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Archive for the ‘professional development’ Category

Back in April, we hosted a Science Collaborative Workshop with 21 PreK-8 science teachers from 5 international schools. (Check out these previous posts if you’re interested in the planning process or my take-aways from organizing the event.)  Since we all use the same AERO science standards, one of our goals was to work together to create standards-based science units that could be used as exemplars for other international schools. We nearly accomplished that in the span of the 3-day workshop, but making these units accessible (and legible) on a website took over a month of continued collaboration remotely (and a little bit of arm twisting on my part!)

I’m happy to announce that these exemplar science units are now published and freely available on our website www.AERO-Science.org. The seven units are:

Please take a look and let me know what you think of our work! Each of the units was designed using the Understanding by Design approach and was a collaborative effort between teachers from different schools.

Next fall we will be holding a follow-up workshop at the NESA Fall Training Institute to continue and expand this collaborative project, so if you also teach at an AERO school, please join us!

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I know I’ve failed to blog much of anything the second half of this school year- but at least recently I’ve had a good excuse! Last weekend I organized a Science Collaborative Workshop at my school, which brought together 21 science teachers (elementary and middle school) from 5 international schools. For 3 days we shared ideas, exchanged resources, and collaborated on science units we had in common. It was an invigorating and intense experience, but when the dust settled we had collaboratively created seven standards-based units that we will be able use ourselves and share with other international schools on our website (still under construction, but you can check out the Electricity unit for a preview of what’s to come). 

I blogged about the preparations back in December, mostly to think out-loud about my ideas for the workshop. Now that the workshop has come and gone (and I have my life back!) I’d like to share a few of my reflections on organizing a professional development experience for my fellow teachers:

If you build it, they will come

Not only is this true for magical baseball fields, it’s also true for teacher collaboration. Too often in education we teachers toil alone behind closed doors, when a conversation with a colleague would make all the difference. But collaborating can be challenging- you need to find the time to do it, you need to find the right person with something to offer, and it needs to be mutually beneficial to make the collaboration last. For our workshop we gathered teachers from 5 select schools where we knew they were experienced with aligning to the AERO science standards and also shared a similar philosophy for designing units with backwards design. So we all shared a common language about teaching and unit planning, and everyone had something to offer. We also put teachers in teams where they all taught similar grades and had a unit in common that they could work on together. So everyone was invested in the work because it was something they could actually use with their own students. Just getting this right group of people together in the same room was probably the most significant factor for the workshop’s success- with the right playing field set up the game happens naturally.

Throw away your ice breakers

One of my main goals for the workshop was to build collaborative relationships between teachers and schools, in other words I wanted to make sure people hit it off with teachers from other schools. So why not start off the workshop with a couple “ice breaker” activities? Because ice breakers have always annoyed me- I don’t know why exactly- but something about their contrived content and obvious purpose always makes me want to rebel and complete the silly activity without actually getting to know anyone. Can you tell I’m an introvert?? 🙂 However, I knew I couldn’t expect teams to dive into curriculum design work comfortably with complete strangers, so the compromise we came up with was science conversation starters. These were based on one of the best PD experiences I’ve ever had: the Summer Science Workshop at Dana Hall. The entire week of that workshop basically consisted of teachers engaging in hands-on inquiry activities with other teachers, and then reflecting on how the activities could be used with students. It was incredibly fun and thought-provoking, and the experience seeing through the eyes of a student and working side-by-side with my peers made a huge impression on me. (Side note- their brochure still has a picture of me in it, so maybe I made an impression on them too!) So each time we began work with a new group of teachers, we had them first do a short hands-on activity for about 30 minutes with minimal instructions: build a sail car powered by a fan from recycled materials, figure out how much water a carrot is made of, investigate whether ice melts faster in tap water or salt water. These activities sparked discussion, demanded creative thinking, and were just plain fun. By the end of the 30 minutes the mood was lively and the ice was broken- but best of all we were doing and thinking about science the whole time.

Sustainability is not just for the Earth

How many times have you gone to a great presentation at a conference, filled up pages of notes with new ideas that you’re excited about trying with your students, and then promptly forgotten them all when Real Life runs you over like a truck when you get home? It happens all the time for me- if I don’t have a concrete plan or reason for using something immediately, it usually gets buried in the pile of good intentions. To avoid this fate for our collaborative workshop, we made sustaining collaboration one of our key goals and spent time during the workshop brainstorming and discussing ways to keep it going. Wheels are already in motion planning a second collaborative workshop for next fall, and each unit team is continuing to work together remotely to finish and publish their units online. Of course it remains to be seen how successful we are at this, but having a sustainability plan of action gives us a fighting chance.

