We have a guest blogger today, Ryan Heitz, who has experienced the type of education I think of when I think of Earth Science. While I have only heard about scientific field work, he has had the opportunity to perform field work at the Chesapeake Bay, the Brazilian Rainforest and in the Marshall Islands.
“As we will be announcing the Academy Earth Science teacher this Friday, Earth Science is an apropos topic for today’s Teaching Tuesday post.
Our Earth Science education philosophy has it roots in my passion for environmental sciences. Influenced at a young age by Dr. Fornshell at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, and then expanded when I studied in the Department of Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia, the philosophy features three main focuses: scientific depth, hands-on, integrated curriculum, and field studies
Earth science by its very nature is an integrative field as it requires you to learn and understand some chemistry, physics or biology as you study various processes and phenomena. Further, you must apply math, engineering and computer science as you strive to design experiments and analyze data sets. Finally, there is strong connection to nature - the world around you - that provides an ultimate incentive to study the field as it is easy to see, touch, smell, and hear it. It can include studying various local ecosystems in person (e.g. forests, wetlands), making measurements of the atmosphere by developing and using meteorological instruments, and exploring oceanography in the Chesapeake Bay aboard a ship.
We were in luck as we were researching a curriculum because we’ve found one that is nearly all that we could want, when combined with field studies and additional hands-on experiments. The curriculum that we are using for our Earth Science courses is by JASON Learning.
This is what we like about the JASON curricula:
Earth and Space Science is the study of geology, the atmosphere, oceanography, ecology, astronomy and planetary science. Therefore, in order to give the subject its due, it required a multi-year curriculum.
We like that the JASON curricula provide a solid foundation to the study of Earth Science and is both multi-faceted and integrated plan of study. Going beyond JASON, the areas we need to expand upon to give us the level of depth and immersion that we are looking for at the Academy include, Exploration, Field Work and Planetary Science.
Exploration: We believe that all of our students should appreciate how exploration is key to science. In many instances the study of science is so focused on the scientific method and answering a pre-defined question (repeating an experiment designed and selected by someone else) that we lose the freedom to explore and to truly be curious. This freedom to explore is what allows us to formulate those questions.
Field Work: Of the different sciences, Earth Science provides the most and easiest opportunities for field studies. We can go explore riparian habitats by visiting a local river, but we can’t exactly get inside a cell. Local, regional, and national resources are abundant. Locally, Walker Nature Center is located within a five-minute drive from the school, and we plan to spend a fair number of ecology class periods outdoors at the nature center, or when we study oceanography become oceanographers studying marine science with Living Classrooms.
Space Science: At the end of our studies of the Earth, we go to space and learn how our planet is part of a broader universe. We’ll explore a spectrum of topics in astronomy to include our solar system, galaxy formation, planetary geology, and instruments. We’ll include telescope nights to turn our eyes to the skies.
Between JASON, exploration, planetary and space science and field work, I can’t be more excited about a class! Ms. Jessie might just find a slightly older 4th-5th grader sneaking into her class.”
“What are grades?”
“What are they for?”
“What does a grade mean?”
“How is a grade related to learning?”
These questions have sparked hours of discussion and debate for us and brought back many memories of our own school experience. From hours of memorizing in order to get the “A” or “A+” to a bell-curve grading system where the class average was the B/C line, grading practices come in many different shapes and sizes. I encourage you to try to answer these questions for yourself and explore your own educational philosophy on grading. For today’s post, we’ll discuss what they mean to us.
It is easy to see how grades can be calculated. We all remember the different grading scales from our childhood or how different teachers calculated our grades. However, did you ever feel like you were studying for a grade? Or did you ever wonder how you aced a class, yet you couldn’t recall what you learned six months later?
We believe that grades in the traditional sense should be replaced by ongoing assessments of the child’s progress against learning objectives. The progress summary should be able to answer the questions: What are they learning? How well are they learning it? How is their effort? With small class sizes, teachers are given the support and freedom to work individually with students in order to determine students’ mastery of skills. The level of mastery, areas where the child needs extra help, and the effort put forth can then be discussed with parents through formal and informal communications. The formal communication, or Progress Summary, will document progress against skills and learning objectives for that year with narrative explaining the progress and effort made during that period.
