Science also sharpens student reading skills Atholton High class 1st of kind in county

October 25, 1998|By Erika D. Peterman | Erika D. Peterman,SUN STAFF

Down in Atholton High School's Internet lab, 17 students are stationed in front of computers, screens fixed on a glowing image of the moon. Happy to be surfing the Web instead of plowing through a textbook, they partner up and begin absorbing lunar facts.

Every paragraph or so, each student scrolls to a highlighted vocabulary word such as "terrestrial" or "torque." With the click of a mouse, the screen zooms to a list of definitions.

To the casual observer, this would appear to be just another high school science class. But the students taking John Zitko and LuAnn Tyre's "Topics in Earth Science" course are reaping a hidden benefit: better reading skills.

The Columbia school's pilot course -- the first of its kind in Howard County -- is designed for high school students who need reading help without isolating them in a traditional lab.

"There's not any ninth-grader who wants to say, 'I'm in a reading class,' " said Tyre, a special education teacher who instructs the class with Zitko, a science teacher. "Science involves a lot of reading anyway."

Tyre said the school's ninth-grade teachers were concerned about freshmen who struggled with their reading and study skills. That gave Tyre and Zitko the idea to fold reading into a traditional science course, using essay writing, daily journal assignments, timed reading and reading aloud.

"We talked about the planets and then we had them write an entry on the planets and which one was most like them," Zitko said.

Removing the stigma

Because older students may feel self-conscious about being in a reading class, mixing the fundamentals with another subject removes the stigma, the teachers said. Tyre noted that some of the students simply missed phonics along the way.

"The kids almost don't realize that they're being taught how to read," said principal Connie Lewis. "I think the way you state it to the kids is important. You're not saying, 'Hey, you can't read and we're teaching you to read through science.' "

The two teachers asked to keep the class small so that students could get more personal instruction. During a typical class, one teacher roams the room to help students with their work while the other instructs.

"They're listening. They're paying attention, which makes a huge difference," Zitko said.

But from the perspective of a teen-ager, it's the fun factor that matters most. When students Adam Kirk and Lupe Rodriguez asked about the dark side of the moon, Zitko instructed them to stand up and demonstrate.

Representing the Earth, Lupe, a 15-year-old sophomore, spun in a circle. Adam, a 16-year-old junior, mimicked the moon by revolving around Lupe, his back turned away from Lupe the entire time.

"That's your dark side," Zitko said, pointing to Adam's back.

Making class fun

The boys said Zitko and Tyre make the class fun with hands-on experiments and group discussions. One day, the students placed items on campus that represented the solar system, and then walked a certain distance to approximate each planet's distance from the sun, represented by a bowling ball.

"Pluto was a real fun one," said Adam, referring to the solar system's outermost planet. "We were all sitting there wondering, 'Is the sun getting stolen?' "

'Helps a lot'

Freshman Joshua Meekins added that the class "helps a lot" with his reading. And like Lupe and Adam, he enjoys the classroom interaction.

"In other classes, you just sit in there for the whole 90 minutes and it gets boring," Joshua said.

Said Tyre: "Reading from a book is so boring to them. You put it on a computer screen, and they want to read it."

If the program proves successful, Atholton may combine reading comprehension with subjects such as social studies and math. While it's too early to tell what the long-term effects will be, Tyre is confident that the students are reading more than they normally would.

"This is the trial-and-error period," she said.

` Pub Date: 10/25/98

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