Expanding Our Roots: From Local to Global

Another week done and another week closer to the start of the Sodus summer camp! This past week as I mentored my new colleagues, I watched their unit visions become more clear, as they realized what they wanted to ultimately teach the campers in July. Through trial and error, and in watching one another practice our teaching, my mentees were able to make their unit their own, one centered around erosion of Lake Ontario and Sodus Bay’s beaches. Through their recreation and vision process, I myself was inspired to think about the larger relevance of this camp experience, for not only the local Rochester and Sodus residents, but also Lake Ontario stakeholders, as well as, in all honesty, the Great Lakes Stakeholders.

Science STARS! Members of the ’16-’17 and ’17-’18 Get Real! Science cohorts. (Top Left) James Kostka, Sydney Line, Dr. April Luehmann, Kaitlin Bartoni, Olivia Todd, Noelle Morabito, Patrick Bond, Kristy Zukswert (me), and Victor Kogan (Bottom Right).

The more I thought about it and thought about the interconnectedness of the Great Lakes, the more I wanted to connect the Great Lakes communities. If we, here in the Greater Rochester area, are experiencing significant flooding along Lake Ontario and Sodus Bay, where else in the Great Lakes system might there by similar problems – flooding, erosion, or excessive deposition of sediment? Moreover, I was curious to see how these communities were tackling environmental issues as a whole, and empowering the local youth around them to do so.

When considering who to contact, I immediately thought of Milwaukee’s Urban Ecology Center (UEC). In March of 2016, I had the privilege of co-leading a team of student volunteers from Boston University, during a week of service at the center. While serving, I learned of the center’s mission to empower urban youth through environmental science opportunities. Each experience is also geared towards strengthening and uniting the Milwaukee community. With all of this in mind, I reached out to the UEC’s Senior Director of Education and Strategic Planning, Beth Heller, to inform her about our work at the Sodus summer camp and to inquire more about science empowerment and expanding our communities.

A 3-branch center in Milwaukee, WI.

Here are the highlights of our short interview:

1. Why do you think it is important for students to learn about science and be scientifically literate? 

According to Heller, the “scientific process is a process that helps us understand the world around us…You can learn about the world around you. It doesn’t matter your perspective; it is the closest thing we have to getting to the truth.” We are able to challenge the world around us using science processes. This is also why “kids need to understand science, good science, to survive in this world…and to understand the impact of the decisions they make everyday.” An advocate for citizen science, or as Heller preferred, “community science,” [this label being more protective and inclusive of undocumented science advocates], she also believes in the national need for science in order to improve our quality of life and find ways to be more sustainable. Such need demands the successful teaching of science literacy.

