By Ashley Clark
Ashley Clark teaches high school science at Nokomis Regional High School, particularly chemistry and environmental science. She enjoys scuba diving, quality time in her garden, and spending time with her dogs.
Did my students really learn it? I often found myself asking that question throughout the school year, and I am sure I am not alone. As I began the 20-21 school year, I was plagued with the concern that students would not truly learn the content but instead would be learning how to Google all their answers and maintain their desired grade with little effort. The reality of hybrid learning meant that traditional assessments would need to look different.
As a high school science teacher at Nokomis Regional High School, I struggled with how to ask questions about content in chemistry or environmental science while also making the questions not “Google-able.” I was equipped with an arsenal of tech equipment and programs to help me teach remotely and monitor students in the virtual world, but the reality was that this school year was fraught with challenges from the start. As I struggled with how to overcome these challenges and sustain my sanity throughout the school year, I was intrigued by project-based learning (PBL). As stated by PBLworks.org, “Project-based learning is a teaching method in which students learn by actively engaging in real-world and personally meaningful projects.” At Nokomis Regional High, we were offered professional development in PBL and were encouraged to take risks and try new ways of teaching to reach our students. I took a risk and jumped in wholeheartedly. Knowing full well that it may fail, I embraced the idea of teaching my students in a new authentic way. I reflected on how we had all reassessed our values through the pandemic and I found a strong desire to not just teach my students content, but also allow them the opportunity to make a difference in their community and engage with the real world. PBL seemed like a great road to that end goal.
Re-Envisioning My Role as a Teacher
I wish I could say that I designed perfect units and well-scaffolded assessments that engaged and challenged every student, but that would be a lie. Though, I can say the risks I took led to a year of rich discussions with students, authentic learning, and unforgettable experiences. I began the school year with bold dreams of designing a chemistry curriculum through gardening while also striving to help with food insecurity within our district. I envisioned a trail network on our wooded campus to educate and provide outdoor space to our community. I had big ideas but was unsure how to put them into action.
Through much-appreciated support and guidance from colleagues and coaches, I began redesigning units and assessments. I started small by creating assessments based around the idea of converting units of measurement to design a community garden plot. Students took time to research the elemental nutrients required by various fruits and vegetables. As I discovered my multitude of errors in this new way of teaching, I also discovered my students had a passion for learning that I had not yet experienced. Students were excited to come to class, ask questions, and get their hands dirty or walk through our campus identifying areas of interest for our future trail network.
As I learned how to redesign my curriculum to foster authentic learning for my students, they unknowingly encouraged me through the process. I began to get emails from remote students asking me to check the pH of the soil at school after a rainstorm because they were curious if it had changed since we had last tested it in class. Students began to share with me how they were helping their mom or grandfather plant the garden and had questions about what types of soil to buy to get the right nutrients to the plants. Another student wanted to learn how to survey their property to better understand how to redesign their lot for more livestock and a bigger barn. Their curiosity pushed me to continue embracing a new way of assessing students’ learning and re-envision my role as a teacher.
The Last Day of School
On the last day of school, I sat at my desk staring out at desks six feet apart and a whiteboard that had barely been used. My eyes fell to a student’s project submitted at the end of the year. The homemade children’s book in front of me—titled, “Sunny’s Life: The Life Story of a Salamander”—was made by one of my environmental science students. This book made me break into a giant grin. This book was not my idea of a summative assessment. Originally, I had developed a grand plan of having students develop a biodiversity assessment using quadrant methods and compile the information to educate our community more about our local environment. Unfortunately, the chaotic end of the school year and pace of hybrid learning did not allow for such a grand plan, so with confidence in my students I turned to them. I presented the dilemma and explained that our original plan would likely not fit into the timeframe left, so we brainstormed other ways they could show their learning while also avoiding the cliché slideshow or research paper. Together, we came up with the idea of paring down the original project to a children’s book with specific criteria to ensure the students showed their learning of the content I had already planned to assess.
What happened next changed my teaching style forever. Together, we explored various children’s books and shared ideas. Students worked individually or in groups to design fun, engaging virtual or hard copy children’s books. They were adamant that they wanted to not only make them, but also be able to read them to young kids—and so we made it happen. The students reached out to teachers of lower grades in our building and organized the date and time that they would give a “read aloud” to a 6th grade class and share their hard work. In the last few classes of their senior year, these students collaborated, practiced voices of characters in their books, and checked the accuracy of their imagery to ensure authentic learning for their young readers. They navigated Covid-19 restrictions and hybrid learning obstacles to collaborate and create these stories. On their last day of classes as high school seniors, these students walked into a 6th grade classroom and animatedly read their stories to a younger group. The students eagerly demonstrated how they had caught and identified various insects and invertebrates on our school campus. The 6th grade students peppered them with excited questions. I stood in the back of the room holding back blissful tears.
The Best Gift of All
As I think back to the trials and errors of this year, I remember those beautiful moments. Those are the moments that make it all worth it. Those moments are why I teach. I want to foster curiosity and a love of learning. I want to help others discover all the amazing things the world has to offer and complex intricacies that hold it together. These students had unknowingly given me the best gift. They had shown me the value in allowing students to be in charge of their learning. They had taught me that by taking risks and providing a safe and structured environment for students to learn, I could teach them the content in our curriculum while also exploring the nuances of the world around us through science. They had given me no doubt that they did learn!
I share this to help give other teachers the confidence to take that risk! Be brave. Embrace the idea of rethinking the traditional methods. Forgive yourself when it doesn’t go as planned and be willing to share the journey with your students to allow them to learn with you through the process. Maybe teaching students to be in charge of their learning is a 21st century skill that’s just as important as knowing how to “Google it.” The internet will always be there with answers to many questions we might put on a test, but the time we are given with students to foster curiosity, promote community involvement, and create lifelong learners is fleeting.