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In a typical school district, different grade levels are taught in different buildings. And, more often than not, the school hours for these buildings are also different. As a result, it is almost impossible for those teaching science (or any other subject) to get together to talk education. What does this situation affect most? The vertical alignment of education.

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My science department met with our principal a few years back to discuss this issue. We came up with many questions that day. The top two were: What do our incoming students know in science? And, possibly more importantly, What do we expect them to know in order to have a successful science education? We also wondered how we could work together to expose the students to the greatest amount of science topics in our classes, but avoid repeating the same topic in multiple science classes.

As a Catholic high school, we enroll students from many different schools (both public and private) from all over the greater Cleveland area. In my years of teaching, I have noticed that the amount of prior knowledge that students bring to my class varies considerably. Some schools cover a lot in science, offering many lab experiences, and prepare students well for the high school science classroom. Others, not so much. For example, I have had a few students who had practically no experience with basic chemistry concepts until they came to my class!

Considering options

Prior to the 2016 school year, I began wondering about the best way that we, the high school science teachers, could communicate with our elementary school colleagues. How could we share ideas, concerns, and answers? Even better, how could we come together as a science teaching community, to build friendships and provide professional support for each other? Creating this connection would not only help all of us become better teachers, but would also allow us to provide our students with a more enriching science education!

In the fall of 2016 I proposed an idea to my science department and principal to help bridge the “vertical alignment gap” that we faced in our school. I envisioned that we high school science teachers could host a one-day summer workshop for the elementary school science teachers from the Cleveland Diocese. The proposed workshop could offer the elementary teachers one or more “sessions” on topics chosen and presented by the HS teachers.

Our topics would either be in the presenter’s field of science, or in other areas of general education and education technology. We presenters would also share relevant labs and learning activities, adjusted for younger students that attendees could do in their classrooms. Each session would be about an hour long, and the elementary teachers could choose to attend up to three sessions. A shared Google Drive folder would give everyone access to related documents and instructions.

Our principal was all for it. He allowed us to use the science rooms for the workshop, and even provided some “goodies” to give to the attendees (a pen, notebook, and water bottle with our school logo). My colleagues were excited about the workshop as well, and felt it would be worth taking a day out of their summer vacations to meet and work with the elementary school teachers.

Planning and scheduling

I sent out a survey letter to the elementary schools to get a feel for how many teachers might attend, and received a variety of positive responses. Many respondents said this was the type of professional development opportunity they were looking for!

We planned a lot of sessions for the teachers to check out. When the schedule was finalized, we had seven high school science teachers presenting for about 20 elementary teachers. The workshop was divided into three “periods” featuring the same seven topics. As a result, attendees could choose to learn about the three different topics that mattered most to them.

We had some valuable topics for biology and physics (including cells, bacteria, and magnets). But the chemistry and technology topics were an especially big hit. One high school teacher presented the activity Reaction in a Bag (by Flinn Scientific), which discussed the scientific method and the importance of making observations during a chemical reaction. The lab required basic chemicals that can be found in a grocery store. Another teacher led an interesting activity on measurement and the metric system, with tips for attendees to share with students about making careful and accurate measurements in science. Teachers in my session got to try out the Lemon Ice lab from the AACT Classroom Resource Library. We used this activity to discuss phase changes and associated heat transfer.

Another session was a slime-making activity, where the focus was on how we can learn through our mistakes (i.e., Failure is Success!). There was also a session where everyone discussed and shared resources for doing “Science on the Cheap.” One teacher gave attendees an online tour of the many different virtual lab sites, such as PhET Interactive Simulations, which most of the elementary teachers were unfamiliar.

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These sessions were a hit! In each session, we discussed how the particular activity or topic could fit into an elementary/middle school science course. The high school teachers discussed the concepts we teach in our classes, and how they could be introduced in the lower grades. In all the sessions, the high school teachers helped attendees become more comfortable with setting up and doing lab activities. We also let them know that, even though labs can be messy and a bit chaotic, they are such an effective way to learn! Lastly, we all shared some helpful open-ended science questions and discussion points that attendees could present to their students.

At our lunch break, catered by a local restaurant, our “open mike” session allowed anyone to ask questions and share ideas. We had some interesting conversations during this very popular session, and it also gave us time to collaborate and have meaningful discussions. For example, elementary teachers asked us what we expected from the incoming students (some answers: graph reading, work on mentally “visualizing” how atoms/molecules interact, and basic lab methods). Our guests also talked with each other about teaching methods and pedagogy. A special bonus for the day was that Flinn, Vernier, Pasco, and our very own AACT all donated prizes, so we were able to have a wonderful raffle, with lots of big winners!

Lasting impacts?

Afterward, we received some very encouraging comments from attendees. They enjoyed the activities, and especially loved getting together to collaborate. We all made some new friends in our science teaching community, and most importantly, opened many new lines of communication, which we hope will benefit science instruction for all our students.

Even better was that this was an entirely local event. We all teach in the same geographic area, so it will be easy to continue communicating with each other in the future. Also, it was free! We had state funds to cover materials and small stipends, but the elementary teachers’ only cost was for the catered lunch. So many other conferences can get expensive, and it’s tough for teachers to get funding to attend. This was such an effective alternative … and all the participants said they wanted to come back next year!

Having a one-day summer workshop can pay huge dividends for K-12 teachers who want to work together to improve their profession — and also for any district that wants to ensure an effective vertical alignment of its science courses. I believe open communication and collaboration with teachers from all grades is most effective for our students.

Organizing a workshop like this (and preparing lessons for it) is a lot of work, but I enjoyed putting it together, and was really pleased with the outcomes. We have done this workshop for the last two summers, and all the teachers involved have had a great time. Each and every one of them said they are looking forward to the next one, and I definitely expect this to become an annual event! I encourage you to make opportunities for your local science teachers to get together and learn from each other as well!

Scott HawkinsScott Hawkins
High School Ambassador, AACT Governing Board

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