BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER DOROTHEA HACKETT
Since my first venture onto the stage as a child, I have loved performing and all things theater. I even approach teaching as theater. I need to get into character to enhance the different personalities of each of the students in my classes.
Twenty-two years ago, I was asked to take over, develop, and teach Theater Arts I and II my high school. I welcomed the opportunity, of course. In developing the curriculum, I had to ask myself, “Who is my intended audience (students) of this elective?” I focused on the students who had an interest in theater and performing. I soon found out I was wrong.
As the class progressed through the years, I found the students who opted for the course to be those on the fringe - the students that had not found their niche, their community, or academic classroom success. In this class, students were hands-on - performing what they had prepared as “homework.” They learned to demonstrate both proper decorum as audience members and appropriate respectful methods to critique a performance not a performer. Students with all abilities - even those with a variety of special needs - were able to gain confidence and succeed in the class. One particular student took the next step to venture into the realm of our theatrical productions.
David [not his real name], a student on the spectrum learned to love the theater. He auditioned for all shows and earned roles in each. David was very fixed in his thinking and in his routine. If it were Wednesday, it was Burger King on the way home, his mother would tell me. Any diversion from this routine would cause stress and/or a complete meltdown. Rehearsals benefited him since he always knew what was going to happen and when. On stage, David had a scene in a café that required him to pull out a cellphone and tell his acting partner, “I’m just going to scroll through this screen looking at girls much hotter than you.” During each rehearsal and for the first night of the show, David came through comfortably. On show two, this changed. David entered the scene, sat at the café, reached into his pocket for his phone and discovered it was not there. Ordinarily, this unplanned occurrence, like missing Burger King on Wednesday, would initiate great stress and a meltdown. I held my breath. Without any break in character, David pushed back in his chair, crossed his arms, looked into the sky and said, “I’m just going to sit here and daydream about girls much hotter than you.” The scene continued without a hitch.
His mother and I were in tears at the rear of the auditorium. She explained to me how monumental that moment was for him to think on his feet and make an adjustment that worked. My tears were of joy and pride for his ability to adapt to the moment which was groundbreaking not only for his development as an actor but also for him as a person. Mom continues to believe that without theater, that would not have happened.
This is just one story of how theater can enhance students’ life experiences. Much empirical data exists to support the importance and benefits of theater instruction; however, nothing has a greater impact than a personal experience like David’s to advocate for inclusiveness and necessity of theater education. I would encourage all teachers in all content areas to find ways to incorporate theater skills into their lessons to reach all of our students and all stakeholders to keep theater education in the forefront of school curriculum and funding decisions.
BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER ADAM GEBHARDT
My 8th grade class filed into the multipurpose room to sit at the lunch tables for art class where everyone would be working on perspective drawings, except for me. I had a separate table where, for the past few weeks, I had been carefully working on an acrylic painting of two blue jays. Mrs. Nalepa had recognized my interest and talent in art and offered me the opportunity to take a different creative approach to her class with self-guided projects while the rest of my classmates completed the prescribed assignments. After hours of painstaking work, I carefully shuttled the painting home where my parents proudly displayed it for years.
Taking a break from the oil painting in my small studio space with a window overlooking the Tiber river in Rome, I turned around to make a sincere proposal to my painting professor. She had recently laid out the curriculum requiring a finished painting to be turned in each week of the semester. Knowing that my style of painting, which tended to be realistic, would not allow for such a pace, I respectfully asked if I could complete a painting every three weeks with in-progress critiques completed weekly. At the end of the semester, I disappointedly rolled up a dozen unfinished canvases which remain incomplete to this day.
Class after class pours in and out of the art room with barely enough time to transition activities and plan for the next lesson or project. The pace of the curriculum, need for measurable grades, and pressure of presenting a high quality end of the year art show drives the classes onward toward another summer break, yet it is only September. Now that the roles are reversed, I, the teacher, am in the driver’s seat, but I have to stop and wonder if I should be. Who, or what, should drive learning in my classroom? Will I follow in the footsteps of Mrs. Nalepa or my college professor?
