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Dune ride caps learning for English language biology students

Class simulaneously prioritizes language, science

Wyoming — Steffany Bravo peered out over the rolling Saugatuck Dunes, with Lake Michigan sparkling in the distance.

She looked for evidence of environmental changes — signs of erosion and loss of trees — on the sandy hills, which she learned about in English Learner biology class at Wyoming High School. After snapping a photo with her phone, she checked off “take a photo at the top of the dune explaining the evidence you see of deforestation” on her scavenger hunt assignment.

“We learned about the erosion and the deforestation and human effects on the natural environment,” said Steffany, a sophomore who arrived in Michigan from Cuba last July and is a native Spanish speaker. “Fences can help stop the erosion.”

A dune buggy ride on the 300-acre portion of the dunes was a first-time experience for Steffany and several of her peers — multilingual students who are newcomers to the United States. The ride wound through the acres; near Goshorn Lake, a small inland lake that has shrunk due to deforestation, and near the sand-covered ghost town Singapore

Along with English (including corny jokes from the dune buggy driver), students are learning biology in the class, in its second year at Wyoming High School and co-taught by biology teacher Emily Wallace, English teacher Melissa Schneider and English Learner teacher Jessica Trentham. The adventure was the culmination of a biology unit on the effects humans have on the environment.

‘You don’t have time to spend two years learning the language before you dive into the content, so you have to focus on both, side by side, if you want to have any chance of them graduating.’

— Lisa DeMaagd, English Learner Program coordinator.

A Blend of English & Science

Wyoming High School teachers and administrators realized a need for EL courses that embed targeted English instruction into science because EL students were struggling with the courses in general education, said Lisa DeMaagd, English Learner Program coordinator.

Wyoming High School’s enrollment includes 300 EL students, about 24 percent of the population, according to mischooldata.org. More than 44 students are in the  biology course, many of whom are native Spanish speakers. Others speak Persian, Ukrainian and Kinyarwandan.

“In order for them to meet Michigan Merit, you don’t have time to spend two years learning the language before you dive into the content, so you have to focus on both, side by side, if you want to have any chance of them graduating,” DeMaagd said.

The high school piloted EL biology and EL chemistry last year. The courses were developed through work with the organization Tesol, and authors of the book “Teacher Leadership for School-Wide English Learning,” who trained Wyoming teachers to best meet the needs of ELL students with school-wide practices that focus on academic language.

The hyper-focus on teaching biology standards with students developing English skills is a shift from working to catch EL students up in general education classes due to language gaps, DeMaagd said. 

“In order for them to pass the class they have to prove that they have been assessed and can perform on biology standards,” she said.

How Instruction Works

Students saw the dunes, trees and effects of wind and moving sand up close, providing visualization to the concepts they learned in class. They prepared by studying vocabulary words and definitions, like: claim, evidence and reason along with deforestation, erosion and invasive species in their native languages and English.

“The biology vocabulary helped me to learn English,” said Steffany, who was a good science student in Cuba and is quickly grasping terms here. 

Freshman Alexia Medina checks out the dune grass and vegetation on the Saugatuck Dunes

A key part of what makes the course work is co-teaching, DeMaagd said. 

“The purpose of (co-teaching) is to bring your science expert alongside your language expert, so as they plan both (they) are elevating both priorities,” she said.

For example,  Wallace provided biology resources on threats to dunes, how they are damaged and how they can be protected. Schneider used the information to create an answer sheet with sentence starters. 

Throughout the years students used a practice called translanguaging: writing definitions in their native language and then learning the terminology in English and keeping notes for reference.

“We have been very deliberate about front-loading them with resources that they can use to make meaning,” Schneider said. “We front-load them with the specific vocabulary honoring their language in their notes, so when they have an activity to do, they have them as a resource to help them understand better.”

The goal is to provide essential vocabulary while avoiding superfluous words, which can be tricky when it comes to advanced terminology, Wallace explained.

“We just finished (a unit on heredity) and we were using words like homozygous and heterozygous. It is a completely different level. We have to be very conscious and intentional about what words we need to use or don’t need to use. We provide a lot of pictures and a lot of examples so it’s the different concepts, answering questions such as ‘When sand is mined (taken out of dunes), how is it moved?’ universal.”

The day before the dune visit, students completed stations in class.

They studied animal adaptations, beach grass and fencing, learning the effects on dunes.

But the natural phenomenon came to life as they sped over the hills, lifted their arms, roller coaster-ride style, and felt their toes in the sand. When it comes to language and biology, experience can solidify learning.

“It’s a hands-on experience where what you are learning on paper comes to life,” DeMaagd said. “You can show images in class, but that’s still not the same as feeling and running up and down the dunes, having the sand blow in your face and hearing the waves.”

Read more from Wyoming: 
Safety & security team expands with retired police officers
Afghan student shares story of escape, survival and the hero who helped him on the way

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is managing editor and reporter, covering Kentwood, Lowell and Wyoming. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013, and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio


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