BioInteractive in a Bilingual Classroom
In a world where we need global cooperation, multiculturalism has become not only a priority but a necessity. For the past nine years, I have been teaching high school biology in Mexico, in the bicultural and multicultural programs. In the multicultural program, the students take several of their courses in English (for example, mathematics, biology, history, etc.). This has given me the opportunity to teach biology in English to students whose native language is Spanish. Our multicultural program requires that the courses integrate experiences aimed at strengthening skills such as effective communication, empathy, and cultural knowledge (history, customs, and beliefs), in addition to teaching course content.
Some of the challenges I’ve faced teaching biology to Spanish-speaking students are the limited availability of textbooks featuring content in both languages; the generally high prices of high-quality teaching resources in English; long waiting times for books in English that need to be shipped from abroad; and sources of information with freely available, useful content (like websites) that are only available in English.
BioInteractive saved my teaching life by helping me address these challenges in an efficient and effective way, while reducing the effort I have to put into finding appropriate resources and allowing me to focus on designing better strategies to help my students achieve their learning goals.
These are some of the strategies that I have used to support my Mexican students in the multicultural biology class.
1. Flipped classroom in Spanish
Many of the BioInteractive resources use videos to engage students with a story or phenomenon, around which multiple concepts can be explored further through hands-on activities. I ask students to watch the videos at home in Spanish, or with subtitles in Spanish, as preparation for class. During class, we watch the same video in English and work on the recommended activities in English. Having students work on the activities in class also makes it harder for them to find the answers on the internet. Regardless of whether students watch the videos in English or in Spanish, I find that the visual richness of these media pieces contributes to a better understanding of the concepts. At the end of the lesson, I recommend that students review the video again at home in English and verify that they still remember and understand the concepts explored during our session. Some of my students are so engaged that they also take the opportunity to explore other resources related to the topic.
2. Collaborative work
Many of the activities and/or worksheets on BioInteractive encourage teamwork. This allows groups of students with different English levels, and with different levels of understanding of science content, to collaborate. Working together promotes community and acceptance, which reduces the stress that comes from learning and working with new science concepts and a new language simultaneously. These heterogeneous teams provide a diversity of perspectives, are more productive than students working alone, foster creativity, and strengthen the capacity of collaborating to achieve common learning goals. For instance, I have received feedback from students stating how much they enjoy doing BioInteractive activities because they involve working in teams. It is common that, even if I ask for students to deliver work individually, they still get together to discuss and help each other before producing their own work. I am happy when I observe, while grading, that rather than copying a classmate’s answers, students build their own with the input they received from their peers.
3. Cultural empathy
When the topic we are discussing resonates with students’ cultural context, their contributions become more relevant and less dependent on specialized terminology. This in turn helps them be more engaged in their own learning. One way that I have used BioInteractive tools to promote cultural empathy is by implementing the activities related to the film The Biology of Skin Color. These resources are helpful not only for learning genetics but also for creating a culture of understanding and respect among students in a multiethnic classroom, while reinforcing students’ multicultural skills. For example, during the first part of the short film, Dr. Nina Jablonski mentions the implications of skin color in human interactions. I pause the video in this section to allow students to discuss the implications of skin color in their lives, and whether these experiences have been positive or negative. After learning about the biology of skin color, we return to the initial reflection. I ask the students who had negative experiences to describe how the dissemination of the knowledge about biology can reduce the impact that negative comments have had on them and also help reduce existing prejudices.
4. Allowing students to use the language of their preference
For some time, the prevailing theory was that students needed full-immersion settings to learn English. Recent scholarship challenges that claim. For instance, Buck (2000) suggests that assessment may be provided to students in their home language. Other scholars have found evidence that in adolescents and adults, the use of their first language and the later translation of content allows learners to better relate their previous knowledge with the new content, which leads to higher confidence levels for students when using other languages and about their own knowledge of science concepts. For instance, a report published by the National Academies Press (2018) makes the point that language is vital during STEM learning, and that students should be encouraged to use any form of language that helps them understand scientific concepts and knowledge. In my classroom, we use BioInteractive resources that are available in both Spanish and English, and students are allowed to participate in class activities in Spanish and then translate the results of their work to English. This also allows parents (who may or may not know English) to keep track of their child’s work and support them by having access to materials in Spanish.
5. Using graphic organizers
Different BioInteractive activities allow the use of graphic organizers. A useful graphic organizer is the “Compare and Contrast” chart. I have been using this organizer as part of a film activity for the short film Popped Secret: The Mysterious Origin of Corn. After watching the film in English, students make a compare-and-contrast chart (usually as a table) between teosinte and corn. The challenge here is that they can’t use words, meaning they must use images or graphical representations to compare the two plants. Once they’ve finished their charts, I ask them to share their work with a classmate and describe to each other the differences between corn and teosinte in English. They discuss their compare-and-contrast charts in pairs and propose the advantages for human consumption of corn compared with teosinte. This discussion can be in any language they choose. In fact, the majority of the students alternate between both languages, with English being the one most used during the activities; students still go back to Spanish for concepts or situations that are more difficult to explain or define. They then answer the film activity worksheet in English. In addition to working on the skills related to comparing two elements, they strengthen their ability to explain science concepts in English.
The most rewarding thing for me has been the opportunity to observe my students’ development in the multicultural classroom. Not only have they shown improvement in exams and evaluations, but also the class itself has been enriched. With every strategy that I share here, using BioInteractive resources has decreased students’ fear toward science and biology, by eliminating the difficulties of a new language as a factor for understanding and analyzing information. Furthermore, their confidence in their knowledge and their ability to communicate has helped to increase the frequency and quality of participation in class. I hope that these strategies can also help your students and allow them to feel included and motivated to explore, inquire, and learn.
Buck, Gayle. “Teaching Science to English-as-Second-Language Learners: Teaching, learning, and assessment strategies for elementary ESL students.” Science and Children 38, 3 (2000): 38–41. https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/teachlearnfacpub/20/.
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. English Learners in STEM Subjects: Transforming Classrooms, Schools, and Lives. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2018. https://doi.org/10.17226/25182.
Paulina Trigo has been a high school biology and health teacher at Tecnológico de Monterrey, State of Mexico Campus for a bit over nine years. Beyond the traditional science courses, she specializes in multicultural learning and has participated in different experiences in the United States, Europe, and Central America. She currently coordinates the Incoming International Students (undergraduate) programs. She enjoys getting to see her country and culture through many different lenses by sharing with students from around the world. Her favorite hobbies are reading, traveling, and good conversations, and her bucket list includes visiting Germany, Australia, Japan, and Canada (just for starters!).