By Debbie Gordon, Region 4 Director
I have been the Elementary Science Teacher On Special Assignment (TOSA) for the last three years at Palm Springs Unified School District and sometimes get asked, “What exactly do you do?” Funny thing is that at first I asked myself that exact same question. It didn’t take long, though, for the answer to become clear. So, what does a Science TOSA do? Well, let’s see.
The first and most important part of the job is working with the teachers and principals of the district. What do they need to understand and implement the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)? How can we ensure that students at every one of our 16 elementary schools has equal access to quality science instruction in line with the shifts required by NGSS? Turns out this is not the easiest thing to accomplish. At first, teachers needed to become aware of what NGSS is and the standards they are responsible to teach. Many times teachers did not want to give up their old lessons and units even though they no longer belonged at their grade level. I found that often it took small conversations with small groups during professional learning communities (PLC) to really unpack the standards and find where some old could mesh with the new. For instance, I had a group of kindergarten teachers who really, really didn’t want to give up life cycles of butterflies. “What about all my butterfly projects?” “My students love butterflies.” After the initial reaction, we looked together at the life science standards for Kindergarten and the crosscutting concepts that go with them. All animals need food to grow (LS1.C) was a natural fit. Their students could still observe the caterpillars eat and grow and eventually also observe the butterflies themselves while looking for patterns and recording their findings in their science notebooks. Teachers didn’t have to teach the life cycle of the butterfly but still got to hold onto something that was special to them and made the students happy. Sometimes, though, teachers just had to let go of the old and make room for what was in their grade level. Sorry, no more periodic table, fifth grade! “Wait, what are my standards?” Start here. This, too, takes a leap of faith for some teachers and I found it was a big part of my job to help them transition by finding lessons, modeling lessons, and being present when they tried something new.
From awareness to practice is where I wanted to go next and another part of my job as TOSA is to provide professional learning opportunities. With the help of the secondary science TOSA, we developed a series of NGSS Science Practice Training Sessions for our TK-12 teachers. In one big room, six times this year, we will bring teachers together to delve into some of the Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs) and Crosscutting Concepts (CCCs) in order to immediately put them to use in classrooms. Teachers learning and collaborating in a hands-on setting increases their confidence as science teachers. We want teachers to be making sense of the NGSS through phenomena, hands-on experiences, and collaboration. And then take that model back to their students. Palm Springs Unified is a K-8 Early Implementation Initiative district and as such has a strong core leadership team as well as teacher leaders who support the professional learning by being facilitators during after school trainings as well as during 3-day summer institutes. Having science lead teachers at individual sites gives teachers immediate access to help on a day-to-day basis and supports the work of the TOSAs.
Along with working with teachers, there are a few other things to do. One is to promote environmental literacy and educational opportunities by establishing ties with informal education providers and guide teachers in understanding the Environmental Principles and Concepts which are an integral part of the California Science Framework. For instance, in my area we have Joshua Tree National Park, The Wildlands Conservancy, and The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens, to name a few, that provide NGSS aligned field trips, in-class visits, and other opportunities for our students. Did you know that many places are able to cover the cost of your bussing? Getting students outside is a great way to spark their curiosity, encourage them to ask questions and make observations about the world around them. In your area your might check out your local CREEC Network or County Office of Education for information regarding opportunities for your students. Another job, is science fair and all that that entails. And a S.T.E.A.M. Expo? Why not?
My biggest goal this year is to complete the CA TIME process and adopt elementary instructional materials. More on this later!
So, if you are a teacher and you need help with lessons, reading standards, finding a field trip, or coordinating science fairs, check to see if your district has a science TOSA. If not, you might have instructional or academic coaches that can fill that need. Let your district know that you find these people helpful and let them know what it is that you need.
Debbie Gordon is the Elementary Science TOSA for Palm Springs Unified School District, a project director for K-8 Early Implementer Initiative, and Region 4 Director for CSTA.