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Bugs = gross.

That’s an equation lodged deep inside the psyche of every second-grade child.

But at River Forest’s public schools, teachers are working with their kids to adjust that perception. They’re taking students’ fascination with the world – including the gross stuff – and molding it into a new hands-on math and science curriculum at District 90’s Lincoln and Willard elementary schools.

That program starts its second year next week, and the district’s director of curriculum Joanne Trahanas said it’s part of a push to make science more exciting for students.

With science units based around those gross mealworms and other creepy insects, as well as math activities students can touch and feel, there was no question it would be a hit.

“We knew kids would like it,” Trahanas said. “But the question was, would it be practical, and would we get the results we wanted? It definitely was, and we did.”

She hasn’t seen any quantitative data on the new program’s affect on test scores yet, but the real victory has been in students’ enthusiasm. The new curriculum has kids more excited about science, in particular, than she’s ever seen grade schoolers before.

That’s in part because of the hands-on training teachers have gotten for the new curriculum. In the old program, she said, teachers got little support, and as a result, science often got left out.

“In the past, you’d get a kit, you’d have a rep from the company come show you some things about the kit, and that was it,” Trahanas said. “That person’s gone, and there you are.”

That stands in stark contrast to the district’s new curriculum, which was developed for District 90 with a consultant – a Northwestern professor who was on hand to answer questions and train teachers in the program last year. She’ll be on hand again this year as the district hones the program.

“We always had a hands-on program, but I think it would come down to some teachers being more comfortable than others, and kids weren’t getting the same thing, depending on the teacher,” Trahanas said. “Now, all the kids are getting it because we’re training all the teachers … With this, before every unit, [teachers] have a half day with the consultant.”

For Pam Moriarty, a 2nd grade teacher who’s entering her 14th year teaching at Lincoln, the training’s made a big difference.

“I knew nothing about mealworms, and I was one of those people who really didn’t want to know about mealworms,” Moriarty said.

But with the new curriculum, she could learn about them alongside the kids, experiencing their sense of wonderment side by side, figuring out what mealworms like to eat.

“The science is very inquiry-based, so you didn’t feel like you had to know all the answers,” she said. “You can lead the kids and direct them, but it’s a lot more discovery, which is nice.”

It’s still been a lot of work and preparation, though, Moriarty said. Learning two new curriculums in one year is intense, no matter how much support you have, and it’s a process of trial and error. Nevertheless, it’s been worth it, she said.

“It was more rewarding at the end,” she said, “because the kids were so much more invested in it.”


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Ben Meyerson

Ben was Wednesday Journal's crime, parks, and River Forest reporter, until he kept bugging us enough to promote him. Now he's managing two of Wednesday Journal's sister papers in the city, Chicago Journal...