Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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What Students Can Learn From Scientific Studies (Topic: Genetically Engineered Crops)

DNA_GE interactive

Learn about the process of genetic engineering and how it is used to develop new medicines in the DNA interactive.

The Issue: Genetically Engineered Crops

Since the first genetically engineered (GE) crops were approved for commercial use 20 years ago, debate has raged over whether they help or harm the environment, and whether foods that contain GE crops are safe to eat. (This concern is the driving force behind campaigns to require mandatory labeling for products that contain GE crops.)

In May the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a multi-year study that reviewed several decades of evidence on these questions from studies conducted around the world. The study was carried out by 20 experts from fields including biology, medicine, crop science, ecology, law and sociology.

Broadly, the report concludes that there is “no conclusive evidence” that GE crops harm the environment through effects such as out-competing other species and reducing biodiversity. It also finds “no substantiated evidence” that foods from GE crops are less safe than foods from non-GE crops. But the study also raised some concerns. Notably, some insect pests and weeds have evolved to be resistant GE crops or to weed-killers, which makes them much harder for farmers to control.

In the Classroom

The National Academies report is an excellent focus for discussions with high school biology and environmental science students about genetic engineering and concerns over genetic modification of plants. The study’s website allows readers to search findings and recommendations from the report and see the evidence that the committee reviewed on each topic – for example, the effects of GE crops on biodiversity on farms, or the evidence supporting or refuting linkages between eating GE crops and developing cancer, food allergies, or other health problems.

Unit 13 of Annenberg Learner’s Rediscovering Biology course, “Genetically Modified Organisms,” provides a detailed overview of how scientists genetically modify different types of organisms. The expert interview with Rebecca Goldburg, senior scientist with the advocacy group Environmental Defense, summarizes major concerns about environmental impacts of GE organisms. And Annenberg’s Genetic Engineering interactive shows how human understanding of genetics has evolved and enabled us to modify organisms.

The study is also a good peg for discussing how scientists tackle problems that cross boundaries between different fields. To analyze the impacts of GE crops and recommend ways to manage them, experts need to understand many different areas, including genetics, plant breeding, ecology, insects, environmental health, sociology (to assess how using GE crops affects farmers and rural communities), and law. According to members of the study committee, they each learned much from discussing studies and evidence with their colleagues.

Many complex problems require scientists to team with colleagues from different disciplines. And even when scientists work within their own fields, their work increasingly requires collaboration and communications skills, as well as understanding of scientific facts and concepts. Annenberg Learner’s Michele McLeod examines why scientists need to collaborate and communicate in this recent post.

To explore this theme using the GE crops report, look at the panel members’ backgrounds and ask your students: What could this person tell you about GE crops? Or try the same approach with another inter-disciplinary problem, such as the spread of Zika virus. How could a weather expert, or a psychologist, help governments develop strategies for curbing Zika outbreaks? Discussions like these can help students think about what other science courses they may want to take, and about the power of teams to solve problems.

What Immigration Stories Teach Us

LOH_PAPER SON_lowI love immigration stories. I love reading them. I love teaching them. And, I love writing them.

When I was teaching fourth grade at a school in Southern California, I wanted to teach about Angel Island. Chinese immigrants played an important part of our nation’s history, especially California’s history. Yet, there was a dearth of children’s stories about Chinese-Americans being detained at Angel Island. My fourth graders had no idea that Chinese immigrants were unfairly victimized by the Chinese Exclusion Act; they didn’t know that Chinese laborers suffered from overt racism and discrimination. They also didn’t know that Chinese immigrants built cities, railroads, and industries. As such, I was inspired to co-write Paper Son: Lee’s Journey to AmericaI’m proud to mention that it has been nominated for a California Young Reader Medal Award. It’s an immigration story about a boy who has to endure the interrogations and long detentions at Angel Island.

Considering the upcoming U.S. presidential election and the refugee crisis, immigration issues seem to be at the forefront. We have not always treated immigrants well. Immigration stories and teaching about immigration allow teachers and students to view immigrants and refugees from a more humanistic viewpoint. (Read “Novel Finding: Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy” in Scientific American to learn how reading fiction improves our ability to understand others.) In April 2016, I attended the National EdTPA Conference in Savannah, Georgia. I had the pleasure of listening to Dr. Pedro Noguera speak. He noted that immigrant kids keep our communities functioning. He said, “We always gain from immigration. History shows immigration has always been good for America.”

