I love working with kids – I taught science to teenage girls for almost 5 years at New Haven Residential Treatment Center before coming to Flagstaff for a PhD program. My students went on field trips, did projects on genetic disorders, and shot off rockets. I wanted them to have fun, but there was also regular life – when I tried to make them memorize the elements, calculate things that had no relevance to them, and copy down notes just because that’s what you do in school.
I wasn’t like the teacher in this film… (thanks to Brandon Arnold for the film. Great to have one amazing teacher play another – Hal Black as Merrill Webb)
… but I also didn’t know how to be better, either.
When I first left my teaching job, I felt a bit burned out and ready for something new. As much as I liked teaching, I missed research and I honestly felt worn down by the daily grind. As much as I liked teaching, I didn’t feel like I had the skills to do it as well as I wanted it to be done. After all, I’d never planned on being a teacher, and kind of fell into the job in the first place. As much as I liked it, I needed to broaden my experiences and move on.
After a couple years of my PhD program at NAU, I realized that I missed how kids bring you down to earth. Adults, and academics in particular, are very selective in what they talk about. I think it’s refreshing, though, to be with kids. Kids do a better job than adults in saying what’s on their minds. In addition, kids often haven’t had a chance to make the same assumptions that others have made, and I think that’s a big part of why they ask such amazing questions that push the boundaries of what we know.
During my 3rd year at NAU, I got a chance to work with 4th and 5th graders in the GK-12 program at Sechrist Elementary, and also some 6th-8th graders at Jeddito School. It was a positive experience to work with such a great set of students and teachers. The kids built and raced cars, dissected hearts, figured out electrical circuits, ran around like water molecules, and launched a balloon into space. Good times.
The GK-12 program also involved delving into radical ideas about teaching methods. I learned a lot about recent education research and how to make the most of the teaching and learning experience. I loved being challenged by radical ideas about teaching. My own approaches to teaching began to change and incorporate ideas that do a better job of engaging students more.
One of the tools I found most helpful in improving my own teaching was using the RTOP as a self-assessment tool. It was required by the GK-12 program, but it made a big difference for me.
The most helpful idea that I began to incorporate into my teaching was engaging students in hypothesis-making. The earlier and more frequently the learners develop expectations, the more their minds are working. Of course it’s important to be clear and organized in the way you present ideas, but now I think that it’s just as important (or even more important) to invite learners to develop explicit expectations of the who, what, when, where, why, how of the lesson. An awesome example is the Blakawton Bees.
I’m no longer in the GK-12 program, but I’ve got plans to keep involved in teaching. More on the SCIFOR program later!