This dilemma confronts every teacher as we, the gatekeepers of our students’ education, make daily choices that either permit creative freedom and inspire intrinsic curiosity or conform students to a standard benchmark with rigid learning goals. More than ever, culture and society demand the former from students in the real world while standardized testing, teacher evaluations, and school assessments foster the latter in the educational environment.
Certainly, there is validity in regulated testing and achievement goals, but these should not erase the flexibility of teachers to merge student creativity and interests with quantitatively measured learning progress. Creativity, inspiration, engagement, excitement, interest, passion, and fascination have no numerical score, but they are what fuels intrinsic, life-long learning.
As a student, I experienced the joy of being given the freedom to explore my creative interests as well as the frustration from being denied the same liberty. As a teacher, cognizant of the effect that these experiences had on my education, I have the power to similarly affect my students with my decisions. I hope that I will have the courage to let go of control, refuse to let learning be conformed to predetermined standards, and let my creative, unique students take the wheel.
BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER DIANA COLE
If you have ever been on a flight, you have heard the same safety drill: Put your own oxygen mask on first, then help others around you. Unless you are taken care of, you cannot effectively help others. In a time where teacher turnover rates are increasing and educators are feeling exponentially stressed, teacher self-care continues to grow in importance.
According to a 2017 study by the American Federation of Teachers, 61% of educators find work "always" or "often" stressful, twice the rate of other workers, while 58% of US teachers reported poor mental health. Outside stressors from administrators, students, parents, and our own personal lives take their toll. However, as educators, we also put a ton of internal pressure on ourselves to perform well and help all our students. Teaching is a mentally and emotionally demanding profession where the weight of our students’ problems are often brought home and are on our minds long into the night. So, what can we do about it? How can we save our sanity while still helping others?
We must start to make our own mental and physical health a priority. Who else finds it easier to just go to work sick instead of calling off, hoping there is a substitute available, writing lesson plans, and praying the work gets completed? However, who does that really help? Nobody. We need to change the culture, guilt, and negative perceptions about taking a sick day to recover.
The first step is to be mindful and accepting that stress is going to happen. We can only control what we can control. How we respond and take care of ourselves should be the focus. We can be agents of change to shift school and personal culture toward wellness and self-care.
Individually, we can incorporate short mindfulness activities in our classrooms with students or during our lunch periods. Mindfulschools.org and the Calm App both have great personal and classroom resources. Even YouTube has a plethora of mindfulness activities. Take time for a short walk outside, a breathing exercise, or five minutes of stretching. It might not seem that we have time for this, but taking a few minutes for ourselves can reset our mind and positively influence the tone for the rest of the day.
As teacher-leaders, as we focus more on our own self-care, we can model this for new teachers as well. A recent poll by the National Education Union shows that more than a quarter of teachers with less than five years’ experience plan to leave the profession by 2024 (The Guardian, 2019). Self-care should be part of university education preparatory programs and school districts should include it in new teacher induction programs to increase teacher retention and reduce burn out.
Recently at Edcamp Central PA, I attended a session on Teacher Self-Care. One participant shared that at her school, a new teacher created an anonymous teacher tip line. Through a Google form, teachers could anonymously report another staff member if they knew they were struggling personally or professionally. Then, this teacher wrote a note of encouragement with a treat and surprised that teacher to brighten their day. To this day, the majority of the staff do not know who is doing this, but it has had a huge impact on the culture of the building. You could even create a TLC or Sunshine group so teachers can tackle this together!
We also need to learn to better balance work and our personal lives. Remove work email from your phone and limit the nights you grade or lesson plan. After having my daughter, I have tried to be more strategic about what I assign my students and how I grade, while still keeping things challenging for my students and providing timely and constructive feedback. Can that quick formative assessment be swapped and peer graded together as a class? Could some assignments incorporate student self-assessment instead? By setting at-home work boundaries for myself, I find I am more focused and productive during my planning and lunch periods.
School districts can support self-care by offering mindfulness or team building activities during in-service and staff meetings. Stress-free times during in-service to decompress could include learning mindfulness techniques, wellness fairs with local health professionals, and team building activities such as escape rooms, board games, or even a friendly ping-pong tournament. Something fun to shift the mood! A quick meditation or breathing activity at the beginning of a faculty meeting can make it more productive.