While a Progress Summary provides a more holistic representation of a child’s progress in a subject area than a single grade does, we believe that it needs to be supplemented with a portfolio of work that highlights the child’s accomplishments, shows their output (products), and demonstrates the progress that child has made over time. This portfolio of work can be an online portfolio, a physical portfolio or a combination of both. We believe that having a portfolio of work that a child is proud of, allows her to take ownership and responsibility for her own work, especially if it is also used as a tool for self assessment.
Learning how to create a work portfolio is also a skill that will be useful in adulthood. Whether submitting a design portfolio, a teaching portfolio or a portfolio of projects for a proposal, learning how to highlight and summarize accomplishments, is something that children will have to do as adults. By practicing as children, we hope to teach them the tools for self advocacy in the future.
Through 8th grade, we have the flexibility to focus on narratives and progress, combined with portfolios. As we begin to think towards extending Ideaventions Academy to high school and requirements for college admissions, we may have to compromise and introduce a grading scheme. We’ll discuss how to solve that challenge next year.
To read more:
Now that we covered Computer Science, Engineering and Math, we’ll begin our series on Science to round out the STEM philosophy. It is a series of posts because science at Ideaventions Academy is made up of two years of earth science, one year of biology, one year of chemistry and one year of physics and each field of study deserves to be focused on individually.
Whether it is pursuit of understanding through field research or lab research, when I have heard scientists discuss their work, I see them light up as they talk about their experiences. With that in mind, that’s the type of experience that we want our kids to have: The hands-on exploration and experimentation that is science.
Today’s post covers the philosophy behind our sequence of study. The sequence and level is an accelerated curriculum for inquisitive children. For reference, most traditional curricula have children in the elementary grades study a variety of units each year across the different disciplines: Earth and Space Science, Life Science and Physical Science. In Virginia, children then study a year of Life Science in 7th grade and Physical Science in 8th grade.
When we set forth to design the Academy curriculum, we wanted to draw upon research and our experience. The curriculum focuses on nurturing a child’s natural interests, but exposing them to a deep, challenging curriculum taught by enthusiastic and knowledgeable teachers (featuring scientists with lab and field research experience). We want to see each child have his or her own area that makes them light up. One child may love microbiology, while another one loves quantum physics and yet another aspires to be a marine biologist.
In the five years that we have worked with children at Ideaventions, we have seen time and time again that when children are intellectually curious, they can engage in and understand advanced concepts and the kids in the class lead us, as educators, to dive deeper. The curriculum is designed with learning experiences that support students integrating knowledge through inquiry-based experiments and studies. We want children to discover and experience concepts, make connections and not just read or be told about them. This is an approach that resonates with the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) position on science education and science education reform initiatives.
We start with earth and space science, which we do between 4th and 5th grades. The earth sciences are so broad, encompassing geology, hydrology, the atmosphere, space, oceanography, ecology and environmental science, that we need two years to provide the depth necessary for understanding and learning without being rushed. We start our youngest students with this sequence because it is also the most concrete.
At 6th or 7th grade, we introduce molecular chemistry that covers the fundamental concepts in chemistry. We study chemistry before studying biology because it sets the foundation for many of the biological concepts that are studied, and by having the chemistry background, we are able to go in more depth in biology in 7th-8th grade where we study cellular biology, molecular biology in addition to ecology and biodiversity.
Finally in 8th grade, once all of the children have had or are taking algebra, we study algebra-based physics, which includes Newtonian, or classical mechanics, electricity and magnetism, optics and thermodynamics and ends with an introduction to quantum physics.
Electives 1) enrich the curriculum, such as a class on the Great Experiments in Biology and Chemistry; 2) allow for the next level of study; such as an organic chemistry class; or 3) allow for original research after having studied the foundations.
Our goal is that by the end of 8th grade, all students will have been exposed to all of the natural sciences and have had an opportunity for further exploration based on each child’s interest through electives.
