Supporting and Enhancing NGSS Implementation: A Tale of Two Principals’ Efforts
By Ron Rammer, Judi Hayes, and Barbara Woods
Two principals. Two schools. One district. One challenge: What does a principal do to support teachers as they implement student-centered, phenomena-focused, inquiry-based science instruction based on the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) for every student? This is the tale of a middle school and an elementary principal and their journey of lending the needed support to enhance NGSS implementation at their sites.
Ron Rammer is principal at McCaffrey Middle School in the northern California small city of Galt, California. Judi Hayes is principal at Lake Canyon Elementary School, a TK-sixth grade campus also in Galt. As the administrators on the Core Lead Team of the CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative for Galt Joint Union Elementary School District, they serve on the front lines as they figure out the administrator role in guiding NGSS implementation. We’ll first hear from Ron, and then from Judi, as they share their stories, experience, and advice to others.
A New Way of Thinking and Doing at McCaffrey Middle School Through the Eyes of Ron Rammer, Principal
Expect a classroom that looks, sounds, and feels different: “At McCaffrey, a crucial component of NGSS implementation is the prevalence of classroom discourse. Phenomena-based instruction revolves around learning sequences that challenge students to rely on what they and their group members already know as they develop their science knowledge through science and engineering practices. The teacher’s role has changed dramatically. Teachers have moved from a provider of knowledge to a facilitator who masterfully asks the “probing questions” that guide student inquiry without telling. As a principal, I can acknowledge those probing questions that the teacher uses that successfully move students forward as they wrestle with learning concepts, as well as recognize that this is a hard skill to develop and that it will take time for teachers to figure out how to ask the key questions at the right times that will facilitate student learning. It is important for me to give teachers the freedom to take risks and know that I am okay with the “messiness” of the process.”
Expect to hear some wrong answers as students construct their own knowledge: As teachers turn over the reins of learning to become centered on the students being the drivers in seeking to understand concepts, students often begin with preconceptions that lead toward incorrect answers as they analyze data and construct their own understanding, especially towards the beginning of the learning sequence. As a principal, I am learning to resist the urge to “correct” students and to trust the teacher to design further investigations that will help students revise their own thinking as they work on “making sense” of phenomena and data. As students’ progress through a flexible teacher-designed learning sequence that makes room for student-centered learning, student conceptual understanding will advance to a point where they can demonstrate an increased sophistication in their articulation of the core ideas of science through using science practices. Students will begin expressing their learning using the connected thinking of big ideas through the crosscutting concepts, speaking in terms of cause and effect or stability and change as ways to connect the core science ideas, rather than each piece of learning sitting in its own discrete mental box. As an administrator, I can engage teachers in conversations in which they share how this process is evolving in their classrooms.
Expect learning that lasts and lives beyond the classroom: As students become the “sense-makers” in the classroom, their interest and motivation for seeking new understandings become visible both inside and outside of the classroom. This “sense-making” shift allows for students to build a better understanding of how the natural world works. Students will talk of science at lunch while moving from class to class, and as they leave the campus at the end of the day. Students will ask questions of each other and of the adults on and off campus. They will use their electronic devices to seek out answers and explanations. And they will take this type of learning expectation into their other classrooms, so it’s helpful to prepare the teachers of other subject matters to expect this and use it throughout the school experience. This type of learning remains with students, and they will remember ideas and concepts far beyond the assessment.
Expect evidence of academic “bravery” on the part of students: Educators always want evidence that changes in the classroom are having a positive impact on student achievement. At McCaffrey Middle School, noticeable evidence includes academic “bravery” on the part of the students. Students are willing to take the intellectual risk, knowing that failure is part of the journey that each of them, along with their classmates, must endure in order to move to the next level of understanding of the phenomena being studied. This is crucial because this understanding of the phenomena opens the door to a greater understanding of the natural world. But to an even larger extent, this “bravery” is essential for moving forward in life and taking chances at future opportunities for growth.
Expect a new level of skill sets for the 21st century: Learning through the lens of the Next Generation Science Standards has been instrumental in guiding the change necessary to position students to study in an environment of collaboration, team work, leadership, and responsibility. The development of this skill set is necessary for success in the 21st-century workplace. This is an invaluable asset that cannot be overlooked. McCaffrey Middle School has and will continue to take the risks necessary to further this important transformational work in how teachers design learning experiences that maximize student-centered learning.
Making Environmental Learning and NGSS Come Alive on Campus: Judi Hayes, Principal
Create environmental learning and civic learning experiences tied to the NGSS: As principal of Lake Canyon Elementary School, a recent California Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools Award recipient, an important priority of mine is to help teachers create environmental and civic learning experiences for all of our students across transitional kindergarten through sixth grades as an integral part of our early implementation of the NGSS. Often this means tapping into community partnerships in order to provide the needed resources to make this happen. As principal, I see my role as building the “bridge” that connects teachers with available resources as teachers let me know what their ideas are, and I make phone calls to connect their ideas to local and regional organizations that can work alongside the teacher to bring these ideas to fruition.
