Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

STEM, Literacy, and the Common Core Standards

Teachers in the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) are heading back to school this fall with some added anxieties: new Common Core State Standards seek to put reading, writing, and vocabulary at the forefront of the STEM classroom. Here, Shannon Reed breaks down what the new standards mean to STEM teachers, and how they can use the opportunity to engage with students more profoundly.

Georgia Scurletis recently wrote about vocabulary and readability as approached by the new Common Core State Standards, a great article that you can read here. In this article, I'd like to share some of the insights I gained from working with the CCSS when I taught English and Theatre at a high school level in New York City. More specifically, I want to explore an aspect of the CCSS which is both exciting and, perhaps, slightly terrifying: the new emphasis on reading and writing within STEM classes.

Like many English teachers, I used to despair over how students' literacy skills somehow were solely my province, wishing that my colleagues in Math, Science, History and so on took more of an interest in helping improve our students' aptitudes in reading and writing instead of flogging my department for our inability to assure perfect grammar. The good news is that within the CCSS, students' reading, writing, and vocabulary skills are everyone's concern, which is as it should be. To that end, the Standards state that "both content and skills are important" and make specific suggestions to improve literacy within the STEM classrooms.

Don't Panic!

There are schools in the US that already promote cross-curricular planning and lesson development, but for most standard high schools, this development will have a major impact on teaching. Instead of the typical high school experience in which each subject area meets in distinctly separate ways, the emphasis will move towards more collegiality amongst the STEM classes and the English department (perhaps among other departments as well!).

When I worked with a Science colleague to develop a curriculum called SciPlay, which combined Earth Science core content and Playwriting practice, we were initially intimidated by figuring out ways to incorporate writing and reading into the already-jam-packed Earth Science curriculum. Coincidentally, the principal we had at that time was interested in shifting the school towards using the in-development CCSS, and we were intrigued to see that much of what we were doing lined up with those new suggestions. Gradually, we realized that we weren't going to have to tack on literacy tasks, but rather teach the same material in new ways that embraced literacy skills.

For example, the CCSS for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects suggests a range of texts for grades 6 – 12 that includes (along with stories, drama and poetry) "the subgenres of exposition, argument, and functional text in  the form of personal essays, speeches, opinion pieces, essays about art or literature, biographies, memoirs, journalism, and historical, scientific, technical, or economic accounts (including digital sources) written for a broad audience." We quickly saw that by asking students to write scenes based on accounts of scientific discovery or work, we were enabling them to better understand those accounts AND easily meeting the requirements of the CCSS. It was exciting to see that what made sense to us in terms of engaging our students was on the forefront of what would be asked of all high school teachers in the near-future. Equally pleasing was that this work wasn't difficult.

Vocabulary, Particularly

Within both the standards for reading and writing, there is an emphasis placed on vocabulary. Students should be able to "interpret words and phrases as used within a text" as well as "write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately." Additionally, students should be able to write "discipline-specific content," which indicates that literacy in mathematics is a bit different from literacy in the English classroom. This makes good sense, of course. As I found in my college classes, my ability to analyze dramatic structure with great competence was of little help in my Astronomy class. We all have had the experience of using vocabulary  to try to gain a foothold in a world new to us, whether when we start watching a new sport, or move to a new part of the country. Those first victories are remembered terms and names; students will feel the same.

Inevitably, competency in literary pursuits inevitably leads back to competency in vocabulary. I was reminded of this as I prepared to take my GREs last fall. My competency in Math was severely compromised by my lack of competency in Math's vocabulary. I could find the hypotenuse of a triangle because I remembered what a hypotenuse is. I could not find the square root of any number because I had no idea what a square root was, anymore. A thorough review of the terms was necessary.

For teachers, this opportunity to explore literacy in the STEM classrooms should be embraced as a way to assure themselves of their students' competency within their course content. I've written before about how I prefer to ask my students to use their vocabulary words in sentences so that I can see if they have some facility with the words, instead of parroting back the definitions they've looked up or been given. Similarly, the request that students write well about science, math or technology provides a dual opportunity: First, teachers can teach vocabulary in a way that will empower students to feel capable in their writing and reading. Further, students can then demonstrate that mastery of terms in short or extended writing pieces, receiving feedback on their new skill set and developing their literacy, too.

A side note for Math teachers: the Mathematics Standards include a glossary at the end, which runs for 2 ½ pages.  Teachers wishing to be sure their students grasp necessary Math vocabulary are well-advised to begin there.

What Could Students Read? What Could Students Write?

I do worry that STEM discipline teachers, already pressed for time and with these new demands looming over them, will begrudgingly take the easy way out on literacy. That is, they'll assign essays on famous scientists or mathematicians and grade them without much thought. There's more scope for interesting, involving assignments that match the CCSS than that, but planning is necessary.

