March/April 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 6

Making Life Science and/or Chemistry Instruction Understandable and Accessible for All

Posted: Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

by Jeanine Wulfenstein, in collaboration with Michael Arroyo

Being a life science or chemistry instructor isn’t always easy.  This is especially true when concepts are abstract and novel vocabulary terms are abundant.  I have been fortunate to work with a team of teachers at the middle school level who are devoted to the task, from teaching our most gifted students to instructing our students with learning challenges. 

As a science teacher who is part of an outstanding science team, I have sat in countless Professional Learning Community (PLC) meetings where discussions have centered on meeting the educational needs of students with exceptional needs.  As a team, we have struggled with teaching the standards in a way that ensures a guaranteed viable curriculum for all.  This is especially true when the standards being taught are abstract, vocabulary is complex, and concepts require accessing prior knowledge.

In order to meet the needs of our exceptional learners, we have made it a priority at our school site and in our department to regularly meet with our Special Education Teachers to collaborate on essential standards and best instructional practices. This collaboration has proven extremely beneficial for student learning outcomes.

At our school site, for each unit of instruction, we identify the standards most essential for conceptual understanding.  We focus on the “big picture” for each concept.  By identifying the most essential learning objectives and then identifying supporting objectives we have prioritized our instruction as a grade level team and created a cohesive message for student learning.  In doing this, we have focused our instructional objectives so we can hone in on what students will need to know to be successful as they continue along their educational pathway.

Once the primary objectives to be taught are identified, we scaffold instruction in a way that our general education population and our exceptional population are working on the same content at the same time.  The core learning expectations are the same and the assessment component is based on the essential learning.  The academic standards are the same, the learning objectives are the same, and the only variable is the means by which students are interacting with the content.  More specifically, in the specialized academic instruction (SAI) setting, whether it be an SAI-Pullout classroom or an SAI-Collaborative classroom, students are given additional opportunities for peer exploration, discussion and collaboration beyond what would traditionally be given to students in a typical general education classroom.  During this collaborative time, students are encouraged to use academic vocabulary in the dialog.  Using the academic language in conceptual “partner talk” has been beneficial to confidence building and success in content vocabulary development.

Beyond peer-to-peer collaboration, educational learning opportunities are also adjusted to meet the needs of the exceptional child.  The learning opportunities become more varied with the use of additional manipulatives, outdoor-explorations, cognitively appropriate vocabulary use, and guest speakers working in the field.

For example, as part of our genetics unit, SAI students had the opportunity to have a university professor guest speaker discuss the role of genetics in forensics.  Students then were lead through a lab in the extraction of DNA from strawberries.  This was a memorable day for all students involved and the learning outcomes for all were significant.  As part of a chemistry unit, our 8th grade teacher in collaboration with our SAI instructor brainstormed ways to make chemistry concepts more engaging for all students.  As a result of that collaboration, students played a matching game with atoms and corresponding valence electrons, built models, and acted out different types of bonding.  The use of collaborative games, additional visual cues, and kinesthetic teaching strategies has helped make abstract concepts more understandable for all students, but especially so for our SAI students.

In conclusion, the rigors of content must be structured in a way to allow students to experience success while keeping the workload appropriate and challenging for the ability of the individual.  All students should be assessed based on what is deemed the essential content, and held to the core academic standards so grade-level proficiency can be determined. Through collaboration and teamwork, teachers can better serve all students and ensure a guaranteed viable curriculum for all.

Michael Arroyo is a Specialize Academic Science Instructor (SAI) at Gardner Middle School in Temecula, CA.

Written by Jeanine Wulfenstein

Jeanine Wulfenstein

Jeanine Wulfenstein teaches science at Gardner Middle School and is the CSTA Treasurer. You can reach her by emailing jwulfenstein@tvusd.k12.ca.us.

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