To help students understand the complexities and nuances of immigration, teachers need to recognize that immigrant stories are rich and powerful. Immigrant stories need to be analyzed and studied, not just read. In The Expanding Canon, session 4, learn how to apply inquiry-based instruction, which can be employed with immigrant stories to help students dig deeper. For example, find lesson plans featuring Tomas Rivera’s And The Earth Did Not Devour Him and Esmeralda Santiago’s When I Was Puerto Rican. In the plan, students were asked to interview Mexican immigrants, conduct research, engage in dramatic readings, and write their own memoirs. One of the questions that students were asked to think about is: How did the U.S. government feel about immigrants? This question forces students to consider historical, social, and political contexts of immigration.

In Teaching Multicultural Literature, workshop 7, “Social Justice and Action,” students are asked to examine Alma Flor Ada’s My Name is Maria Isabel, Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Esperanza Rising, and Paul Yee’s Tales from Gold Mountain. Students are positioned to be agents of change and are charged with writing persuasive letters to raise public awareness.

Look for additional works to support Paper Son in Teaching Multicultural Literature, which features several Asian-American immigration stories and explores historical and contemporary immigration issues. The workshop has students reading An Na’s A Step From Heaven about a Korean immigrant, Laurence Yep’s Dragon’s Gate about a Chinese immigrant, Pegi Deitz Shea’s Tangled Threads: A Hmong Girl’s Story about a Hmong immigrant, and more.

So, why are immigration stories important? Because we all benefit from immigration, we’re all affected by immigration, and we can all learn from immigration.

What is Huntington’s Disease?

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Dr. Nancy Wexler of the Hereditary Disease Foundation and Columbia University recounts her research on the demographics, symptoms, and genetic cause of Huntington’s Disease in The Brain, module 12.

According to the Huntington’s Disease Society of America, Huntington’s Disease is an inherited brain disorder that results in the progressive loss of both mental facilities and physical control. The disease usually emerges when a person is between 30 and 50 years old and can gradually lead to death. There is no effective cure for the disease, but there are ways to relieve the symptoms.

In The Brain: Teaching Modules, program 12, “Huntington’s Disease,” watch as Dr. Nancy Wexler discusses her research on the demographics and causes of the disease. Look at the moral issues surrounding DNA testing to determine an individual’s risk of developing the disease.

Gene therapy, replacing defective genes with normal genes, is a technique researchers have investigated to treat diseases like Huntington’s. Consider the implications of gene therapy along with other types of genetic engineering using the DNA interactive.  Discussion questions can be found here.

Teaching Multicultural Literature: Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month 

AmPassMaxineHongKingstonDuring Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, explore Annenberg Learner resources to discover the rich history, cultures, and personal stories of Americans of Asian and Pacific Island heritage.

Students come to understand the plight of Japanese-Americans in World War II as they read poetry by Lawson Fusao Inada in the The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School, “Critical Pedagogy: Abiodun Oyewole and Lawson Fusao Inada.”

New York City students explore “dual identity” by reading the literary works of authors Gish Jen, Tina Yun Lee, and Lensey Namioka. As students discuss the works, you’ll see effective teaching strategies, including peer facilitation circles, in action. See “Engagement and Dialogue” of Teaching Multicultural Literature: A Workshop for the Middle Grades.

Maxine Hong Kingston, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, writes stories that explore balancing cultural values with the expectations of American society. Read about her life and works in American Passages, “Search for Identity.”

Share additional resources in the comments.

Diet, exercise, and weight: Why we are what we eat

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Researchers lead by anthropologist Herman Pontzer used GPS units and heart rate monitors to track the physical activity of the Hadza in Tanzania. Photo from Against All Odds, unit 27.

Anyone who has struggled to lose weight knows that it can be a long, difficult process. But a study published this month in the journal Obesity offered new insights into just how hard it is, and why: Dieters’ own bodies resist their efforts to shed pounds.

In the study, federal health researchers followed 16 contestants from the television show The Biggest Loser for six years after they competed in 2009. They found that most of the subjects regained all or nearly all of the weight they had lost – sometimes over 100 pounds. A few contestants were even heavier at the end of the study than before they entered the competition.

“It is frightening and amazing,” Dr. Kevin Hall, a coauthor of the study, told the New York Times. “I am just blown away.”