2. In what ways/through what opportunities are you using science education to empower students and build agency?

Before describing the abundant, empowering programs offered by the center, Heller first shared the inspiration for the center’s work. The Urban Ecology Center’s programming is centered around Louise Chawla’s  (2006) work in “Significant Life Experiences.” Through her research, Chawla identifies three commonalities that have resulted in leaders developing strong environmental ethics. They include: having access to nature throughout childhood and adulthood; having mentors that respect the land and model positive and responsible relationships with the land; and experiencing an environmental tragedy in which a natural site significant to the individual has been dramatically changed, and for the worse. It is the first two commonalities – establishing access to nature and developing mentoring relationships that foster environmental ethics – that the Urban Ecology Center uses develop it programs. With these two commonalities as their focal points, Heller shares how the center works to connect the local Milwaukee children, get parents involved as mentors, and also provide access to Milwaukee’s schools.
Among the preschool-Grade 12 and larger community programs offered, one of the most notable is the Environmental Education Program which sets up visit days at the three different center sites for 66 local schools. Most schools are in walking distance from a center and the mentors used for these programs are typically the same ones for the summer programs. This helps build long lasting mentoring relationships, and even more so when students who visit during the school year partake in the summer. Heller shared that over 60% of the summer program participants are students that have visited with their schools. Other noteworthy programs offered by the Urban Ecology Center are their Community Programming, which is an intergenerational program offered after school and on the weekends, as well as their Land Stewardship Program, which is offered to local families on the weekends to help protect local waterways and the local ecosystem. Lastly, the center is partnering with local universities in a “Community Science” program that will enable community members to engage in authentic research and interact with expert scientists.
3. Do you believe it is important to situate our students’ science learning and make it relevant to their daily lives? If so, how are you achieving this (or planning to do so)? (ie – Has your local environment and relation to Lake Michigan inspired any programs, trips, etc.)
Beth Heller also agreed that science learning should be relevant and meaningful. She noted how the Urban Ecology Center has been tracking science comprehension of the local students, using the same survey method used for Wisconsin’s standardized tests. From the before and after results, the Urban Ecology Center has found that students are retaining and understanding the science content that they learn at the center. Moreover, the teachers have praised the center for exposing their students to science and environmental studies, and for making science learning relevant and experiential.
Interestingly, and arguably even more meaningful, is the Urban Ecology Center’s tracking of the short and long term impacts of the center on community health and wellbeing, quality of life, mental health, and the impact on the children. In their most recent survey on mental health for instance, Heller shared how the children were originally afraid to go outside and play in their urban communities for fear of encountering individuals with drugs. However, since the development of the Urban Ecology Center, the urban landscape has changed, socially and environmentally, becoming safer and more welcoming for all of its inhabitants. From the mental health survey results, even just one visit to the Urban Ecology Center significantly reduced children’s fear of playing outside. In fact, such change also lead to a increase in children’s level of physical activity. Heller’s account of such survey results shows the power of positive change through education, mentoring, and dedication to a community.
4. Lastly, as a future science educator, I am passionate about teaching my students about global citizenship and how we must connect our knowledge and communities with our global community to make informed decisions. Has the Urban Ecology Center united with other local, national, or global organizations to raise awareness of a science/environmental cause? If not, would the center be interested in doing so in the future? 
Having been so successful in the local Milwaukee area, Heller was also pleased to inform me of how the Urban Ecology Center has expanded their efforts globally, and plans to continue to do so. In past years, environmentally focused leaders and conservationists from across the world, such as from Mexico, Israel, Kenya, and Nepal, have all sought the training and advisement of the Urban Ecology Center to develop conservationist based programs in their own countries. To better equip more non-profit leaders, environmentalists, low-income communities, and those involved in the National Audubon Society or organizations similar to it, the Urban Ecology Center is now planning to open a training institute that will teach about ecological awareness as well as how to build ecological programs and develop financial strategies to ensure the protection and longevity of such programs.

It was a pleasure to expand our science network and interview Beth Heller. However, it was even more exciting to see how successful one organization, such as the Urban Ecology Center, can become an empowering leader in environmental education, locally, nationally, and internationally. Seeing this success also reinforces the potential impact of smaller science programs, such as the Sodus summer camp that we will be hosting next month. It just starts with community and a shared desired to make a change.

For more information regarding the Urban Ecology Center, please visit their website. For more information on the Sodus Camp in Sodus, NY, please check back at this blog site or go to the Get Real! Science program’s site.

Embodied Learning

A new week, a new project! This time the new, current science cohort members (’17-’18) started to plan their summer camp at Sodus Bay, an outdoor learning experience which will be open to local middle school students for a week in July. Centered around the same issue as our previous project, flooding and water quality of Lake Ontario, this camp project will look at three different facets of the rising water levels at Sodus Bay: erosion, water quality, and invasive species. As we considered this three facets, we were charged with the question of why camp? What could be special about learning at camp versus learning in the classroom? Is there a difference and if so, could that difference be mended to provide an optimal learning experience in both settings?

As we reflected both as a class and individually, we looked into the opportunities that a camp experience could provide that are not as easy to come by in the classroom. Unlike the classroom, learning in the camp setting is:

-attained and done, as Gee (2004) describes “just in time” with pertinent knowledge.

-FUN. Again, as Gee (2004) advocates, we learn best when playing.

-presented in a more personally relevant context, in which the campers are already engaged; this thus makes learning more readily embodied.

