Who’s Doing the Heavy Lifting?

It’s five a.m. in a brightly lit studio as I stretch out and awaken my muscles. My sister-in-law is a trainer, and whenever I visit her, I like to take her classes. I watch her set up the room with kettlebells (her favorite, not mine), resistance bands, weighted balls, and hand weights. It reminds me of setting up my fifth-grade classroom early every morning before the students come in. But comparing our roles as I make my way over to the kettlebells causes me to wonder. Who’s doing the heavy lifting in my classroom?

As a science teacher, I am in the thick of implementing new science standards (in Arizona, a combination of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and A Framework for K-12 Science Education), and I’m not alone. Since 2013, 40 states and Washington D.C. have adopted standards informed by the NGSS and the Framework. These standards require a shift from a model of the teacher as the keeper of information to a model of the teacher as a facilitator of student inquiry, discovery, and experiences. Science and engineering practices in the standards include actions and behaviors our students will use in the classroom and apply far beyond. I know this in theory, but in practice, after more than twenty years of teaching now behind me, I realize there is much more to understand.

My first big science unit was “Interacting with Matter.” We conducted many hands-on experiments (digestion!) and explorations (Oobleck!). My students were engaged and seemed to grasp the concepts and big ideas well. But as the unit wrapped up and I began planning the next, I wondered “What was the depth of inquiry and discovery from my students?” Truthfully, not much. What actions and behaviors did they learn that can be applied to other settings? Some, such as observational and data collection skills, but I could have included more. Who was doing most of the heavy lifting? Upon reflection, I realized that I have been doing the majority of the heavy lifting, or in this case, heavy thinking. This is something I will work to improve for the next units.

Part of the reason I struggle with the new standards is that I’m returning to teaching science after a long span of only teaching English/Language Arts and social studies. My science knowledge is a bit rusty. In some cases, I feel I’m learning right alongside my students as we prepare experiments and do activities.

Another reason I’m struggling is the lack of materials. High-quality, aligned materials are critical to properly implement these standards. We need materials and curriculum that provide choice, relevance, access, and engagement to give our students the greatest opportunities for the learning. I’m still learning the bells and whistles of our online science “techbook.” My district has provided me with a scope and sequence but not the materials to implement it. We were told to “find them under our kitchen sink,” but my under the sink cabinet doesn’t contain 35 safety goggles, sand, or small weights. My trailer classroom doesn’t even have a sink or a water source! I was very lucky to find parents—former teachers—to donate items.

The new standards are full of innovations I’m excited about such as “phenomena-driven instruction.” I used phenomena to introduce concepts like non-Newtonian fluids and build engagement by showing a video of a man walking across a pool filled with Oobleck. However, I have been far too ready to explain the phenomena myself. Students need opportunities to think, question, design, and discover for themselves.

I pick up the dreaded kettlebell and prepare for some clean and press squats as I think about my next unit, “Working with Forces.” This time, I will empower my students to generate their own questions and model and test their own theories and ideas to explain phenomena, and they will do the heavy lifting when I return to my classroom.

Beth Maloney is currently in her twentieth year of teaching and enjoys every minute of her time in the classroom teaching fifth grade. Beth is a renewed National Board Certified Teacher and a Candidate Support Provider for other teachers undergoing certification. She is the past-president and co-founder of the Arizona National Board Certified Teachers Network and a blogger on Stories From School Arizona. Beth is the president and founder of the Arizona Chapter of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. Beth holds a doctorate in higher and post-secondary education and is honored to be the 2014 Arizona Teacher of the Year.