Content Specialists at Angelou* Elementary

By Jo Worthy and Amy Langenkamp


"Eeeeew, gross." "That's nasty!" "I'm not touching that thing."

We couldn't help agreeing with the fourth graders at Angelou Elementary as Nancy, Angelou's science content specialist, handed an owl pellet to each student. Earlier, she had shown a film and explained the origin of owl pellets in graphic detail. "The owl eats a rat, mouse or other small animal whole, and then regurgitates the bones and hair." None of us needed a vocabulary lesson to understand what regurgitate meant. Unfazed by the looks on our faces, Nancy handed out surgical masks ("for the dust") and proceeded to explain and model how scientists determine what the owl had for dinner. As the students began to work with the pellets apprehension turned to fascination. "Gross" and "nasty" turned to "cool!" as we used tweezers to extract skulls and bones from the matted fur.


By the time Nancy came around to each table and showed us how to compare our findings to diagrams of animal skulls, bones, and skeletons, every student in the room felt like a scientist making a new discovery. At the end of the class, each "team of researchers" bagged their bones and stored them for the next experiment, reconstructing the skeleton.

   Nancy considers the science lab an essential place for student learning. A carpeted gathering area, sectioned off from the rest of the room by bookshelves, is filled with science and reference books and a computer wired for internet access. The rest of the room consists of tables, or "work stations," in easy view of science posters and diagrams describing how professional scientists work. Nancy continually refers to her students as "scientists" and members of the scientific community. In the lab, Nancy provides multiple avenues for learning, through experiments, hands-on applications, cooperative learning, and video and internet technology, strategies not alwys possible in classrooms. Reflecting her background in early childhood development, she observes, "This type of environment really helps students who have difficulty in other areas of the school, such as reading and writing classes. The ability to follow a lesson with a hands-on lab helps tremendously to cater to various learning styles. Kids who have problems in other instructional settings look different here. This may be the only time they experience success."

 The owl pellet vignette demonstrates the personalized learning environment that Nancy has worked to achieve. All the students, even one Nancy identified as having severe behavioral challenges, were completely absorbed by the activity.

Nancy teaches kindergarten in the morning and instructs upper elementary students in the hands-on Science Lab in the early afternoon. She spends the remainder of her time supporting teachers in various ways in their classroom instruction, modeling lessons for other teachers in both the Lab and her kindergarten classroom, and providing whatever professional development teachers need or want. Nancy knows that science experiments are extremely labor-intensive, demanding a lot of preparation. Consequently, the teaching of science in classrooms is often focused on book learning rather than experimentation. Therefore, Nancy sees her job as facilitating and enriching science learning for both students and teachers.


Content Specialists at Angelou Elementary

What are Content Specialists?
Often, the best teachers, those who are both knowledgeable and instructionally skilled, eventually feel they must leave the classroom if they want to advance in the field of education. Those who choose to continue in PK-12 education may become full-time curriculum or instructional specialists, or take other administrative/leadership positions for one school or a number of schools, leaving these talented teachers with little or no direct contact with students. At Angelou, content specialists are not typical curriculum or instruction specialists in that they do not leave the classroom. The content specialist job consists of four essential components:

(a) teaching students directly,
(b) providing constant and continuous professional development for teachers in the content focus area,
(c) supporting teachers in working with their own students, and
(d) maintaining and expanding their own professional knowledge and skills.


Within the broad design of the content specialist role, there is room for individual specialists to craft their own position to fit their own area of expertise, as well as the needs of students and teachers.

From our first visit, the content specialist program emerged as a central focus of the Houston-Annenberg Challenge reform efforts at Angelou. Annenberg has significantly contributed to the enhancement and refinement of these positions, which have become critical features of the school culture and of the effectiveness of Angelou's continuing reform efforts. Angelou Elementary has content specialists in every major academic and support area. In academic areas, there are two or more specialists to ensure coverage of all grade levels. We are still learning and gathering information about the complex, multi-faceted roles of content specialists.

*All school names are pseudonyms. Great Horned Owl drawing by Robert Savannah, US Fish & Wildlife Service


Read more about Content Specialists



Updated 8/8/2002