By Frances Reade
In our series of interviews with STEM coaches and administrators throughout the 2020–21 school year, participants of the Hybrid and Distance Learning Collaborative (HDLC) marveled at the creativity of teachers and school staff in meeting the needs brought about by the pandemic. Teachers and staff did everything from setting up distribution channels for both food and instructional materials, to mastering unfamiliar technology, to bravely showing up every day ready to meet the moment and do their best for students and families.
“It seems like this is a time of creativity” one STEM administrator said during an interview in fall 2020. “Folks, including myself, are willing to try new things and be a little bit more open-minded about how to fit some of these things into our practice in ways that I haven’t quite figured out before.”
When we asked about the pandemic’s effect on science teaching and learning in K–5 classrooms, we heard both good news and tough challenges. The challenges: In most districts, English language arts and math were the priority instructional areas, and teachers were told to fit in science if and when possible. And many districts had been in the process of testing new science curriculum options when COVID hit — meaning teachers didn’t have shared instructional materials to collectively adapt to distance learning.
But the good news is that in district after district, HDLC participants told us that some teachers found creative new ways to bring science learning to their students. Some of the most frequent approaches teachers took included:
- Getting students outside to explore backyards or parks close to their home
- Spending hybrid or in-person class time outside to engage with science content in school gardens, parks, and playgrounds
- Learning to use science simulation software on the fly
- Recording their own science explorations or investigations to produce engaging videos for their students
Many teachers learned more about their students’ home lives than they knew before COVID-19. One HDLC participant told us that their district worked on “unpacking the bias” of asking students to do hands-on or outdoor lessons or labs when “we need to better understand the available materials that they have home. Or if we’re asking them to go outside and outside is not safe, then we need to understand how to make those outdoor lessons viable for everybody.” This heightened commitment to equity led teachers in many HDLC districts to deliver science to their students’ by learning to plan, film, and edit their own demonstration videos to share with their classes.
Making Main Street into the solar system
Another example of creative science instruction during school closures came from one suburban HDLC district, where a pair of middle school science teachers turned Main Street into a model of the solar system to support a lesson on scale. They created large graphic representations of the planets and put them along a main road in town familiar to the students. They started by placing the sun at the middle school, Mercury a block up, and so on, with the distances between planets scaled to the real solar system. Then they filmed themselves walking down a main thoroughfare, encountering the planets as they went.
The teachers used creative video editing and acting to comedic effect, speeding up the video to show the vast distances they were traveling.
They left the “planets” in place, inviting students and families to come out and walk the solar system themselves. Some students even responded by filming their own creative videos of themselves taking the walk. Crucially, the video that the teachers shot allowed all students access to the simulation and the resulting discussion in class, whether their parents could take them out to see the planets or not.
Like many HDLC participants we interviewed, the administrators in that district reported feeling confident some teachers would bring that sense of adventure forward into fall 2021. “I think that the teachers who are going above and beyond to do something creative and physical and immersive, that’s going to be where it’s at” in the next school year, one told us.
Supporting creative teaching during the return to school
Of course, many teachers weren’t able to develop new science lessons during the pandemic, or even to teach much science at all. However, this doesn’t detract from the heroic lengths that teachers, support staff, and administrators went to get themselves and their students through the crisis week in and week out.
As science coaches and administrators think about how to bring the best of pandemic teaching — including creative lessons, experiential learning, and an equity focus — into the next year through teacher collaboration and professional development, they can look to lessons and best practices from a multi-district NGSS implementation initiative:
- Help keep the spirit of experimentation alive by giving teachers a lot of flexibility to try new things in the classroom
- Give teachers ample time and support to plan and think together about science teaching, so successful innovations and creative ideas can be shared across teams and grades
- Provide access to high-quality instructional materials and time for teachers to discuss and debrief how they use or adapt the materials
With support to collaborate and share good ideas with colleagues, teachers can bring their creativity to new year that supports all students.