I recently interviewed science teacher Rebecca Kornack, who teaches sixth grade at Mozart Elementary in Chicago. Rebecca completed our Introduction to Inquiry and Advanced Inquiry seminars in 2012 and 2013. In her former position at Till Elementary, Rebecca was the school’s K-8 science lab teacher with responsibility for science instruction school wide, both in directly teaching students and in supporting classroom teachers in their science instruction. That’s a tall order for a new teacher, and she handled it admirably, even organizing a Family Science Night. But budget cuts made her support position unaffordable for Till, and Rebecca was snapped up by Mozart. I asked Rebecca a few questions I thought might provide guidance to beginning science teachers from the perspective of someone who recently was one herself.
What was it like to be handed an assignment to teach science? What kind of background did you have for it? How many years had you taught?
To be honest, I was overwhelmed. Even though I’d had experience with a lot of responsibility in the classroom during field placements in college, I didn’t necessarily feel comfortable teaching science content. I’d had some exposure to inquiry based teaching in college, but other than setting up a couple of procedures, didn’t know how to run an inquiry based lab. I had a year of prior experience student teaching 8th grade math in a low-income, low-resourced school in a neighborhood around University Village in Chicago. While math and science were the assignment, math is what I was encouraged to focus on. That being said, I went into this new job feeling ill-equipped and unprepared to run a K-8 inquiry lab.
What was your biggest challenge?
Surprisingly, my content knowledge didn’t end up being my biggest challenge, rather changing the science culture in the school when few teachers were interested in prioritizing science in the first place. Creating an inquiry lab was challenging, practically speaking, considering students saw me for only a short period of time each week. Most K-8 teachers relied on the hour students spent in lab with me to suffice as their science for the week. Having little support in the classroom and reinforcement from teachers was a challenge when trying to change students’ attitudes around science and the school culture around science.
What was your biggest triumph?
My biggest triumph would be actually seeing the culture change in some tangible ways. Students were definitely asking more questions, excited about science topics, and ready to engage in hands on lessons. They were taking on roles of scientists and exploring the process of science in ways that were beyond the standard scientific method. After spending the year working with teachers at all grade levels, I also saw the confidence some teachers had with science increase, even if actually teaching it got pushed to the back burner. Many times I felt that half the battle in changing the school’s science culture was changing teachers’ attitudes about science. At our end of the year professional development around science, having math and English middle school teachers seeing ways they could incorporate science into their curriculum was a huge win.
Another triumph I can’t help but mention was learning how to design an inquiry lab that aligned with NGSS, CCSS, and had a structure that students could follow well. Facilitating this type of lesson took a LOT of practice, but through programs like the Golden Apple Inquiry Science Institute, I had some great modeling from expert teachers. By the end of the year, I could take a topic, standard, or already existing lesson and develop an inquiry based lab around it. A lesson that had students taking ownership in the discovery and development of the lab, and me acting more as a facilitator. I came to value student questions asked at any point in the process and actively searched for opportunities in lessons to give students the opportunity to ask great questions and explore.
What is your advice to teachers just starting out like yourself?
My advice to is to attend any professional development you can! The only way I became more prepared and equipped to teach science was by seeing other people do it well, and then practicing that myself. There is no substitute for that type of modeling and hands on experience. Many of the science procedures, lesson structure, and inquiry processes I take my students through I watched someone else do, practiced myself, got some feedback, and then implemented. Many museums and organizations offer after school science clubs, professional developments, and mentoring programs that are free to participate in or attend and offer at the very least great ideas. As Albert Einstein said, ” I am neither especially clever nor especially brilliant. I am only very, very curious.” Its not only important to teach students this, but to not forget it as teachers.
You can see two of Rebecca’s great classroom ideas here.
Rebecca also recommends Teaching Science to Every Child: Using Culture as a Starting Point by John Settlage and Sherry Southerland (2011).
You can learn more about Golden Apple’s Inquiry Science Institute (soon to be Golden Apple STEM Institute) here.