Starting in the winter of 1996, the Delaware Department of Education and curriculum leaders from seven school districts initiated several professional development opportunities arranged to show elementary school teachers—in grades K-6–a new, different, and greatly improved science curriculum. I remember my colleague, Doris Morris (who one might have called a science teacher’s science teacher), raving about these great new kits and this wonderful way to teach science. Doris had been included in the district’s team that had gone to Washington, D.C., along with teams from other districts and DEDOE, to see some of these kits for themselves.
If Doris said that this looked good, then, I trusted that this would be worthwhile. It looked like my home district would be getting a new science program. Good. In my opinion at that time, the available textbooks were outdated, boring, and sitting around reading about science was such a drag—on me and on the kids. Hardly an engaging or enriching experience.
Furthermore, the team that spearheaded the trip to D.C. and the selection of the first set of seven kits (K-1-2-3-4-5-6) took the most amazing and innovative steps possible: (1) they were determined to include in-depth training as part of the deal, (2) they were going to push this as a state-wide initiative, and (3) they were totally focused on changing and improving elementary science. They were building the program from kindergarten on up the line. They did not start in high school and try to move it gradually down to elementary grades—a plan that often fails to catch on or be sustained. This turned out to be a brilliant part of the plan. Their goal was to eventually move this new program out to all 15 school districts—the four Vo-Tech districts do not have elementary schools. So, what about that training?
I recall receiving an announcement in my school mailbox about some training for the first kit selected for 6th grade classes: Magnets and Motors. [This turned out to be my all-time favorite kit. More about that later.] The announcement included ten different dates, beginning in January. “That’s funny”, I thought. There would be ten different dates for people to choose from—that certainly was unusual. I finally called the district’s curriculum office to check, and was dumb-founded to discover that the kit training required one to attend all ten three-hour sessions. THIRTY HOURS of training for one little science kit. Really?
Picture this: Here I was an educated, experienced 6th grade science teacher–what could they be thinking? What could they possibly show me about electricity and magnetism? (Talk about hubris! Mine, that is.) But, you really cannot blame me. In my previous 24 years of teaching, I had seen new curriculums introduced for every subject taught in grades 3-6, and never once had I experienced anything that came close to training. It was considered a red-letter day by the reading or math teachers if the district was able to arrange for a rep from the publisher to come for more than a half day to walk us through the new program in order to show us all of the features and special touches that made this superior to any other series the district might have selected. After that, you were on your own. I relied on my colleagues to help me uncover techniques that could be useful, and skills and strategies that would be requisite to success with a brand new basal reader or math textbook.
This was something different. As the first session of the training, teachers were invited to come to a three-hour session (that included dinner!) in order to preview one science kit per grade level. So, we all shuffled over to More Elementary School late one afternoon. The 6th grade kit, Magnets and Motors came in two BIG purple boxes, filled to the brim with all of the materials that one would need to complete the sixteen (16) detailed lessons, including thirty student workbooks with a 4-5 appropriate reading selections related to a few of the lessons. Everything! I was intrigued.
If a lesson called for thirty “bank pins” (the name given to straight pins like the ones used in sewing), then there were 30 pins in a small plastic bag. 100 straws? There they were—all 100 straws. OMG! For the first time in my experience as a science teacher who had tried to incorporate some hands-on science into my various lessons, I would not have to go to the grocery store, or the drugstore, or the hardware store, or to my own toolbox just to gather up all of the equipment and materials needed to explore some key science concept. O.K—that got my attention.
That first session involved a look at the kit contents, a brief presentation about the BIG IDEAS of the kit, a chance to ask questions, and dinner. 6th grade teachers sat together and talked about what they had seen and what they expected, not really all that sure what to expect with the next nine sessions. The training was scheduled over the next three months.
The training was simple and shrewd. A skilled trainer took us through the kit, lesson by lesson. Not as if we were 6th graders, but as adult learners. Trust me when I tell you that this was the first time that I ever got to explore instructional materials and lessons as a learner. The experience was revelatory. The lessons were as challenging for these science teachers as they would be for the kids. We struggled with the same concepts, materials, and operations with which I later would see them struggle. I quickly discovered that I knew and understood a little about electricity and very little about magnetism. Oh, my.
Each teacher was given a large 3-ring binder—the official teacher’s guide that came with the kit. It was mine—to keep, to write in, to add to, to use as my own. This was unheard of. This notebook served as our journal—our record of notes and discoveries, questions and ideas. What a great decision it was to give each trained teacher this resource to have and to hold.
I loved this training, and I loved this particular kit. But the best part of it was getting to teach this kit. The kids loved this new science as well. And this simple, but elegant kit set me on the path to doing real science; to students learning to think, act, and talk like “scientists”; to creating the most wonderful environment for teaching and learning science; to transforming students from children who feared or dreaded science to those who learned to love science and respect this subject for the wonder and satisfaction that it could bring to all kinds of learners. Science was a pathway to learning how to learn, to student success and confidence, and to engaging students in what teachers call “doing school.”
So, where are we now?