Stephanie Boyd, a seven-year teaching veteran in Martinsville City Schools in southern Virginia, has already had a wealth of real-world experience in adapting her science plans. She was teaching fifth grade when she was accepted into VISTA’s Elementary Science Institute (ESI) but was later bumped to third grade and now sixth grade.
She created a fifth-grade PBL (problem-based learning) unit because that’s where she hoped to be, but that isn’t what happened. When she was assigned to the local middle school, Boyd realized that she would have to shift her strategy. One way she has adapted is through using her fifth-grade plan with students who are behind the curve.
STRATEGIES TO IMPROVE
To improve student learning, the Martinsville school division has developed a number of strategies. One strategy is extending the school day to create extra class time. Students who are behind the curve are funneled into remediation classes instead of electives. Boyd teaches one of these remediation classes, along with four core science classes.
“I have 12 [sixth grade] students who were pulled for remediation,” she says, so she used the fifth grade PBL she created last summer to reinforce their background knowledge. “They had fun going back and trying to remember what they learned last year, and it’s easier to accomplish a PBL with a small group.”
Another initiative that the Martinsville school system has mandated is cross-curricular work. “They want us to push in a lot of reading,” says Boyd. “So if I have a reading passage, I have to incorporate that.” But adapting to what her school requires still leaves Boyd time to teach the VISTA way.
For instance, the school division hosts two “exhibit” nights during the year. Parents and community members are invited to observe a project from each class in every school.
“The project has to be based on something we're currently studying,” Boyd said. “So I found a way to incorporate the periodic table into our project, because we were studying the elements and atoms.
“We studied the importance of the elements and looked at existing research. We also considered which ones might enhance the city of Martinsville. I wanted to find a way to relate it to their lives and make it real for them.”
Boyd says her biggest “ah ha!” moment during her VISTA training was a realization of what “hands-on” really meant. “What we’re talking about is not just a manipulative,” she explained. “It is actually real-world connections and real-world science.”
The original PBL revolved around a field trip to Virginia’s famous Natural Bridge to investigate ways to mitigate the impact of weather erosion on the historic landmark.
“This year, unfortunately, we didn’t get to take a trip there, so we walked around the school and looked at the effects of weather erosion [on school buildings] and connected it to the Natural Bridge,” Boyd said. The students built their own bridges with materials Boyd provided and looked at effects like earthquakes and the impact of rain – simulated by pouring a full watering can over their projects.
“You can see on their faces that they’re more excited than just sitting at their desks reading about it,” she said. "The excitement also helps with classroom management because the students are more willing to engage."
Part of that engagement is by design. “VISTA lets the kids be more of the facilitators, instead of having the teacher do a cookbook lesson plan, where I lay out everything they need and guide them through what to do and what they’re supposed to be learning,” Boyd said.
“Some of the kids get upset if their experiment fails, but I tell them that scientists mess up all the time,” she says. “The students adapt. And it teaches them confidence.”