As you have probably noticed by now, we alternate topics between the whole child and academic subjects. So, we’ll pick up again in two weeks and deep dive one of the science fields of study.
Testing is a loaded and political term in today’s educational system and with today’s post, I am officially entering the ring.
Luckily, for purposes of discussing our testing philosophy, I can focus the discussion based on the parameters of Ideaventions Academy.
People’s opinions are shaped by their environment and experiences and when the word test in an educational setting comes up, it evokes feelings of anxiety and judgement in me. I can only remember one test in all of my schooling career that I enjoyed. It was in college in one of Bob Solow’s Macroeconomics classes where in working through the problems and questions, the sequence of the questions, drew parallels to the events leading to the collapse of the Mexican economy in the 1990s. However, at the time, I was just thankful that another semester of final exams were over, but the “Aha!” moment in the middle of that exam will always stay with me.
A defining moment for me was a few years ago when my older son took the SCAT test for admissions into Johns Hopkins CTY program. We took the test at a testing center with adults who were there for professional certifications. After the test was complete, we got into the elevator with a woman who had completed a certification exam and as the doors to the elevator closed, my son said, “That was fun! Can we do it again?” It took the elevator-ride down to pick both of our jaws up off the floor. Since high-pressure testing had never been part of his Montessori education, this was a fun time to do some math and answer language questions. His experience and attitude towards this standardized test got me thinking and changed my point of view: If you haven’t been conditioned for tests to be stressful, they can provide meaningful information without impacting the learning process.
Fast forward four years….
As an educator and administrator, these are some goals and questions for each individual child:
There is a certain level of assessment that is constantly occurring in the classroom. With a small group of 8 students, teachers will engage students in casual conversation while they work to figure out what they have taken away from the lesson. Therefore, in a 1.5 hour class of 8 children, each student should have an opportunity to interact individually with the teacher for at least 5-7 minutes.
Assessing students’ mastery of material can also come in many forms that don’t have to be tests. As an alternative to tests, student projects and presentations can be a great way to find out what students learned, but do require carefully designed project guidelines or rubrics. Or if you want to see what the class remembers from a prior unit, it can be done in the form of a game. In another scenario, having a student explain what they are working on, can tell a teacher a lot about their thought process and if they understand what they are doing and most importantly why - learning with a purpose. Creating a portfolio of work is an ideal way for children to demonstrate what they know and what they like while building skills that they will use for the rest of their professional lives.
Global Teacher Prize winner, Nancie Atwell, said it best in the Education Week blog "We really need to be looking at what individual kids are achieving in the disciplines, authentically and personally."
The other category is standardized or grade-normed tests. I struggled with this because I can see the effects of the stress and pressure placed on students and teachers alike. However, the scientist in me also values the information they provide.
I find the results of these types of tests more useful when the child is benchmarked against him or herself over time. Because each child comes from a different starting point, standardized assessments tell us the trajectory of the child’s learning year over year.
When I see a standardized test result of a student who gets 99% across the board, the first question I ask myself is how would she have done if given this test at the beginning of the year? Is this child a candidate for further acceleration? You get a very different picture if a student scores 40% at the beginning of the year and ends up with a 99% compared to a student that came in with a 94% and ended up with a 99%. And if I give them an above grade-level test at what grade does this student start scoring below 80% or 60%? I view these types of tests as data points that help parents, teachers and the school learn more about the learning needs of the individual child.
Additionally, if scores are collected and compared across multiple years, then one is able to determine areas where the child has made more progress or where progress has slowed down. We can further examine those areas to try to understand the trend and any potential actions to take.
The key here is the individual child. Taking the time to analyze the test data over time for the individual child, can turn that data into insights for developing a challenging environment for that child or catch areas that need to be addressed.
To summarize, I believe that day-to-day assessments and evaluations should be done informally through the use of projects, presentations, games or quizzes without the stress of grades tied to them. I also believe that standardized testing, when the data is used to evaluate a child’s progress over time, can be helpful in understanding a child’s learning needs.
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