K-12 teachers, Yale faculty unite to strengthen nation’s public schools

Yale faculty members are having an impact on the teaching and learning in public schools across the country through the Yale National Initiative.

First-graders in California are learning the character-building benefits of non-violence by reading about the flower-loving bull, Ferdinand. In Oklahoma, an 8th-grade class is studying the unconscious factors that can affect a person’s vote for president. And high school students in Pennsylvania are discovering how beta-blockers help treat cardiovascular disease.

These are just some of the curriculum units that have been developed for public schools across the country in seminars led by Yale faculty members as part of the Yale National Initiative (YNI).

YNI aims to strengthen teaching and learning in public schools in need by providing professional development for K-12 instructors through what is known as the Teachers Institute approach. Modeled on the three-decades-old Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, this approach brings experts from institutions of higher education together with public school teachers to deepen their knowledge about a particular subject and develop teaching strategies that will be effective in the classroom. The dynamic in these seminars is not that of a teacher and students, but of colleagues working together toward the common goal of educating youngsters.

This summer seven Yale faculty members led YNI seminars, which began in early May and concluded in mid-August.

“YNI represents a unique opportunity for me, as a college professor, to have an impact on public school students,” says W. Mark Saltzman, the Goizueta Foundation Professor of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering. In his seminar, “How Drugs Work,” the participants read a book together and met to discuss the material in each chapter; they also visited Yale laboratories involved in drug discovery and did some hands-on activities.

“During the seminar period, each of the teachers prepared a unique piece of new curriculum for their classroom, based on the things that they learned in the seminar,” says Saltzman. These included, among others, the unit on beta blockers mentioned above, as well as curriculum sections on the use of plants in traditional Diné (Navaho) medicine, the chemistry behind painkillers, and the toxic effects of mercury, alcohol, and cannabis on human cells.

Other seminars and just some of the curriculum units developed in them were:

• “Interdisciplinary Approaches to Consumer Culture,” led by Jean-Christophe Agnew, professor of American studies and history — a curriculum unit designed to teach “consumer literacy” to second-graders; one on food packaging aimed at middle school students; and one for high school juniors that uses the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943 to explore how the consumer culture can be a part of political protest.

• “Storytelling: Fictional Narratives, Imaginary People, and the Reader’s Real Life,” led by Jill Campbell, professor of English — the above-mentioned unit on non-violence; “Hungry for Knowledge,” which uses “The Hunger Games” to teach middle school students about the principles of American citizenship; and “Reading, Writing, and Recidivism,” a high-school curriculum exploring the therapeutic power of storytelling.

• “The American Presidency,” led by Bryan Garsten, professor of political science — the above-mentioned unit on unconscious factors affecting voters; “What Do Presidents Really Do?” for fifth-graders and “What the Founders Could Not Have Known” for middle-school students.

• “Narratives of Citizenship and Race since Emancipation,” led by Jonathan Holloway, professor of history, African American studies, and American studies — a fifth-grade unit titled “For Colored Folks Only: The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow Laws”; “Diverse Journeys — Americans All!” for elementary school students; and “From Three Rivers to Arlington: Mexican American Civil Rights to 1954” for high-schoolers.

• “Asking Questions in Biology: Discovery versus Knowledge,” led by Paul E. Turner, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology — a unit titled “What Can We Learn About Animals?” for first-graders; “Using Biology to Teach Children to Think Like a Scientist” for third-graders; and a curriculum designed to empower high school students in special education classes by helping them learn how to ask questions about their disabilities.

• “Energy, Environment, and Health,” led by John P. Wargo, the Tweedy/Ordway Professor of Environmental Health and Politics — a fifth-grade curriculum titled “Humans: Champions of Justice or Villains of the Ecosystem?”; “Math Facts of Natural Gas & Pollution” for middle-schoolers; and a unit that challenges ninth-graders to determine “How Green Is Our School?”

The schoolteachers who participate in the seminars make the curricula they develop available to colleagues across the country via the YNI website, which now includes hundreds of K-12 units in the humanities and sciences.

Each year, the participants also return to campus for the YNI’s annual conference. This year’s participants — 68 individuals representing 16 school districts in nine states — gathered Oct. 26-27 for the event. They were accompanied by their superintendents and other officials from their school districts, who came to learn more about the Teachers Institute approach. YNI aims eventually to have Teachers Institute programs in every state, and this year’s conference looked at progress made toward the development of such programs in Richmond, Virginia, and Chicago, Illinois.

At the conference, the schoolteachers discussed how their students responded to the curriculum units they developed. Saltzman says that, for him, this is the most meaningful part of the process.

“They bring their experiences, samples of their student work, and, often, videos of their classroom,” he says. “It is amazing to see the diverse and powerful ways that dedicated teachers — with a bit of support from a program like YNI — can make a difference in the lives and futures of their students.

“In addition, many of the teachers report that their experience at YNI has made them better, more effective teachers or kept them inspired at times when they were discouraged with their profession,” he adds. “I have discovered that one of the most important impacts of my work at YNI is to help teachers connect the newest science concepts into their classrooms, which creates new opportunities for the teachers and inspires the students.”

For Yale’s Professor Jill Campbell, working with the public school teachers has been both an enlightening and inspiring experience.

“If anyone has doubts about the practical importance of studying humanities in our rapidly-changing times, he or she should visit a meeting of one of the Yale National Initiative seminars on a humanities topic. There, she’d hear public-school teachers — teachers of students from kindergarten through 12th grade; in gifted, special-education, remedial, and Advanced Placement classes; in schools in low-income, violence-torn neighborhoods and in more comfortable urban areas — all talk passionately about their students’ urgent needs, their belief in their students’ potential, their hopes for their students’ well-being and future lives, and their conviction that engaged and innovative teaching really can make a difference,” says Campbell.

“Working this summer with the remarkably talented and dedicated teachers in my seminar on ‘Storytelling: Fictional Characters, Imaginary Events, and the Reader’s Real Life’ allowed me to ask some of the biggest and usually unspoken questions about literature and writing: Why do people need them, and what difference do they make in the human condition? Pursuing these questions in discussion with these remarkable teachers, my faith in the importance of studying literature, writing, and the language arts has been strongly affirmed.”

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