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If You Are Not Teaching Science Then You Are Not Teaching Common Core

By Peter A'Hearn 

“Science and Social Studies can be taught for the last half hour of the day on Fridays”
- Elementary school principal

Anyone concerned with the teaching of science in elementary school is keenly aware of the problem of time. Kids need to learn to read, and learning to read takes time, nobody disputes that. So Common Core ELA can seem like the enemy of science. This was a big concern to me as I started looking at the curriculum that my district had adopted for Common Core ELA. I’ve been through those years where teachers are learning a new curriculum, and know first-hand how a new curriculum can become the focus of attention- sucking all the air out of the room.

So some members of our NGSS Leadership team took a look at the new ELA curriculum. In doing so we looked for the science connections that the publisher’s salesperson assured us were strong. One of the 3 key shifts in the Common Core ELA standards identified by Achieve (the nonprofit that developed the Common Core and NGSS) is, “Building knowledge through content-rich nonfiction.” This is further described:

Informational reading includes content-rich nonfiction in history/social studies, sciences, technical studies, and the arts. The K-5 standards strongly recommend that texts—both within and across grades—be selected to support students in systematically developing knowledge about the world. (http://www.corestandards.org/other-resources/key-shifts-in-english-language-arts/ )

We were hoping to see evidence of this in the new curriculum.

Well, it turns out you can quickly tell something about content by looking at the titles of the units. A unit about real content would be called something like: “Where Rocks Come From”, “Native Californian Life”, or “Impressionist Painters.” But when units are called things like: “Making Friends!”, “The World Around Us!”, or “Rainbow Unicorns!” (I made up that last one) you can be assured there is no deep study of content going on. There were a few good science stories here and there, but nowhere were they grouped into units that might help kids to “systematically build knowledge about the world.”

We were getting pretty frustrated when it hit us. The ELA curriculum doesn’t include the deep study of content because it ASSUMES that you are teaching content!

This idea is strongly supported by the California ELA/ELD Framework:

How is content knowledge best developed? It is the result of many practices, but first and foremost is the place of content instruction within the school schedule. From the earliest grades, children need to learn history/social studies, science, mathematics, literature, languages, physical education, health, and the visual and performing arts. They learn these subjects through hands¬ on and virtual experiences, explorations and inquiries, demonstrations, lectures, discussions, and texts. (CA ELA/ELD Framework Chapter 2 http://www.cde.ca.gov/ci/rl/cf/documents/elaeldfwchapter2.pdf)

And this:

California’s ELA/ELD Standards were designed to support the dual aims of ensuring that all California students have full access to intellectually rich academic content across the disciplines and that they simultaneously develop academic English.

The implications of this are that if you are NOT teaching content- science and history, art and health, then you are NOT teaching Common Core ELA! Common Core expects you to teach science! The ELA curriculum is not enough to teach ELA with fidelity to Common Core.

Now, teaching science by itself does not assure that kids are learning language through the study of content. Memorizing vocabulary and facts, taking notes on lectures, and watching videos does not help build language skills (or deep content knowledge in science for that matter). Kids need to be engaged in the practices of NGSS- Asking questions, arguing from evidence, revising their models, reading from multiples sources and comparing them to data from their own experiments and talking, talking, talking with increasingly sophisticated language and experience. This is why NGSS was developed: to work with, not against the Common Core!

So when your administrator asks why you are spending precious time teaching science (or history, or arts) - point out that your students are using language (speaking and listening, reading and writing) for deep study of content- you ARE teaching Common Core and in the way that Common Core was designed to be taught.

Now go explain this to your principal.



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