Sunday, August 21, 2016

Why UNITS are CRITICAL!

Pi...not PIE (which I love dearly) but pi (π).

Many moons ago, when I was a younger version of myself struggling through math, I learned about pi.  Actually, I remembered that pi was 3.1415 and there was like one kid in my class that could count out to about 50 decimal places for pi.  He was super smart.  I knew that pi was some sort of ratio, but why it was that ratio never made any sense.  I realized that all of my math equations for circles used pi.  So, if I was gonna work with a circle, I would use pi.  If I wasn't working with a circle, then I wouldn't use pi.

Skip forward to the older version of myself.

When I started teaching, I realized that I didn't have a true understanding of why pi is important.  So, I took it upon myself to go learn about pi and I had a pretty huge OMG moment when I realized that pi was in fact 3.14 radians.  Holy Math Book!  Shut the front door!  Half a circle was only 3.14 radians...thus it was π!

It hit me that referring to pi as only 3.14 was tragically dangerous because people like me didn't know that the number was referencing 3.14 radians.  The lack of units gave the number no true purpose!!!!  I wondered, did other people NOT know this as well?

So, I decided to ask my students the following question:  "What is pi?"  Here are some of their answers.

  • 3.14
  • half a circle
  • a ratio of something
  • has something to do with circles
  • you need the circumference to find it
  • apple pie is delicious
I then asked, "3.14 whats?  What are the units?  Is it 3.14 elephants?  3.14 hamsters?"

Silence.  It was an uncomfortable silence...as if to say, "Seriously?  Units for pi?"

I had everyone draw a circle.  We identified that the circle is 360 degrees.  Half a circle is 180 degrees.  We identified that a radian was about 57.2 degrees.  I then drew 3 radians in our circle, side by side and asked the kids how much was left over in the half circle.  It took a moment but I heard some kids finally say, "0.14?"  The gasps were everywhere!  I literally heard one kid say, "Oh my God!  No way!"  I had my evidence that my own students didn't even know what the 3.14 represented.

I then asked the group, "If we refer to half a circle as π, what would we refer to the entire circle?"  Everyone said, "2π."  I said, "Awesome.  How many radians are in a full circle."  The class quickly responded "6.28!"  They finally got it!

Here is my point.  Numbers without context, without units, without application will mean NOTHING to our students.  I can't think of a more common constant in math than pi and not one single student in my many years of teaching has been able to tell me the units for pi.  I hammer on units!  I need the kids to realize that numbers in physics have a meaning, a purpose!  

I'm not pointing fingers here, but clearly there needs to be a conversation between math and science teachers about the importance of units...because the only people ultimately effected are the students. 

I challenge any teacher who facilitates a math or science class to ask their students, "What is pi?"  See if ANY of them realize that there are units associated with pi.  Would love to hear about everyone's findings.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

What Makes a Good Science TOSA?

I applied for a Science TOSA (teacher on special assignment) position in my district.  Gulp.

I got the interview.  Gulp.  Gulp.

I am now waiting for round 2 of the interview process.  Gulp.  Gulp.  Gulp.  

Sigh.  

SCREAM!  I think I have officially chewed off all of my fingernails.

As far as I am aware, the position of a science TOSA has not occurred in my district prior to now.  Sure, we have literacy, math and technology TOSAs, but I have not seen the existence of a science TOSA.  Arguably the roll out of NGSS is a huge player and I am pumped that I get to go back for a second interview.

However, I am uncomfortably excited about the possibility of being selected for this position.  I want to see my district lead the way in excellent science education.  I want to be a part of the decision making process, not sitting in the back seat, waiting to be directed.  I want to develop great curriculum and fantastic programs that work.  I want to provide resources and support to teachers to make their jobs easier, stress free and empower them in their classrooms.  I want our students to be so passionate about science that they choose to take science all 4 years of high school.  I want our community to be proud of their youth and excited to watch them develop into collaborative, worldly and compassionate members of society.  I want to share what works, find what works, work with my peers, establish excellent professional learning communities, facilitate great opportunities for students and teachers and just be a part of something fantastic!  Ok...so I want a lot.  I dream big!