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You know how you always think teaching is somehow going to get easier each year? I fell for that folly of an idea all over again this summer, thinking that because it’s my fourth year as science coordinator it would somehow be less work because I have it all planned out already. HA! Obviously I was forgetting that deep inside my soul resides a gnawing and persistant little bugger: Mr. Isn’t-there-a-better-way. And just when I thought I was getting set to cruise through the year, he had rear his ugly but inspirational head and get me off my metaphorical couch.

So here it is December and I find myself embroiled in several wonderful but seriously extracurricular projects that I’d love to blog about if I can  add a 25th hour to the day. Well, here’s on such project: The AERO Science Collaborative Workshop! Ok, I know it doesn’t roll off the tongue very well, so if anyone can come up with some sort of nifty acronym involving those words or similar, I’d be much obliged.

A little background: Project AERO is an educational arm of the U.S. State Department created to assist American schools abroad in implementing standards-based curricula. My school, along with most in the NESA region have adopted the AERO standards, in particular the K-8 science standards which were released two years ago. However, as international schools are by their nature isolated, we have very little opportunity to work together with each other and share what’s working with this standards-based shift. Yes, there are conferences set up by NESA and AERO which allow for some collaboration- but as with most conferences the focus is mostly on professional developments (aka listen to the expert at the front of the room).

So basically we’ve got several schools toiling with their heads down in the sand (quite literally in the Middle East), trying to complete this science curriculum overhaul with occasional  support from consultants here and there, but mostly going it alone. Which of course means a lot of work for everyone and not a lot of feedback or second-opinions on the best way to go about it. Why not get together and get our collaboration on?

This April we are attempting to do just that. With the help of my ASD colleagues and NESA science ed guru Erma Anderson, I’ve drafted a proposal to bring together K-8 science educators from five school (ASDubai, ACS Beirut, TASIM Oman, and ACS Amman) for three days of peace, love, and music…. whoops– wrong workshop– I mean three days of intense science curriculum collaboration. We’re hoping for around 20 teachers, with representation from lower elementary, upper elementary, and middle school. So far the response has been very favorable, and it seems I’m not the only one out there who sees the benefit in teachers teaching teachers for a change.

Now that my good idea is actually coming true though- I’ve got to figure out how to pull this off. So I’m eager to hear if anyone reading this has ever worked in such a collaborative cross-school setting before:

  1. What’s the best way to kick-start collaboration with a group of unfamiliar people?
  2. What organisation or set-up helped (or hindered) collaboration?
  3. What tools or technology did you use to facilitate collaborative work?
  4. What follow-up helped the collaboration continue after the workshop and build lasting collaborative relationships?

Here are some of my nascent thoughts on these matters:

  1. I’m thinking of starting with something called “Share Your Strengths” where each school briefly presents some of the curriculum work they’ve done that they think is good stuff. This will not only get our best ideas out there quickly, it should also give us a chance to build a little rapport and trust so we respect each other’s opinion when we dive into collaborative work.
  2. In my experience small group work (about 3 people) seems to be the most productive. You get a variety of opinions but don’t get weighed down by too many. So depending on numbers I’m thinking of breaking us up into teams of similar grade-level and possibly subject interest (so for example, a team of MS teachers working on a physical science unit). I don’t want to over-structure the workshop since I want it to be tailored to school’s needs, so the goal for each team’s work may even be left up to them.
  3. I really want to make sure the work that’s done is easily accessible to all after the workshop, and that whatever platform we use encourages further long-distance collaboration. I’m very familiar with GoogleDocs and GoogleSites, so I’m leaning that way. We also may have some teachers attending virtually, so we’ll need to figure out how to accommodate that (maybe Skype them in for certain parts?)
  4. I know how it is after a conference. You have all this stuff you’re excited about, but then you slip back into your daily grind and never get around to all those good ideas you had. I know 3 days isn’t much time to build “lasting collaborative relationships”, but I’d like to try to nurture the collaboration to the point where it’s self-sustaining. I’ve been blown away by the high level of collaboration going on in the blogosphere, so maybe I’ll even try to turn teachers on to that. The secret ingredient seems to be that blend of the personal and the professional- both intellectually and relationally stimulating.

