What Mitochondria and the Seattle Seahawks Have in Common

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Caresse Fernandez is in her sixth year teaching, the past three of which she’s served as a biology teacher at Excel Public Charter School. She’s spent enough time in the classroom to feel comfortable about her approach and the strength of her curriculum, and yet this year, she decided to upend all of her tried and true curricula to start fresh. “I took a different approach this year to relate to not only current events, but also to local stories in Washington,” said Fernandez.

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In the first quarter of the school year, the connection between class work and life outside of school came in the form of the Seattle Seahawks. Fernandez wanted students to learn about the cellular changes that happen in the human body, so she leaned on the city’s football team for real-life application: students learned that mitochondria are needed to create energy, and therefore football players have more mitochondria in their bodies than the average human being to produce more energy for the sport. Changes in the body are impacted by altitude, so students also learned how the Seahawks players are affected by practicing and playing above sea level.

More recently, Fernandez’s local hook involved the many news stories about the orca whale population in the Puget Sound, which she leaned on to build engagement. Students learned how to talk about food webs in this particular ecosystem, how bacteria travel and what impacts humans have on those ecosystems. They also read a case study about a mother orca who died during pregnancy, and then made connections to a news story from the previous summer about a mother orca who held on to her dead calf for 17 days. “Orcas have been coming up in the news every week,” reported Ferndandez. “Kids would come in and say, ‘My mom and I just saw this on the news!’ It’s so cool that they were able to talk about this outside of the classroom.”

Students begin each unit with a type of open-ended assessment called a model. The first model teases out students’ initial thinking to catalyze curiosity and elicit any existing knowledge about the topic. For example, the first lesson of the orca unit required students to answer exploratory questions like, “What do you think is affecting the orca population?” and “What do you think their life system is depending on?” Even if students are initially answering incorrectly, they’re beginning the process of owning their learning.

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As a result, student engagement and critical thinking in Fernandez’s classroom has greatly increased. “They just took the assessment for the unit based around orcas, and I can see that their critical thinking has grown--- they’re drawing their own conclusions and connecting various topics from other units,” said Fernandez. “And a lot of it is teamwork. They work with partners on initial models, and then do the final model on their own without notes.”

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Students have really taken to this format. “The models are very helpful because it allows for people to use their strengths to explain what they learned from the topic,” said Niko Regis Rosales, a 9th grader at Excel. “It can be helpful to all types of learners, like visual learners.”

Rosales’ peers agree: “The models are helpful and help me understand what to do,” said fellow student Zhony White. “The first time I did the model, it confused me, but now I understand and it helps me to be able to understand the unit better.”

Fernandez notes that part of the increased engagement is because students are invested in the entire learning journey, and not just the summative assessment: “They’re more able to see that the journey is more important than the final destination. It’s a culmination of everything that they did.”

The curriculum turnaround began at a professional development training Fernandez and other Green Dot science teachers from the region participated in over the summer. The training was conducted by Ambitious Science Teaching, who helped teachers tackle the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) in a new way. “While NGSS is something I’ve been familiar with since I started teaching, it’s been a transition because they emphasize process and models over rote memorization,” reflected Fernandez. Ambitious Science Teaching coached them in a method called universal design learning. “Now, my tests are a model and students can write paragraphs and draw pictures to answer questions, which makes it more accessible for students.” Once she completed the training, she revamped her curriculum to adopt universal design principles. “It has made a huge difference,” she said.

At Green Dot, we know that even our veteran teachers are eager to refine both the art and science of teaching. We also know that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to teaching, which is why we provide space for education professionals to learn with their students and share best practices. Together, both teachers and students are growing more and more into life-long learners. The result often looks a lot like Fernandez’s classroom, who has transformed a typical instructional experience into a hands-on study of the real-world impacts of its curriculum - and shows the importance of equipping students with the critical skills they need to succeed in college and beyond.

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