Isolation can be one of the major challenges of teaching science in northern New England. Educators in small, mind rural communities are often “the only science teacher in their school,” says Jess Angell, director of curriculum and education at the Vermont Energy Education Program.
A new program is helping to address that sense of isolation. VEEP’s teacher learning teams bring teachers together to learn from each other, get support from an experienced science educator, and get up-to-date training in best practices and educational standards. The pilot team just finished its first year in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom; VEEP is expanding the program to southern and northwestern Vermont in the coming school year.
The first year
The pilot team, a group of nine teachers led by Angell, met four times from fall 2015 through spring 2016. “It was a very diverse group,” says Angell — the nine teachers ranged from seasoned science educators to folks without a science background who’ve recently found themselves in that teaching role.
“It’s been really positive for me because my learning style is: I need to talk to other people, I need to ask questions,” says Patti Ovitt, who teaches fifth and sixth grade at Jay/Westfield Elementary School. “I had feedback immediately.”
“When those teachers come together, there’s time to share,” says Angell, “Someone might say, ‘Hey, this worked well with my students.’ You bring all that knowledge and expertise into the room together, with group of people who wouldn’t come in contact normally.”
The in-person, hands-on team meetings, spread over a period of time, allow for more learning than a one-day training can provide. “One of the keys is that you’re really able to dive in deep to a topic and get that depth of content and skills,” says Angell. “It’s not a one-shot deal.”
Angell used VEEP’s climate change curriculum as a structure for teachers to learn about larger teaching concepts, focusing especially on the three dimensions of the Next Generation Science Standards. “The first meeting was around developing the climate story in your classroom,” says Angell. “We did one on the importance of modeling in science. We looked at a tool to analyze lessons for alignment to NGSS.”
“I really liked the information we got and the work we did on three-dimensional science, and bringing the three dimensions together,” says Louisa Bliss, who teaches seventh and eighth grade at Monroe School in Monroe, NH. “That cemented it for me.” (Bliss was the only non-Vermont teacher in the pilot team; she says she hasn’t heard of many good professional development opportunities for teachers in her state.)
Teachers were also able to borrow a kit of science equipment to use with their students at no cost, allowing them to bring the climate curriculum to their classrooms and practice what they’d learned at team meeting.
“I had science equipment that was real,” says Ovitt. “We don’t have labs. The fact that the school didn’t have to buy it and I could borrow it was great.”
Bliss agrees. “Our budget is so minimal, we don’t get fancy equipment here,” she says. “[The VEEP kit] was high-end equipment, so the students really felt like scientists.”
Changes for this year
The program will look a little different in fall 2016. “We’re going to tweak it a little bit, based on feedback,” says Angell. The program will cover a shorter period of time, just two months, with both a fall session and a spring session offered. This fall, teams will meet in the Rutland area and St. Albans area. (Spring locations have yet to be determined.)
Teams will have an in-person training day at the beginning of October. “We’ll pull everyone in the region together to start for one full day to lay the foundation,” says Angell. Three virtual meetings and ongoing support from a local VEEP educator make up the middle of the program in October and November, with a final in-person sharing meeting in late November.
The focal point will also shift. “It’s not going to be climate, necessarily,” says Angell. “Teachers are going be able to design the strand of energy work they want to do. Vermont’s energy issues and what’s happening in Vermont will be the basis.”
Graduate credit will be be offered in addition to professional development hours. Teachers will still be able to use VEEP kits in their classroom, and have support from VEEP staff. That staff support was another highlight program for the pilot teachers.
“I felt like Jess really did a good job aligning what we needed with what she was going to present,” says Bliss, “ and looking at the big picture in a way that brought it down to where we are.”
“Jess is very good at what she does,” says Ovitt. “I never had to worry about asking questions. I was very, very impressed by the whole process.”
Angell says the relationship goes both ways. “I probably learned just as much from them as they learned from me!” she says. “It’s been a good model.”
If you’re interested in participating in the 2016/17 VEEP teacher learning teams, please visit our Professional Development page, or contact Cara Robechek, VEEP’s executive director, at 802-552-VNRG (8674) or email@example.com.