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and no teacher hears it, what’s the point of putting together the workshop in the first place?

Or at least that’s how I felt last week when a grand total of 1 teacher showed up for my after school PLOT (Professional Learning Opportunities for Teachers) workshop about revising the scientific method. But even if the workshop didn’t happen quite as I had imagined it- with lively dialogue and moments of hands-on discovery- at least I can share it here, on the blog I’ve been neglecting so badly the past month. Here’s how the Scientific Method Makeover workshop was supposed to go down…

I’ve already detailed my thoughts behind revising and updating the tired and unrealistic scientific method on this post, so I won’t repeat myself here. Suffice it to say that the scientific method we learned as kids needs a makeover, but I do believe in teaching the process of science- as long as it’s flexible enough to incorporate the different ways scientists actually learn. My attempt at improvement is the scientific cycle:

How does this cycle work? Let’s put it into action and find out! Since it’s getting a little cold these days in Qatar (down into the 60s at night- brrrr!) everyone’s probably wondering where they stashed their portable electric heaters (buildings in Qatar don’t have centralized heat for obvious reasons). But how does an electric heater really work? We have your question– Boom! The scientific cycle commences, this time for a bout of secondary-source learning, aka research. Before diving into Google, I have teachers take a step back in the cycle and try to pre-explain how an electric heater works. Getting those preconceptions out there is important to encourage further questions and critical thought about any misconceptions that might exists. Got a vague and probably incorrect notion of how they work?? Great- back to Google, let’s investigate.

I give teachers a few guiding research questions to investigate on their own, then and there on their laptops:

  • How do electric heaters work?
  • What are electric heaters made of? (in particular the heating element)
  • How does electrical energy turn into heat energy?

Now everyone’s research and comprehension will be a little different, so to analyze their research findings I have teachers share and compare in small groups for a few minutes. Really, they’re a doing a synthesis of their research- compiling information from different sources and reconciling any discrepancies, which in turn gives them a better understanding of the “data”, in this case their research.

To explain I have them draw and label a picture explaining how an electric heater works. Better understanding than your pre-explanation? You betcha. In a nutshell, that was a much-simplified scientific round of research. It’s important to note that it might not be such a clean flowing cycle though- new questions could come up and cause a scientist to go back and re-investigate, or compare findings with someone else to re-analyze. But the general process is there: question-investigate-analyze-explain.

But wait- what about experimentation and all that? Let’s do another round of the cycle, but this time it’s hands-on. How do scientists answer a question when there’s nothing in the research to help? Let’s do an experimental cycle…

I show the teachers how a coil of wire attached to a D-cell battery creates a very simple electric heater (similar to the electromagnet circuit at right, except no nail necessary, wrap around a thermometer bulb instead). Technically it’s a short circuit, so the current is trying to race through, only slowed by the resistance in the wire, which generates heat. Hmmm… I wonder if it matters what kind of wire we use- some are thicker, some are thinner. Which wire would make the best heater? As before, let’s make a prediction, our pre-explanation, which we will revisit and revise later. And we’re off, investigating by having teachers creating a quick controlled experiment, something to the tune of comparing the different thicknesses of wire (but same length) in identical circuits, and wrapping the coils around thermometers to measure the temperature increase.

After 60 seconds of heating we’ve got some data, let’s analyze: in this case we can use mathematics to add different groups of teachers’ data together and find the mean for each thickness of wire. This has the same effect of doing repeated trials for accuracy (as long as we did a decent job controlling variables). A few calculations, and what do we find…. Try it yourself! Sorry, the elementary teacher in me just can’t spoil the excitement of discovery for you. Just try it out- I was excited myself to discover the difference, especially when it started to make sense, which brings us to…

Explain by writing a conclusion statement, supporting your claim with evidence. And there you have it, two complete tours of the scientific cycle in under an hour, with hopefully a demonstration of how versatile and useful the scientific cycle is as a new-and-improved scientific method. Whether you’re doing research-based investigations or experimental ones, the same general process applies. So the cycle is a framework, reminding students of the importance of making predictions (pre-explain), critical thinking (analyze) and meaning-making (explain). It also serves as a reminder of the cyclical process of scientific learning, as one question leads to another. The scientific skills at each step can vary, and with practice students could even learn to decide which skill would be appropriate to use as the learning demands.

