Barbara Smith was working at West Pullman Elementary when she became a member of her school’s iTEAM and participated in Introduction to Inquiry, our first summer of professional development. Her school was one of 49 that CPS closed at the end of that school year, but she was immediately hired at Alex Haley school, the receiving school for children from West Pullman.
This school year has been a year of challenges … from adjusting to a new school and the merging of two faculties to teaching inquiry science in a regular fifth grade classroom. At West Pullman, Barb had been teaching Primary/Intermediate Special Education.
When I visited her recently, I was struck by several things … her tolerance for the messiness of doing inquiry science coupled with the total engagement of her students, their enthusiasm for science as Barb so expertly teaches it. I was struck also by what one determined teacher can do with limited resources, many of which she supplies out of her own pocket or acquires through donations, to light the spark of inquiry in her students. And I was struck by her pride in what her students have done this past school year. Barb eagerly pulled out her cell phone to show me photos of her students immersed in science activities, stretching back over the entire year. And similar photos were posted around the room. I was surprised by how many inquiry activities this one teacher had done with her students. This post was born in tribute to the idea of what One Teacher can do … and the difference this particular teacher has made in fueling student excitement about science.
Meet Barb Smith …
Here are her responses to the questions I asked.
- What are the most exciting things about teaching science?
“The thing I like about teaching science is the joy I see on kids’ faces when an experiments works! Or when a prediction they made is right! Kids get excited about seeing a simple balloon make paper dance or water bend! It does not take much to bring laughter and joy to kids. I love hearing the kids taking the experiments we do at school to their homes to show younger brothers and sisters and their parents. This makes the old African Proverb: ‘Each one teaches one.'”
- What are some of the activities you’ve done with the students this year and how have your students responded? Any favorites?
“The favorite so far is the Alka Seltzer Rockets. The kids love seeing their film strip container lift off and learning terms such as load, lift, atmosphere and stratosphere to name a few. Another favorite was when we planted a variety of seeds like barley, alfalfa, green beans and wheat. We had a mixture because this was all we could find at the end of the season. So we planted the seeds and made “Plant Journals.” We recorded everything from the planting and germination to the harvest. We took pictures and made an iMovie. Some plants had different yields, so this allowed the learners to think as farmers … if resources were limited, what crop would you plant? Or would some crops allow for multiple plantings? It also gave them the opportunity to decide what things they could do to enhance their harvests. Next, we did the balloon races using the straws and string along with some chairs. This one (the balloon race) like the Alka Seltzer Rockets were some experiments I learned over the summer from you all (Golden Apple Inquiry Science Institute)! Then, we worked with building pulleys and levers. Later, came the water clocks using washers and foil to create ways that people told time using old timepieces. Next to last, we talked about limited earth resources using the water cycles and erosion. We built landform simulations and simulated the water cycle and how the rain can affect shorelines. This gave us a whole host of terms. By far the talk of the school is our car race in using speed and Newton’s Laws. This year has been challenging with limited resources, but worth it when you see the smile on their faces.”
- What have you noticed about kids and inquiry science that makes you committed to using that approach?
“Today’s society is one with quick answers and “How To… .” There is little time left for discovery. This is what I think science is about. Asking a question or a wondering and setting out on an adventure to explore that wondering, without someone giving you the most traveled route and what to expect at the end. Part of the learning is finding a route for yourself and the adventure you discovered along the way! The students become excited when they work a plan they came up with and prove or disprove their predictions.”
- What are your biggest challenges in teaching science? What would help in alleviating them?
“I can only speak for myself. In working in a 99% free lunch school with little to no science materials, the biggest thing is trying to bring experiments to students with little to no background science knowledge and no school provided material. I am always trying to buy or acquire material so urban youths can have an understanding of simple science terms with hands-on experiments. I do not even have enough science books for my students, let alone simple things like magnets or beakers. However, we are told to have science instruction and no one is providing the material to do so! I service 90 students a day whose households are limited in what can be requested. Therefore, as a teacher, I am either buying things myself or requesting the assistance of family and friends to help my students. Keep in mind, times are hard for everyone, even teachers and their families!”
Teachers in many Chicago schools face this same challenge … how to teach inquiry-based science effectively with limited resources. I’d like to thank Science Connexion, one of our nonprofit partners, for helping teachers like Barb acquire donated science materials, items they collect from more advantaged schools and from companies that are disposing of still useful equipment and supplies. If you have materials to donate, you can contact Science Connexion through their website.
A big thanks to Barbara Smith for her time and for the great work she’s doing on behalf of Chicago children. And there are many, many Barb Smiths out there, proving every day that One Teacher can do amazing things to prepare children for futures rich with opportunities.
You can find out more about Golden Apple’s Inquiry Science Institute here.