11/10/2014 11:04 am ET Updated Jan 10, 2015

Common Core and the Ebola Virus -- No More Teachable Moments


This is the third in a series of recent Huffington Post columns on the negative impact of the Common Core Standards on education in the United States. The first two posts were "Common Core and the End of History" and "Common Core and the Death of Reading." I am not blaming Common Core for the Ebola epidemic, just for interfering with the inability of teachers to take advantage of teachable moments that engage students in learning, introduce them to fundamental content concepts, and actually promote the development of literacy skills. The goal in every subject areas should be to connect learning activities, curriculum, and skills development to real world applications, especially when events capture the attention of students. These are our teachable moments. But there is no room for teachable moments in Common Core.


Students, unlike New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, have to know something, have context and background information, before they take positions on complex events such as quarantining medical personnel who were exposed to the Ebola virus. Unfortunately, Common Core's extremely narrow focus on skill development and preparation for high-stakes assessments interferes with the ability of teachers to respond to the moment and student interest and interferes with learning. However, everyone does not shy away from what is really important to learn. See "Ebola lessons" on the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility Teachable Moment website, a Huffington Post article by Carly Stern of UNICEF on what children should know about Ebola, and also the Saturday Night Live routine mocking Chris Christie's quarantine decree.

Ebola is a good curriculum example of a teachable moment that cuts across subject areas. In science classes teachers can use the Ebola epidemic to help students examine viruses, immunization, and the spread of disease. In English classes where students read about fictional characters that face moral dilemmas, such as Katniss Everdeen and the rebels in The Hunger Games, and people who put themselves at risk to help others like Robin Hood or Frodo Baggins, students can discuss how medical personnel decide to aid people exposed to Ebola in other parts of the world and whether they should submit to voluntary quarantine when they return home. In math classes students can examine charts and graphs and calculate how viruses spread through a population.

In social studies classes, students should look closely at maps and debate how government officials and citizens should be involved involved in making decisions. They should also discuss the history of European and American imperialism in Africa and whether western nations have an obligation to rebuild regions of the world that they exploited and where they played, and continue to play, a major role in economic and political mis-development. The spread of Ebola out of isolated areas into broader national and international communities also introduces students to negative aspects of unplanned development and unregulated globalization.

In biology classes, an examination of the Ebola epidemic either introduces or reinforces a series of key scientific concepts. Students should explore the historic development of and relationship between organisms that rely on other organisms as hosts; how pathogens leap across species and geographic barriers; how the ability of viruses to infect other living organisms provides scientific evidence for biological evolution; and how biological systems, although they appear to be closed systems, are constantly interacting with broader environments and living communities.

In all of their classes students should be following current events, conducting research, organizing information, arriving at conclusions supported by evidence, and engaging in conversations. They can even write up their findings and mail them to the Governor of New Jersey.

Because some of the readings will be technical and difficult, interest in the Ebola epidemic gives teachers an opportunity to push students to struggle with more complex reading material and teach students techniques to read carefully and deeply. My strategy as a historian and as a teacher is to argue with the author as if we were sitting together around a table discussing what they wrote. I have students do what I do; highlight or circle words where they are unsure of the intended meaning, underline key points made by the author, and write questions and counter-arguments in the margin as they read. When students finish a piece or a section of a longer written work, they type up their notes, editing as they go. The act of editing requires that students actively decide what is actually important to know and what to further think about on the topic.

I found an article in the New York Times Science section on October 27, 2014 especially useful to help students learn this approach to reading. It is a difficult article to read, I do not know what its lexile schmexile rating is but because of the importance of the topic I believe students in 8th or 9th grade Living Environment (biology) classes should be able to work through it and as they conduct research and become interested in the topic, will actually be willing to grapple with it.

I like to start off lessons with a motivation, a question, statement, or activity that establishes a learning context and captures student interest in the topic that will be examined. Motivations connect the subject of the lesson to things that students are thinking about or are interested in. The Morningside Center suggests a simple go around asking students what they already know about Ebola. But since this article focuses on the origin and survival of viruses, I think something more is needed to establish a learning context. In the movie The Faculty, an alien organism takes over and transforms students and teachers at a fictional American high school. There are similar parasites that harbor in living beings in the Aliens movie series. The most directly applicable movie, but perhaps less familiar to students, is 28 Days Later, where a mysterious, incurable virus, spreads across Great Britain and threatens to turn the entire human population into deranged zombies. Did anyone see one these movies? Why are alien parasites and mysterious viruses so frightening?

Here is an example of my unCommon Core approach to reading a complex relatively technical newspaper article. If someone could show me how Common Core teaches students to better understand the article and the topic, I would love to see it.

Instructions for Students: Highlight words when you are uncertain about their meaning. Underline key points and main ideas. Write down your comments and questions. When you are finished look up words you are uncertain about and write a summary of your notes in paragraph form.

Ebola and the Vast Viral Universe by Natalie Angier

Behind the hellish Ebola epidemic ravaging West Africa lies an agent that fittingly embodies the mad contradictions of a nightmare. It is alive yet dead, simple yet complex, mindless yet prophetic, seemingly able to anticipate our every move.

Question: How can a virus be alive but dead?

For scientists who study the evolution and behavior of viruses, the Ebola pathogen is performing true to its vast, ancient and staggeringly diverse kind. By all evidence, researchers say, viruses have been parasitizing living cells since the first cells arose on earth nearly four billion years ago.

Question: Which came first, the cell or the virus? Can we know? Does it make a difference?

Some researchers go so far as to suggest that viruses predate their hosts. That they essentially invented cells as a reliable and renewable resource they could then exploit for the sake of making new viral particles.

Question: How could something that is dead invent something that is alive?

It was the primordial viral "collective," said Luis P. Villarreal, former director of the Center for Virus Research at the University of California, Irvine, "that originated the capacity for life to be self-sustaining." "Viruses are not just these threatening or annoying parasitic agents," he added. "They're the creative front of biology, where things get figured out, and they always have been."

Question: What does he mean, viruses are the "creative front of biology"?

Researchers are deeply impressed by the depth and breadth of the viral universe, or virome. Viruses have managed to infiltrate the cells of every life form known to science. They infect animals, plants, bacteria, slime mold, even larger viruses. They replicate in their host cells so prodigiously and stream out into their surroundings so continuously that if you collected all the viral flotsam afloat in the world's oceans, the combined tonnage would outweigh that of all the blue whales.

Questions: Maybe viruses rule the world and humans are just their food source?

Not that viruses want to float freely. As so-called obligate parasites entirely dependent on host cells to replicate their tiny genomes and fabricate their protein packages newborn viruses, or virions, must find their way to fresh hosts or they will quickly fall apart, especially when exposed to sun, air or salt. "Drying out is a death knell for viral particles," said Lynn W. Enquist, a virologist at Princeton.

Comment: So that's why they hid inside us.

How long shed virions can persist if kept moist and unbuffeted -- for example, in soil or in body excretions like blood or vomit -- is not always clear but may be up to a week or two. That is why the sheets and clothing of Ebola patients must be treated as hazardous waste and surfaces hosed down with bleach.

Viruses are masters at making their way from host to host and cell to cell, using every possible channel. Whenever biologists discover a new way that body cells communicate with one another, sure enough, there's a virus already tapping into exactly that circuit in its search for new meat.

Question: Is this too much anthropomorphizing? Viruses as masters?