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Illuminating Instruction: “Internalizing” a Resource to Make it Your Own

This post was written by science educator Ronak Shah.

There are a lot of incredible things about teaching middle school science: from the naturally inquiry-oriented content, to the myriad opportunities for collaboration, to the many labs and activities in our arsenal to make learning come alive for students. Obviously, with the closures of schools around the country now, teaching is a little bit different. Thankfully, though, we’re working an age where there are lots of great opportunities for us to support students online. One of the most incredible things we have access to is the wealth of free resources created by national and international science organizations, who are increasingly publishing high-quality and relevant curricula designed for science teachers, many of which can be used even with distance learning. 

Most recently I was looking for a resource on infectious disease to close out a six-week unit on Human Biology. Though I knew this was an interesting topic, in the past I was never able to figure out how to make it particularly engaging. It always felt like we were distinguishing between different types of technical vocabulary without being able to apply it or make the connection to students’ lives in a meaningful way. (Of course, everything has changed with the outbreak of COVID-19, and suddenly questions about infectious disease are the only ones my students have!)

That’s why I was really excited to see the lessons in the “Menacing Microbes” unit created by National Geographic Education. It’s got a great balance of relevant problems and topics, engaging and interactive activities, opportunities for collaboration, and applications to both global issues and students’ own communities. It met a lot of my curriculum needs: fun activities demonstrating different ways that infectious disease can spread, practical analysis using map analysis to identify sources of disease outbreak, students research on modern infectious diseases, and an in-depth problem-based case study of an epidemic. 

As great a starting point as this was, I still found modifications I wanted to make in order to make it a better fit for my students, including fitting it into the time I had available, pinpointing opportunities to pull out prior knowledge, scaffolding, and filling technology gaps. What follows is the process I used to “internalize” a lesson plan, which is a fancy way of saying that I study and interpret the plan to pull out the key conceptual takeaways, procedural skills, high-leverage activities, and anticipated misconceptions so that I could make it work best for my own classroom. Follow along and learn how you can make any resource your own in four simple steps:

Unit: Menacing Microbes
Lesson 1: There’s an Outbreak!

Internalization Step One: The Takeaway

I always try to start internalizing a lesson with the end in mind: if I wanted each student to walk away with one understanding by the end of this lesson, what would it be? This is a lot like a lesson objective, but while an objective tends to be more skills-based, the key takeaway is conceptual, allowing it to be threaded through a wider range of types of activities within a lesson.

This lesson is actually a bit more like four lessons, in that it’s made up of four different activities, each of which is paced out at 50 minutes. That’s the length of my class, and so I plan a key takeaway for each one. I start this process by reading through each part of the activity plan, starting with the objectives. By the end of it, here’s where I landed as my key takeaway for each activity:

  • Activity 1: Getting Sick: How Diseases Spread. Disease-carrying organisms can transfer from person to person by air, water, physical contact, or through vectors like mosquitoes or ticks. 
  • Activity 2: Investigating Infectious Diseases. Different pathogens move through different means, and the movement of infectious is usually only visible at the microscopic level.
  • Activity 3: Analyzing Disease Outbreaks. One way to understand the behavior of a pathogen behind an outbreak is to map who is affected by the contagion, and use that map to try to find points of contact in common. 
  • Activity 4: Mapping the Spread of Disease in a Community. By analyzing a map rigorously, we can track down the source of a disease and control its spread, while also treating those who may be infected without realizing it.

Internalization Step Two: The Exit Ticket

Like most teachers, I feel most successful if every student leaves my classroom understanding what I planned to teach them. I generally don’t have the ability to check in with every single student before they leave me, so this is where the exit ticket comes into play. The exit tickets are quick, simple tasks that show me whether or not each student is carrying the key takeaway with them as they go. “There’s an Outbreak!” has informal assessments created for each activity, but I notice that they either don’t align with my key takeaways, or they don’t give me clear enough data to show me student understanding. Instead, I create a new exit ticket for each activity.

  • Activity 1: Getting Sick: How Diseases Spread. In this activity, students use handshakes and high-fives to model disease transmission by physical contact, and blow bubbles to show airborne transmission. I wanted students to be able to distinguish between modes of transmission of different infectious diseases, which the original activity began to get at by asking students follow-up questions about  these two activities. My exit ticket followed this up by asking students to independently determine whether a disease had been transmitted by direct contact, air, droplets, or a vector. Exit tickets can be done on paper, but at a distance, there are a range of virtual ways to get this data, from Google Classroom to Socrative to Schoology to Kahoot! Here are a few examples of the questions I asked:
    • Brian sits near his girlfriend Nina during a movie, and she coughs through most of it.
    • After a mosquito stings Elaina, the next day she starts to feel dizzy and fatigued.
    • Gregory eats a salad with romaine lettuce not realizing it had been recalled, and falls ill.
    • Maiana drinks water from a tap that had not been wiped down well.
  • Activity 2: Investigating Infectious Diseases. In this activity, students were tasked with conducting research in groups on specific infectious-disease causing organisms, such as smallpox, tuberculosis, and influenza. The built-in assessment has teachers collect the graphic organizer students fill out about their disease. In order to ensure each student in the group had a clear understanding of their disease, as well as to build on learnings from yesterday, I hung up chart paper around the room and gave students colored dots which they wrote their names on. They then needed to silently place their sticker in the correct spots on the chart paper. Similarly, this could also be done digitally by having students respond to a survey online through Google Forms or a poll. The posters asked questions such as:
    • What causes my disease? Bacteria, Virus, Protist, Fungus
    • How does my disease spread? Direct contact, air, droplets, vector
    • Which body system does my disease primarily affect? Respiratory, Digestive, Integumentary, Nervous
  • Activity 3: Analyzing Disease Outbreaks. This activity introduces a four-level analysis tool to understand what maps tell us in a disease outbreak. The tool can be modified for use in other map analyses as well. Because we do not spend much time on geographic skills in my science classroom, the tool itself was a helpful scaffold for many students, and gave me a good sense of what extent students grasped the key takeaway. The built-in informal assessment was simply to collect this graphic organizer for a map analysis that students complete independently, and so I kept this exit ticket the same.