End scene. I’m still wondering how this workshop would actually fly in real life, but in the meantime I’d be satisfied with any thoughts or comments you have (especially if you try your own electric heater experiment!).

 

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One of my responsibilities as elementary science coordinator is to be a mentor to homeroom teachers and help them become better at teaching science. I must admit this is probably the hardest part of my job- it’s one thing to be critical of yourself and work to improve your teaching, but teaching teachers, that’s a different story. Up till this point most of my mentoring has consisted of leading by example, teaching model science lessons in our science labs, which is well inside my comfort zone. But I know in order to take our program to the next level I’ll have to do more: instead of being just the captain of the team, I need to be a coach.

Science coaching (as well as coaching in other disciplines) is pretty trendy right now in elementary ed. However, there seem to be many different varieties out there, and I’m going to need to figure out the recipe that works best at my school. Here are what I believe to be the key ingredients:

  • Model teaching
  • Providing professional resources
  • Teacher observation and consulting
  • Facilitating learning activities
I’m not going to delve into model teaching, because I already do plenty of that, and frankly that’s just regular teaching with another adult in the room. At first I guess it was strange, but once you realize your both on the same team ,it’s actually much better having another teacher with you.
Providing professional resources is easy as well, but probably the least effective ingredient. Just think of all the required readings or faculty “book studies”… in my experience they result in a lot of last-minute skimming and shallow conversations. Good for creating a common language around a new initiative, but not sufficient to reach any meaningful depth. Nevertheless, I’m kind of a professional reading nerd, so I continue to give teachers at my school excerpts from my favorite summer reading each year. One year I put a small note at the end of the reading, asking anyone who finished it to let me know what they thought… still waiting for a response. There are other options out there more interactive than readings, such as NSTA’s Learning Center where teachers can take mini-course online by themselves to brush up on their background knowledge, but I’m not sure how many elementary teachers would have the time or desire.
OK, on to the meaty stuff. Observing teachers can be an intimidating prospect, and also blurring the line between coach and administrator. But I’m going to have to suck it up this year, because nothing embodies the spirit of science coaching more than working directly with teachers on their teaching. Luckily, my school has had some training in an interesting observation protocol called Looking for Learning. You can check out their website for more info, but the basic principle behind this kind of observation is that instead of observing the teacher, your main focus is observing the students. So while students are engaged in an activity you conduct mini-interviews from student to student, aiming to get a grasp of how much learning is actually taking place during the activity. Of course this is all in the context of what the teacher is doing, and how they’ve structured their class. What makes it an interesting approach is that sometimes even when classes appear to be busy learning, there’s not actually a lot of learning taking place (or at least not the kind the teacher intended). The follow-up conversations with the observer and teacher are also interesting as the two compare notes on how they perceived the engagement and learning of different students in the class. Because the focus is on the students, it seems less confrontational, but the approach remains effective because the responsibility of the teacher to ensure all students are learning is clearly implied- if learning wasn’t taking place the next step is to look at what can be done in the future to change that. As with reading professional resources, the effectiveness of observations and consulting will depend on teacher buy-in. So I’m planning on initiating these with teachers who I think would be most receptive initially, and then depend on good word-of-mouth to involve others.
Last but not least, there’s the learning activities, which is just code for getting teachers messy with hands-on science in an attempt to spark those deeper conversations and thoughts about inquiry and pedagogy. When I think back to my favorite professional development experiences (the Dana Hall Science Workshop and a graduate class on experimental design at the University of Maryland), both of them were so stimulating simply because we were expected to do science as a student while thinking like a teacher. The common experiences of searching the beach for fossilized shark teeth and building a water tower of toothpicks led to much more lively and focused discussion between colleagues than any reading I’ve ever done. So I hope to recreate that in some small way for the teachers at my school, letting them dive into a hands on activity with the eagerness of a student, and then encouraging them to process it through the eyes of a teacher. Whether it’s possible to do this successfully in short sessions at the end of a long day with a bunch of familiar faces…. we’ll see!
So there you have it, another work in progress. 🙂 I’ll post more as the plan becomes clearer- in the meantime I’d love to hear from folks who have had successful in-school PD or coaching in the past. Despite these best-laid plans, I’ll probably need to focus my time in a couple of these 4 areas, and it would be helpful to get some idea where to throw my weight.

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