The bell rings, and thirty-three 9th-graders in a high-poverty urban high school slump into their seats. Time for biology class. Some lay their heads down, some are agitated, some talk with their friends–but not about DNA, this week’s focus from the Next Generation Science Standards.

This was the picture Annette, their science teacher, recently shared with me. “They’re tired, hungry and stressed,” she said. “Why should they care about cells and DNA?”

It was a good question. But as the curriculum consultant hired by the district, I had to help Annette not only find an answer, but also build a unit around it. The unit needed to integrated Next Generation Science Standards and Common Core Language Arts Standards. Culturally responsive instruction was essential. We had a big job ahead of us.

I told the teachers to put their standards aside. We weren’t going to plan around standards. Instead, we were going to focus on the significance of DNA in students’ lives, cultures and histories. “And what about the standards?” they asked. “Standards will take care of themselves,” I assured them.

With some uncertainty–even anxiety–about the approach, we dove into DNA as a social and cultural issue. I introduced Annette and her team to a process of reframing her content using the concepts of ethics and equity. We used hands-on activities that helped teachers explore the history behind DNA and its use and misuse in social policy. The content naturally enabled us to integrate NGSS Crosscutting Concepts such as cause and effect and systems thinking.

Through the process, the teachers placed the science of DNA in the context of social issues. Here’s a multi-voice, stream-of-consciousness excerpt from the discussion:

  • What do cells have to do with our health and wellbeing? What are the ethics of that?
  • Yeah. Who profits? Who benefits?  
  • What about patenting of genes?  
  • Yes, biopiracy of indigenous knowledge.
  • What about eugenics and ‘social hygiene’?
  • How about the ‘race gene’? (laugher)
  • Right . . . because DNA proves genetically-determined racial hierarchies. (more laugher)

The teachers soon discovered the underlying story about DNA that would drive the unit. To bring it to life, we ove into a step-by-step process of unit (re)design using NGSS Disciplinary Core Ideas, Crosscutting Concepts, and multiple forms of assessment.

Then came the ‘a-ha’ about the standards: The unit’s rigorous inquiry demands student mastery of the standards. Investigating and solving these issues requires the use of scientific practices. Students cannot comprehend or communicate about the topics without employing the language skills in Common Core. Ta-daa! The standards effortlessly appeared.

“When the kids discover the history of DNA and how it can help or harm, they’ll ask how it’s impacting them,” Annette said.  “Then they’ll want to know.”

Now we knew why kids should care. Moreover, we had unit that would supports equity on two levels: First, the rigorous inquiry involves students in high-level learning too often denied to ‘those kids.’ Second, the unit empowers students to challenge ways that science supports inequalities, while developing ways the knowledge can benefit their communities.

The lesson? Supporting equity demands content that teaches it.

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