For some additional ideas regarding teacher self-care and mindfulness, check out the following resources:
Remember: You can’t pour from an empty cup. Fill yours first, then give to others. Also, it’s ok to ask for help with tasks. Less guilt, and more self-care. You’ll find that not only are you happier, but others will be, too.
BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER PAM GREGG
Most people who know me today could not possibly imagine my student self, trying to be invisible in the classroom throughout my K-12 school career. I have trouble remembering that person myself.
I can remember awesome teachers who tried to reach out to me, but when your condition is chemical and not situational, there was only so much they could do. My anxiety/depression was invisible. I suffered in silence. I didn’t learn coping skills until, when I was in college studying to become a teacher, I was forced to come out of my proverbial shell and perform.
Where did I get my inspiration for my coping skills? From the students who have entered my classroom since the beginning of my career. And I have spent the last 30 years honing and refining these skills while acknowledging the fact that my students could be suffering from any type of invisible and silent condition as well.
I have taught social/emotional learning courses at the graduate level so that teachers can embrace the concept of teaching the whole student, not just the curriculum. Sometimes, especially at the secondary level, it was a tough sell. The social/emotional piece to teaching is huge but often not emphasized as much as it should be.
Let me share a situation that presented itself this past year in my 11th grade Level 1 Composition class. In this class are high level students who opted not to take an AP English class their junior year. I had previously taught middle school, and this year’s juniors I had possibly taught in 7th, 8th, and 9th grades. The rapport established early on was a great starting off point for my juniors. However, one of my juniors this year who is a highly gifted writer suffered in silence as we began to tackle the research paper process which consumes two months of the semester-long course.
This student had mastered the art of looking busy. I had remembered her as being a perfectionist and a hard worker from having her in class before. I also knew that writing was one of her strengths. To read her writing reminded me of high-caliber writing at the university level. So, when I conferenced with her after the research portion of the project, I was shocked to discover that she had lots of sources and no note cards. She was easily a week behind her peers. She, of course, said she was fine and would catch up over winter break.
Fast forward to January, no progress was made on the paper, and the final due date was looming. Here was this brilliant student with a ton of potential in danger of failing my course. She hadn’t started her paper because she had no outline. She hadn’t started her outline because she had no note cards. She was frozen in the process and helpless to find a solution. That’s where I stepped in. She was already in the habit of popping into my classroom at the end of the school day, so I wasn’t surprised when she showed up on my doorstep the day before the paper was due. What I wasn’t expecting was for her to be “fine” one moment and burst into tears the next.
I sat with her and shared my own experience of suffering in silence. She agreed that she had indeed been suffering in silence but had no idea what to do about it. She was overwhelmed with things that were going on at home and not being able to keep up with schoolwork. I stressed the fact that she needed to take a step back, make a plan, and ask for help, none of which would be easy for her to do.
That afternoon marked a turning point for her. Did she have to share everything that was going on in her life? No. She kept asking me, “What about my paper???” To which I responded, “Are you finished suffering in silence? Will you let me help you?” She agreed that she was and she would. I spent the next couple of minutes showing her how easy it was to do one note card electronically using NoodleTools.
She looked me in the eye and said, “That’s it? It’s that easy??” We discussed that it could have been that easy all along and that by allowing herself to suffer in silence she was torturing herself unnecessarily.
So, what is my point here? I now have a mantra that I repeat incessantly. “Don’t suffer in silence.” I share my past experiences in school. I also share situations where a student was frozen, feeling like it was impossible to succeed, and some strategies we worked on together to cope with what seemed to him/her to be an insurmountable situation. There was no one right answer, but by talking with each student, and backtracking to where they shut down and why, he/she was able to start to come up with a plan for success. We should not be afraid to pull from our own personal experiences to show our students that they are not alone.
I am not a guidance counselor, nor would I ever try to “diagnose” my students, but I am an organized problem-solver (to a fault), and I never give up on my students, no matter how many brick walls they try to erect between me and them. We, as teachers, need to acknowledge the fact that that quiet kid in the back of the classroom, who may come across as an underachiever or someone who doesn’t care, needs to know that we are here to help with the roadblocks and that coping skills do exist for those who may suffer in silence.
Blog Post by PTAC Member Denise Williams
Welcome back! I’m excited about the possibilities this year has in store. However, my optimism has required mindfulness and hard work.