It’s the latest addition to a growing body of evidence challenging the idea that as long as people burn enough calories, they can eat as much as they want without gaining weight. In fact, experts say, it’s very hard to change how much energy our bodies use every day. We can’t control our basal metabolic rate – the energy we use for basic functions like breathing – which accounts for roughly three-quarters of our daily energy use. We can control how much we exercise, but that’s only a fraction of our total energy use. And when we dial that portion up, our bodies dial down our basal metabolism to compensate.

Unit 27 of Annenberg Learner’s statistics program Against All Odds describes a study by Hunter College anthropologist Herman Pontzer that illustrated this process. Pontzer measured daily energy use by members of the Hadza, nomadic hunter-gatherers who live on the open savannah in Tanzania. He found that although the Hadza were much more physically active than white-collar American or European office workers, they burned about the same amount of calories. Pontzer concluded that Hadza used more energy for physical activity than Westerners, but less when their bodies were resting.

Other factors also limit what we can accomplish through exercise. Use the running interactive in Chemistry: Challenges and Solutions to see how running affects body conditions such as fluid and electrolyte balances. These parameters limit how far we can push ourselves during strenuous exercise although elite athletes learn to manage them and push farther. Note also that the elite runners in this interactive burn 5 to 9 calories per minute, so even if they run for a full hour, they would consume fewer than 600 calories. That workout could be more than offset by eating a hefty sandwich.

These studies send a clear message for managing weight: what we eat matters much more than how much energy we burn, and is also more within our control. While exercise provides many benefits and can help us regulate our weight, physical activity alone is not an effective strategy for losing weight.

Teaching Students to Analyze Sources of Information

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Students analyze primary and secondary sources, from Reading & Writing in the Disciplines.

As a result of the civil war in Syria, more than 4 million people have fled Syria since the conflict started. This situation, along with war and injustice in other countries such as Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, Sudan and many more, has resulted in a global refugee crisis. As refugees seek to move to safer places, countries struggle with managing the flow of people and the issues that arise when new communities are introduced to existing ones.

With trending hashtags such as #RefugeeCrisis #SyrianRefugees and #RefugeesWelcome and a U.S. presidential election on the horizon, there is no doubt that students encounter such devastating stories on social media and the news, and multiple views about how countries should (or shouldn’t) help refugees. I decided that I have a duty to help my students understand and critically engage on such topics, as they do impact our lives.

However, I am also wary that I need to help my students learn how to identify biases and different perspectives when reading, researching, and engaging with such topics. The media and news contain a lot of information that needs to be questioned and analyzed before helping students to form their own opinions about the issues at hand.

Here are some steps I used to guide students through a research project:

  1. First, I asked my students to form groups of 3-4 people.
  2. Next, students were required to select a topic of focus related to refugees and immigration. Here are some of the suggested topics: area/region study, country study, causes, aid missions, personal stories, response to crisis, etc.
  3. Once they had chosen their topics and done a bit of research, they needed to select a few websites to assess the information, biases, and perspectives that are presented.

Some questions to consider when analyzing the resources

  • What is the overall goal/mission of the article or resource? Who is presenting and sponsoring the information?
  • What is the information presented trying to convince you of?
  • How is the information being presented to you (data, opinion, facts), and where did the information come from? Are you able to easily verify the source of the information?
  •  Are there commercials/advertisements on the website? How do these additions help to drive the website’s main mission or show a possible bias?
  • Are there any organizations/companies that are linked to this site? What stakes do they have in presenting this information?
  • Does any of the information presented on the site contain discriminatory/stereotypical messages? If so, what language or images are used as evidence of discrimination and stereotyping?

4. Students were asked to present their findings to the rest of the class in order to learn from each other’s analysis and perspectives on assessing research material.

This activity not only teaches students to research and analyze sources on their own, but it also teaches them to assess the information that is given to them. In a world where much information is manipulated and/or changing, students begin to see the importance of engaging critically with informational texts.

To see students learning how to analyze primary and secondary sources, watch Reading & Writing in the Disciplines, “Identifying Evidence From Multiple Sources.” Watch another lesson that guides students on how to write about a complex cause and/or issue in “Making Writing Explicit in Social Studies.”

Share how you are teaching students to analyze web sources in the comments below.

Share How You Are Teaching About Refugees and Immigration

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How are you teaching about the topics of refugees, displacement, and immigration? Are your students discussing current events? Are they undertaking research to understand and debate causes and solutions? Are they thinking about how these issues affect their local and larger communities, and what it means to be a global citizen?

