03 September 2005

Not So Elementary

Earlier this week, another teacher and I gave a workshop for elementary teachers in our district. The topic was Inquiry and how to provide kids with a scaffold for their investigations. This was the first time that I had worked with teachers of grades 3 - 6 and I had some trepidations. Especially my lack of "street cred," having never taught those grade levels. My worries were unfounded and they seemed very welcoming of the ideas my colleague and I shared.

I have been told by my Boss Lady that while I am officially designated as a curriculum specialist for secondary science only, that I should start learning the elementary side of things. Those duties (currently assigned to someone else) will eventually be dumped, er, shifted over to me. I had not been terribly excited by that idea, but now I am seeing all of the possibilities that go along with it.

I learned a lot during my time with the teachers. Unlike their secondary counterparts, these teachers aren't focused on instructional materials. They just want to know what to teach. I already had great admiration for them. There is no way I could spend all day in a classroom with the same kids---and plan for all of the different subjects they have to teach. They are unfairly expected to be experts in all areas of content and instruction.

Our elementary science program (like 90% of the state) consists of the FOSS program. These are kits of lab materials and a teacher's guide for a particular topic. It's science in a box. This does make things a lot simpler for teachers, but it does not provide the one thing they need most: a conceptual understanding of what they are teaching. There is a big difference between working through a kit, hoping the kids will get the "big picture" from all of the parts vs. presenting the kit in a way that builds student knowledge and leads to actual learning. Even though the inquiry process is part of the various kits, not a single one of the teachers I worked with made that connection with our presentation. They very much liked what we did with them, but they viewed it as a separate entity that they might do with students---not the foundation for student investigation into science.

The elementary teachers do want help with their science program. I told them that I would be pleased to help them, but I would need them to tell me what they needed...I am woefully ignorant of what is happening in their classrooms. So, they provided some places to start. They would use the inquiry process with the kits if I could give them a question or two as a starting point. Seems reasonable. My colleague also suggested that we find a way to film students doing the labs in the kits. This way, if other teachers didn't have time to do the kits, they could show portions of the film and discuss things with students...or have them critique the procedure...or think about ways to apply the information. Perhaps this isn't as good as real "hands on" experience, but it is likely better than nothing.

I know that the teachers have received training on the kits. But what I now think needs to happen is that we (as a district) need to go back with each kit and talk with teachers about the concepts that are involved. I have no doubts that most elementary teachers would give their very best efforts in the classroom if we could tell them what those efforts would look like when they're teaching science.

It is unlikely that we will ever have "science specialists" for the elementary schools. However, we already have literacy and math "coaches" who help teachers with their craft. I hope that science coaching will also be available in the future. The more I learn about my new role with the district, the more work I realize I have ahead of me. I'm actually looking forward to it.

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