Cleary, Gee (2004) advocates for learning through play, which is easily achieved in an outdoor camp setting where learners are free to literally run around and play. However, this same sense of excitement and play can be accomplished in the science classroom through the 5Es Model: Engage, Explore, Explain, Extend, and Evaluate. Similar models also exist, such the app Embody Learning, that helps teachers teach through kinesthetic, experiential learning by following an Engage, Explore, and Show framework. In pursuing models such as these, students can take a contextualized learning experience in the classroom and make it more memorable and enjoyable to them. Doing so can capture the often irreplaceable camp excitement and engaged learning, and bring it into the classroom.

For more information on these approaches to learning and to read up on situated, contextualized learning please refer to the sources below, as well as the video on the 5Es.

Brown, J. Collins and Duguid (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18, 32-42.

Gee, J.P. (2004). Situated language and learning: a critique of traditional schooling. New York, NY: Routledge.

Defining Learning Goals

On Thursday, my colleagues and I had the opportunity to present our Lake Ontario research projects to sixth grade students at a local high school. For the incoming cohort of graduate science students, it was an awesome opportunity for them to get firsthand experience with teaching middle school students science, and how science works. For myself, it was a rewarding, nostalgic moment, that offered not only an opportunity to do something that I am passionate about – teaching students – but also to reflect on my progress in becoming a teacher.

Previous and current Science cohort members.

As I reflect on the evolution of my teaching, one key takeaway comes to mind – what is it that you want your students to learn by the end of the day? As you set out teaching, you can make a learning experience fun, entertaining, and accessible by tapping into your students’ interests and by utilizing multimodality both in your lesson delivery and assessment types. However, each lesson, from start to finish, should be threaded together with a key concept and overall learning goal. This learning goal acts as the anchor of your activities and assessments, and can help prompt the “so what” conversations of “why should we care” about the topic being learned.

For this particular science presentation on the water quality of Lake Ontario (see previous posts for the introduction and planning process), I had a few learning goals in mind for my sixth grade audience:

1.) To be engaged in, and learn about, the process of “doing science.”

2.) To explore science tools that can be used to conduct an experiment.

3.) To understand that science can be done by anyone (including females!) and can take place outside.

To measure how these learning goals were met, I visually assessed student engagement and participation: making direct eye contact while listening to the presentation, hand raising, questioning, offering to volunteer during the presentation, and examining the science tools during the poster session. From a visual evaluation of the audience, approximately 90% of the students met these three goals. With these results, I am rather pleased with the experience, and even more so because of the nature of these particular learning goals.

Oftentimes, there is a misconception that learning goals must always be content oriented. However, learning goals that encourage reflection, build critical thinking skills, or introduce a practice of science, or the nature of science, can be just as significant, if not more meaningful than a content focused learning goal. This is exemplified in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which are being adopted by NYS in the upcoming academic school year. The standards and learning goals are created around a triad of components: core ideas, science and engineering practices, and crosscutting themes. In doing so, they offer a fuller picture of science learning and how science should be taught. The current New York State Standards (click here for the Living Environment standards), offers performance indicators, which assess students on their abilities to do certain activities or science practices, however, to a much lesser extent than those offered by NGSS.

So when creating learning goals in the future, consider what you personally want your students to learn. Refer to NGSS for help, and do not shy away from crafting non-content based learning goals. Lastly, while making goals for your students, make personal goals for yourself – be it in improving: your relationships with your students, your teaching style, or your mode of lesson delivery.




Science Literacies & the Significance of Being Literate

This past week, the science cohort and I continued to work on our science investigation at Lake Ontario and further explored science literacy. On Tuesday, we were given the task of planning our research question, writing our hypotheses, and outlining our design protocol. To assist us in the process, we first started by crafting a whole group model of the potential variables to study and then had the opportunity to explore appropriate instruments and probe ware to measure such variables.


Left: Whole Class Brainstorm on the variables impacting Lake Ontario’s ecosystem and how they are related. Right: Team Brainstorm of our research question, variables under study, and hypothesis. 

During both tasks, of making and presenting the model, and also exploring the instruments, we as a collective and as individuals in the field of science, were engaging with the tools of science research, a physical type of science literacy. This medium of literacy, consequently required us to each be literate in the concepts surrounding the tools: such as how cold water can hold more dissolved oxygen, or that less sunlight can penetrate more turbid (visibility; high turbidity means visibility is low) water. technological terms surrounding the tools: such as “channel hookup,” “calibration” (reset to its baseline), and “probe.” Then there was a way or literacy of using each tool to collect the data, and then using corresponding software, such as Hoboware and LabQuest, to analyze such data. These moments of exploration, allowed us to individually refresh and build upon our previous science literacies.

