Several years ago, I visited Horace Mann Elementary School, at that time one of our STEM Institute Partner Schools on the south side of Chicago. Horace Mann has been the bedrock of the community for generations and exemplifies what its namesake stood for — universal, non-sectarian, free public schools for all children.
A strong abolitionist, Mann (1796-1859) said some pretty powerful things that bear repeating today . . . repeating and taking to heart. “Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery.” Horace Mann Elementary is a Science and Math Academy, and in today’s world the STEM subjects are perhaps, more than others, the great opportunity generators for our youth and therefore great potential equalizers of the conditions of men and women.
Nationally, there is a tremendous focus on these subjects for the promise they hold to improve our economy. But before that can happen, our children have to have good science instruction, the kind of grounding in doing science, being mathematicians, using technology in sophisticated ways and responding to engineering challenges, to equip them for the advanced study that careers in these disciplines require. They have to have teachers who are well prepared to teach STEM content and who have the contagious enthusiasm to engage them in the work itself. Horace Mann also said, “A teacher who is attempting to teach without inspiring the pupil with a desire to learn is hammering on cold iron.” So being able to inspire students is key.
At Horace Mann, Cynthia Thompson and Yolanda Thompson (not related) opened their classrooms to each other and to me, so that Cynthia, who had take our Introduction to Inquiry the previous summer, could model for Yolanda how to conduct an inquiry science lesson. Modeling is a very powerful way of fostering teacher professional development and one we base our summer program and school year follow-up sessions around. You and I can read about how to teach science more effectively and watch endless PowerPoints while listening to a speaker, but absent effective modeling, we’re still left to wonder “What does it look like?”
On the day of my visit, Yolanda was about to find out. Rather than watching Cynthia teach her own class, Yolanda assisted as Cynthia facilitated a lesson for Yolanda’s students.
Cynthia came to Yolanda’s classroom during her own planning period and led Yolanda’s students in an activity that had them out of their seats and on the floor …. experimenting, measuring, collecting data, tweaking their experimental designs, and generally having fun while learning. Remember Jim Effinger’s #5, “Have fun!” The students were and so were their teachers, because Yolanda wasn’t just observing. She was right there in the thick of things with her students. Teachers who genuinely love kids and who delight helping them learn, live for those moments of seeing them totally engaged and having fun while learning. So for Cynthia and her friend and colleague Yolanda, this was a great experience.
We call it “Inquiry in Action,” and it’s a highly effective strategy for building a professional learning community around STEM at your school. Teachers who have learned how to develop and facilitate an inquiry lesson invite a colleague who hasn’t had that experience to observe … or to team teach … or to combine their classes and let the students of the inquiry trained teacher teach their peers how they do things in their classroom. The thing that makes this so powerful is that it’s real. And that’s the best kind of professional development, site-based and contextualized. Observing is at the heart of science, and I will argue, also at the heart of becoming a more highly skilled teacher. But once we have our own classrooms, the opportunities to observe other teachers practicing their craft are usually minimal. Inquiry in Action can change that, if we’re open to it. On that note, you might want to check out a 2015 publication by Tonya Ward Singer, Opening Doors to Equity: A Practical Guide to Observation-Based Professional Learning (Corwin Press), for some useful tools and strategies.
The summer after my classroom visit, Yolanda participated in Introduction to Inquiry, the same program that Cynthia was in the previous summer, while Cynthia went on to Advanced Inquiry. Today, Yolanda, remembers this time fondly. “It made me enjoy Science, and my students benefited from it as well.”
As they continue on their respective paths as educators (they are no longer at Horace Mann but are still close friends), Yolanda and Cynthia remain models to me of the colleagueship that is essential in maintaining teaching as a true profession and building excellence in classroom practice.