Ben Corey is a science teacher by trade and by passion. He’s taught summer camp, middle school, high school, worked as an aquarium educator, and taught preschoolers and adults at the Emory University Autism Center. But he was hungry for a more flexible and innovative teaching situation. So he leveraged his background in formal and informal education to become a teacher on Outschool in January 2018.
Weaving my own adventures into a core biology curriculum is a dream come true!
Ben’s offerings have evolved since the first class he taught, from a kitchen table in Mexico City. One of his latest regular offerings is what he calls his News Clubs, like This Week in Paleontology and This Week in Biology. The day before class, he posts a thread around the topics of dinosaurs and the evolution of life, genetics, or ecology. The kids then come to class armed with recent news articles and readings that they found to share in a group format. Ben says he himself now has time to subscribe to, read, and enjoy science journals.
While he still loves the niche topics he can bring to light through several single-session classes, such as Build a Better Superhero (genetics), Outbreak! Bad Bacteria (physiology), and Tree of Life: Reptiles (biology), the backbone of Ben’s offerings is an 11-class core biology curriculum. He designed this modular curriculum using the Next Generation Science Standards for middle and high school life sciences. Ben’s curriculum is designed for students, ages 10-15, to hop in and out of, encouraging learners to forge their own learning pathway.
Our learners are incredibly grassroots as they're in lots of different places and they have lots of different educational philosophies and backgrounds. I am constantly tweaking and adjusting my schedule and curriculum to best meet these diverse needs.
During the last two years, Ben has found a formula that works for him. At the start of each meeting, Ben fosters a quick sense of community by having the students introduce themselves and say where they live. If they’re not comfortable sharing, they say they live on the planet Earth (Astronomy 101!) He then asks a warm-up questions related to the class’s topic.
I think my most popular classes is called Cell City: Learn the Parts of a Cell. It's comparing parts of the cell to places in a city. So the warm up question is, “What city would you travel to?” There are usually some pretty interesting answers, especially when you have kids that live in the cities that the other kids want to travel to.
Ben then brings on a barrage of questions to zero in on his students’ prior knowledge, gauge how familiar they are with the topic, and assess their interests:
- How many of you have seen or heard of the word 'protein'?
- Where did you see/hear it?
- We usually think of food when we hear protein, because it's written all over the packaging. But what about the big, gross pile of hair on the barber shop floor? That's a protein, too!
While the content he teaches may be similar across the class’s sections, the students’ answers determine his delivery. Next, he hooks them with a story, often pulling a short video from his arsenal that describes an interesting process, new research, or a close look at something related to the topic. He guides them through note taking and diagram drawing, as he’s found it’s an effective strategy for keeping individuals’ attention -- a lesson he himself learned from his co-teaching relationships with special education teachers. While he likes the option of using screen annotations, he cautions that they sometimes flop if a student is using a Chromebook. He also sends out graphic organizers the day before, so that students can take notes and make reflections as he teaches. Plus, these graphic organizers become learning artifacts that kids can add to their portfolio (applicable for credit for many homeschooled kids!).
Ben describes how he’s had to adapt his classroom management techniques. Before, he would rely on his physical presence -- walking over and standing by a student -- as a non-verbal cue to redirect their attention. Now though, with the virtual environment, Ben has become a “master of mute.” At the beginning of every class, Ben asks students to mute themselves. He then sets the expectation that everyone stay muted unless they have the floor. That way, all the learners can hear and listen to one another without distracting background noises. Ben keeps his classes conversational, peppering in lots of questions and encouragement.
I really, really like to try and cultivate growth mindsets. Often, when I ask questions and get crickets in return. I'll say, “Feel free to guess, because if you're not sure what the answer is, that's the best time to guess. If you already know the answer, there's no need to guess!
Ben keeps classes busy with numerous, shorter activities that incorporate modeling, explaining and discussing. He focuses on the 5E steps of inquiry: engage, explore, explain, expand, and evaluate. Students get hands-on experience exploring the material by completing virtual and physical lab activities and learning experiences between class meetings. Ben closes each class by asking four questions, reminding students to work on quiz questions and homework activities, and counting down to a big “goodbye!' from everybody in the class. And according to the scientific method, what conclusion can we draw about Ben’s classes on Outschool?
Outschool has taught me to love science, even more than I already did, which was a lot. I would say I have learned that you can pretty much get any young person to love science.
1. Be proactive! “You want to build [your audience]? You have to build it!”
2. Build a large library of classes that fit together to attract a following.
3. Scatter the newer classes throughout your schedule, as often they will take time to fill.
4. Be flexible and consider breaking courses into shorter classes versus a 15-week course commitment.
5. Share and tend to your schedule as soon as possible to seed future choices.