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Biology and ESL
by Declan McCabe

Biology for elementary school students for whom English is a second language

As part of my Biology_in_elementary_schools class for education majors, we develop and then teach science lessons for three partner schools in Burlington Vermont. The lesson plans are designed to address learning objectives provided by teachers in our partner schools. One of these schools includes a large population of students for whom English is a second language. After first working with native English speakers, my students enjoy the challenge of altering their teaching style to meet the needs of ESL students. Working with experienced teachers in that school furthers their understanding of the unique difficulties encountered by ESL students.

My students are exposed to a range of tools geared towards facilitating learning for students for whom language is a potential barrier:

  • The school is equipped with a microphone system that provides surround sound for the students and makes the teacher's voice sound like she is just a few feet from every student, but without being an overpowering volume. This has the effect of making the all-important word endings audible to all students.
  • The teachers use a combination of clip art and simplified language on all written materials. In many cases, a simple visual breaks down that barrier created by an unfamiliar written word. Repeatedly presenting the written word next to a picture initiates the process of permanently breaking down that barrier and expanding English vocabulary.
  • Word banks on handouts for emergent writers in general, and particularlly for ESL students can engender confidence, and provide a viable option for answering questions in writing, when students lack the confidence in their language to give oral answers.
  • Providing an option to answer questions using drawings and/or words can be extraordinarily liberating for ESL students. One of my partner teachers showed me a drawn response to a question about gravity. The student in question had been in the United States from Sudan for just four months. His drawing of a person dropping a ball from a building, and the motion of the ball toward the ground made it crystal clear that he understood gravity at a level that was appropriate for his third grade level. Requiring a written answer to that same question would have resulted in a zero grade for that question, and would lead to the inappropriate conclusion that the child lacked an understanding of gravity. In this particular situation, a written test would not be an appropriate tool to assess this students knowledge and understanding.
It is important to note that my expertise is not in educating students for whom English is a second language. However by cultivating a collaborative program with teachers in carefully selected schools, my students are exposed to some of the diversity of tools employed by practitioners on the ground. This exposure compliments the science background that I bring to the collaboration. My long-term goal is to expand upon the ESL portion of my course so that the educators in my classes learn to better facilitate science learning for ESL students.

An overarching objective that runs through my course is to share the lesson plans developed. To ensure that the lesson plans are in fact shared, my students develop them directly on Wikieducator, an online Wiki site devoted to the development and dissemination of educational materials for free. The approach offers significant advantages for collaborative writing. There is just one version of each lesson plan online, and the problems of version creep, and the stress of wondering if your collaborating student brought their piece of the work to class is effectively eliminated. Student effort is conveniently recorded, older versions of the lessons are preserved and can be recalled in the case of mistakes, editorial suggestions and comments and can be made online, and students can reflect on the successes and challenges of a particular lesson.

In summary, this class model works very well. It fits one definition of service learning in that students in the course provide a service that meets a need, they learn new material and skills while providing that service, and finally they publicly share what they have learned by uploading their lesson plans and by reflecting on their experience. The approach offers a unique learning experience that I could not emulate by lecturing and requiring students to develop lesson plans just for the privilege of earning a grade.

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