’t learn how to tie all that information together, and that is one of the most important jobs that high school teachers have,” says Smithson.
To start connecting content, Smithson and Falin worked on categorizing every topic covered in high school biology into various headings pertaining to the characteristics of living things. Living things are highly ordered and include cell parts and body systems. Categories included reproduction (mitosis, meiosis), energy (ATP, photosynthesis, respiration, food webs), and change (adaptations, evolution).
“Toward mid-year Jen and I started having some serious discussions about how to fit in all the content before the SOL testing window,” says Smithson. Falin noted that many of the other teachers in the school covered ecology in a day or two or in a packet form.
Believing that using worksheets to cover a central topic in biology “shortchanged” the students, Smithson and Falin brainstormed ways to integrate the ecology topics into other content units, i.e., layering the information.
When Falin started a photosynthesis and respiration unit, she included food webs, energy pyramids and nutrient cyling. “It was a natural fit,” says Smithson.
The two discussed covering these topics in the “Do Now” at the start of class. “They were familiar topics from middle school, and they could be used to generate some nice discussions that could easily be tied into photosynthesis and respiration,” says Smithson.
But they hesitated because Falin wanted to be able to assess student understanding of the ecology unit as a whole and she didn’t want students to treat the information lightly because it was a warm-up activity.
Struggling through ideas to make the concept work, Jen eventually came up with the idea of an ecology journal.
“All the information would be in one place,” says Falin. The journals were simple foldables that they kept in the classroom during the year. Students added information as they reached each new topic.
“As we get closer to the SOL test, they have something they can study from,” says Falin. “I can collect them at the end of the year and assess how well they've completed the journal.”
The ecology journals were a success, according to Smithson, and were a critical component of Falin learning to connect the content of her classroom.