Some of the most meaningful learning experiences for me as an educator has involved teaching science. For some time it was a lost or misplaced content area after a district driven by making scores pushed it out. During this void, I was fortunate enough to be a part of engaging professional development. Reflecting on myself as a learner, I loved projects and learning through them.
A flow chart created in Google Drawing illustrating the food chain and flow of energy of an endangered species.
My joy for new and enticing PD led me to venture into project based learning (PBL) and trying some STEM courses over at Teachers’ College a few summers ago. It was idealistic that these two active learning pieces would fit nicely over the course of the next four school years. In order to not overwhelm myself, I started with a very loose PBL structure that embedded reading and writing skills within the science learning. It was easy for me to incorporate these content areas because I was also actively utilizing AVID strategies within my routine instructional practices.
The insect baby made from chenille stems a student created through drafting Punnett squares to uncover the alleles the insect would exhibit.
What eventually became the icing on the cake was infusing art into my teaching of science concepts. I had the pleasure of teaching for two school years at Elmwood Elementary where art is “the thing.” My time and experience in using art in my lessons really changed the dynamic of the “finished product.” I found it easier to include the elements of art in many of the projects and students were enamored by the idea of using art.
Students learn about simple machines and build a compound machine that incorporates multiple machines using recycled materials.
Here’s an outline of my instructional process. I build units based on major science concepts using the Next Generation Science Standards. Within those units I incorporate reading, writing, collaboration, communication and technology skills. I backwards map the major ideas to be learned and follow that learning using assessment checkpoints. Most often these checkpoints build on one idea to the next leading up to the final product. All units are built organically and the projects or tasks may have changed from year to year upon reflection.
Creating these interdisciplinary units have been developed over time through constant reflection and an earnest desire to have my students fall in love with science. They may seem overwhelming but I have found it as a way to work smarter by combining necessary skills from other core subjects. Fall in love with the idea of having students learning science with meaningful experiences that will spark their curiosity while practicing skills that will make them better learners in the process.
As educators going through our teacher preparation programs, we are not often given insight into all the “hats” we would eventually wear within the classroom. We speak about going beyond instruction and provide a variety of nurturing roles to engage our students. What sometimes is not discussed is how our students can often inspire and motivate us.
I have been a middle school teacher in this district for the past 14 years. I have worked at numerous schools throughout the district primarily in South Stockton. Throughout my tenure as a teacher, I have always thought of myself as a great motivator and encourager of our students, but it has not always been easy. To state simply, we work with a tough demographic and often times, coming to work and going above and beyond can be draining mentally, emotionally and physically. Even with the student challenges to overcome, we can always find diamonds within, if we are willing to find them.
My diamonds came to me over 6 years ago. I was going through a very difficult and emotional time in my personal life. I had just given birth to my third child, I was also going through a divorce and it was emotionally wearing me thin. At the time, I was teaching 8th grade and these students had looped with me from 7th grade. I remember how difficult it was for me to get up in front of the class and seamlessly go through my day as if all was well. Honestly, I was depressed and I just did not have the energy to motivate anyone. On most days, crying is all I wanted to do.
So everyday, I would muster the courage to teach the best that I could despite what I felt. Even through my pain, I realized a constant at school; the enthusiasm of my students to be around me. My students came, day in and day out with such momentum to learn. With them around, everyday was filled with smiles and laughter. They were full of life and it was hard for me not to be lively with them during the day. These students loved and cared for me and they would show it through hugs and words of affirmation. Some of the girls would plan to bring me lunch or yummy snacks. These students had no clue of what I was going through, yet they were issuing me my daily medicine that contributed to my healing. This class by far holds a special place in my heart, they graduated from high school last school year and I was honored to be a guest at their graduations.
Being a teacher can be challenging, but within those challenges we often can reap multiple rewards as well. It is easy to develop a tunnel vision lens around the students who can sometimes suck the life out of us. Choose instead to focus on your diamonds; the students who come in and consistent behave well and work hard. Those students often keep us on our toes and inspire us to be better. Learning is absolutely reciprocal, and there is much to learn and gain from our students. This class helped me to experience the compound effect of being a great educator when I needed it the most.
As we prepare for a new school year, remember to focus on your students who come with joy to school often times just to see you.