A New Approach to Teaching Living Environment | New Visions for Public Schools

A New Approach to Teaching Living Environment

Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, Evaluate. These five words have become a mantra for a select group of science teachers at 17 New Visions schools, participating in the Living Environment Curriculum Pilot, a pilot program created to provide teachers with Common Core-aligned resources and unit plans for their high school students.

The pilot, a collaboration between both New Visions district and charter schools,  was created by New Visions Instructional Specialists Libby Chatham and Kiran Purohit,  as a means to provide teachers with a set of high quality, curated resources, including formative assessments that follow a common scope and sequence and help to make classroom instruction stronger. The pilot is centered around the 5Es, a learning cycle created by Biological Sciences Curriculum Study,

“Many teachers spend a lot of time scrambling to find curricula and resources online, but, generally, it is difficult to find quality living environment Common Core-aligned curricula out there,” said Libby. “We wanted to create a more holistic strategy to curate resources for teachers. We shifted our strategy to creating better quality curricula and access to resources in order to give teachers more time to think about how to teach.”

And the 5Es has done just that. Aside from weekly one-on-one coaching, and monthly professional development sessions, pilot participants are granted access to a public online repository of unit resources and lesson plans with suggestions on which part of the lesson, or which E, the resource can be used for.  

During “Engage,” the activities and resources are meant to elicit students’ prior understanding or knowledge of the topic. Then, “Explore” is a hands on activity, typically a lab, in which students collect data, or answer questions about a specific topic. The teacher, however is not explaining the topic first.

Engage and Explore challenges the traditional teaching approach, in which a teacher might present a topic, explain it, after which the students are tasked with applying their understanding of the material in a lab.  In this new approach students are engaging, asking questions for which they do not necessarily have the answers yet,  exploring  data, and thinking critically to create an understanding and an explanation for what they are observing.

During “Explain”, students delve into texts, diagrams or even direct instruction to match up their understanding of what they found in the explore phase. Elaborate allows teachers to utilize clarifying activities to reinforce understanding of the material and Evaluate assesses the students’ understanding with unit tests, writing prompts, or quizzes.

Here’s a look at how teachers can use the 5Es to teach on thermoregulation in a homeostasis unit.

“As a first year teacher, the 5Es has been tremendously helpful for me in framing my lessons,” said Michelle Ott, living environment teacher at New Visions Charter HS for Advanced Math and Science III. “The first thing I do when planning my lesson is take a look at the sample lessons and suggested activities that the coaches have provided and then I figure out which aspects of the lesson would work best in my class. The 5Es has helped me to focus on thinking ahead about what would work best for engaging them and has helped the students learn how to access and understand concepts on their own, which is a more valuable skill for them in the long run.”

Teachers are also able to customize lesson plans based on the resources.

“We thought about the flexibility not only in how the teachers would be using the 5Es but in the resources they would need,” said Libby. “We give them a suggested activity, but there are other options. The teachers don’t have to spend all night googling alternative resources here.”

Tanjeen Azad has been teaching Living Environment for five years, gathering her own set of best practices along the way but finds the resources helpful in customizing her lessons to fit the various learning needs of her students.

“Students come from different backgrounds and middle schools so they don’t start off at the same level academically when they get to my class in the 9th grade,” said Tanjeen. “The great thing about the pilot is that although I know what lessons work well for my students, I now have access to different methods of teaching the same concept to help differentiate my lessons. Learning from other district and charter teachers has been an invaluable part of this pilot.”

Participants in the pilot meet once monthly for professional development sessions and interact within a Google Plus community group, used primarily for additional resource sharing.

The pilot will run through the remainder of the 2014-15 school year and will enter its second year for the 2015-16 school year.

For more information visit the New Visions Living Environment Curriculum website.

The New Visions Living Environment Curriculum pilot project is made possible through the generous support of the Noyce Foundation, Toyota USA Foundation and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.