A good first step for STEM teachers uncomfortable with these new requests would be to pair up with a trusted English-teaching colleagues (or, really, any other colleagues who demonstrate creativity in the classroom) and explore ways of incorporating literacy into the STEM class. When my colleague and I did that, we were able to come up with a multitude of assignments, far more than we could have possibly taught. It was an untrue cliché that, as the theatre teacher, I was the "creative" one. I just had more experience in planning for a looser classroom, but my colleague was able to brainstorm fantastic ideas once loosened from her fear of neglecting her curriculum.

The Standards don't offer much to STEM high school teachers in terms of suggested texts. At this time, only Thoreau's Walden could be considered a STEM-aligned work of literature on the list. I hope that the revisions of the CCSS include more suggestions, more in line with those offered for lower grades. Still, that does provide a good deal of flexibility for STEM teachers – administrators can't demand that teachers incorporate what are supposed to be suggested texts if no such texts exist.

Where to find texts, then? News sources are always a good bet. We incorporated newspaper stories about weather phenomenon and discoveries throughout the universe in our SciPlay curriculum. Since our emphasis was on playwriting, appropriate plays (and excerpts from plays) were also used: Brecht's Galileo is still fresh and involving. Fiction is always a possibility, depending on what the core content is. Plus, there are so many interesting non-fiction books out there today, from Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs to Cheryl Strayed's Wild, from Malcom Gladwell's Outliers to Mary Roach's Stiff, developing a curriculum for a STEM class could actually be – forgive me – fun!

Any text chosen will present challenges to students in readability. (Again, I refer to Georgia's wonderful article for more on this.) But there is a trade-off. Students will struggle to understand the vocabulary of these texts more than they will a textbook, which provides definitions and stringently grade-level reading, but they will be much more strongly motivated to do so because of their interest in the text. I saw the same students who wouldn't read a two-paragraph biography of Galileo read the entirety of a play about the same, simply because the play was inherently more interesting.

In terms of writing, think beyond the essay! The CCSS do not ask for "informational essays" or "biographical research papers." Instead, they give guidelines for the work involved, not the final product. For example, by the end of high school, students should be able to "integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media  (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem." That suggests an in-depth, multi-media exploration of a crucial issue in science or technology, e.g. "What to do about climate change?" or "Is genetic science moral?" or "Has the Internet changed society for better or worse?" How this integration and evaluation should be presented in final form is left up to the teacher (and, perhaps, the student). A brochure? A poster? A short story? A rap? A monologue? A speech? One of my favorite assignments was when the students wrote pop songs about the basic facts of scientist's life story. I couldn't get "Oh, Isaac, Isaac, Isaac Newton!" out of my head for days.

What I hope is clear by now is that while a well-researched, informational essay is one way of satisfying the requirements of the Standards, it is only one way, and there are many others, as well. These may require more creativity from teachers in the construction of these tasks (and, especially, in the grading of the final project) but they will also require greater imagination, and more buy-in, from the students completing the tasks.

In short, while the Standards do make more demands on STEM teachers, they also raise the profile and importance of STEM classes. It will be more difficult for students to forget what they've learned when they've learned it more creative, thoughtful and involving ways. It's also possible that these classes will enjoy a resurgence in students' interest and affection, which would be wonderful for society, in general. We need more creative scientists, mathematicians and technologists. I salute the Common Core State Standards for valuing the importance of these classes in a way that deepens their potential to connect with more students.


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An award-winning playwright and former contributor to the Visual Thesaurus Teachers at Work department, Shannon Reed is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also teaches. Read more about her work at shannonreed.org. Click here to read more articles by Shannon Reed.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday August 21st 2012, 8:21 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
The moral lapse at Sturvestate Hight School in New York early this month emphasizes the truth of your statements regarding the need for tighter State Standards. The "mistake" made by a senior at this elite public school was outlined by the rejoinder of the student body in their defense of his act of copying the State Exam to share with fellow students who were unable to fathom the moral aspects of his action.
Tuesday August 21st 2012, 8:21 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
The moral lapse at Sturvestate Hight School in New York early this month emphasizes the truth of your statements regarding the need for tighter State Standards. The "mistake" made by a senior at this elite public school was outlined by the rejoinder of the student body in their defense of his act of copying the State Exam to share with fellow students who were unable to fathom the moral aspects of his action.
Tuesday August 21st 2012, 11:04 AM
Comment by: Debra B. (Oakdale, CA)
Appendix B of the Common Common Core standards lists sample texts for science and math beginning in grade 6, but they do focus on informational texts rather than literature. Still, the list provides plenty of good reading, and it focuses on the real world application of the content. Here's the 6th grade suggestions:
David Macaulay Cathedral: The Story of Its Construction
Donald Mackay The Building of Manhattan
Hans Magnus Enzensberger The Number Devil: A Mathematical Adventure
Ivars Peterson and Nancy Henderson Math Trek:Adventures in the Math Zone
John Katz Geeks: How Two Lost Boys Rode the Internet out of Idaho
Henry Petroski “The Evolution of the Grocery Bag.”
“Geology.” U*X*L Encyclopedia of Science
“Space Probe.” Astronomy & Space:From the Big Bang to the Big Crunch
“Elementary Particles.” New Book of Popular Science
California Invasive Plant Council. Invasive Plant Inventory

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