Hoboware software: analysis of light intensity over time.

Later on in Tuesday’s class, we also had the opportunity to discuss our research question and projected procedures with University of Rochester faculty members, Dr. Michael Daly, and Dr. John Kessler, and other science research students. This interaction, relied on verbal explanation and demonstration, and thus required mutual understanding of science terminology and colloquial expressions, as we communicated back and forth. This type of science literacy focused more on expressions, science vocabulary, and practices in science (See A Framework for K12 Science Education (Framework) and the Next Generation Science Standards): the process of asking questions, constructing explanations, using computational thinking, and obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information. More importantly, this interaction parallels the teacher-student relationship and a similar type of science literacy. If neither party can understand the words and phrases of science, then he or she will not be able to understand the concepts of science, and moreover, how those concepts can be applied to research projects and other fields both inside and outside of STEM. Student understanding also increases student engagement. As Moulding et al. (2015), puts it: “core ideas and crosscutting concepts are the tools that support students’ engagement in science and engineering practices” (p.58). Thus as science educators, it is crucial that we are competent at multimodal teaching and have a diverse vocabulary, so that a concept can be presented orally, visually, written, etc. and also explained in both technical, specialized science terms, as well as everyday language.

Works Cited

Moulding, B.D., Bybee, R.W., & Paulson, N. (2015). A vision and plan for science teaching and learning: An educator’s guide to A framework for K-12 science education, Next generation science standards, and state science standards. Salt Lake City, UT: Essential Teaching and Learning Publications.


Accessing Opportunities to Investigate

Learning: Having the Access to Explore

This past week, the incoming science cohort and I had the opportunity to jump aboard a sonar sailboat at the Rochester Yacht Club and learn how to sail. As we were introduced to the language, tools, and skills required to be part of the sailing culture, we were able to make connections about how such “know-how” (the language, tools, and skills) is also required to be a member of the science community. The process of learning, be it sailing or science, has a context, culture, and discourse that one must first gain access to, in order to partake in. As Gee (2011) describes, “A Discourse is a characteristic way of saying, doing, and being” (p.30). Providing such access is thus the first step in engaging science learners, be it ourselves as graduate students or our future students, in a science investigation.

Starting an Investigation

Having the privilege of accessing the sailboats, our graduate science class was given the opportunity to collect water samples from Lake Ontario. In recent months, lakeshore communities in the Greater Rochester area have experienced significant flooding, including the Rochester Yacht Club. Moreover, little is known about the lake’s water quality and how it could be changing in the upcoming years as our global climate continues to change. Thus, as a class, we want to design an investigation and collect data on some or all the following water variables: bacteria, pH (how acidic or basic the water is), nutrients, dissolved oxygen (the amount of gaseous oxygen found in the water), and turbidity (water visibility), and to do so at different locations.

One particular variable I am interested in is the pH. Essentially, the pH tells how much or little hydrogen ions (H+ …or more specifically, hydronium H3O+) is present in a solution. If there is a large concentration of these ions, the pH scale will read a lower number (less than 7), showing the solution to be more acidic (ex: orange juice). However, if there is a lower concentration of hydronium ions, and therefore more hydroxide (OH-) ions, the solution is more basic (reading above 7 on the pH scale) (ex: soapy water). A pH reading of around 7, usually means the solution is neutral. However, depending on the temperature of the water, the reading could be slightly different. Being neutral on the pH scale, means that there is an equal concentration of hydronium ions (H+) and hydroxide ions (OH-). They balance out.

To determine the pH of a solution, pH strips are usually dipped into the solution of interest and compared with a color chart. The more red or orange the strip turns, the more acidic the solution is; whereas the more blue or green the strip turns, the more basic the solution is. For an more in depth overview, check out Paul Andersen’s clip below. If you are just curious to see the pH scale and the pHs of every day solutions, jump ahead to 7:18 minutes.

Why This Matters? 