Teaching isn’t always rainbows and puppy dogs. Education can be a minefield with long hours, difficult parents, needy students, demanding bosses, and competitive coworkers. It’s easy to focus on the negative. Teaching is also incredibly fulfilling. Recently, I found myself anxious and focusing on the negative. My anxiety was so high that my physical health was adversely affected. I also found it extremely difficult to focus and to be creative. I wasn’t being the best teacher I could be.
This had to stop. I owed it to my students, my family, and myself. Therefore, I sought out a therapist. This was one of the smartest things I’ve ever done. I learned to embrace uncertainty and to focus on the positive.
One of the many resources that helped me is a book entitled, The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. It is as my therapist put it, “A little woo, woo.” It is very spiritual, but the wisdom behind the four agreements is life changing.
The Four Agreements is a practical guide to personal freedom by revealing the source of self-limiting behavior that steals joy and creates suffering. The Four Agreements are a code of conduct that transforms fear into freedom.
The first agreement is to be impeccable with your word. We tell our students to tell the truth, and we need to as well. As Ruiz puts it, “Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.” If a child is told they are stupid, and their mind is fertile for this belief, then the child will formulate this agreement. This agreement will remain until someone captures the child’s attention and convinces them that they are in fact intelligent. The child can then form a new agreement, and as Ruiz puts it, “The whole spell is broken.” This year let’s do this for our students, our colleagues, and ourselves.
The second agreement is to not take anything personally. As teachers we put so much of ourselves into instruction and our classrooms, so this is a tough one. Ruiz makes the point that what others do is not because of you, but because of themselves. It is their reality. Become immune to the opinions and actions of others, and you won’t be the victim of needless suffering. This is especially true when people are trying to send poison your way. If you accept it, their emotional garbage now becomes yours. Our students can also benefit from this agreement, especially when peers are being ugly toward them.
The third agreement is to not make assumptions. Ruiz writes, “Find the courage to ask questions and express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama.” I said in a recent podcast that I would be the worst reporter. I nod to be polite then stew in my own misunderstanding. I have vowed not to make assumptions and ask more questions. I started with my family this past Christmas. My initial interpretations were often incorrect. Asking questions, and learning the truth strengthened my relationships and limited misunderstandings. As educators we can model this with our students and colleagues. Think of yourself as a reporter or detective and have the courage to ask questions. Despite what Jack Nicholson’s character says in a Few Good Men, you can handle the truth.
The fourth and final agreement is to always do your best. Keep in mind that your best is fluid. Your best will be better when you are well-rested and focused as opposed to when you are exhausted and distracted. Basically, don’t under-do it ,and here is the tough one for teachers, don’t over do it. Both take away from your best. Ruiz states, “That simply doing your best under any circumstance, you will avoid self-judgement, self-abuse and regret.” Be a wonderful role model and share this wisdom with underachieving and perfectionistic students and staff. Always do your best with the four agreements. You may not be impeccable with your word one day. Pick yourself up and start over the next. The same is true for the remaining agreements. By the way, always doing your best fits perfectly with promoting a growth mindset and grit. You got this!
Be impeccable with your word, don’t take things personally, don’t make assumptions, and always do you best. Make these four agreements with yourself and encourage your students to do the same. Fear and anxiety will be transformed into freedom and happiness. I wish you the best on your mindful journey. Take care and have a wonderful school year.
Blog Post by PTAC Member Jeffrey Patrick
Writing this blog is new territory for me as a teacher leader. I’ve never done this before, but sometimes as teachers we have to move past our comfort zone in order to grow.
When I first joined the Pennsylvania Teachers Advisory Committee, I was thrilled to be part of this new group of amazing educators. At the orientation, I agreed to write this blog post. I wanted to help teachers’ voices be heard, but I didn’t know that my voice would be heard so quickly. My wife even questioned, “What have you gotten yourself into now?”
New things are always uncomfortable, at least at first. As a STEAM Integration teacher, I’m constantly asking other educators to be more comfortable with new and engaging technologies.
This doesn’t always go well, as you can imagine.
If anything is a constant in education, it’s change. This time it is my opportunity to get uncomfortable by reflecting on teaching, STEAM education, and newer practices (to me anyway) like podcasting and blogging.
