By MIKE MARSEE
They had a table full of fascinating props, more than enough to engage an elementary school science class for an hour or so.
But there wasn’t a student in sight and Leah Manley and Elizabeth Roland aren’t elementary teachers. Rather, they were trying to help educators in elementary, intermediate and middle schools become more comfortable with teaching the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) in their classrooms.
Manley and Roland were not alone in their efforts at the Kentucky Science Teachers Association’s annual conference, where their session was among many devoted to a better understanding of the standards. Almost one-fourth of the sessions at the three-day event last month in Lexington – 25 of 108 – specifically mentioned applying, integrating or understanding the NGSS in their synopses.
Manley and Roland, who both teach science at Montgomery County High School, were part of a team of teachers who led a series of professional development sessions for teachers at lower grade levels across Montgomery County. The success of that effort led them to present at the KSTA conference on what they discovered was an area of need.
“We went through every NGSS standard from kindergarten up through eighth grade, and one of the things we found out is that some of the elementary and middle teachers who aren’t necessarily science teachers were feeling very unsure of themselves,” said Manley, who teaches physics and astronomy. “There was just a lack of confidence in teaching some of the material, and waves and electricity and magnetism were two of the big topics that they just weren’t real sure on.”
Their session focused on the waves standards, including the characteristics of sound, light and color waves. And their props – everything from bottles and glasses to a box of beans and a Slinky that stretched nearly the length of the room – demonstrated activities that the teachers in the audience could take back to their classrooms.
“We came up with a ton of activities not only to try to help them understand it better, but also to give them things they can take to their classrooms and use with their kids,” Manley said. “They’re a lot of the things we use with our kids, too, so it’s good for everybody.”
It was certainly good for LeAnna Hammons and Beverly Hensley, two teachers from Jesse D. Lay Elementary (Knox County), who were making mental notes even as they were making some, well, rather flat musical notes with drinking straws.
The two came to the conference in search of ideas on how to better teach the Next Generation Science Standards to their students. They found some of the answers they were looking for while they played straw oboes.
“The activities – like the bean box that I dropped – those were geared toward the lower elementary grades, but you could also use them in higher grades,” said Hammons, a 2nd-grade teacher. “A lot of the activities were very adaptable for different grade levels.”
Roland and Manley said they use many of the activities they introduced at the high school level, but Roland said they ran into a language barrier when they passed them on to their fellow teachers at lower grade levels in their district.
“We don’t know how to speak to their students, and they do,” said Roland, a chemistry teacher. “We could tell them what the content was and they had to feed back to us things like, ‘You can’t say that word. They don’t understand it.’ So we asked them, ‘What’s a similar way to say this that they would actually understand without having to add more vocabulary words to your unit?’
“It really set up much better communication between the elementary, intermediate, middle and high school. And they didn’t feel as intimidated by us, because they realized we were learning just as much from them as they were learning from us. They helped us and we helped them.”
Hensley, a 4th-grade teacher and the STEAM leader at Jesse D. Lay Elementary, said she and Hammons would be taking back what they learned from Manley and Roland to help other teachers in their school.
“We see that our teachers at our school are experiencing the same lack of confidence,” Hensley said. “It’s not that they really don’t know; they just think they don’t know. So we’re trying to put together some things that they can do and show them, because we’re going to take the same active role as those two ladies did with our teachers in our own building.”
That’s just the kind of result for which Manley was hoping.
“If we can help one elementary school teacher feel more comfortable teaching this, then that’s the goal. That’s what we want to do,” she said.
She said elementary teachers she has worked with have told her the NGSS have motivated them.
“I’ve seen a lot of them who want to teach science and the NGSS standards give them that reason,” Manley said. “This gives them that incentive and that push to actually teach some of these standards that they’ve been wanting to teach anyway.”
Roland added that it also has given them validation in some cases.
“I’ve talked to some teachers who’ve said, ‘This is confirming what I’ve been doing in my classes all along, and now I feel so good because I’m already there,’” she said.
The teacher comfort level might well be on the rise as the newness of the NGSS wears off.
“We both went to professional development sessions last summer where the main message was, ‘Everything is changing,’” Hensley said. “Now coming here, we’ve moved from, ‘Everything is changing; we don’t know how,’ to standing on more solid ground now and saying, ‘This is what it should look like.’
“In the past year we’ve gone from everybody having a question mark over their head to now knowing what direction we’re going.”
MORE INFO …
Leah Manley firstname.lastname@example.org
Elizabeth Roland email@example.com
LeAnna Hammons firstname.lastname@example.org
Beverly Hensley email@example.com