Although I have no formal training as an English Learner teacher, I have, like many teachers in similar situations, taught dozens of EL students over the years. I have had plenty of formal training and years of experience teaching biology (19, and counting), so I like to think that I’m pretty good at the gig. In the past, I was only ever able to cobble together a few worksheets to help them learn some biology. This year I have several EL students in my standard biology class who speak Spanish as their home language. Two of them are newcomers who have lived in the U.S. for just over a year, and the remainder moved to the U.S. as babies or small children. The unique language needs of these newcomer students spurred me to seek more resources in Spanish to help them learn as much biology possible.
Thankfully, HHMI BioInteractive has a collection of classroom resources in Spanish, including the tried-and-true BioInteractive activities many of us have used for years. In class, I give my EL students the handouts in both English and Spanish, so that they build their skills in English but also have support in their home language.
I used this strategy with the Rock Pocket Mouse collection of resources. First, I showed the short film “The Making of the Fittest” in class, with the English subtitles on. However, I also sent the link to the Spanish-dubbed version on YouTube via email to my EL students in advance. As it’s only around 10 minutes long, watching the video outside of class is not too much to ask of a high schooler. In class, we completed the “Color Variation Over Time in Rock Pocket Mouse Populations” activity. I love this activity for so many reasons. First, students model the change over time of the rock pocket mouse populations using the pictures and do not yet need to understand the scientific vocabulary. Even with my rudimentary Spanish, I could understand my EL students explaining which images were “la primera,” “la segunda,” and so on. Straightaway, they built a conceptual understanding of how the environment can change populations over time.
More importantly, they built confidence in a class that is difficult for all students, regardless of home language. Additionally, using the Spanish resources enables my EL students to fully engage in the lessons without getting lost in the instructions. Lastly, my students know that I have taken extra steps to find resources in their home language. They know that I care not just about biology but also about meeting their needs, helping to foster the student-teacher relationship.
I teach evolution as my “primera” unit, so the rock pocket mouse activities happen early in the school year, but I integrate other HHMI BioInteractive resources in Spanish throughout my other units. The short film on Darwin, “The Making of a Theory,” is instrumental in offering historical context for his seminal work in the Galápagos, as is “The Double Helix” in providing the backstory to Watson, Crick, and Franklin’s characterization of the structure of DNA.
Additionally, I show The Making of the Fittest: Got Lactase? as part of a lesson on enzymes and share the link to the Spanish version via email. While the enzyme activity worksheet is not available in Spanish (yet!), lessons on pedigrees and genetics related to the film are available in Spanish, further supporting my EL students’ engagement. This week, in fact, I will be using The Eukaryotic Cell Cycle and Cancer Click & Learn with my students, providing the materials in both English and Spanish to my EL students. They can choose to complete the activity using the Spanish or English version in a way that meets their needs. In this way, they are building a foundation of academic and scientific vocabulary in both languages.
Everybody wins. Todos ganamos.
Robin Bulleri is a National Board Certified Biology and AP Biology teacher at Carrboro High School in North Carolina. She’s taught long enough to consider herself a “veteran” teacher but still tries out new things in the classroom. She loves kicking around a soccer ball with her two daughters and flipping tires at the gym.
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