It isn’t always easy to discuss current events with students. There are many different feelings and approaches to bringing potentially controversial topics to the classroom. We are interested in hearing about this from you, and sharing your insights and ideas with other teachers. Submit your writing to blog@learner.org for consideration, and check back often to read, support, and comment on posts by other teachers.

What Can I Write About?

Here are some ideas for topics for your blog posts, but you are not limited to these topics. We recommend the posts stay between 250 and 600 words.

  1. Describe a lesson plan or activity that you implemented in your classroom about refugees or immigration that went well.
  2. What is an activity you tried that resulted in unexpected or rich student conversations or personal insights?
  3. How do you address community concerns (whether from parents, students, or administrators) and support multiple points of view?
  4. How do you talk about current events, such as a refugee crisis, with elementary students?
  5. How have you taught students about the differences between migrants and refugees?

Some additional requests and notes:

  • Don’t forget to proofread your submissions, and include links to resources if any are mentioned.
  • It is helpful but not necessary to submit a photo to go along with your post. If you submit a photo of students from your classroom, please confirm that you have asked and received permission from their parents/guardians to post the photo on the Learner.org blog site. (We will not post their names or the name of their school.)
  • We reserve the right to edit posts for clarity and length.
  • We will let you know if your post is selected for publication on our blog via email.
  • Please include the following information with your materials:
  1. Your name
  2. Title for your post
  3. Subject/Class
  4. Grade level
  5. School location (city or state)

We look forward to hearing from you!

Image copyright: iqoncept / 123RF Stock Photo

Where is the Water: California and Beyond

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The expansion of agriculture contributes to the threat against irreplaceable resources like water in many parts of the globe. Learn more in The Habitable Planet.

California has been facing a major water shortage, but that shortage is not just a problem for the state alone. Much of our produce in grocery stores across the country comes from California farms and orchards that depend on this much-needed resource. While officials debate ways to regulate water use, everyone hopes for rain. (If you’re wondering about how much of a drought your own state is in, click on the Drought Monitor.)

Understand California’s current drought by viewing three side-by-side photos, taken by NASA February 2011, 2013, and 2014, showing the decreasing water table around Lake Tahoe in Essential Lens: Analyzing Photographs Across the Curriculum. This compiled image is part of a larger unit, “Earth, Climate, and Change: Observing Human Impact,” for middle and high school classrooms. View all unit materials here.

This isn’t California’s first time feeling thirsty. One of the worst droughts occurred in 1975. In Economics U$A: 21st Century Edition, unit 3, “Supply and Demand,” economics analyst Richard Gill explains what the experience of water shortages teaches us about the nature of consumer demand.

Oregon: A Fight for Water, the first case study in The Power of Place, unit 10, “Regions and Economies,” examines the environmental costs of technology developed to harness scarce water resources to support agricultural production.

Consider the issue globally. The Habitable Planet, unit 8, “Water Resources,” discusses what drives the world’s demand for water and what happens when groundwater is depleted. Also see informative animations from the video on this topic.

Science of Diseases: Going Viral in a Bad Way

52034657_mWhen a song or video goes viral, it’s good news for the artists who created it. When a viral infection causes a human epidemic, it’s the opposite. Viruses are infectious agents that reproduce by injecting their genetic material into living cells. They cannot be killed by antibiotics, which are designed to stop infections spread by much larger bacteria. Viruses cause some of the deadliest known diseases, including Ebola, smallpox, HIV, and influenza.

The newest virus to make headlines is Zika, which is spread by mosquitoes. It was discovered in Uganda in the 1940s, but few human cases were reported until it started appearing in Pacific islands in 2007. Now Zika is spreading in Latin America, where researchers are trying to determine whether it causes birth defects in newborn infants whose mothers have been infected.

Viral epidemics can be frightening, as the world saw in 2014-15 when Ebola killed more than 11,000 people in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. Unit 6 of Rediscovering Biology, “HIV and AIDs,” explains how viruses attack our immune systems, and why we need to understand the virus’s life cycle to develop effective treatments. Many medical experts now view HIV/AIDs as a treatable chronic disease, thanks to antiretroviral drugs (although getting these drugs to everyone who needs them is still a major challenge).

