Eavesdropping on Conversations: the Bright Side to Instructional Materials Review
By Shawna Metcalf, CSTA President
Over the last six months, I have had the privilege of spearheading the K-12 science adoption in my district. For many people in charge of this process, the word privilege might seem a little too rose-colored glasses; however, the process has been illuminating and refreshing even though at times it has been frustrating and exhausting.
I am currently working with three teams of educators: twenty-five K-5, twelve 6-8, and fifteen 9-12. Every single one volunteered to spend fifteen days away from their students this year to evaluate materials using the CA NGSS Toolkit for Instructional Materials Evaluation. Again, fifteen days in six months. That is dedication. As the facilitator, I have done my best to drive conversations and not let my personal opinions shine through. Walking around the room and listening in on conversations has been the best and most rewarding part of the experience and I am excited to be able to celebrate this group of teachers with you all. The positive take-aways from each group are too numerous to count, but I will condense for the sake of brevity.
I will start with the high school team, which consists of a mix of teachers from across the district and across the disciplines. Not only have they been tasked with evaluating instructional materials for courses they have never taught, they are also working diligently to ensure that the materials are accessible for all students, especially those who have not traditionally taken the course.
Listening in on the Physics of the Universe group was enlightening. Their conversation revolved around how authentically integrating Earth & Space Science phenomena into the course provided real-world context for students. They were discussing their content with excitement, but their students were their focus. If you have never had the opportunity to listen to the conversation between a conceptual physics teacher, an 11th grade physics teacher, and a geologist, I highly recommend it. My physics anxiety decreased from their energy alone.
The Chemistry in the Earth System conversation that made me smile most focused on middle school science. Instead of discussing what skills and knowledge their current students may or may not have, they were praising their middle school colleagues for the work they have been doing implementing CA NGSS. Praising instead of blaming…it was such a great shift in conversation.
The Living Earth group has actually formed one of the best district-wide PLCs I have ever seen. They have spent countless hours with prospective materials discussing how to engage and support every student at the rigorous level required of CA NGSS across a diverse district. Their students are at the forefront of their conversation. I haven’t heard them say “our students can’t do that.” Instead, I hear them saying “what do we need to do to help our students get here.” Their conversations make me sad that I am not in the classroom to collaborate with them.
The middle school group. There is a special place in my heart for the middle school teachers in my district. They have been trying to transition to integrated science with limited resources for years and are still willing to put in the effort to keep trying to find the best materials. Throughout the entire process, it has become apparent how much they have embraced the instructional shifts required of CA NGSS. This group of teachers was so diligent in ensuring that the materials selected actually had students doing the science, was relevant to their lives, and was accessible to all of their students. Their conversations always came back to what was best for students. I couldn’t wait to leave each meeting and update the high school team on the amazing work taking place before their students get to them.
Now for the elementary team. I know that when you pull together a volunteer committee for elementary science you are going to get the teachers who already like science. What I didn’t expect was to leave every meeting refreshed, energized, and hopeful for the future of science education in the district. This group of teachers was so fun to work with for such a variety of reasons. They were so invested in the process and it was obvious in everything they did. Not only did this group exhibit a passion for science throughout, they were intent on finding a program that would help them instill this passion in their students. Hearing them say things like “I can’t wait to go try this with my kids” was music to my ears. Even more fun was watching them try out the instruction from the students’ perspective and actually get to do the science. They were eager and super engaged…it was as fun as watching the students get excited. I never had to convince them that science should be a priority because it was obvious that they already believe it. This group will make student-centered, inquiry-based science instruction in K-5 a reality.
Decisions still haven’t been made and there is still a lot of work to be done. I am sure there are going to be days when I want to pull out my hair or have an adult beverage as a result of the process. Having conversations with colleagues in other districts, I know that my frustration and stress level is not mine alone when going through this process. Sometimes, it is easy to get lost in frustration and feel like I am just spinning my wheels and I wonder if all of this time is for naught. In those moments, I need to remind myself of these amazing educators and the conversations I have overheard. Then, in those moments, I will be confident that, regardless of which programs we pick, in the end, these teachers put their students first and K-12 science education will thrive.
Thank you for letting me celebrate my colleagues. I know they are not unique and that they are only a small sampling of what you all do every day.