The study of biology usually is played out in labs and in textbooks. But for three freshman classes at Riverside-Brookfield High School this year, there’s a literary component to learning biological concepts.
Since September, English teacher Sarah Johnson and biology teachers Kristi Sterling and Kelli Dean have joined forces to reinforce science lessons by employing writing as a key component. A couple of days each week, Johnson co-teaches biology classes with Sterling and Dean.
“This is a concerted effort on behalf of our departments to have kids read about what they’re writing and writing about what they’re reading,” said Johnson.
The latest manifestation of that approach came in the form of children’s stories students wrote to explain the concept of mitosis, or cell division. Not only did the students have to produce an original story, seven of them traveled to Central School in Riverside last week to tell those stories to third-graders.
The students not only had to master the lesson, they were forced to recast it in such a way that it would be understandable to children who had never before encountered the subject.
“It forces them to get a deeper understanding, and the best way to understand is to teach it,” Sterling said. “It gives them greater power in their understanding.”
Sitting in front of clusters of four or five third-graders inside Viktoria Vizek’s classroom at Central, the high school students read from manuscripts they’d written and illustrated, all teaching the lesson of cell division in very different ways.
Alex Nenadovic and Christine Dihn used Romeo and Juliet as characters to explain how outside forces combine to keep them (as cells) apart. The exercise had the benefit of crystallizing the topic for the authors.
“After writing and thinking about it so much, it kind of stuck in your head,” Nenadovic said.
Meanwhile, Joseph Metcalf-Reyes used more familiar fictional characters, SpongeBob SquarePants and his starfish sidekick Patrick – tied together with a friendship belt that would bind them together forever as best friends.
Caitlin Berek, on the other hand, produced an illustration-heavy book to tell “The Cycle of Marvelous Mitosis.”
“It makes it easier to understand the work,” Berek said. “It’s more fun, too.”
According to Johnson, collaborative teaching at RB is something that’s being done on a limited basis. Teachers who are interested are encouraged to run with their ideas and are given a lot freedom in designing the program, Johnson said.
“RB is doing it right,” Johnson said, “starting small and letting it grow into something we can all believe in. The teachers see it not as an invasion of their realm, but as a partnership.”
Sterling said there’s a payoff for students, especially at the freshman level.
“There’s a huge difference in their attitude toward reading,” Sterling said.