Getting to Know Us: Interview with Deborah Jordan

Posted on June 5th, 2014 by Pam Goldman

Interview with Deborah Jordan, a member of the Institute for Learning's Disciplinary Literacy Science Team.

Deborah Jordan

Why science?

I've always been interested in nature. As a child, I remember catching tadpoles and watching them develop into frogs—how cool is that? I found science classes to be fun and interesting. Where else can you look through a microscope and observe a world living on a slice of moldy bread or gaze through a telescope and see Saturn and its amazing rings? Science is full of marvelous phenomena. I've always enjoyed sharing my love of science with others—students and educators.

Since the advent of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) literacy standards in science and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), in what ways do you see schools and districts refocusing on science?

I've been involved in science education for over 30 years now, and I have seen instruction evolve over that time period. When I first started teaching, instruction involved "tell and verify"; that is, students read a textbook and occasionally did a "cookbook" experiment to verify what they had just read. Later, we threw out the textbooks and brought in the hands-on kits; kit-based science offered fun activities, but conceptual understanding of the science behind the activities was often lost. In the current testing age, there is pressure to cover content, which means memorizing rather than learning.

With the onset of both the CCSS literacy standards and the Next Generation Science Standards I see opportunities for students to be immersed in science. Instruction consistent with these standards will not superficially cover content but immerse students in focused content by providing the kind of investigating, speaking, reading, reasoning, and writing that helps students to learn and form complex science knowledge.

What do you think about the Next Generation Science Standards?

It is exciting to see that content expectations have been narrowed and that learning progressions begin at elementary. There is still a lot of content to teach; however, the narrowed content focus allows teachers to dive more deeply into the content and to provide experiences with reading and writing that address the content.

The Common Core literacy standards in science seem to generate both enthusiasm and confusion. Why are they important? What challenges do they present? How can these challenges be overcome?

The ideas behind the CCSS are important—students need to read and write in science. The three main challenges that I hear from teachers in the field are time, expertise, and resources. Time is a challenge because teachers have been conditioned to cover a lot of content in a limited amount of time. I see many PowerPoint presentations designed to provide students information they need to know to pass a test, so thinking about finding time to ask students to engage in the kind of reading and writing presented in the standards can seem overwhelming. Expertise is a challenge because many science teachers feel that they aren’t equipped to teach reading and writing. Resources like complex texts and writing prompts are difficult to find or create. It is important to remember that these challenges can be overcome but it will not happen overnight. First, we need to compare content expectations of the NGSS with current content. Given the narrowed focus of the NGSS, we will need to do some cutting. Second, we need to provide science teachers with the knowledge and skills they need to support students to achieve these high standards. Last, we need to provide science teachers with materials designed to meet both the NGSS and the CCSS for literacy in science.

What challenges and opportunities do you see for elementary school science?

The opportunities excite me! I see all students engaging deeply in science through hands-on investigating, reading, writing, and thinking. I see deeper scientific vocabulary and content knowledge. I see a more level playing field when students enter middle school. I look at leveling the playing field in two ways. First, all students will have at least a consistent, basic understanding of some science ideas when they get to middle school, rather than a potpourri of science experiences based on how or whether or not their schools and teachers supported science. Second, providing early experiences in science also helps to level the playing field for underserved students or students who have not had opportunities to experience informal science at zoos, discovery centers, and museums. I see more students loving science. The challenges that many schools and districts face include providing time for science, providing teachers who are prepared to teach science, and providing the materials that offer students opportunities to learn the content through hands-on investigating, reading, writing, and thinking. I believe that the opportunities outweigh the challenges.

Please tell us about the Institute for Learning's BSLKs that the science team has been working on. And, BTW, what is a BSLK?

We are creating Building Literacy and Science Knowledge tasks. These tasks provide instruction as students read across multiple complex texts and then respond to a writing prompt using evidence from the texts. These three- to ten-day tasks are designed to compliment important science concepts. Our hope is that the BLSKs will provide teachers with complex texts and writing prompts that meet the needs of both CCSS and NGSS.

What are you reading about teaching and learning these days?

Richard Milner was the keynote speaker at our recent IFL Partner Retreat. He spoke about race, equity, and urban education. I found his talk to be interesting so I am learning more by reading his book, Start Where You Are, But Don't Stay There.

What are you reading for fun?

In my quest for complex texts for children, I have been reading hundreds of articles from children's magazines like Ranger Rick, Kids Discover, Ask, and National Geographic for Kids. I recently read On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson by William Souder.

What would I find on your bookshelf that would surprise me?

Zuni fetishes

Books about fetishes—Zuni fetishes. Zuni fetishes are small carvings made by the Zuni people from materials such as stone, antler, or shell. These carvings depict animals and icons important to the Zuni culture. I collect them. Most of my collection is bears, but I collect any fetish that "speaks" to me.

Tell us about your wildlife photography.

I got my first camera when I graduated from high school and I have been taking pictures ever since. I take photos of everything but love capturing wildlife. When planning a vacation, I work in ways to see and photograph wildlife especially bears, whales, and birds. Alaska and Vancouver Island have been my favorite spots for wildlife photo opportunities.

Wildlife 1
Wildlife 2
Wildlife 3
Two dogs

Is it true that your two dogs are best friends?

Yes, Bailey our ten-year-old chocolate lab and Bonnie our eight-month-old beagle have been best friends from the minute we brought Bonnie home. They run, play, and fight like a couple of kids but most of all they can be found snuggled up together holding paws.