Knowing the pH of the lake environment is crucial, given that the pH impacts every living organism. Proteins, which are found in all living organisms, function at a specific pH, temperature, and salinity. For instance, pepsin, an enzyme (specific protein) that works to break down food in your stomach, needs to be an acidic environment, with a pH of 2. If that pH changes, the protein may denature (lose its form) and not be able to function. In the clip, Paul Andersen notes how the pH of our oceans is lowering, making the water more acidic and ultimately threatening the aquatic life (7:50). What if a similar acidification process is happening in Lake Ontario, a fresh body of water? If the pH is unfavorable, it could lead to the death of aquatic life, such as plants and fish, offsetting the ecosystem.

As researchers and future science educators, the cohort and I prepare to design our research investigation, with a two-fold goal: 1.) to explore the nature and Discourse of science and 2.) to collect and share data about Lake Ontario’s water quality with local stakeholders, such as the Rochester Yacht Club, and researchers like oceanographer, Dr. John Kessler, who is actively researching Ontario’s levels of methane, a greenhouse gas. Through our work, we hope to provide valuable information to local stakeholders that could be used to improve and further protect Lake Ontario’s ecosystem.

If you are interested in our work, please check back here or on the Get Real! Science webpage for details. For more information regarding the studies of methane in Lake Ontario, please check out the research being conducted by Dr. John Kessler.

Works Cited

Gee, J.P. (2011). An introduction to discourse analysis: Theory and method, 3rd edition. New York: Taylor and Francis.

Philosophy of a Reform-Minded Teacher

Over the course of the last few months, I have had the opportunity to learn about classroom management strategies, dive even deeper into the state and national science standards, and develop a more concrete understanding of what it means to be a reform-minded science teacher. The Get Real! Science Cohort and I had the opportunity to reflect on our daily and weekly student teaching placements and read about the most effective teaching and management practices, and then implement said practices. Moreover, we established an even deeper understanding of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). These standards, which I am happy to say will be enforced by the state of New York for the upcoming 2017-2018 school year, considers science content, crosscutting concepts, and scientific and engineering practices. Through concept mapping, crafting goals and objectives, and writing our innovative science units, we were able to study each part element of NGSS and understand how it embodies and appropriately reflects the nature of science.

Using NGSS and concept mapping to design an innovative unit on Weather. The larger yellow post-its are key ideas, whereas the smaller blue post-its are NGSS scientific practices and the smaller yellow post-its are NGSS crosscutting concepts.

To further tailor our teaching styles, the cohort and I engaged in a variety of authentic science and teaching practices in our graduate class, Implementing Innovation in Science Education, to then implement them into our student teaching classrooms. We modeled many of the practices described in Windschitl & Thompson’s (2013) modeling toolkit, such as making before-during-after models and revising them, using student co-constructed checklists or “must-haves” as student concept guides, and crafting summary activity tables. Additionally, we discussed the individuality of each learner and how that warrants scaffolding, differentiation, as well as the need to teach for understanding and the use of student feedback to modify lessons accordingly. Most importantly, each week as the cohort and I met and developed these teaching practices, we took a constructivist approach to our own learning as we worked collaboratively and relied on discussion to teach ourselves and build new pedagogical knowledge.

As the cohort and I completed our second and final student teaching placements, as well as came to the conclusion of our semester, we had the opportunity to share our knowledge through a professional development event. As we designed and facilitated the event, we focused our conference around scientifically literacy, given that it makes up a core of our teaching philosophies, but even more importantly, since it is a social justice issue that teaches students how to critically evaluate information and be self agents of their own knowledge. We defined scientific literacy as the following:

“Scientific literacy is the ability to understand and implement the nature of science, scientific practices, and science content necessary to make informed personal and civic decisions.” (Get Real! Science Cohort, 2017).

Given its relevance both inside and outside the science classroom, we wanted to inform local pre-service and current science educators about what scientific literacy is, what its implications are, and why/how scientific literacy practices can effectively be implemented in the classroom.

Our advertisement to the professional development event on science literacy that the cohort and I planned and facilitated.

