Sometimes, being thrown into a new situation with few resources and little knowledge can be the best way to innovate. Educators, especially those who work in smaller rural districts, can sometimes be called on to teach classes without a lot of support or resources. While those moments can be terrifying, it’s also a good time to step back from the anxious swirl of curriculum and standards to think like a kid. What would they love? Zombies, superheroes, and fairies, of course!
“It was a great experience for me to realize I could do something that wasn’t in the textbook, something different,” said Cinnamon Holsclaw, a middle school science and English teacher at Red Hills Middle School in Richfield, Utah. Holsclaw was asked to teach 7th grade science on short notice with no curriculum, no money for materials and only a few old computers with a filtering system that let almost nothing through. But she wasn’t tied to any guidelines and had ample freedom to choose how she’d tackle the challenge. She decided to let her students choose.
“If students want to study something you know nothing about, go on the journey with them,” Holsclaw said. Her basic premise for the course was to let her students choose topics that interested them and set them to investigate. They worked in small groups of three or four and investigated one issue per quarter. “All it took on my part was a willingness to let go of 100 percent of the control and a willingness to try and find a science tie to the things kids were interested in,” Holsclaw said.
In the first year, students investigated issues that were both local to Utah and had fairly clear science ties. Her students studied sonic booms, using Skype and email to connect with NASA experts about what they are and how they work. One group of students studied the Pando Clone, an aspen grove that is one of the largest living organism on earth. Another group of students studied “downwinders,” people who live downwind of nuclear test sites, a big issue in Utah. The students interviewed downwinders, studied the history of U.S. nuclear testing and learned the atomic science behind the bombs and the health effects of the tests.
“My confidence began to grow that I could teach a serious science class while allowing students the freedom to choose,” Holsclaw said. She realized science is in everything and it wasn’t too hard to find a link from almost any topic to serious scientific inquiry. When she could, Holsclaw tried to steer students towards Utah’s science standards (the state has not adopted the Next Generation Science Standards yet).