ESL Science Class Brings Out Scientists in Students

 Kerri Withrow Valentine, Rhode Island ‘Teacher of the Year for Excellence in Environmental Education,’ teaches science to English as a second language students. (Nicholas Boke/ecoRI News photos)

Kerri Withrow Valentine, Rhode Island ‘Teacher of the Year for Excellence in Environmental Education,’ teaches science to English as a second language students. (Nicholas Boke/ecoRI News photos)

By NICHOLAS BOKE/ecoRI News contributor

CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. — There’s nothing special about Central Falls High School’s Room 115. Kerri Withrow Valentine’s science classroom seems pretty typical.

The day’s schedule is written on the whiteboard. There are bins where students leave their completed assignments, textbooks are lined up on bookshelves, and big plastic containers of scientific materials are against the walls. High on the wall at one end of the room, colorful printed placards explain briefly scientific concepts such as evidence, compare, analyze, support, and evaluate.

Posted on another wall is a handwritten poster with Spanish-English translations: politta-moth; mosca-fly; pollo-chicken; allas-wings, and so on.

“An assistant put that list together with the students. It’s good for the students … and for me,” Valentine says.

Most of the 14 members of this beginning language-level learner class are Spanish-speakers from Central and Northern South America; three are from Cabo Verde and speak Portuguese. It’s in part because of her work with English as a second language (ESL) students that she has been designated “Teacher of the Year for Excellence in Environmental Education” by the Rhode Island Environmental Education Association (RIEEA).

But the other part of the award comes from her interest in engaging ESL students in science. This morning, the students are wrapping up their brief study of structure and function, answering questions about the structures and functions of fish fins on a worksheet. For most, even this simple task is something of a linguistic struggle.

“Put your papers in the box so I can grade them,” Valentine says, urging stragglers to finish this work so they can move onto the next topic.

Expanding ESL reach
The next topic is hydroponics, which is, it turns out, what this class is all about. Hydroponics? That means growing plants without soil. What’s special about that?

It’s not the hydroponics that’s special. It’s the fact that Valentine had, as the demographics of the school had changed in the 22 years she has taught there, become increasingly interested in ESL instruction, in which she was recently certified. Furthermore, she, as a science teacher, had become especially interested in finding ways to integrate ESL into science education.

So, as the students gathered around a table in the center of the classroom to talk about the non-soil medium in which they’d plant their seeds, they were beginning a learning process that would take them through activities such as observing, recording, predicting, and watching life come into being throughout the semester.

Valentine and former principal Joshua Laplante, who was also an ESL teacher, had put their heads together in 2015 to set this in motion — Laplante, a current RIEEA board member, is now head of school at the Greene School in West Greenwich and had nominated Valentine for Teacher of the Year.

“We were thinking,” Valentine recalls, “about what science course we could offer to meet the needs of beginning language learners. We suggested an integrated science course for students from different grades. We made the pitch and it was approved.”

The students in this class, thus, are part of a program which, Valentine says, “reaches out to over-age and under-credited students to try to help move them along.” Her class is similar to the goals of the after-school Multiple Pathways program, which has also adopted hydroponics activities.

In summer 2016, Valentine took a Salve Regina University class in teaching hydroponics. The class wasn’t just for ESL teachers, but Valentine immediately realized that this content, with its heavily hands-on, personally supervised activities, would exactly fit the need she and Laplante had identified.

As the students stood around the table, looking at the material in which they would plant their seeds, Valentine begins the explanation. As she does, everyone stops their teenaged fidgeting and focuses on what’s going on: growing seeds without soil.

“We’re going to work with hydroponics,” Valentine says. “Can you say ‘hydroponics?’”

They do.

“It means growing things without soil,” she says. “What’s the word for soil in Spanish?”

Someone says, “tierra.”

“Yes, tierra. Soil. Just water, no soil.”

Then Valentine explains that each student will plant two seeds in one of the holes in the bedding material, and another would tamp them down.

The students get to work.

Valentine makes sure it’s going as planned. “You have to make sure they all do it, Giovanni. Don’t do all the work yourself. It’s participation.”

They all participate, one by one carefully putting the seeds in the hole they’d been assigned by the student supervisors.

“Now,” Valentine asks as they finish planting the seeds, “what do you think they need?”

“Water! Aqua!” the students say.

 Students are learning English and studying hydroponics.

Students are learning English and studying hydroponics.

Valentine guides them as they carefully pour the water into the long plastic basins the bedding material was set in, adding a bit extra, since, she reminds them, “it’s the weekend, so we need to put in a little more.”

Then Valentine leads the students to the far wall, where plants were already growing. In one basin, seedlings poked up their tiny leaves. In another, mature basil plants were well established.

As she lets the students touch the fragile, young leaves, she explains that the plants make energy in the leaves through photosynthesis, and that the food comes into the plant from the roots. Once they mature, she says, the students will put them in the ground in the school’s community garden, which Valentine had, several years earlier, established. The students will keep a garden journal.

Finally, she shows them the cover they will put on the newly planted seeds.

“It’s a cover to keep them warm and wet,” Valentine says. “If they don’t stay wet, they won’t sprout. What’s ‘wet’ in Spanish? Wait. I remember from the warning signs on the floor. ‘Mojado,’ right?”

“Right,” the students respond, nodding and smiling at her effort to teach herself Spanish.

Acting like scientists
“The point is to teach the students something about what scientists do,” Valentine says after they students had left for their next class. “Teaching them those cross-cutting concepts like structure and function, as well as familiarity with things like the food web, an introduction to velocity, and even to the periodic table.

“Most important, though, we give them the opportunity to act like scientists.”

Once the seeds have been watered, it’ll be about 10 days before the sprouts begin to show. That’s when the students will begin keeping their garden journals, and when they’ll begin using metric rulers to measure the plants, and using a graduated cylinder to measure the amount of water the plants have been given. They’ll also integrate the broader concepts they are studying, such as the food web and the functions of parts of plants. Eventually, they’ll transplant the basil into the community garden.

Valentine also teaches sections of ESL biology for intermediate language learners, but this new class seems to be lighting fires of interest in most of the students, who have, as she puts it, “have had difficult lives, both before and since moving to this country.”

What Valentine appreciates about the program is that it engages the students in ways more traditionally academic programs don’t.

“What’s great is to see the change the kids go through when they see that they’re gaining competence in an area, whether that’s language or science,” she says. “In this class, they can do both.”

Providence resident Nicholas Boke is a freelance writer and international education consultant. He runs a blog called Waiting for the Barbarian.