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Education World Resource Roundup: Teaching About GMOs

The debate around genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as they relate to the environment and our food system continues to fill the news with plenty of fuel for skill building and content mastery across disciplines. Having students navigate through these complicated ideas can be a daunting task for any educator. This is especially true for those interested in supporting an unbiased examination of this "hot button" controversy.  It's a lot to tackle, and perhaps difficult to facilitate true Socratic inquiry for such emotionally-charged issues.  However, it fairly consistently leads to deep engagement and will be completely worth your time and effort. This week, let's look at some resources that might make this complicated topic accessible to the modern UDL-embracing, integrative, and differentiated classroom.

Listen Current:  Genetically Modified Potatoes

Get right to the "meat and potatoes" of the controversy as we see it on our plates with Listen Current.  Michigan State University's top potato breeder David Douche and larger associations like the J.R. Simplot Co. of Boise, Idaho have been working to create food sources for an increasingly demanding market.  If all goes well, potatoes that yield fewer bruises, fewer black spots, and what they believe to be a safer, less expensive product for the consumer may soon hit the market.  Referring to these potatoes as "innate," researchers insert modified versions of genes that already exist in potatoes, yet are innate to the particular species in order to improve its looks, safety, and usability.  

However, large companies like McDonald's and Frito Lay, nervous about the public outcry against modified foods, are hesitant to sign on with the new GMO.  "It's really strange how GMO has become a curse word," says Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, in the Listen Current broadcast.  Despite the researchers' attempts at making the world's third most important food crop more available, public fear is changing the way these food market titans do business.  Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch, an environmental advocacy group, says, "When you ask consumers if they're comfortable with this technology, they are not."

Find out more about innate potatoes here!

Listen Current is a great way to bring the power of public radio to the ears and minds of students and exposes them to a perhaps less-familiar source of news and information (think CCSS's "Speaking and Listening" standards).  This particular source is rooted in an episode of NPR's "All Things Considered" and, like all of Listen Current's sources, includes a great technology-integrative "do now." The site has great listening comprehension questions, as well as thematic discussion prompts for in-class use.  For educators who might already use the popular assessment/engagement tool, Socrative, Listen Current also provides links to their assessments for most Listen Current sources.  The site includes up-to-date current events, and all of it is free.  Premium members gain access to standards-aligned lesson plans, virtual classrooms, and customizable assignments.  

PBS:  Harvest of Fear

PBS's Frontline and NOVA have partnered in "Harvest of Fear" to give students a variety of interactive and informative experiences that really address the arguments both for and against the practice of genetically modifying our food.  The "Should We Grow GM Crops" portion of the site provides students with a "Choose Your Own Adventure"-style argument-counterargument WebQuest.  Clicking on the "Engineer a Crop" link will allow students to virtually genetically modify their own plants in a shockwave or flash plugin. "Guess What's Coming to Dinner" gives students a sense of where and how often GMOs make it onto their plate. "Viewpoints" polls the scientists and government regulators on the tough questions regarding the debate.

Check out the Harvest of Fear here!

PBS has created a real gem here and continues to provide brilliant resources for educators.  They've included teacher's guides for each program title, related videos, and a multitude of links for the inquiring mind.  Make sure, however, to consider both pre-teaching and reading level when using this resource, as there is a lot of content-specific vocabulary sprinkled throughout.

ThinkCERCA:  Genetic Firewalls for GMOS

Meanwhile, over at ThinkCERCA, students can have a glimpse at how GMO companies are actively responding to critics and using the technology in an attempt to both safeguard the environment and improve the public's view of their product.  Harvard and Yale researchers are currently developing bacteria that need lab-formulated amino acids to survive, which would keep the modified organisms from entering the wild and out-competing natural species - a major concern of the anti-GMO constituent. "I don't want to be alarmist or anything, but I think the point is that these organisms do spread," said George Church, a Harvard Medical School genetics professor, in the ThinkCERCA article.  The researchers believe that this technology could also be extended to crops.

Will these firewalls be enough to quell consumer fears?  Find out here!

ThinkCERCA's resources are extensive and very accessible to students.  You'll find the articles themselves have an SBAC-like flavor to them, with the text on the left side and the guiding questions arranged on the right.  Each article includes a vocabulary list, where one click of an unfamiliar word leads to a clear and concise definition, as well as an audio recording of the article for close listening skills and assistance for struggling readers.  The guiding questions provide immediate feedback to students, as well, and are all Common Core-aligned.  Although the site has a lot of content labeled "free forever," there is both a trial as well as an opportunity to upgrade to get access to thematic lessons and minilessons.

NewsELA:  Food Labeling

After deep work around the science behind GMOs, head over to Newsela for updates on how legislators are responding to the public push for GMO labeling, state-by-state.  Outlining Oregon and Colorado's court battles, this article by the Los Angeles Times gives a great overview of the argument.  Companies that use GMOs in their products are worried that the labeling will make them undesirable and more expensive, while those in favor of the labeling contend that the public has a right to know what they are eating.  This article really draws student attention toward how these complex legislative debates can make their way into their local grocery store.  

Find out more about the politics of food at a comfortable reading level here!

Newsela a must-have in any teacher's toolbox.  They add new articles daily from nationwide news sources and provide them at five different Lexile levels—an incredible opportunity in the modern differentiated classroom.  Teachers have the ability to create classes online, assign articles to individual students, groups, or to the class as a whole, and utilize Newsela's comprehension quizzes, found with most of their texts.  The paid "pro" version unlocks benefits like tracking student and classwide progress, student annotation and highlighting, and customizable writing prompts.  The trial period itself is well worth it, just to explore these features.


Share your GMO teaching resources in the comments below.


By Keith Lambert, Education World Contributor

Lambert is a certified English Language Arts teacher and teacher trainer in Connecticut.



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