STEAM education and computer science are changing the landscape of education. I live it every day. I must stay one step ahead. I need to research and understand new teaching methodologies before they are a trend. More importantly, I need to prepare our students for the future.
Podcasting isn’t new. It’s been around since Apple sold more iPods than iPhones. I follow many podcasts and YouTube channels. There are so many to list, and I would do many an injustice to even name a few of my favorites. I’ve found that if you’re on the edge of new educational practices, the work flow for finding and seeking new tools to teach with is sometimes more important than the specifics that are found on their own.
On my trip to PETE&C, I decided I was going to start a podcast. I had some help from a great friend. We were determined. I felt awkward doing it, but we moved forward. This friend is also part of my Professional Learning Network (PLN), and that made it a bit easier.
Develop a good PLN, both online and in person, that you can share ideas with. It’s more valuable than any teaching tool or podcast.
We began. We looked for inspiration from Twitter, Edtech blogs, app store reviews, and colleagues. We Googled. We decided on a podcast app called Anchor. I’m sure there are better ones that fit your needs, but the best feature of this one is that it’s free. It also allows users to use their phone and create a podcast remotely. We found ourselves walking around Hershey Lodge at PETE&C, and did some of our recordings away from each other. It was a win. We recapped nearly all our experiences and sessions. This was pretty cool concept, and it took little effort. We justed started talking. Our results were no This American Life, but we had created content. For our students, this could be the key to unlocking their potential.
How can this be implemented? This year, my school is moving to standards-based grading. My plan is to have students reflect on learning, experiences, and projects with this application. It will become a tool to evidence learning in their digital portfolios, which we plan on using with google sites.
My students are familiar with a lot of applications. I teach students basic sound production and video production with software like Traktor Pro, Noise by Roli, Soundation Studio, Garageband, iMovie, and Educreations. Anyone that is used to using a DAW (digital audio workstation) will be familiar with the workflow. Anchor operates similarly. The timeline editor portion of these software applications allow for easy editing.
I plan on providing students with opportunities to share their experiences with podcasting by building on their knowledge of timeline editor workflows. Then they will save them to their personal google sites portfolio.
Podcasting has helped me reflect on my own learning. Try something like podcasting or even audio notes to improve your craft. Ask your students for feedback or survey them about assessment choice. Engage in that resource. Show students how you found the resource. Even better, embed research of a podcasting app into your digital citizenship lesson. We chose Anchor. Your students might find another application.
That’s all part of the process of learning. Have discussions about how to choose topics, branding, and/or editing. Provide your students with future ready skills and experiences. If anything else, reach out to your PLN, blog, and/or podcast to share your ideas.
It’s a great way to try something new for your students.
Blog post by PTAC Member Tracey Fritch
Four years ago, after spending more than twenty years teaching elementary-aged students, I accepted a job working with middle schoolers. While teaching is, of course, teaching - no matter what age - making the switch to middle school from elementary school required adding plenty of new tools to my toolbox.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned during these past four years are ones about the power of choice to reach this particular group of kids.
A common choice middle schoolers and their teachers face is the making of behavioral decisions. Some of the best advice on working with middle schoolers was wisely imparted by one of our guidance counselors: when faced with a standoff, “give them a choice.”
Offering behavioral choices saved me from more showdowns than I can count - giving a child a chance to save face in front of peers and the classroom a chance to return to work with minimal disruption.
Since my teaching team serves about 100 students each year, academic choices were, at times, more complex to implement. In my district, we use reading and writing workshop with all of our students K-8, and our students are given lots of choices about the content of their independent reading and/or writing each day. Our teachers confer with students about their work and set them on paths for self-improvement, but doing this work one-on-one was time-consuming.
With so much to cover in the course of a school year and only 44 minutes per day in which to do it, offering more choices related to teaching, learning, and assessment seemed improbable to a newer middle level educator.
Small-group strategy lessons have been an answer. Based upon the advice of our curriculum writers, the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project (TCRWP), and Teaching Learning Succeeding (TLS), this year I began offering my students more formative assessments (TLS calls them “targeted checks”), based upon what we thought were the most essential learning objectives of any given unit.
