Sofia Palmer Castanon is not afraid of confronting students with challenging curriculum. “My students will say, ‘My brain hurts!’ and I just say, ‘Good!’ ” An English teacher for eleven years, Sofia currently teaches English in the Health Academy at Pacifica High School in Oxnard, where she taught the UCCI course, Applied Medical English, for three years. Sofia not only taught the course, but was on the team that created it at the Fall 2010 UCCI Institutes. Sofia participated again as a course developer at the Spring 2014 UCCI Institutes, contributing to GameCraft: English 10 with Game Development, which is currently being revised in preparation for “a-g” review. Sofia has also served as a facilitator at the Fall 2013 UCCI Institutes, co-leading the team that created the newly-approved English/health science course, The Dynamic Literacy of Patient Care, in which students develop analytical reading and writing skills as they explore issues pertaining to wellness, preventative care, and mental health.
“When I agreed to facilitate at that Institute, I didn’t at all go in there thinking I would get a course out of it,” Sofia remarked, but as she watched the curriculum come together, she realized the eleventh grade English course the team was developing would be a great fit at Pacifica’s academy. “The team created a great course,” Sofia explained, “and I plan to teach it in the 2015 – 16 school year.”
Sofia was initially drawn to the UCCI Institutes back in 2010 in hopes of being able to develop a course her school could use within their health science academy. “I went hoping to get a course I could use, because I was teaching a lot of integrated curriculum already, but only as an elective course. I was hoping to leave the Institute with an actual, a-g-approved English course that we could have in our health academy.” Once at the Institutes, Sofia found that the course design work being done there appealed to her because she also places a high value on collaboration. “My contributions on that team meant that [Applied Medical English] did have some of what I had hoped to include, but the collaboration made it an even better course than what I would have created on my own.”
The value of teachers working together is not lost on Sofia’s school, where the administration doesn’t just encourage teachers to collaborate, they require it.
“I was approached to be part of the health academy when it was in its conception phase,” Sofia explained, “and the expectation was collaboration, and I was all for it.” The administration has built the time for teachers to work together into the school day. “Our team has a common prep period to discuss curriculum and student progress,” Sofia says, “and when we have brought new teachers in, we’ve stressed that collaboration is a requirement, not an option.”
“Applied Medical English starts out really challenging for the students, but by the end of the year, they love it….They love the texts we read and can relate them to current events going on all the time..”
Teachers aren’t the only ones engaging in teamwork at Pacifica High; the students do as well. And in fact, one of the things that drew Sofia to teaching Applied Medical English was that it presented so many opportunities for students to work together, such as they do in a group project in the third unit of the course, in which students, working in groups, create a multimedia presentation that analyzes the genesis and history of a disease within a country and the course of action taken by the responding global health organizations.
“The work of the course is different than that of a traditional English class, and that’s exciting for students,” Sofia said.
The engagement factor is high in Applied Medical English, said Sofia, but so is the level of difficulty in the course content. “It is such a rigorous course; it begins with a unit in philosophy, which really throws students. It’s a great experience to see them struggle a bit.” The work awaiting her high school seniors in college will also challenge them, Sofia noted, “and they will need to be ready for that.”
“Applied Medical English starts out really challenging for the students, but by the end of the year, they love it. They find it so real-world; they love the texts we read and can relate them to current events going on all the time.”
A lot of the students in Pacifica’s Health Academy job shadow at a local hospital, Sofia explained, “so the ethics topics covered in the course are very immediate to them.”
In addition to the fact that students find the course interesting and relevant, Sofia noted that the course is also engaging to teach. “I love the balance of traditional English class with the components of real life and real issues. I like that it’s not all the same classic texts; we get to do some contemporary reading, and that keeps everyone’s interest.”
Though she enjoys teaching this kind of integrated curriculum, Sofia said that not everyone immediately saw the benefit of the Applied Medical English class when she pitched it to her school. Some teachers were thrown by the fact that it was such a different kind of English class, particularly because it includes so many non-fiction texts. “But my principal at the time was very supportive,” Sofia explained, “And my new principal is 100% supportive.” The course was eventually approved to be taught in the Pacifica Health Academy. “But the curriculum is so rich that any student would benefit from it,” Sofia said.
In reflecting on the effect the course has had on students, Sofia brought up the fact that the first group of students to have had Applied Medical English is now graduating from college. “These are all first-gen college students. We’ve seen four become nurses, one heading off to medical school, and a great many others graduating from college. Though this information is coming to us informally, I know it’s an increase over previous years.” Sofia explained that the earlier courses in the academy build on one another to give students a firm foundation to confront the challenging curriculum of Applied Medical English, so no matter what students choose to do after high school, Sofia said, “I know we’re preparing them well.”