But I am fearful of leaving the classroom.  I love teaching and engaging students, seeing them get excited when they finally "get it" and watching the passion for science grow.  However, if I were selected as TOSA, I could indirectly affect more lives by working with my peers directly.  I am in a quandary.

So I got to thinking...as I head to round 2 of interviews, what are the qualities required in a NGSS Science TOSA?  Do I have these qualities?  If I were to hire someone, these are the characteristics I would look for:

1.  Subject matter competency:  A NGSS Science TOSA should be competent in all sciences and science practices.  In regards to high school, this can be tricky because each science teacher is usually trained to teach only their topic.  Finding someone who is qualified to teach most, if not all, topics is ideal, especially for NGSS states because NGSS is integrated content.

In regards to subject matter competency, this person should also be competent in the scientific method as well as the engineering method.  NGSS requires that students be able to "DO" science and engineering.  Therefore, a TOSA had better know the difference and better know how to do science and engineering in order to share this with teachers.

2.  Classroom experience:  It is critical that this person has taught in the classroom for a healthy amount of time.  Anything less than 10 years (in my opinion) is not long enough.  Not only that, the person should have taught with the type of students that are serviced in a district as well as in the same style of class day (ex.  block period, traditional, trimester, etc).  There is a HUGE difference from teaching 10 kids in 2 hours to 38 kids in 50 minutes.

With this experience comes an excellent understanding and application of pedagogy.  Arguably, one of the trickiest things about teaching is delivery of content and assessment of knowledge.  Knowing and understanding different learning modalities, how to teach all kids, and how to assess will be critical.  If someone has only spent a few years in the classroom, they simply do not have enough experience.

A good science TOSA won't be pushing their agenda, they should be able to identify the strengths of their peers and build off of that so that the teachers have an easier opportunity to run their classroom successfully.  I've met way too many people who only talk about what they do in their classroom.  A TOSA will focus on strategies that work for different styles of teachers, not what worked for them.

3.  Training/leadership experience:  Most TOSAs end up in a sort of training role.  Because they are still teachers, they should not be supervisors or administrators.  This means that the TOSA can guide and facilitate but should not come across as a boss.  To prevent teachers from being concerned that the TOSA is acting as a boss, it might be best that a TOSA not be a former administrator and possibly not have an administrative credential.  This might sound odd, but ask any classroom teacher, and I would bet that they will agree that an administrative credential comes with authority and this authority might not be what is best for a TOSA position.  I'm not saying that someone with an admin credential can't do a great job.  In truth, this person has lots of leadership training and would likely do a fantastic job!  I'm just indicating that teachers will not miss the fact the person has an admin credential and this could make team building challenging. Also, someone with an admin credential is usually not looking to stay in the classroom and TOSA literally means "Teacher" on special assignment, not "Admin" on special assignment.

A TOSA should have previously hosted a few teacher trainings, whether that be at their school site, conference, online, published, etc.  Teaching students and coaching adults can be quite different and if a TOSA has never led a teacher training, this could be a problem.

At the end of the day, a TOSA should be a facilitator, not a boss and they should know how to run an excellent training that allows teachers to practice what is being shared.  In my opinion, the TOSA isn't really the coach of the science team, more like the team captain, which means that they are a member of the team, not the star player or the quarter back, but a member that is respected and cheering the team on while getting down and dirty with them.

4.  Curriculum development:  A TOSA should have a solid understanding of what is involved in excellent curriculum and whether or not that curriculum meets the needs of the student population.  There is a chance that a TOSA might have to assist in the development of curriculum.  NGSS is like curriculum we have never seen before.  If they have never written authentic, original curriculum, this could be a problem.

5.  Resourceful:  A TOSA needs to know where and how to find excellent resources.  Then they need to know how to share those resources.  A TOSA should not require their hand being held.  It is best if a TOSA is a sort of jack-of-all trades, because you never know if this person will need to run a workshop, set up a website, train a group of teachers, provide a hands-on demo, make a flier, etc.

A TOSA should never have any down time.

6.  Extroverted:  A TOSA should be extroverted, but not so much to the point that you wish they would just BE QUIET.  A TOSA needs to have the personality to engage with others, yet the ability to blend when needed.  This person should be upbeat, positive and knows how to network.  They should NOT be a know-it-all, but a engaging person that listens as well as they share.

