Here’s what teachers are telling us: They miss their students and they worry about persistent inequities. Do their students have a decent computer, lunch, and a caring adult at home and with the time to help them? Teachers, in turn, are taxed by the demands of new technologies, the caprice of Wi-Fi, and the need to redesign lessons for the online classroom. Many have families of their own and children whose education also requires oversight.
Distance learning has been emotionally and intellectually exhausting. And science education poses an additional challenge: The most engaging science lessons are hands-on, collaborative, and driven by spontaneous questions—and therefore more difficult to replicate online.
Teachers are looking for support, but many have found the flood of digital resources overwhelming. Rather than add to that flood, IslandWood recently conducted a series of online workshops to facilitate a dialogue for teachers so that they might co-design new science lessons and adapt old ones to meet the exact needs of their students. “NGSS in Action: Creating Resources for At-Home Science Learning” builds from our work with ClimeTime, a statewide initiative linking Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) to climate literacy. The standards expect teachers to connect what students are learning in the classroom to events taking place in their lives and communities. “Science is about solving real-world problems and understanding actual phenomena,” said Brad Street, IslandWood’s Manager of Urban Programs. “Science is not intended to be taught as content in and of itself.”
Teachers and students needn’t look farther than the schoolyard or neighboring streets to study real-world environmental problems and climate change. “We’ve always used an equity lens so that the definition of science means more than just test tubes and lab coats and the definition of environment includes more than some rarefied concept of nature, but urban spaces too,” said Director of Urban Programs Kate Bedient. This approach is proving to be particularly relevant and practical in the context of remote education. We’ve shifted the landscape of discovery from the schoolyard to students’ homes and neighborhoods, where an anthill, stormwater drain, blackberry bramble, and any number of other seemingly ordinary but rich learning opportunities can be found.
Our ClimeTime in-person professional development typically consists of two parts: a large-group workshop and a planning session with teachers at their school. Planning sessions begin in the classroom where teachers and IslandWood staff dig into the curriculum, the NGSS performance expectations and cross-cutting concepts, and continue outside where we tour the school grounds and neighborhood to identify sites of interest and develop field-based lessons that support teachers’ learning goals. The challenge now that schools are closed was to convert this very personal, very physical on-site work into to a virtual experience. The result was a four-part workshop series that included two breakout sessions organized by grade level and facilitated by an IslandWood staff member.
“I found it really helpful to be able to think and talk with other educators and plan work for students that used both technology and access to observable phenomena (look outside your window for changes in the plants, check the temperature on an app, etc.) as a way of mitigating some of the many negatives from the school closure,” said Sarah Furstenburg, a teacher at Bow Lake Elementary and workshop participant.
The peer support and lesson design that happened in breakout groups most closely approximated the hands-on work of our ClimeTime onsite planning sessions. Take the experience of the group with first- and third-grade teachers. With equity issues at the forefront, this group decided that outdoor activities were not realistic for their students, as they required too much help from parents who might be working. So ideas for lessons about bees and murder hornets or other subjects requiring access to the outdoors were abandoned in favor of one which would involve only a sink full of soapy water and dishes. Why do some dishes sink and others float? Teachers would build a lesson around this phenomenon and get students asking questions to drive the scientific process.
The workshop participants gave it a whirl and reported back at the second small-group session with varying degrees of success. They spent the session troubleshooting logistics and student engagement. One teacher suggested that presenting the lesson as a challenge (“Prove it!”) motivated her class, while another planned to link the lesson to her students’ obsession with the Titanic. A new lesson structure emerged in which the float/sink activity would take place on Zoom as a class where teachers could tease out observations from their students and simply get them wondering. They would then ask students to test objects in a sink or bath and challenge them to find a something heavy that could float. Teachers opted to meet for an additional third session to share what turned out to be success stories, including one about a student who connected the lesson to lived experience, demonstrating the engagement that would please any teacher and inspiring further investigation: “Flat objects float,” he said, “I can float on my back in the water and boats are also flat.”
Group members also made plans to extend the lesson with an engineering challenge: use materials from home to float an object that would usually sink. “I came out of this feeling successful at engaging my students in science at home,” said Christy Harris, a teacher at Broadview Thomson K-8. “I’m excited to see what students do with the engineering piece around float and sink. I had one student who used a watermelon to experiment, and another student actually went and got a small bucket of water to show how her ceramic bowl was floating during our [online class]. It was pretty neat.”
Teachers have reported that the opportunity to collaborate with peers outside their buildings and from diverse geographic locations was perhaps the most valuable aspect of the workshop series. As part of our ClimeTime programming, we have been exploring the creation of online professional learning communities. The experience of working with teachers virtually during COVID-19, of seeing the productivity of the working groups and the support and inspiration engendered among participants, confirms that this is a good move for healthier times too.
Clickto learn more about upcoming teacher professional development opportunities offered throughout the year.