Jayne Reck attended the Elementary Science Institute (ESI) during the summer of 2012. The 29-year teaching veteran is the gifted teacher at Porter Traditional School, a K-8 school in Prince William County.
As the only teacher on staff who has attended the VISTA training, Reck is the on-site expert on VISTA’s practice of problem-based learning (PBL).
“Our principal wants everyone working with PBLs,” says Reck. “So I work with entire grade levels, helping teachers learn how to use PBL and see how I’m integrating language, social studies and math in the science units. The teachers observe how I’m making connections to kids and how I deliver instruction.
“I’m like an advocate to the teachers.”
The idea is that the classroom teachers will watch Reck in action and take the concepts back into the classroom and use the strategies themselves.
The implementation is the hard part, according to Reck. “Teachers look at it as taking a lot of time, but it really doesn’t,” she says. The time spent setting up a unit can be recouped with time saved by integrating learning objectives into the unit.
“Finding the hook, or the real-life question, was the hard part for me,” says Reck. “But once you have the initial question, you look at the curriculum and fit it together. It becomes so easy.”
This year, Reck is working on the fifth grade oceanography unit by focusing on the U.S.S. Cyclops, a ship that mysteriously disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle nearly 100 years ago.
“We are covering a lot of the SOL objectives in a fun way,” says Reck. “They’re not sitting down with worksheets, it’s all lab-based learning.” The unit covered the physical and geological characteristics of the ocean and “also hit the sound and light units and types of living organisms,” she says.
Reck started off investigating the Bermuda Triangle before launching into the PBL. The students found the area on a map and researched the history of the mysterious phenomena that make up the legend. “It really got them hooked,” she says.
Armed with this background knowledge, the students then addressed the question of what happened to the ship. “I made a chart for all the questions,” says Reck. “The main question was ‘what is causing airplanes and ships to go down in this area?’”
The students then offered ideas and other questions to answer the main question. “They thought of things like maybe it was weather-related, or the temperature had something to do with it,” says Reck. “Could the ship have been too heavy? Did the ocean currents smash the ship apart? Was there something on the ocean floor that sucked it down? Was there fighting on board? Maybe they were attacked by pirates.”
With those questions in mind, the class focused on the ocean floor. “They made models and looked at different zones, like the trench zone and what organisms live there,” says Reck. “They looked at the sunlight zone, which is where most of the plant life is.”
To fold in the fifth grade light unit, Reck expanded the ocean zone investigation. “We talked about how when you go deeper, the visible light can only absorb certain colors,” she says. “That’s difficult for them to understand, so we put different colored transparencies over goggles so they could see how colors on the spectrum change.”
Integrating the light unit into the PBL reinforces the learning, says Reck. “Our brains like to see connections,” she says. “Any time they see patterns, they don’t forget it.
“It’s amazing what you can go into,” she says. “The teachers see that and see how easy it is to make learning fun and real. By giving them the freedom to discover things on their own, instead of feeding them things you want them to learn, they become the experts.
“And they like being charge of their learning.”