7.  Patience:  Teachers are often the worst students.  I have seen countless teachers completely ignore presenters, talk/text during presentations, etc.  Quite frankly, once the school year gets into swing, teachers are more concerned about the lesson coming up than the learning opportunity in front of them.  A TOSA needs to be extremely patient and recognize how valuable teacher's time really is.  They need the patience of a saint and should not be a hot-head. What could take one teacher five minutes understand could take another teacher a month.  Patience is CRITICAL.

8.  Students first:  I believe that a TOSA should prioritize the students needs, always.  If the students are at the forefront, then best practices and sound judgement will always be applied.  I think any classroom teacher would agree.

9. NGSS:  An NGSS TOSA needs to have a good understanding of NGSS and how it is different from the old standards.  This person should have actually designed and delivered NGSS lessons in their own classroom.  Because there really are no experts in NGSS quite yet (no one has any data to back up that what they do really works), this person had better be able to explain and provide examples of 3 dimensional learning, break down cross cutting concepts, provide examples of science and engineering concepts, and tie that into the content.  All the while being able to see the beauty of the content areas and how they integrate.

10.  Humble:  A TOSA should be an expert teacher that excels in their craft but they should also be humble.  We should always be lifetime learners and recognize that we cannot possibly know everything about science and education.  Being humble allows a TOSA to use the strengths of other teacher leaders when providing workshops and learning opportunities for science teachers.

So there it is...my top 10 qualities of an NGSS Science TOSA in no particular order.  I'm very curious what others think of my list, and if this is a list that districts would use.  I hope that I meet all 10 of these.  I think I do.

I also wondered, what characteristics are NOT wanted for a NGSS Science TOSA.

1.  Incompetent:    If someone has only taught one type of science class, this could be a problem.  They may struggle to see the interconnectedness of science.

2.  Inexperienced:  A teacher that has been in the classroom for less than five years just hasn't had enough boots on the ground experience to know the ins-and-outs of teaching all sorts of students.  This also includes the lack of curriculum development and additional trainings that come with being a seasoned teacher.  Don't get me wrong, having a masters, PhD or Ed.D. could be a big deal, but in truth the best person for the job is the one that is applying the practices, not just studying them.

3.  Teachers First:  As a teacher, this one is a bit challenging to admit, but I truly believe that if we put ourselves before the students, that we will not have prioritized and will focus on our needs not those of the student body.  I'm not saying the teacher isn't important.  Quite frankly, the teachers need a cheerleader, but there is a delicate balance of the priority of the job of an educator.  And at all times, I believe a teacher should put the needs of a student first.  I could be wrong but this is how I am wired.

4.  Hard headed:  Some teachers think it is their way or the highway.  A TOSA that can't see past their style or past experiences will be unwilling to listen and learn from their peers.  The stubborn TOSA is more focused on being right and pushing their agenda than supporting teachers.

5.  Too standards focused:  I love myself some NGSS...but sometimes, we have to take a step back and just discuss rationale, pedagogy, curriculum, assessment and common sense...as opposed to going crazy town on standards.  The standards are important and it is important that our students learn the necessary content, but the world will not instantaneously implode if we misinterpret a standard.  Someone who is too standards focused may not see the forest for the trees.

Hopefully by this time next week I will know if I will be returning to the classroom to work with awesome students or headed to the district to serve my awesome fellow colleagues.  Either way, I won't know what qualities were sought after.  I have faith that my district will pick who they believe is best qualified for the job, which could very easily not be me.  Who know?!

But, a word of advice to those seeking to hire science TOSAs
  •  make sure that they are passionate about students learning science
  •  make sure this person isn't just looking to move up the "corporate ladder" of education
A word of advice to those seeking to be hired as a science TOSA
  • be passionate about students learning science
  • don't do this to get out of the classroom, do this to make this classroom better!
I will say this, regardless of what happens, I will continue to share my experience of NGSS and work with my peers to make excellent classroom opportunities for all students.  If educators could work collaboratively and share what works, the transition to NGSS will be much easier to handle.

UPDATE:  I got the job!  I found out they ended up hiring two of us!  Super excited to work with another science enthusiast to assist with this NGSS transition.