Connect the learning of NGSS concepts to real-life experiences: At Lake Canyon, kinder students and teachers, with the help of business partners, created a mini working farm on campus. This farm is the setting in which students learn and apply NGSS standards such as K-PS3-1. Make observations to determine the effect of sunlight on Earth’s surface. Students create graphs of observed temperatures on the different farm surfaces in the sun and in the shade. They take notes on the rate of water evaporation. As they learn how hot some surfaces get in the sun, the students realize that their farm animals need protection from the heat in order to stay alive. This need drives their experimentation with K-PS3-2. Use tools and materials to design and build a structure that will reduce the warming effect of sunlight on an area. Students try out different materials to create different prototype structures that create shade for their animals and use what they learn to discuss how to improve their farm area. Kinder students measure the dimensions of their vegetable garden beds and estimate the number of plants the beds will accommodate as part of their experience with LS1.C, which includes learning that plants need water and light to live and grow.
Provide needed resources for student research: Some of the Performance Expectations in the NGSS require students to develop the skill of reading texts and using media to obtain, evaluate, and communicate information. As principal, I can ensure funds are channeled to provide the resources that support the specific science standards that hinge on using this skill. For example, in first grade, students study the habits and patterns of behavior of parents and offspring (LS1.B) including nocturnal animals, by conducting internet and library text research to obtain information which leads towards writing expository essays using word processing tools. This project requires a strong band width of online access, the availability of digital devices, such as Chromebooks, in the hands of students, and a generous selection of library texts on a variety of animals that meet first-grade student reading levels. Another example of the need for digital resources is in third grade, where students develop their understanding of how some animals form groups to help them survive (LS2.D), by using math and computer assisted design tools to create replicas of honey bee hives.
Bring local “experts” into the classroom learning experience: Second-grade students have worked with representatives from their local recycling plant, Cal Waste, to mathematically calculate the percentage of waste which is recycled by their families and school. This experience is being incorporated as part of their investigation into describing and classifying different types of matter (PS1.A). As part of their recycling project, they can then discuss the different types of matter they encounter in everyday life and how some properties are suited to different purposes. Through their experience with Cal Waste representatives, they can see that matter that was once used for one purpose can be taken apart and reformed to serve another purpose. The district Service and Environmental Coordinator, John Durand, visits the classrooms of fourth and fifth-grade students to partner in their learning while tracking and measuring the growth of steelhead trout and salmon which they raise in their classrooms. In order to move this experience toward supporting grade specific NGSS, Durand is helping to guide learning experiences in the coming year in which fourth grade students focus on the structure and function and information processing that is needed for survival of the fish (LS1.A and LS1.D) while fifth grade will focus on the flow of energy and matter in the life cycle of the salmon and trout (PS3.D, LS1.C, LS2.A, and LS2.B). Sixth-grade students work with a local architect to design tiny house plans which are energy efficient and use solar energy as part of their sustainable design (MS-PS3-3).
Integrate resources in learning experiences that connect science to other disciplines within and outside of school: Lake Canyon has developed a digital media lab which is actively used by students to create and edit their own videos to show their learning. Students use computer assisted design software to program a 3D printer to print their own tools as a means to show their learning. For example, sixth-grade students are studying local birds and have used a combination of technology devices to create a display for the local community Bird Festival. Teachers include a “Genius Hour” in their weekly schedule, and many students use this time to further extend their science learning. Many of these projects center on environmental education and civic/service learning projects in which students develop ways to make a difference in the natural or human built regional community.
NGSS Implementation and the Role of the Administrator
The NGSS Early Implementation Initiative considers the role of the administrator key to successful NGSS implementation of the instructional shifts that will bring learning alive in the classroom. As Rammer has shared with other administrators, “Give the teachers all the room they need to try out new ways of tapping into student driven learning, failing, talking about it with each other, and trying again. Then get out of the way as they make great things happen in their classrooms. Teachers need to genuinely feel that this risk-taking is supported.” In Judy’s words of advice during administrator workshops, “The principal can help establish the bridges that connect teachers to resources throughout the community. Teachers are busy in their classrooms teaching and designing lessons; as the principal, I can devote time to making the phone calls and weaving through the possibilities for community connections that will partner with the teachers to make their work relevant to students and the community.” As part of this effort, when administrators visit the lesson study process during the upcoming year, they will examine the conceptual flow developed by the teachers and look for partnership opportunities that will support student learning of the science concepts. Both principals share these support mechanisms with the other administrators in the district during formal and informal administrator meetings, engaging administrators in conversations that extend NGSS implementation district-wide. Each has made it possible to enhance their own unique school community focus as their teachers move forward to implement student-centered, phenomena-focused, inquiry-based science instruction based on the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) for every student.
Ron Rammer is the Principal at McCaffrey Middle School and Core Leadership Team member for the CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative for Galt Joint Union Elementary School District.
Judi Hayes is the Principal at Lake Canyon Elementary School and Core Leadership Team member for the CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative for Galt Joint Union Elementary School District.
Barbara Woods is the Project Director for the CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative for Galt Joint Union Elementary School District and a member of CSTA