Posts Tagged reflection

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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A New School Year Begins

This week was the first of a new school year.  I’m trying to shift my approach this year to make inquiry a central feature of my classroom, pulling ideas from a few different sources, including Modeling Instruction and the 5E model.  Whenever someone tries to change things, some aspects will be great and some will have room for improvement.

 In the past, the other physics teachers and I have introduced constant speed by measuring the time at set positions for a bowling ball rolled down the hallway.  The lab works fairly well, but the logistical issues (including the number of people and the space needed to collect the data) mean that the lab is done as an entire class.  I wanted to have each group collect their own data and played with various options using equipment we have.  I settled on using ticker tape and dynamics carts.  Since this would be their first exposure to ticker tapes, I knew students would need instruction over how to use them.  I started with a discussion (borrowing some ideas from Kelly O’Shea) to determine we’d need to measure position and time, then showed students how to use the ticker tape to measure each of those.  I wanted students to make some experimental design decisions, so all I added is that students should have a table of their cart’s position and time by the end of the period.

It did not work.  I underestimated how much mental effort using the ticker tape would require from my students, so they had a lot of trouble dealing with the other decisions I asked them to make.  I also wasn’t explicit that students should make a written note of what they were trying to produce, so a lot of students forgot what they were supposed to do by the time they managed to get a tape with a nice series of marks.  During my first hour, I ended up pausing the lab a couple times to give some extra direction when I saw multiple groups struggling with the same issues.  In later hours, I provided a lot more structure right from the start, including prompts for students to write down information they would need to reference later.  Fortunately, my first hour students were pretty forgiving; I think it helped that I’ve talked to them a bit about the shifts I’m trying to make and why, so they saw where I was coming from.

I was pleased with how the analysis of the lab went, however.  I’d hoped to have students try creating a few different types of graphs using Plotly to get at why a scatterplot is the best option for a position vs. time graph, but I wasn’t able to get my hands on a netbook cart, so stuck with a short discussion.  My students were able to agree pretty quickly that a scatterplot was the best option and were able to articulate why.  Each group then graphed their data and performed a linear regression using either Desmos or the TI graphing calculators most of them have.  Groups sketched their graphs on whiteboards, and we had a class discussion looking for similarities and differences in the graphs.  Thanks in part to how many students have already taken AP calculus, students were able to pretty easily identify and articulate what on the graphs had physical meaning, which meant I didn’t have to deliver any lecture on constant speed.

Moving forward, I’ll save tools unfamiliar to my students, such as the ticker tape, for labs where the data collection is pretty structured, rather than try and use them for open-ended labs introducing a new topic.  This year, that may mean some compromises, such as collecting data as a class or other large group and keeping items (like motorized constant speed buggies) in mind for this spring’s order.

I also want to keep working on how to have effective class discussions.  I had several students tell me how much they loved that I lectured less than 10 minutes in the first week and I have every intention of keeping that number as low as I can.  In order for students to continue to get the content out of discussions, I need to improve my skills at facilitating them.  That will mean lots of reading, lots of formative assessment (to see if my students know their stuff), and lots of reflecting on how discussions went.

All in all, I’m excited about the shifts I’m making.  I’ve loved seeing more of my students’ thinking on display this week and they’ve been very engaged so far.  There will definitely be more hiccups and missteps, but those are just opportunities to learn.

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