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What CSI Can Teach ELA

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By offering engaging lessons and embracing a chaotic classroom, one teacher brings STEM into her English curriculum.

 By Lydia Withrow

Let's compare STEM and English to peanut butter and jelly. Some see the two ingredients as total opposites in look, smell, and taste, but if you spread them between two pieces of bread, they combine to give you a sticky, sweet mouthwatering treat. In a way, the same can be said for STEM and ELA. While most know the subjects as counterparts, when they are combined their differences fill the gaps and create a balanced learning environment that's not only educational but fun--what I like to call organized chaos.

At Horace Mann Middle School, we have what's called Basic Skills class. In this class, each teacher chooses a performance task from the hundreds of options offered by Defined STEM, an online curriculum supplement. They spend three weeks focused on a cross-curricular, holistic project that not only tests students' cognitive ability, but also teaches them life skills and allows for hands-on career exploration. When students complete the task, they rotate and start a new project with a new teacher. In 18 weeks, students complete six in-depth projects and we (the teachers) perfect our skills by teaching the same task six times to different classes of students.

Experience Can't Come From a Textbook

This format is exciting for the teachers because it allows us to freely choose and teach a new topic that we're enthusiastic about and plays off our individual strengths. For example, the algebra teacher may choose a pre-built Defined STEM lesson on creating a bakery, which includes the math and business lessons students need to become entrepreneurs. A science teacher who is passionate about fish might choose a lesson about building a fish tank that teaches both ecology and physics.

As an English teacher, you would think my task of choice would involve research followed by a report and presentation, but that's not the case. I'm constantly trying to think of ways to incorporate STEM skills like problem-solving, formulas, and tech into my word-filled classroom.

For example, I love CSI and the detailed processes that go into solving a crime, so I created a Crime Scene Investigator lesson. I thought, "What is the best way to give my students hands-on experience when they obviously can't go to a real crime scene?" Soon, the stairway of our school turned into a life-size crime scene complete with caution tape, splattered fake blood, and a lone shoe next to a body outlined with spray paint. I'll never forget my student's faces when they walked into the elaborate scene.

Using graph paper, they had to draw the scene to scale, placing each blood splatter and piece of evidence in the correct area. Using the Defined STEM task materials, each group of students became experts in areas including bite-mark analysis, lifting fingerprints using a fingerprint kit from the local police department, and collecting DNA samples. Each specialist group then presented their findings to the class so every student was able to learn different aspects of analyzing a crime scene. The class prepared its evidence into a full crime report as if it was going to be analyzed in court. To solve the crime as a team, they used skills from all subjects, including collaborative problem-solving, making precise measurements, creative writing, and presenting their research and findings to the class.

Embrace the Chaos

Setting up a crime scene may seem like it required a lot of prep time, but it didn't. Project-based learning doesn't have to be hard or overly expensive. In fact, it's pretty easy and cheap--and fun for the teacher too. I live by the phrase, "reduce, reuse, and recycle." I tell my students to go through their junk drawers to find things to use in their project, and buying new supplies won't get them a better grade. Once grades are handed out and the projects are over, I deconstruct them and put everything in a box to use next time. 

During our secondary education, teachers are conditioned to believe students must be sitting with feet on the floor, eyes up front, and smiles on faces to be in control, but that's not the case. As we shift into a new age of education, students are no longer sitting at their desk filling in bubble sheets and reading out of a textbook. They want to be engaged in their learning and explore new topics through teacher-guided self-discovery.

We are moving into a classroom setting some see as a bit chaotic, which I happen to love and embrace. In my classroom, students are walking around, talking loudly and asking each other questions, which is the exact opposite of what we're used to as teachers. Handing student the reins isn't letting go of control. It's a different style of classroom management that works. Students will never truly learn the 4 C's (creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration) out of a textbook. They have to experience them for themselves, and that's why we created this rotation format. While the process isn't always clean and quiet, the reward is cross-curricular career exploration and thinking in ways students never thought was possible.

Teaching is not about theoretical knowledge. It's about using everything at your disposal to accomplish your goals. You could spend years researching the art of making the perfect peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but until you actually pull the ingredients out of the fridge and apply what you have learned, you'll never truly know if it works. The same goes for STEM and ELA: You can read all you want about combining the two in project-based learning, but until you actually try, it you'll never know the outcome. So what are you waiting for?

Lydia Withrow is an 8th grade teacher at Horace Mann Middle School in Charleston, WV. She's a 2011 graduate of West Virginia State University, and has been in the classroom for five years. Lydia enjoys what she does because the people she works with encourage her to try new things and support her innovative ideas on how to engage students.

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