Stephanie Anderson is a fifth grade teacher at the new Kaechele Elementary in Henrico County. She attended last summer’s Elementary Science Institute (ESI) with all but one of the teachers in the school's four-five teaching team.
“The group came to VISTA together,” says Anderson. “We’re all in one hallway, and we were already collaborating and doing big projects together. Plus, we all enjoy spending time together, so it was a win-win.”
Inquiry-based learning is a school-wide goal at Kaechele, according to Anderson. “We want students to take the initiative and lay out a problem, whether it’s science or social studies or math,” she says.
“I’ve been a science person from the time I was a small child, and I’ve taught science for 18 years,” says Anderson. “But this has been one of my best years teaching science, with the kids thriving and really learning the content.
“I think students really want to be more inquiry-based than our teaching has traditionally allowed them to be,” she says. “The kids are really questioning, and it’s very exciting to watch.”
Just as problem-based learning can blend units of curriculum together, Anderson has blended some components of her VISTA training, too.
“One of the NOS (Nature of Science) tenets is to avoid bias,” says Anderson. “I incorporate that into our classroom through our discourse circles.
“I’m big on having a positive classroom environment,” she says. “Opinion can get in the way of learning and feelings can get hurt, especially in fourth and fifth grade when the cliques start forming.”
Teaching the students to use evidence is part of learning the discourse language and norms, Anderson says. “It’s not that I agree with you because you’re my best friend or because I want to be in your circle. It’s fact-driven and that takes the feelings out of it.”
Another strategy that Anderson uses in discourse is to start small. She begins with table group discourse first because some “kids need to have elbow, or shoulder, partners,” which helps students who may not be as confident or may not think of an answer or response as quickly as some of the others. “They can still get a grasp on what’s going on when they have a little more time to process the information,” she says.
One of the obvious advantages to discourse is hearing the students talk in a way that didn’t happen before. “We’re hearing more from kids and what they’re interested in or what misconceptions are,” she says. “It helps us understand much more than just looking at a paper test.”
Anderson also believes that the VISTA way helps mitigate the stress of state standards. “We’re teaching in a different manner than teaching to the test, but we’re really teaching what the test is assessing,” she says.
“I feel like we are really pushing the levels of thinking and not just hitting the surface with the SOLs [standards of learning],” says Anderson. “They are able to make those connections where before they were not seeing the big picture.
“I’ve covered so much more already, and because of all the prior information, I think when I hit oceanography, there are going to be a lot of ’a ha!’ moments when they see everything is all connected – it will be like finding the missing puzzle piece.”
Anderson says that no matter what happens with the test scores, she believes she’s “still teaching the better way because a., they’re more interested in learning and b., they’re getting more out of it.”
She’s also looking forward to starting at a higher place with next year’s class. “They’re already going to have a deeper understanding of how we’re going learn,” says Anderson. “I’ll be able to delve even deeper with the groundwork laid,” by the fourth grade teachers.
“We are ahead of the game because we have our whole hallway teaching the VISTA way,” she says. “We are definitely super fortunate.”