Through all of these experiences, from my student teaching placements, coursework, and the most recent Science Literacy Conference, I have had the opportunity to reflect on ideal teacher traits as well as develop my own teaching philosophy. Of the most important traits, I believe an effective teacher is flexible, compassionate, a good listener, and passionate about the topic he or she is teaching. Above all else though, said teacher is his or her most authentic self. For many science educators, myself included, we strive to engage students in authentic science practices, inquiry-based, exploratory learning moments that embody the true nature of science. However, to engage as fully as possibly with the field, science learners (both students and teachers) must simultaneously build an identity within science. Doing so, not only enables the learner to understand and apply scientific practices more successfully, but develops the human connection piece of why does science matter to me and to society? This process of science identity development begins (for both students and teachers) with being your own authentic, original self.

When I think about my own teaching philosophy I want my actions, teachings, and classroom space to reflect that of a reform-minded, innovative science educator. I want my classroom to be built around community, one in which students are free to share their thoughts, argue, debate, and revise their thought process. I want my students to co-construct knowledge and develop their identities within science. Doing so, however, demands that my classroom learning environment and curriculum are linguistically and culturally relevant so that it resonates with each individual student. This also means that the curriculum provides learning experiences that are student driven, allowing students to learn through exploration and uncover and build knowledge. I think such can be achieved if I give students more autonomy in the classroom and also use NGSS as a framework for my units. In doing so, students will be exposed to not just discipline specific concepts, but also the practices and nature of science, as well as the crosscutting themes that unites the fields of STEM and makes STEM relevant and useful to the non-STEM fields.

Lastly, as I teach and facilitate student learning, my goal is that my students will not only actively construct meaning, but also transfer that knowledge and learning process in new contexts. As they develop a critical lens they will be able to reflect on both their own work and those of their peers, and ultimately, derive meaning. As they build science literacy and a critical lens they will be capable of being an active participant in debates that include and expand beyond science topics. Ultimately, my students will be competent, empowered, highly skilled global citizens that can wisely partake in a democratic society, and be valued members of the 21st century global market.

The Forgotten Pipeline

Up until last night, in the state of New York, a child as young as 7 could be charged with a delinquency, and any child by the age of 16 could be charged and tried as an adult. The debate launched the Raise the Age Act, which luckily passed last night. Under the act, with a few case by case stipulations, children will no longer be tried as adults at the ages of 16 and 17; instead, New York, like 48 other states (North Carolina is still excluded), will try 18 year olds and older as adults.

Although I am relieved to hear that the Raise the Age Act passed and will protect more children from being charged as a criminal, I am concerned about how the act will impact Juvenile Detention Centers. Before learning of the act’s passing, I, along with my colleagues and professor, had the opportunity to visit Monroe County’s Juvenile Detention Center. The experience was numbing, nauseating, and eye opening. Serving as a detention center for charged youth, or in some cases, youth that are in need of high security, such as those who have fallen victim to human trafficking, the system and physical site is far from ideal. Now with the passing of the Raise the Age Act, more children, and those of older ages are expected to influx these detention centers.

As the employee continued to teach us about the center, my colleagues and I soon learned of the social injustices that are apparent for both parties, the detained, and the employees watching over the detained students. For the children, the most evident issue is the lack of freedom and living conditions. The employee described how the physical building space does not currently include a kitchen, recreational room, and a formal classroom, spaces that every detained child should have access to. With the new passing of the Raise the Age Act, the center needs to learn about the expected additional intake of children and available funds, before proceeding with necessary renovations.

The second injustice is from the employee perspective of working conditions. In addition to state mandated regulations, the detention center must abide by further standards when processing and detaining each child. Although the regulations are fully followed, some of the additional standards are met with difficulty due to logistical operations. Frustration and fear also seem to be daily struggles for the employees as they face high turn over rates for their entry-level jobs, as well as continual threats of being falsely accused by the detained children for maltreatment. That, in combination with intensive monitoring from a third party justice system, makes the working conditions at the detention center unfavorable.

From the extensive constraints and endless frustrations, it is evident that the detention system as a whole, needs significant improvement. Despite the limitations placed on it, Monroe County’s Juvenile Detention Center, as an individual center however, seems to be improving as evident in its 36% reduction in detainees from 2013-2016 (Monroe, 2016). Why, though, as a country, are we still seeing this pipeline to detention or worse off, prison amongst children?