One of the challenges I ran into was that many infectious disease maps could be found on the internet, but few were as clear and concise as John Snow’s map of cholera in London. Many required additional teaching of geography skills or map key interpretation which would have moved the lesson beyond the scope of my key takeaway. The key here was define criteria for success for the four-level map analysis that would narrow that scope back so students could focus on what was key, and to call this out for students in advance and through practice so that by the time students arrived at the exit ticket, they were prepared. I used influenza and E. coli for my practice after modeling with cholera, and used the novel COVID-19 outbreak as my exit ticket, so that students had multiple “at-bats” to complete the map analysis both in groups and independently. The links to the map and my criteria for success are in the handout, which is linked after Step 4. 

  • Activity 4: Mapping the Spread of Disease in a Community. In this activity, students apply the four-level map analysis to a fictional case of Patient Zero by tracing their route along a map of their town as they potentially transmit illness to other people. Students then refer back to their work in Activity 2 and debate if the disease affecting Patient Zero is the disease on which they conducted research. The built-in assessment has students primarily revisit their research and summarize the facts of their illness. I instead shifted these questions to be a “Do Now,” a type of bell-ringer activity that students do immediately as they enter the classroom, to activate prior knowledge for students, and changed my assessment questions to these to align with my key takeaway:
    • Of the diseases we researched, which was the most likely cause of this outbreak? Explain based on its causes and symptoms.
    • What is the main method of transmission of this disease?
    • What would you recommend as the best way to control the outbreak in Patient Zero’s neighborhood? 

Internalization Step Three: Pacing and Scaffolding

Once I’ve figured out the endpoint I want to get students to, I balance that with how much time I actually need in my schedule to get there. Although each activity in this unit is framed as needing 50 minutes, it seemed like some would be quicker for my class, and others would take my class longer. It was also clear that Activity 1 and Activity 2 had a lot in common in terms of their key takeaway, as did Activity 3 and Activity 4. Ultimately, I decided to combine Activities 1 and 2, spending a little bit less time on the research component of Activity 2, as the two activities in Activity 1 were quick, and the engaging nature of them built a hook that gave students the energy they needed to dive fully into the research. 

I also simplified Activity 2 a bit by reducing the number of options of diseases students would research. The lesson plan included diseases from many different sources, which would require some time to teach students how to interpret and navigate those sources. I was able to allow students to focus more on the research itself by only using diseases from the same source, since all were fact-based encyclopedic entries and the sourcing wasn’t as important a lesson for my key takeaway.

On the other hand, I kept Activity 3 and Activity 4 as separate, 50 minute lessons, but decided I would add in a bit of vocabulary review and some scaffolding into those lessons to make sure students were able to analyze the maps. In particular, I knew that students would need a primer in what life was like in London in the 1850s, as students would have very little familiarity with what a “water pump” was and why an outbreak could start there. I added in a video clip — there are a lot of good ones out there! — to illustrate this further.

Internalization Step Four: Checks for Understanding and Visuals

My final step is to develop my handouts and visual aids, and to determine what moments in the lesson I will need to activate prior knowledge with a turn-and-talk or a quick write, as well as to check for understanding to make sure students have what they need to synthesize new information or apply new skills. You can see how I’ve laid this out in my handouts: Activity 1 and 2, Activity 3, and Activity 4.

By internalizing what I wanted students to get out of this lesson through documented study, and then planning around that, students were able to get the most out of the awesome resources National Geographic Education had to offer, while also being able to engage with the content as it was integrated into our existing curriculum and sequenced logically with the concepts, skills, and vocabulary they were already learning. Of course, this ended up being even more critical with the global outbreak of COVID-19, as now even through distance learning, students are filled with questions about what’s going on, and are able to ground those questions in our learnings in class. Some students are even maintaining daily journals of current events around COVID-19! 

I’m excited to try this again, and would go further in the Menacing Microbes unit so students could start applying some of what they’ve learned to how their own communities managed their response to COVID-19. I’d also love to collaborate with other educators and workshop other ways to internalize this content and bring these lessons to life! Could this be taught in social studies? How can this be adapted for elementary school? What are your steps for “internalizing” a resource? Let’s work together!

Feature image by Rebecca Hale

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