Armed with these targeted checks, I compiled materials for running high-utility strategy groups. A few students in these groups were invited to particular groups because their formative assessments told me that they needed to be there; others joined because they self-identified as wanting to improve upon a specified skill.
In these small groups (4-6 people), students who’d previously scoffed at the idea of doing challenging writing revision work when I’d suggested it to the whole class gave me their rapt attention as I offered advice on how they might go about being more successful with a skill - accompanied by a “take along with you” menu of choices for how to go about this work.
Nearly all students immediately set about the job of making needed changes to their pieces, impatient to offer the revised pieces for feedback when finished. I attribute much of this buy-in to the fact that they had a choice - sometimes even in whether or not to work on a skill but always in how (which strategies on the menu) and where (in their pieces) to go about incorporating a skill into their repertoire.
One final way I offered greater choices to my students this year was in terms of end-of-unit assessment. When our TLS staff developers encouraged us to offer students “Challenge by Choice,” I also remembered a TCRWP workshop I’d recently attended on using “Learning Menus.” These menus offer students a chance to choose how and where they might analyze and respond to complex texts.
Previously, we’d asked students to show what they’d learned in a number of our units by writing Text Dependent Analysis essays. We needed them to practice writing in this format, and they needed a way to show us what they’d learned in a particular unit. It seemed, in some ways, like the path of least resistance and a way to marry our curriculum with state requirements.
Though it seemed like the path of least resistance since our curriculum asks students to read, talk and analyze complex texts in deep, thoughtful ways, gauging what they knew at the end of a unit by using a format that doesn’t exactly spark creativity wasn’t working out as we’d hoped.
This year, wanting to offer students appropriate differentiated challenges, I decided to try the “Learning Menus” when we finished our Dystopian Book Clubs unit of study. This unit asked our seventh grade readers and writers not only to read, understand and analyze these complex texts but also asked them to realize that dystopian authors are often writing thinly-veiled social commentary - and to make connections to the social issues existing in our world today.
This was a tall order for young teens but a developmentally appropriate one for these students who are so full of passion to unpack and discuss what’s fair and unfair in their worlds as they begin to make their way toward adulthood.
The “Learning Menus” are based on the “Value Menus” in fast-food restaurants, encouraging students to choose from among a variety of essential understandings from the unit upon which to focus as well as a variety of ways to show what they learned - from essay-writing to organizing to illustrating, in order to demonstrate their understanding of the work of a unit of study.
Students created their “value meals,” their final projects, in unique ways, choosing (within teacher-created parameters) what aspects of the unit on which to focus and how to present their ideas about what they learned. For this particular project, one choice was about how to reflect upon how their texts connected to the world considering theme, social issues, or their author’s intent to change the world with the text. A second choice involved how they understood text elements: setting/conflict, archetypes, or character traits.
Many students crafted responses that were much more thoughtful and outside-the box than any formal essay assignment could have drawn from them. Some shone with their descriptive ability, some with their ability to organize ideas into tidy graphic organizers, and many more than I’d anticipated labored over gorgeous sketches.
The middle school years are an exciting, dynamic time of life marked by dramatic physical and emotional changes as students begin to navigate young adulthood. At the same time, many students find themselves unconvinced as to the ways that their school coursework is relevant to their real lives and also find themselves completing assignments merely to please their teachers and families and get by with just enough effort to earn whatever is considered an acceptable grade in their households.
The power of choice as a classroom tool can win over adolescent’s minds and hearts and make these years a time when they are invested in their work as opposed to being merely compliant. With a bit of planning, differentiated choices, based on student ability and interest, can help teachers in all subject areas foster creativity, purpose and engagement in their classrooms, even with those students who are the most skeptical about why they are with us in the first place.
Blog post by Stacy Gasteiger, PTAC Member
“Why do we get potholes in the road?”
“How do the flowers know it’s time to come out?”
“How fast does a hummingbird fly?”
When children are young, it seems like the questions never stop. Everything is a matter of curiosity and wonder. They spend their time investigating everything they see, whether that means sticking it in their mouths, touching it all over, or watching warily from a careful distance.
Unfortunately, this attitude of curiosity and wonder can be seriously diminished once students enter school.
