Ideas for must-have strategies

I’m mentoring two new science teachers this year, and I want to focus on must-have strategies and effective practices for science. I’m sure they will have their own needs, but, based on your experience, what would be important to include in a plan for them?
—Chris, Baltimore, Maryland
Your new teachers are fortunate to have a mentor in place. Few teacher prep programs and practicums can prepare one for every circumstance, and new teachers are often placed in less-than-ideal situations (floating, working with the most challenging students, or teaching several subjects or subject levels). What is a common event for an experienced teacher who already has a repertoire of strategies is a brand-new challenge for a newbie.
A list of “must-have strategies and effective practices” in science must start with safety, and NSTA has many resources on its safety portal. New teachers should understand that if an activity or demonstration cannot be done safely, it should not be done at all, no matter how interesting or engaging it might be or how mature the students are.
Here are four other must-haves that I learned over more than 25 years of teaching science (in no particular order):

  • Established routines. My mentor (actually the school principal) suggested establishing routines and procedures for the beginning and end of class and for transitioning to and from lab activities. Since these are the times when disruptions can occur, it is important for students to be engaged and to understand your expectations. Having routines in place frees up time to spend on more important topics and activities, rather than dealing with discipline or logistic issues. For example, for the beginning of class, I posted an agenda with what the students needed for the class (laptops, notebooks, textbook, pencil, assignments to turn in, etc.) so they could get ready for class (while they socialized a bit). “Bell-ringer” activities also focused the students’ attention. Each class ended with a summary and a “preview of coming attractions” before the students left the room.
  • Organization. A lot of class time can be spent accessing materials. Having a tray for each lab group made it easier to organize and count the materials and make sure everything was in place for the next class. Each class had assigned seats, assigned lab groups, and assigned roles for lab group members. Of course, I changed these periodically. (This lessened the time-consuming drama of students deciding where to sit or with whom to work.) There were designated places to turn in assignments and equipment and labels everywhere, including on the shelves or tables to organize materials students needed during class. Color-coding is another way to organize materials for different classes or subjects. Part of being organized is making sure all materials are safety stored and secured when class is not in session.
  •  Big ideas. Whatever term is used (big ideas, essential questions, key understandings, or themes), the purpose is to focus student learning on important concepts that unite and underlie the lessons in a unit. They help students make interdisciplinary connections, see the bigger picture of science beyond the vocabulary and facts, and address “Why are we learning this?” During each lesson, students revisit the question and connect new content or experiences with previous learning. For example, an earth science teacher I observed posed the question “How does the surface of the earth change over time?” As students investigated processes such as plate tectonics, erosion, deposition, or asteroid impact, she guided them to reflect on the question and record their connections in their notebooks. (The Next Generation Science Standards are designed around big ideas in science that connect disciplinary core ideas, science and engineering practices, and cross-cutting concepts.)
  • Wait time. I found that including wait time in class discussions was an effective way to encourage participation and higher order thinking . After you ask a question or pose a topic, wait four or five seconds before calling on a student. Some students (including those for whom English is their second language) may need time to compose their thoughts. The first time I tried this, I was astounded at the additional hands raised during those few seconds! Waiting is hard for teachers to do, but the “dead air” is actually thinking time, and research has shown that the students’ responses are often at a higher level of complexity. After a student’s response, allow more wait time. During these few seconds the student may elaborate on the response, or another student may contribute.

My list would also include inquiry, cooperative learning, project-based learning, authentic assessments, notebooking, and more. New teachers are often overwhelmed, so it would be important to focus at first on a few essentials. Let them know that it’s okay to make (and learn from) mistakes. And remind them to take some time for themselves, too.
Readers: Add a comment with your must-have strategies.

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