As a concerned civilian and future educator, I have a few other concluding thoughts and questions. I wonder, why are there not more supports and protections available to the staff that works with these detained students? How would the detention center teachers navigate the excessive constraints placed on this learning environment? Another major concern of mine is after the fact, after a child is released. The psychological impact that being detained must incur is unimaginable. To change this outcome from the better, what re-integration programs are readily available for the students who make their way back into their communities and schools? How are they made accessible to these individuals and how effective are they?

For more information, please check out the following link:


Works Cited

Monroe County (2016). Monroe County’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI): 2016 Year End Report. Monroe County, NY.

Leadership and Teamwork in the Classroom

For all educators reading this post, have you ever had a moment when a student does something for another student that just melts your heart? Those moments make our jobs worth every second of planning, photocopying, and management. This past week in one of my classes, one in which has a particularly high population of students with 504s and Individualized Education Programs (IEP)s, I witnessed one of those heart warming moments.

One of my more accelerated students voluntarily took the time to work one-on-one with another classmate, one who is classified with an IEP, has significant behavioral issues, and works with a teacher’s aid. The accelerated student was patient, coaching his classmate through the packet, ensuring that he got clarification on questions, and ultimately, completed the packet. What was even more touching was that the accelerated student himself still had work to get done, yet insisted on working with his peer. Moreover, on this day I saw this particular class section twice because of the block scheduling. In both classes the accelerated student adamantly worked with his peer.

google images

As a teacher, I could not be more proud of the accelerated student for helping the other student out and modeling such leadership. However, many questions arose in my head as I watch their interaction. I know this particular student with the IEP does not work well with most students, but this is an exception. The student is certainly capable of completing his tasks, but who else in the class, could he and would he want to work with? Who would keep him focused and motivated to learn? As an educator, am I doing enough blended groupings and team-based activities to build bridges between my more accelerated students and less accelerated students? How can I improve my classroom culture to encourage more students, such as this particular accelerated student, to take on leadership roles in our classroom community.

In a previous post, I mentioned the benefits of heterogenous grouping and am a firm believer in differentiating lessons to accommodate the specific needs of my learners. Presenting lessons in a multimodal manner is also fruitful to target as many student learning styles as possible. How though, does one foster more leadership skills? One potential is to target leadership and teamwork through science discourse and our developing scientist identities.

Last week I discussed the need for students to culturally relate with the science curriculum and discourse. It is here, in this identity development, that I could perhaps also present science as a field comprised of interacting communities and teams of scientists, who build knowledge together (see constructivism). This mindset, paired with more integration of group based and even whole class collaboration to conduct essential scientific practices could be effective. Constructing Explanations, Engaging in Argument from Evidence and Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information, three of the eight scientific practices set forth by the Next Generation Science Standards, may also be ideal opportunities to build such teamwork and leadership in the classroom.

Lastly, even the act of assigning classroom roles may help foster leadership skills. As Berger, et al. (2015) mention:

[having a classroom job] helps every student learn responsibility and take pride in their classroom…Jobs open the door for active, collaborative contribution by the students to the health and well-being of the classroom community. Students demonstrate their respect for the learning process and for others by completing their jobs to the best of their abilities and growing through the effort. (p.58-60)

Such responsibility, respect, and sense of ownership are all qualities that make fantastic leaders and contribute to effective teamwork.

Works Cited

Berger, R., Strasser, D., & Woodin, L. (2015). Management in the Active Classroom. New York, NY: EL Education.

Learning Outside of the Classroom

This past week, during the President’s Day break, I had the opportunity to travel to Ithaca, NY to visit the Museum of Earth. While in the museum, I explored each exhibit, traveling back in time, going through Earth’s geologic history starting with the Precambrian eon and ending with current day. Each exhibit inspired me with new ideas on how to teach fossils and evolution to my students, topics that we will be covering in the upcoming weeks. More importantly though, the day at the museum reminded me of the ability and significance of learning outside the classroom.

