27 October 2005

Insanity at Work

Albert Einstein was quoted as saying, "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” On the other hand, you could go insane just from trying different things.

A group of biology teachers in the district has been working to organize the curriculum around the state standards. It would be simple enough to just find a few existing activities and call it good. Hey, photosynthesis is photosynthesis---who cares?

But the problem here is two-fold: one is that biology is the most failed class in the school; and two, the school has the lowest science WASL scores. Kids are struggling in science. To be fair, this is not just a biology teacher issue. There are other teachers in previous grade levels...but it is the biology teacher's name on the WASL report.

To prevent continuing insanity where grades and scores are concerned, the teachers are trying a different approach with a particular standard at the moment. I won't get into all the particulars of the set-up, but the overall plan is a very cool one. It is somewhat constructivist in the sense that there are investigations happening before vocabulary is attached---but the idea is really to make photosynthesis and cellular respiration more "real" to kids...to have them make some meaning around the idea of energy as it applies to living things.

Doing this is very different for teachers. I'm sure that it's unusual for many students, too. Anytime that you do something that's outside your regular comfort zone---which is read the textbook (in order), write definitions for vocabulary, answer section review questions, and do a few canned labs---you're going to be uneasy. And two weeks into this most recent unit, things are breaking down for a couple of teachers.

One is just reverting back to his usual thing...and then trying to add the new stuff in. As you might imagine, he's feeling overwhelmed and pressed for time. He hasn't made the shift from running a teacher-centered class to a student-centered class. Another teacher is relatively new to the profession and came from a place where every lesson was prescribed and provided for her. She hasn't had to do any significant planning and being without that scaffold is greatly upsetting to her at this point.

What are the options? One is just to go back and do what we always do. It feels good to us...but we know what it means to the kids. The other option is to keep moving forward, even if it's stressful---and recognize and ask for more support. There are some things that I can offer and do. We'll see what they choose to accept from me.

This is not going to be the last time this issue rears its head. This is only one group of teachers at a particular school...and they are farther ahead in their thinking than most of the science teachers in the district. What I have to do is think about anticipating some of these needs a bit better and how to help teachers transition what happens in their classrooms. It isn't easy. I have plenty of my own transitions to make and no roadmap to use.

But I can't go back. It's just too insane.

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