The pressures of mandated testing and evaluation by test scores push schools and teachers to narrow their focus onto tested subjects, primarily math and reading. This can lead to prescribed curriculums that decrease a teacher’s ability to foster that sense of wonder in students.
However, it’s when we give students an explorer mindset that real learning can occur, and students become intrinsically motivated. Inspired by my relationship with National Geographic, I have spent the last several years aspiring to turn my students into curious and responsible explorers of their own world.
Teachers can first and foremost encourage students to become explorers by becoming explorers themselves. Learn a new subject, try a new type of food, or visit a place you’ve never gone and then share the experience with your students. Students love to hear how their teacher was nervous, but tried something new anyway.
When they see or hear their teacher reaching out and flirting with failure, students have the confidence to try a little harder and know that failure is just the first step into a new adventure.
Next, share explorations of topics and ideas with your students. In my classroom, my students have virtually visited with scientists and researchers from all over the world.
We’ve chatted with a fish researcher in Angola, a tsunami expert in Israel, and a volcanologist in the U.S. When a student has the opportunity to learn from an expert, you will be amazed to hear the questions they ask. (And don’t be surprised by the, “Do you like candy?” questions as well.)
My third-graders wrote letters with suggestions for our town—and the mayor came to class to listen to them. Suddenly, I had a classroom of students who understood how local governments work and were annoyed that they had to wait until 18 to vote.
Finally, let students explore on their own, preferably outside. When students are exploring outside, they learn that the world is not a series of multiple-choice problems. There are real questions to ask and real, complex issues that need solving.
My students have studied local soil samples and compared them with other parts of the world, used trail cams to track local wildlife and come up with ways to analyze the data, and gone fossil hunting to reconstruct ancient Pennsylvania.
When I give my students the agency to do the exploring on their own, they are initially confused, and then completely empowered. One girl with a difficult home life became fascinated by our study of paleontology. When we went on our fossil hunt, she peppered the paleontologist with dozens of questions that he was thrilled to answer. Now she hopes to become a geologist and wants to know what she will need to study to achieve her goal.
Students are capable of so much more than simply following required curriculums. It is up to teachers to instill an explorer’s mindset so students continue exploring like they did when they were little.
Blog Post By Alice Flarend, PTAC Member
How many times have you heard “It’s not rocket science!” to describe something that is easy?
Many times I have heard that phrase used to describe teaching. Well, I know rocket science (and a lot of other science), and I can say unequivocally that teaching is not rocket science. It is much harder!
As a nuclear engineer turned high school teacher, I can attest that working with humans is much more difficult than working with physical systems. Human behavior and their interactions cannot be mathematically modelled. There are simply too many variables.
In my previous field, I worked with neutrons. Whether it was a Monday morning in October or Friday afternoon in April, my neutrons behaved in the exact same way. I knew how many I had to work with at every moment. The neutrons would move in a straight line at a steady speed. I could mathematically predict how many would make it through a barrier and how many would not. I could repeat my tests with the same experimental setup and get the same results year after year.
Now, my days are filled with managing Adams, not atoms. However, unlike my radioactive atoms, there is no clear equation to predict the behavior of my students. Adams are individuals with hopes and dreams and family and friends. Some are completely different people on Monday morning than on Friday afternoon.
Perhaps it is because this weekend was spent with a parent who had to work nights, so Adam stayed up all Saturday and Sunday night playing Fortnite. Perhaps Adam stayed up all night taking care of a sick sibling. Perhaps there was a fight with a friend at a locker before homeroom. Maybe Adam is hungry. Maybe Adam didn’t even make it to school that day or the next.
Adam can face barriers that I have never experienced. I may not know what they are, but I can see evidence in their behavior, just like the changes in the path of my neutron. I, however, had total control over the environment of my neutron.
My students come from a variety of socioeconomic environments, even though outwardly they appear fairly homogeneous. The effects of their environments on their lives is strong and not always obvious.
One Adam has already been accepted into a pre-med program. Another dreams to be a truck driver despite not even owning a car.
One of these Adams misses several days of school each month. One of them copies his homework. One needs help paying for lunch. Do you think you know which Adam I am describing? Is it only one of the Adams, or is it both? Although you may have a strong guess, there is a large probability that you will be wrong.