Many factors shape the odds that any one of us may be infected by a virus. To assess the risk, we need to know how the virus spreads; where humans may become exposed; and whether they have defenses available, such as vaccines or protective gear. The Habitable Planet’s interactive lab on diseases lets students explore how several simulated diseases spread through populations and the steps that we can take to counter them.

Viruses are an active and fast-moving area of biomedical research. Virologists have identified some 2,000 species of viruses that cause infections in plants, animals, and humans. And some important risk factors for viral infection are increasing today. For example, climate change is expanding the range of vectors that spread viral diseases, such as the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which transmits Zika, chikungunya, and dengue fever. And the expansion of global air travel is bringing more humans into contact with diseases and with each other, increasing the likelihood of spreading infections. Some experts are worried that people who attend the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil could carry Zika virus, which is widespread in Brazil, home with them.

Dr. Pardis Sabeti, a computational geneticist at the Broad institute and Harvard University and host of Annenberg Learner’s Against All Odds: Inside Statistics series, led work by an international team to sequence the Ebola genome during the 2014-15 outbreak. Their research showed that the virus was mutating rapidly during the early phase of the outbreak, which helped public health responders determine which treatments would be more or less effective.

In this 2016 TED talk, Sabeti explains the importance of international cooperation to understand and stop viral epidemics. “This is not the first outbreak of Ebola, it will not be the last, and there are many other microbes out there lying in wait,” she says. “We have the technology and the capacity to have the upper hand over viruses, but we can only [succeed] if we do it together.”

Image Copyright: jpgon / 123RF Stock Photo

Teaching Collaboration: Deeper learning and interpersonal skills

StackofHands123rfIn a recent TED Talk, computational geneticist Pardis Sabeti told of a tidal wave of Ebola cases coming from Guinea to a clinic in Sierra Leone. The medical team there collected samples of the virus and shipped the deactivated samples back to Sabeti’s lab in Cambridge, MA. The team worked round the clock to decode the genome of the virus from the samples in order to help health officials devise large scale treatment plans. Almost immediately, the amount of data they produced outpaced their ability to analyze it. Sabeti asked for help from the larger scientific community via the internet.

In similar fashion, physicists studying high-energy proton collisions from the Large Hadron Collider at CERN sifted through astronomical amounts of data to find the unique pattern of the then-theorized Higgs Boson. More than 2,800 collaborators from 35 countries analyzed different segments of the data and identified the markers of a significant interaction. Watch Physics for the 21st Century, “The Fundamental Interactions,” from 5:39 to 7:42.

Collaboration on the job

These are just two instances of the high-stakes international collaboration needed to battle epidemics and solve complex puzzles. But the daily business of science also requires individuals who can work in teams to question and support their colleagues. Workers at a bio-tech startup must understand technical terminology, explain their conclusions and roadblocks with colleagues, and function effectively as a unit. “It’s important that everybody sees the data, understands why you’re concluding what you’re concluding, and at least agrees that the next steps are probably the right next steps,” explains Aaron Oppenheimer, head of the team.

Working together to solidify learning

Teachers at the middle and high school levels can help students to develop the skills of collaboration: listening, presenting ideas, and questioning to work through more difficult material and find answers that they could not find working on their own. Each classroom lesson in Reading & Writing in the Disciplines includes learning objectives in three areas: content, literacy/language, and engagement/interaction. In this blog we share examples from science classrooms, but collaboration is a key skill in all disciplines and is supported by the Common Core Anchor Standards in College and Career Readiness.

Chemistry teacher Martin Berryman bonds his classroom management practices to student engagement and interaction as his class of 32 individual thinkers learn to work collaboratively. He assesses their group work as well as their group interaction.

Biology teacher Mary Murphy forms study inquiry teams so they can apply new knowledge to an unfamiliar problem. See how her students support and challenge each other in tackling a problem, using scientific discourse, and applying their understanding of transcription and translations processes.

Getting started on collaboration

Students practice the foundational skills of collaboration and scientific discourse in earlier grades, learning to listen to peers, asking about their reasoning, and sharing the result of a new idea. Amy Miles points out opportunities for her students to engage in conversation while reading a complex text on rock types.

Building a collaborative classroom requires a shift in practice and expectations. Taking it a step at a time and comparing notes with your colleagues in your school or here on Learner Log will get you started in the right direction. Visit “How to Build Effective Collaborative Groups” to find more suggestions for supporting student collaboration in the classroom.

Image Copyright: ammentorp / 123RF Stock Photo