The Art of Teaching Science
January 23, 2014
A bouquet of flowers adorns a biology lab in Grant High School, the largest public high school in the Portland Public School District, boasting lilies, daisies, and even a cactus. After welcoming 30 juniors and seniors into the classroom, David Valenzuela, the interning teacher in this college-level biology course, releases them to swarm over the stations he has set up. When they reach the brand-new scanning electron microscope, Valenzuela says, “They are in awe.”
Gazing at a lily through the microscope’s zoom lens, which magnifies images by 10,000 times, one student asks whether the size of a flower corresponds to the size of its pollen grain. “That’s a great question,” Mr. V says, before asking one of his choice questions: “Do you have any evidence to suggest how it might happen?”
When the student looks stumped, Valenzuela gestures at the bouquet, packed with flowers of different sizes. The student grasps the signal, ready to grab, cut, and sample a specimen. “Right,” Valenzuela says, “We can do that.”
“I always try to talk science with them in terms of inferring something from evidence,” he said. “It’s important to talk the language of science.”
Living With a Lesson Plan
Gazing at the distance, Valenzuela marveled at how interacting with students this way alters the neural connections in both his brain and theirs. Valenzuela earned his undergraduate degree at New York University and a master’s at Brown, both in neuroscience. “My dream is to establish a course in neuroscience in high school,” he said. “I think if students learned about brain anatomy, brain function, what happens to the brain when you abuse drugs, they’d be able to make better choices.
A soft-spoken polyglot with cropped hair, Valenzuela is fluent in English and Spanish, and he reads Italian. “I really like to be able to say hi and hello in all the different languages,” he said. He feels that when speaking a new language, he assumes a different persona. Even with students who aren’t native speakers, he volunteers a few Spanish phrases. It deepens the relationship, like “putting a coin in a piggy bank,” he said. “They kind of get to see a different side of me.”
Valenzuela is a first-generation college graduate, and recalls bewilderment in high school when faced with the prospect of applying to schools. A chemistry teacher, Mr. Hughes, mentored him and outlined the college application process. He hoped someday he might be able to do that for a student, and kept teaching in the back of his mind.
He departed on sabbatical midway through his graduate program at Brown to join Americorps, serving as an instructor and curriculum-writer for fourth graders who struggled with reading and writing. After Americorps, the New York City Teaching Fellows program landed him a job at Bronx Park Middle School, where over 90 percent of students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch. “It was transformative because I saw in front of me what the achievement gap looks like,” he said. “But I also saw that it’s a solvable problem.” In part, solving it meant showing up, and showing up meant rising at 5:45 a.m. for the hour-long commute from New Jersey to the Bronx, posting the day’s learning goals, teaching from 7:45 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., coaching the school’s first soccer club, tutoring students in time management, hopping the subway to school for graduate classes from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., and crashing at home to draft a lesson plan and grade. Eat, sleep, and repeat.
To sum up the psychological and physical wear he endured, he quipped, “My hippocampus—it shrunk.”
Alternative certification programs like the fellows program, Valenzuela said, were like teaching boot camp: “They train you for eight weeks, and it’s really intense.” Valenzuela wanted to supplement his experiences with more in-depth study, so he searched schools throughout the country for a teacher education program.
He enrolled at Lewis & Clark because he liked the program’s year-long internship, where students teach with a mentor at a local high school. In one teacher education class, he drafted a curriculum about pollen morphology and evolution for the juniors and seniors at Grant. Students use pollen to infer evolutionary relationships between different species of plants. They pick three species of pollen in various plants and look at how the structure differs. Their questions amaze Valenzuela. After watching a video on action potential in neurons, one student wondered if plants could communicate through electrical impulses. Another asked if plants could feel pain.
“That’s a philosophical question,” Valenzuela said.
Like Mr. Hughes did for him, Valenzuela is cultivating traits in his students beyond the scientific. He wants students to explore their own learning, and to investigate what factors might hinder it. This drew him to look into research on stereotype threat—self-confirming negative stereotypes that hinder students’ learning performance. Numerous studies show that, for example, when a Black student is reminded of his or her race before an exam, they perform worse than if they are not reminded of race.
Valenzuela found a study published in Psychological Science that suggested students can overcome stereotype threat by writing about their values, and investigating how they change over time. At the beginning and end of the year, Valenzuela instructed students to write on a positive value, like bravery or curiosity, with which they most identified. At first students questioned why Mr. V was introducing creative writing in science class, but when he showed them the research behind the assignment, they took to the task.
“I got to see aspects of themselves right at the beginning of the year,” he said. “Those letters gave me a heads up on what they value about themselves.” Reading the letters has helped Valenzuela build relationships with his students, which in term has helped strengthen the curriculum by incorporating a focus on honesty, empathy, commitment, and grit. He will distribute the letters again at the end of the year, reflecting with his students on shifts in their attitudes and emotions.
The opportunity to mold those relationships is why Valenzuela prefers standing at the front of the classroom to academic research. “With teaching you have a significant effect on students lives and how they feel,” he said. “You can accomplish so much by having a strong learning community.”