All these diverse Adams are in my class to learn physics. As with all subjects, students come with prior knowledge and experience that influences their learning. If I needed an atom with a specific energy for my engineering work, I would simply filter out the ones that did not meet my needs. None of my Adams are filtered out because they do not measure up. In fact, educators work incredibly hard to keep all the Adams in school.
Instead of filtering, it is my job to design learning experiences to move all of my Adams closer to a scientific understanding. This means that I give opportunities to explore both familiar and unfamiliar scenarios. Of course, what is familiar to this Adam is completely foreign to another. That is an asset I can leverage if I design my classroom norms and the activity well.
I need to help the Adams feel comfortable sharing their ideas and pushing back productively on the ideas of another. I need to know my content and pedagogy deeply enough to pick scenarios that are rich enough to foster disagreements and that are both familiar and unfamiliar to my Adams.
I need to carefully listen to what they are saying, read what they write, and watch what they are doing to gather information on their understanding to design the next learning activity. It may be one that I have done ten times before. It may be one that is inspired by the classroom interactions.
Either way, it is an intellectual and creative endeavor steeped in applying fundamental knowledge to a specific situation. In other words, I am still doing engineering, but with a much more complex material.
Blog Post by Colleen Epler-Ruths, PTAC Member
I was talking with Lena, a middle school student who was using a computer visualization of earthquake data. She had been using the computer visualization in science class for over a week.
I asked, “So when I open this screen can you tell me what you notice?”
“umm, umm, well…….”.
Lena is a low spatial student. She could not explain to me what she was seeing. And her science grade seemed to reflected her inability to explain scientific phenomenon.
My research is on the impact a student’s spatial skills had on learning from a 3D digital data representation. Can computers help mediate student learning even if they have low spatial skills? Seems that Lena was still having trouble learning geoscience even though the computer had reduced the cognitive load and presented her with a 3D image of quakes within the earth’s crust.
Turns out that spatial skills are a great predictor of student success in STEM courses. Science is a very spatial subject. Just think about the spatial nature of moon-earth-sun in astronomy, bonding in chemistry, DNA molecules in biology, muscle structure in anatomy, projectile motion in physics and plate tectonics in geoscience. The list could go on-and-on. All of these examples are three dimensional phenomenon which require various types of spatial skills to deeply understand.
So what are spatial skills? Spatial skills are a wide range of mental processes that help a person navigate our 3D world. Common tests to measure spatial skills include rotating blocks, perspective taking (mountain from the top versus the side) and paper folding. Research has shown that spatial skills can be taught and improved through training at the university level. The problem is, most students start to loose their interest in science at the middle school level. Could there be ways to improve spatial skills prior to adulthood in hopes of keeping more students interested in science?
The answer is YES! Spatial skills are malleable and some thoughtful interventions at younger ages can have an important impact later down the line. The important links to spatial skills is something we already do in school - Training, Play and Language. Research has found that training with mental rotation puzzles helps students with rearranging algebra problems and helps students with low spatial skills increase their competence. Using structured block play has been shown to increase students abilities to be more accurate and quick at spatial tasks as well as enhance areas of the brain known to support spatial thinking.
But the most important intervention seem to be in language. There is a clear link between spatial skills and language - young children with greater spatial language were able follow guided block structures building. Other studies shown that students are better able to accomplish spatial tasks if the adults gives the directions with more spatial words. So instead of saying “but the block here” say “put the block on the middle shelf, under the top shelf”. The idea is that more spatial language helps the student think about the world in more spatial terms which will allow them to notice more spatial phenomenon.
In my own research, I found that students who answered questions in the curriculum with more spatial words (depth, height, under) had greater gains in understanding of plate tectonics than students who answered questions using nonspatial words (colors or lines). While both answers may have been correct in what the student saw, the spatial answers were more inferential instead of descriptive.
So what about computers? Can they be helpful? Some studies have shown that playing “first person shooter” or Tetris type video games increases spatial skills. However, in the classroom, the use of simulations for scientific phenomenon seems to benefit the more spatial student. My experience is that before you introduce a computer simulation into the classroom for learning, students need to have time to play with the simulation and then they must be guided through the affordances of the simulations using as much spatial language as possible. Otherwise you run the risk of having a student like Lena who cannot give words to the spatial phenomena in front of her.
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