Musings on Instructional Shifts

This year, I took on the role of Secondary Science Standards Implementation TOSA, which is a fancy way of saying I’ve been working with the 6-12 science teachers to transition to a new set of state standards based on the NGSS. This week, I wrapped up my responsibilities for the year with a few days of curriculum writing with our 6th grade science teachers, who will implement the new standards in September. It has been fantastic listening to their conversations and seeing teachers who were wary of these shifts in November get excited about what their classrooms can look like in the fall. As I think about the grade levels that will begin their shift next fall, I’m reflecting on what I think have been some important factors in the success (so far) of the 6th grade team.

I am one of those progressive physics teachers that scoffs that textbooks are for propping up ramps and vastly underestimated the value in piloting a published curriculum. While I don’t use a traditional textbook, I am able to teach the way I do because I have access to materials like the Modeling Instruction curriculum and New Visions science materials, which were especially crucial early in my instructional shift. Those materials helped me visualize what student-centered instruction could look like in the classroom and served as a guide for how to help students develop skills in science practices and discourse. Based on the conversations this week, the published curriculum is filling a very similar role for the 6th grade team. The team even talked about some changes to the materials they are developing from scratch based on what they are learning about using phenomena and scaffolding science practices from the published curriculum.

Another important realization is how overwhelmed a lot of one-shot presentations have left many teachers feeling. A lot of local presentations have focused on what a big shift the new standards are and have left many teachers in my district with the misconception that they should be doing completely open inquiry all the time. Teachers have been very vocal that they appreciate the PD sessions I’ve planned that focus on the “guided” part of guided inquiry where we look at how to strategically constrain activities or steer discussions to keep the scope manageable and ensure students get to the target science content. What seems to work is I am not only showing them the shift, but giving them concrete tools to help make that shift. I’ve been worried about making sure some people recognize the magnitude of the gaps between what we do now and what we’re being asked to work toward, but I think is much more important for me to focus on making the gap feel navigable.

I think a key element next year will be ensuring the 6th grade team has ongoing support in the instructional shift. My district is one of many places where teachers have attended high-quality PD individually and come back excited to apply it in their classrooms, only to fall back on old curriculum and old habits once the school year starts and they are trying to make changes on their own. When I look back at my own shifts, I had a lot of days where I felt like I’d gotten worse as a teacher and the support systems I had were critical to sticking with the changes I was making. As part of the EngrTEAMS project, I had a graduate student coach who joined my classroom during an integrated STEM unit and had reflective coaching conversations with me about each lesson. Around the time I took my first modeling workshop, I started joining regular video chats with Kelly O’Shea, Michael Lerner, Casey Rutherford, and others where we talked through what was and wasn’t working in our classrooms. Both of these were a source of accountability to stick with changes and an opportunity to problem-solve when I had challenges, which were necessary in sticking with the changes I was making. The Teaching & Learning department is taking steps to protect time for the 6th grade science teachers to meet with each other partly so that they can be a source of mutual support. We’ve also started working with administrators and instructional coaches in the middle schools to help them understand what the 6th grade team is trying to do and start thinking about ways they can be supportive when teachers are struggling or frustrated. I also have a lot of flexibility to define what my role involves, and I think it will be worth carving out some time next year to facilitate conversations with the 6th grade team to talk through challenges. I think this is an area we often overlook with in-service teachers, but is crucial to making instructional changes sustainable and effective.

One advantage I’ve had this year is 6th grade science will be the only ones implementing the new standards in the fall, so I’ve been able to devote a lot of attention to that team. Next year, 7th grade, 9th grade, and 11th/12th grade physics will all be preparing to implement in fall 2022, so I will need to consider how to use my learning from this year and rely on the support of colleagues in certain roles to provide the same level of support to three different grade levels while also continuing to support the 6th grade teachers. I have a break from any formal responsibilities in this role until August, which gives me time this summer to continue reflecting on my work this year and planning how I will extend it in the fall.

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