Written by Debbie Ericksen
Learning about the NGSS 3D Framework and what it means for the teaching and learning process within my elementary classroom has been an amazing journey that continues to this day. I confess I’ve become an NGSS geek. Some might find that surprising for a person who doesn’t have a degree in science. My transformation began seven years ago when I attended the ExxonMobil Teachers Academy. That experience taught me that Science can be fun not only for my students but for me, too! In the years that followed, I had many opportunities to learn science content and pedagogy. Many visits to the NGSS@NSTA website, lots of reading, attendance at conferences, workshops, and district PD were resources that were invaluable to my development as a science teacher. However, one resource that has provided a very unique learning opportunity for me and my colleagues is the development of the Teacher Cohort within our school. It is highly reflective and collaborative in nature and provides us with insight into our instructional practices and a better understanding of the “big” picture. My hope is that in sharing our experience, you will be inspired to participate in a cohort of your own. My school houses PreK-Grade 4 and has a student population that is culturally and economically diverse. When we first organized the cohort three years ago, we thought it was really important to have a representative from each grade level, if possible. This year, we have finally achieved full representation which includes the Special Education and ELL programs. The reason this is so important is that it establishes a network of teachers who can vertically articulate with each other and then communicate their learning and discoveries with the rest of their grade-level teams.
The next step for us was to have an organization meeting to establish norms and to think about personal goals (Ex: deepening understanding of practices and crosscutting concepts, how to develop lessons that support the framework, strategies to support student learning within the new framework, addressing challenges in instruction – to name a few). Our norms include the process we will follow: questions about the lesson to provide clarification, what we noticed, what we wonder, time for the teacher that was observed to reflect, recommendations/suggestions for future lessons, and questions we want to follow up on in future lessons.
We also set up a tentative schedule for classroom visits. These visits are non-evaluative in nature. They are informal visits for members to observe the instructional process and student learning. We often interact with the students and always take notes on what we see. Those notes are used for discussion purposes in the post-visit reflection and discussion. After the lesson is over, we meet in a conference room to begin the reflection/discussion process. The teacher who led the lesson brings any student work that was generated so that we can all evaluate and discuss what their work tells us and how it can impact future instruction. We follow the norms and format established in the organization meeting. While we are out of the classroom, staff coverage or substitutes are provided for our students. Based on our discussion and the learning needs of the cohort participants, we establish the focus for the next class visit.
This year, we are revising the cohort process based on teacher learning needs. Some of us feel that we would benefit most from a class visit/reflection and others want to focus on student work from a prior lesson that will inform the instruction in future lessons. For the latter, the participating teacher will provide insight to the other members on what worked well and what didn’t and how it can be improved. One teacher has requested, based on last year’s lesson outcome, to focus on improving the same lesson for this year’s students. As you can see, we have refined the process to be responsive to the needs of individual teachers (just like we do for our students).
It should also be noted that teachers participate in the cohort by choice and, if they are interested, can remain for two years. Then, we change the members so that the learning can expand horizontally as well as vertically. My role in the cohort has been not only as a learner but also as a facilitator so that we are consistent with our practices from one cohort to another.
The NGSS teacher cohort has had a notable and significant impact on each of our classrooms. Participants come eager to learn and are excited to see what other grade levels are doing. That excitement is contagious and our students catch it! We have developed a deeper understanding of the learning our students engage in before they get to our grade level and, for some of us, we get to see how our instruction connects with the next grade level. This understanding helps us to identify and apply common language within our classrooms. Another benefit of participating in the cohort is that we are inspired by our colleagues. We walk away with a treasure trove of ideas and rely on each other as a professional support system as we design our science instruction. Finally, we are able to share strategies that have helped our students engage in authentic science learning and helps them to figure out the world around them. When teachers have an opportunity to reflect and learn from each other, our students are the ultimate beneficiaries.