Museum of Earth Exhibit

Although field trips are not always financially feasible options for schools, the concept of learning outside the classroom still should be promoted and can still be achieved. These learning moments can happen informally, and can even be individual experiences, as opposed to whole class ones. The important aspect is that the students internalize and learn through an experience or a cultural process. According to Gee (2004), understanding content is maximized when it is embodied, that is, when the content is relatable to other activities (p.39). “When people learn as a cultural process, whether this be cooking, hunting, or how to play video games, they learn through action and talk with others, not by memorizing words outside their contexts of application” (Gee, 2004, p.39). Here the essence of learning is through the experience, a cultural experience, that is not limited to an activity within the four walls of a classroom.

Moreover, in these informal learning experiences, students can also develop and tap into their cultural identities. Such identity development fosters a sense of belonging and connection; it also reinforces for students how a learning experience can be directly relevant to their individual lives. Then, the more culturally relevant the curriculum is, the more likely students will be motivated to keep learning. So challenge yourselves as educators, and your students, to push learning beyond the walls of the classroom. Be it a field trip, a conversation with someone new, or joining a new community, challenge your students to capitalize on every day experiences to learn. Perhaps this could entail meeting a local expert in the field and developing a mentorship or even getting involved in an online science community. Regardless, there are always opportunities to learn and to engage in scientific practices, especially the obtaining, evaluating, and communicating practice. All it requires is a little talking.

Works Cited

Gee, J. (2004). Situated language and learning: A critique of traditional schooling. New York: Routledge.


Tackling Groups and Achievement Gaps

Having a classroom of diverse learners – diverse in learning styles, socioeconomic status, cultural backgrounds, language, and accommodations – is often embraced and appreciated in the classroom. However, it also requires considerable scaffolding and differentiating to accommodate the needs of every student. What techniques could a teacher implement to fit the needs of all of his or her students?

Now at my second placement, I am seeing a seasoned teacher tackle this exact issue. Specifically, three levels of learning achievement in a mainstream science classroom are merging into two. How then, can a teacher strike a balance between those lagging behind and those speeding ahead? Additionally, what social and political issues arise when any action, is taken?

Studies have found that heterogeneous mixing of student with varying achievement levels can promote learning for the entire class. As I have referenced in earlier blog posts, learning happens through talking, and what better way to learn then when students talk, help one another, revise and build new ideas together (See constructivist theory). So in instances of mixing such students, the higher achieving ones can further their understanding of content knowledge by explaining it to those of lower achievement. This simultaneously gives these more gifted and advanced students leadership roles in the classrooms, while also building the understanding of those students who are struggling.

Evidently, non-ability, heterogenous groups can be effective in advancing student learning and achievement. Each year, the classroom walls are repainted with the diversity of its students. One year, the classroom may include students with and without learning disabilities or severe disabilities; or perhaps the classroom is a blend of socioeconomic standing students or English language learners (ELLs). Regardless of the specific population demographics, the most effective classrooms are inclusive ones in which diversity is embraced and “all students are respected as competent and active learners – regardless of skill level – there is a space for everyone to learn and grow” (Valle and Connor, 2011, p.73). As seen in the video clips below, heterogenous, non-ability grouping can do just that.

Interestingly, in my second placement, a middle school in the Greater Rochester Area, I am finding that heterogenous mixing may be neutralizing, or possibly negating the overall classroom progress. Over the span of four class sections, it is evident that despite the heterogenous groupings and inclusive practices, the classes are still struggling with pacing and achievement. Based on daily, formative and summative assessments the middle achieving students are actually slipping towards the lowest achieving students, while the highest achieving students are thriving, completing extra practice assignments, and in many cases, out of tasks to do. After already assigning extra practice assignments, my mentor teacher does not want to administer further tasks to these high achieving students. Moreover, many of these students are reluctant to act as that guiding classroom leader to the lower achieving students.

So what then is to be done? On the flip side, how much additional time can feasibly be offered to students who find themselves in the middle or low achieving area? In this Regents level science course, there are higher stakes with the curriculum pacing. How then can this issue of slowed pacing be addressed without comprising the learning needs of all of the students?


Valle, J.W. and Connor, D.J. (2011). Rethinking Disability: A Disability Studies Approach to Inclusive Practices. New York, NY: McGraw.