Editor’s Note: Luann Lee is an NBCT teaching chemistry and AP/dual credit chemistry at Newberg High School in Oregon. She is a founding member and current president of Oregon Accomplished Teachers, Oregon’s National Board network. The views expressed in this blog are her own.
Standards are changing, again.
Presently, both my state and my district are working through a full-blown implementation of both Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). I’ve been asked to by my state submit a review of their draft NGSS High School Model Content Framework. And I’m one of 9 high school science teachers in my building currently designing and re-working our courses to align with NGSS, CCSS, and our district K-8 courses. New or revised curriculum is an essential part of this implementation in my district. At one time early in my career, I’d have plunged boldly into this work, armed with nothing but anecdotal ideas based on my own limited and biased experience and opinions. After steeping my professional growth in accomplished teaching practices I began to learn 18 years ago while pursuing National Board Certification, my approach is much more effective.
In the Olden Days, our district curriculum was written by a group of teachers and administrators who decided together what their students needed to know. Textbook adoption was relatively simple: teachers reviewed textbooks and accompanying materials and selected texts they preferred for their students. After seeing how the materials aligned to the district’s curriculum, the district made the purchase, with the assumption that teachers would use the textbooks and accompanying materials. There was an assumption, based on trust in a publisher and author, that the materials would help students learn.
Confession: I was never very good at implementing a “canned” curriculum. I tried once, a few decades ago, to follow a prescribed curriculum. I set aside many learning activities I’d used in prior years, and replaced them with selections from newly adopted materials. Concepts that had been mastered easily by my previous students now seemed confusing to students using the new curriculum. Since it seemed unlikely that my current students would be so much less capable than students from previous years, I figured it just might be me.
The activities themselves were sound; I just hadn’t been deliberate in choosing and using them according to my students’ needs. I needed help, but the wonderful, experienced teachers who had mentored me were retiring, one by one, and I found myself at a new school without a mentor. In the past, I had simply relied upon the advice and shared lessons from educators who had learned the hard way what worked and what didn’t. I was grateful – but they had not helped me learn to make my own teaching decisions. I turned back to some old reliable labs and problem sets, but I was no longer really happy with those, either. I wanted to revise them, but wasn’t really sure what they needed.
About that time, my curriculum director approached me with a proposition. Some new kind of national certificate was available. It would, she said, be the next upcoming thing in education, and she wanted me to try it out. Fresh out of a master’s degree program, I felt I still needed to take my practice to a higher level, and improve my curriculum development so my students could learn better. I signed up.
At the time, I did not realize just how deeply the certification process would impact my curriculum decisions – and my students’ learning. But soon enough, I realized why a blindly followed, canned curriculum hadn’t worked: I hadn’t fully considered my own students abilities and needs. Pursuing certification helped me pay closer attention to students’ misunderstandings and misconceptions. Who needed a different explanation of formula-writing? Who really didn’t understand how to count very tiny particles by weighing them? I also spent time getting to know each student personally, through running commentary in lab books, on assignments, and in person. I asked each student what helped and what didn’t, and what they might like instead. Informed by their input, I suggested different techniques to help with understanding of each concept, and also shared more strategies with the class as a whole. Planning, revising, re-revising based on knowing my students soon became second nature. I knew my students better than ever and was in a much better position to guide and support their learning.
Now, reading the state’s draft of the Model Content Framework for science, I have some of the same feelings that arise when I look at most published curriculum: the authors don’t know me, my students, or the educational experiences they bring to my class. But I’m on the other side this time.
I noticed that neither the Framework or the Standards, nor the recently added Sample Classroom Assessment Tasks currently have any reference to common misconceptions, or how to help students correct them. How then, will individual teachers effectively use the standards to best impact every student’s learning? I can’t dictate the answer from afar, but hope teachers take the standards as a starting point and reflect on their students’ needs.