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Trying to Reflect on What Made a Great Semester So Great

July 21, 2014

Now that I’ve had some time away from it, I want to try to reflect on what was a truly wonderful class and teaching experience that occurred  in my inquiry / physical science course for elementary education majors this past spring. It was a class where we learned a whole lot together while laughing almost everyday (sometimes very loudly).

The bulk of the course focused around two very different parts of the course.

Part One: 7 weeks of Guided Inquiry using the Physical Science and Everyday Thinking Curriculum (Focused around Energy)

Part Two: 5 weeks of Responsive Inquiry informed by facilitation from Student Generated Scientific Inquiry (Focused around the Moon)

My gut feeling about the class has been that a large part of what made it so great had nothing to do with anything I was doing differently. The story in my head goes: “I just happened to have been lucky with the group of students I had. In terms of individual students I was lucky, but I was also just lucky in terms of the group as a whole. Things just happen to fall into place with the right people.” I think there is a lot of truth to that. My inquiry class can be difficult to navigate for many students, especially those  who are not used to taking responsibility for their own learning, or who have never had to grapple with uncertainty and the unknown for extended periods of time, or are not used to really talking and listening as a way of learning. In the past, I’ve had mixed success, often with usually one or two disgruntled students and usually a varied size of students who embrace the class strongly.

This past semester, the story would merely go that I just happened to have a group of students who, for whatever reason, really found ways and reasons to embrace these experiences. That’s not to say that students were never uncomfortable or frustrated, but their discomfort and frustrations were experiences that occurred within a overall supportive environment rather than being a defining, pervasive aspect of the course. But still,  I’d like to be able to walk away from that experience with more than just, “It was luck. You just have to get the right combination of students.” So I hope hear to reflect on things that I may have done differently.

Guided Inquiry before Open Inquiry: Students had 7 weeks of guided inquiry in which there would be short periods of uncertainty with strong content scaffolding, importantly, before having extended periods of uncertainty with less scaffolding on content and more scaffolding on inquiry. This gave students positive experiences with learning science content which let them dabble in inquiry waters before jumping in. Because I can’t possibly follow the structured curriculum closely, students also got to experience moments of intense unscripted inquiry and responsive whole class discussion. With the class I had explicit discussions about the differences between some of the worksheet science we were doing and the real science we were doing when it occurred more spontaneously. Our class spent a lot of time during our guided inquiry into energy talking about Amy’s pee theory and investigating phenomena (which according to the curriculum should have been homework practice), but instead became rich contexts for extended inquiry. When students didn’t believe a simulation they were investigating, we improvised to do our our experiments to help settle the issue. I think this also meant, in the first part of the course, I could focus on being a good teacher rather than being a curriculum designer/developer.

Structuring the Media that Structured Classroom Discourse: I spent a lot of time this past semester working to craft environments for whole class discussion. In previous classes, I mostly though about the seating arrangements (e.g., tables, circles,etc)  and methods for sharing / collaborating students’ written work (whiteboards, document cameras, etc). This semester my environments for discourse were much more rich and required a to more prep work. For example, when discussing a particular energy representation about a phenomena we couldn’t get consensus on, I cut out big colored arrows, boxes, and circles with labels. Previously, I would have had students do whiteboards and share out or have a whole class discussion while making a consensus diagram at the board. Instead, we had these magnetized manipulatives to move around the board. One at a time students had to come up and add, change, or take away something at the board and give reasons. I did similar thing with Venn Diagrams when comparing students related but different ideas students were struggling with–big Venn Diagrams on the board and words students could put different places. Groups had all the choices to do together, but then each group was given a select portion to put up on the common Venn Diagram. We only talked about the ones that there was disagreement about. When we got to the moon, I spent a whole weekend cutting out 2D and 3D manipulatives, including many of the student-generated representational supports that had been invented in previous semesters. All and all, I spent a lot of time thinking about how to give students just the right balance of constraints and freedom to have meaningful discussion.

Structuring Students’ Writing: Students have always had to do a lot of writing for class, but this time I did a lot more to structure students writing–to give them explicit expectations and feedback. The PSET curriculum already has a strong structured writing component, in which students learn about, practice, and both give and receive feedback on three criteria: completeness, clarity, and consistency. In the responsive more open inquiry unit, students had to read, practice, and give/get feedback related to readings from “They Say/ I Say”.  For their large, original piece of work they had to write about the moon, students had to write about and respond to ideas from class, which really helped students care about and be motivated to keep good records about their peer’s thinking without me having to grade notebooks on such matters. Previously, I had tried to structured students writing, but I never structured in well enough for students to really understand and for me to stick to giving feedback closely to those structures.

Change in Day/Time Structure: The class used to meet 2 days a week (3 hours each meeting) to 3 days a week (2 hours each meeting). I don’t think this is insignificant, both for students and me. For students, three hour twice a week is rough. But for me, planning for 2 hours is much easier than 3 hours. Plus, in a responsive inquiry setting, in which improvisation is often necessary mid-instruction, many more things can go wrong in 3 hours than in 2 hours. You get more chances with three meetings to reflect on what’s happened and plan.

No Attendance Grade (Except for a Participation Self-Assessment): Previously, because being continuously present and participating is so critical to coherence in the classroom (both for individual students and the class), I had an attendance policy. This semester, I just asked students to self-assess their participation along a rubric several times throughout the semester. For the most part, students gave themselves honest assessments. As part of those assessments, they had to give themselves goals for next time and self-evaluate next time with evidence. I can say that participation was about the same as before–pretty good. Before, students felt like I was punishing them for not showing up. Now, students usually felt like they had punished themselves. Students also self-assessed and peer-assessed on their moon journals.

Summary:

I guess it boils down to (1) scaffolding early experiences for success by using a structured curriculum, (2) improving clarity about expectations (especially writing), (3) use of self-assessment and peer-assessment, (4) more thorough preparation for classroom discussions, and (5) more workable timetable / schedule.

I think those things are tangible things I can think about that were different. I’m sure there are lots of less tangible things I may have done in terms of how I interacted with students, but I can’t say for certain. I know my interactions with students were very positive, but the nature of interactions are complicated and can’t be solely attributed to things I did.

Was it all in my head? No, I don’t think so.

So, it wasn’t just me that felt the class was so wonderful. For the most part, evidence suggests that students tremendously valued the time they spent in class. In other classes, I typically get notes from students saying things like, “I admire your professionalism and your passion for your chosen field,” but in my inquiry class this past spring, students wrote things like, “You really are a great friend,” “We love you,” and “Love your guts”.

Student evaluations also suggest that students felt like this classroom experience was more worthwhile and effective than previous classes of mine. Two categories that are the very signifying on our evaluations are,”How worthwhile was this course in comparison with other courses you have taken at this university?” and “How would you rate the overall teaching effectiveness of your instructors?” With both of those questions, every student answered those two question as highly as possible. Here are graphs showing trends in this class over the last 3 years.

Effectiveness Worth

The sad ending to this post is that I am likely to not be teaching this class in the near future. The elementary education program here has been declining in enrollments, which has meant that our offerings of the course are now half of what they used to be. I am not slated to teach the class next year. I suppose it’s nice to end on a high note, so there’s that.

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