On a recent Wednesday afternoon, once the students from Muirlands Middle School were out of the classroom and on their way home, sixth- grade science teacher Julie Latta took a bucket of dead lab frogs and washed them in preparation for a major scientific experiment the next day.
“We’re going to dissect frogs tomorrow,” she told La Jolla Light. “We’ve been studying body systems and we’re building up to a human’s. We started with cells and how cells make tissues, and tissues make organs, and organs make systems (like the digestive or endocrine) and those systems work together to create an organism. We’ve been working on that and how those systems interact, what the organs do, so this is the culminating activity. We’re going to open up the frogs, not to understand the anatomy of a frog, but to understand the anatomy of a human. The students are going to take out every organ in their frog tomorrow and identify it.”
In a sing-song way, she described some of the organs the students will find: “the spleeeeen” and “the cute little gallbladder” ... “there will be the initial ‘ew’ and ‘yuck,’ but for some, there will be the ‘ooh’ and ‘this is cool!’ ”
The frog dissection came just two days after Latta was named a runner-up in San Diego Unified School District’s Teacher of Year recognition program for her “thrill of teaching” and “passion for learning” The recognition came May 7.
Her nomination form states: “For Julie Latta, the thrill of teaching is understanding how to connect the innate joy children possess to something in the real world that gives them a sense of worthiness and contribution. Because the student population is so diverse, Latta has focused her energies on meeting each student where they are academically and supporting their growth — academically, socially, and emotionally. To ensure no students fell through the cracks, Latta created the TRIAGE program, an intensive, teacher team-based intervention program that helps struggling students. The program was so successful that it has been expanded to seventh- and eighth-grade students as well.”
Nominees for Teacher of the Year are first selected by their school sites, and winners and runners-up are selected by a six-member committee comprised of previous District Teachers of the Year. Latta, a married mother of two grown children, lives in Pacific Beach and has been teaching at Muirlands for 18 years.
“When I was young, I tried to teach all the kids in my neighborhood,” she said. “Some people played school, I was really serious about playing school! When I was 10, whatever I was learning, I would go home and bring the little kids in the neighborhood together and try to teach them. I still have that attitude that everyone can learn anything.”
However, when it came time to choose a career, Latta went to college to study political science with aspirations of being a White House chief of staff. “I thought that teachers were in this little uncool mold; they weren’t edgy or involved in fun powerful things,” she admitted. “So I didn’t pursue teaching. But then I got a job in the work-study center at my university and I loved it. I got my teaching credential from there.”
As for that “mold” that teachers fit? “I learned you can bring you to whatever job you want. You don’t have to fit any mold. I pictured me as a teacher wearing polyester skirts with my hair in a bun and sporting a cardigan. I realized I could be whomever I was, in whatever I was doing. That freed me up.”
She chose to work with middle-school students because “the kids are just so cool and there are no better humans on the planet than 11-year-olds. They are still sweet, and they think you, as an adult, are kind of cool with magic they, too, are going to get one day, but they are also brilliant. You can take a deep dive into something and they will go with you.”
And for her students, Latta said, engagement is everything.
“My teaching style is that the kids are always doing something. There is never any sit-and-listen, sit-and-watch, sit-and-observe. There’s always some level of engagement. But even if they are just listening, they’re also drawing or taking notes. It’s not exciting every minute of the day, but there are a million opportunities for ‘oh wow’ moments by doing things.”
And, similar to the anatomy unit where students are growing their knowledge from the basics, the order in which information is rolled out is important: “You have a scaffold in the fundamental learning and you build on that,” she explained.
As such, Latta also admits to “loving” the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) being rolled out by the State, because not only do the standards follow this model, but they aim to create more developed thinkers.
“The former standards were more fact based: know this, know that,” she said. “Well, in a day and age when you have the facts in your pocket, you don’t need to carry around facts, you need to carry around knowledge. You need to carry around a fundamental understanding of things so you know where to go next.
“That’s what NGSS is about. It’s about learning how to think and how to build on an idea.”
This past year, the State started mandating that schools begin to implement NGSS, but Latta said the standards have been well-established at Muirlands for the last five years.
With contagious energy, she explained: “Science is the most fun topic to teach. It relates to the world. We spent the last four weeks talking about our bodies. Right before that, we did a unit on climates and climate change. We get to talk about the magic of the unseen world of chemistry and how there are all these microscopic fundamental elements that make everything, and how the chemistry of blood is the same as the chemistry of ocean water (there are the same atoms and elements, just in different proportions).”
Perhaps more importantly, she said careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) are “begging” for people and provide a field for students to grow.
“Science is about problem-solving and how things work, and about cause-and-effect relationships,” she said. “It’s not about having a bunch of facts, it’s about how those facts work together to become predictive in some way as to suggest what can be next.”