How do educators gain the knowledge and skills to change their classrooms from traditional “teacher at the top” environments to places where students are eager to take ownership of their learning?

In her new book Teaching in High Gear: My Shift Toward a Student-Driven, Inquiry-Based Science Classroom, Marsha Ratzel recounts a transformational journey marked by a gradual shift from teacher-centered to student-driven education and bolstered by a powerful virtual network of colleagues from around the world.

Marsha’s book, which will interest any K12 educator considering such a shift, was published by Powerful Learning Press on Wednesday, December 11. Follow this link to read about the launch and order her interactive eBook. ~ John Norton, Managing Editor, PLPress

From the Foreword:

Teaching in High Gear is more than just a book about the changing nature of adult learning in today’s schoolhouse. It is, more importantly, a book about one woman’s efforts to reimagine the relationship between the teachers, the content and the kids in today’s science classrooms. ~ Teacher/author Bill Ferriter


marsha-ratzel-120-spaceby Marsha Ratzel

I’m curious by nature and want to do the best job I can in whatever work I do. For as long as I can remember, these two character traits have compelled me to probe and evaluate what I’m doing and map a better way for doing it the next time. Whether it’s mountain biking on slickrock terrain or teaching science and math to middle schoolers, I’m always looking for ways to get closer to peak performance. Maybe you’re that way too?

If so, you’re probably always wondering “what if?” Like me, you’re constantly reflecting and trying to figure out what you could do better next time. I strive to be a lifelong learner— searching for new things and integrating some of what I discover into what I do in my class. Years ago (in 2003) I started documenting these ideas in a new-fangled kind of electronic journal — the blog. Over the years, blogging has given me a great place to record my thoughts along my teaching journey.

tihg_cover_flat_250With the rise and spread of social media and the Internet, I’ve also joined a like-minded, fast-growing community of connected educators—teachers who exploit the connectivity of the global network to become better at helping students learn. Online, these communities of teachers are trying to learn some of the same things I am. The digital conversations provide extensive opportunities for professional growth.

As a teacher, my work is driven by two kinds of interaction: what I do daily in my classroom with students, and what I discuss and learn from my colleagues, locally and globally. Each of these drivers generates its own vibe and informs the other, producing a synergistic effect that keeps me excited about my job.

After two decades of teaching science, mathematics, and occasionally English and social studies, I’ve reached a place where this push and pull between my teaching and my inquiry about teaching is constant. Sometimes this churn can leave me feeling like a foreigner in my own school and district.

Thanks to social media networks, I’ve found some wonderful collaborators that allow me to feel connected, valued and integral to improving the profession. And here’s the interesting thing I’ve discovered: I need both kinds of teacher colleagues— solid practitioners I work with daily, keeping me grounded, and my online collaborators helping me explore the “what if’s.”

The Traditional Teaching Zone

In my daily practice with students, I’m experienced enough to know when my students understand the basics and the classroom is humming along. Teaching science can be difficult from a classroom management perspective because we don’t “sit in rows.” Students are always busy doing something that’s messy and requires cleanup. They’re often involved in conversations—discussing what we’re studying or puzzling out how to do a procedure. Once teachers figure out how to balance all this chaos with a combination of procedures and student responsibility, the classroom management issues largely take care of themselves, as students are engaged in the “doing.”

Poster with motivational sloganFor years, inside this smooth teaching zone, I taught the assigned content, followed the district curriculum maps, and proceeded at the prescribed pace. In our system’s science learning model, we concentrated on decoding text structure, answered the questions in the textbook, and did the labs that went with every section and unit. I encouraged class discussion, and students used interactive science notebooks to stay organized and process what they’d learned. . . .

During these years, my science classroom mirrored science instruction across our school system and probably in many other schools around the nation. Students seemed satisfied, test scores were OK, and parents and administrators were happy. Classroom management was under control. Students enjoyed class and reported they felt good about what they were learning. Each year I completed the curriculum. But something nagged at me.

The Craving to Learn Was Missing

Sure, I had a few kiddos who loved science. But, as a whole, I didn’t see a love for learning, curiosity, or much desire for personal achievement among my students. They were extrinsically motivated by grades and promises about “the future.” They worked hard to memorize information to do well on the tests, but they were not driven by their own need to know more about the science all around us.

Granted, much of science learning involves memorizing facts, ideas, formulas, etc., so I’m not naive about the necessity of memorizing. But if the majority of classroom time is spent on facts rather than investigation, K-8 students can’t use their curiosity and ingenuity to research, learn and experiment. I wanted my students to feel the same passion that working scientists feel about science. To greater or lesser degrees, professional scientists are independent learners who define what they’ll study and how they’ll study it. They explore questions and hypotheses from an informed vantage point, blending the doing with knowing the facts (perhaps from memorization).

Cookbook and kitchenwareMy traditional kind of classroom didn’t resemble the real world and the way real science takes place. My students weren’t generating their own questions and hypotheses. No one was giving them any opportunity to build their own love for asking and answering their own questions. Textbook questions, cookbook labs and traditional assessments don’t foster that kind of mindset. Textbook learning can’t be everything.

These growing realizations kept me restless. My mind kept churning. I was trying to isolate some of the elements of my classroom where I did see these glimmers of passionate learning—where students seized control of the momentum in the day’s lesson. I knew I needed to become the kind of teacher who could bring that out in them and keep it at the forefront.

Becoming a Better Teacher

At the same time, social networking and online professional communities were gaining momentum among teachers— especially those who shared my sense that something needed to shift, that we needed to reach a higher gear.

Connected learning was getting easier and improvements in bandwidth made video conferencing feasible—even simple. Social learning places were becoming centers for professional development: email listservs and discussion boards evolved into NING communities and Twitter hashtag groups. I was eager to become a connected learner with my online colleagues. I wanted to engage, to share, to gain new insights.

My journey to become a connected teacher learner and my determination to shift my classroom philosophy happened about the same time. Each transitional step I made in the classroom pushed me ahead with my online personal learning network (PLN). As I strengthened my ties with other seekers and expanded my PLN, I gained more insights, discovered more tools, found more ways to become better in the classroom. I realized that I needed to cast a wider net, reaching beyond my geographically close colleagues to find others searching for the same answers.

Marsha-Thinking-Cap-200Applying the same basic collegial skills I used every day in my school-based Professional Learning Community (PLC) groups, I started forming a sizable virtual network of colleagues. For my PLN, I needed a group of educators who were also searching for the best ways to develop a student-centered classroom. In science, I discovered, many times these were teachers who used the Problem-Based Learning (PBL) lesson design structures. (Later, when I taught math again, I found the same thing to be true.)

When I reflect on what I did during this heavy PLN development period, I’ll admit it seems a little bit crazy. My plate (like most teachers) was already overflowing with district mandates and school testing requirements, curriculum standards and pacing guides. But somehow, making significant changes in my practice put the fun and excitement back into teaching and gave me some extra energy to pursue this network building.

Here’s What Changed

In my own classroom (I was teaching sixth grade most of this time), I learned how to use new tools that emphasized student voice and gave kids the ability to participate fully and help determine what or how we learned. I worked hard to become skillful at setting a tone of student empowerment. I developed a coaching style that allowed me to do these things and simultaneously provide the structure for covering the curriculum.

I accomplished this by periodically turning over responsibility for the learning structures to the kiddos—allowing them, not me, to run, manage and evaluate what they were learning. This made it possible for us to ask important, deep questions that would have otherwise been unapproachable. I kept the best of my traditional classroom and mixed in this new way of approaching inquiry. Finally, I built up their understanding of digital citizenship so we could connect to audiences beyond our four walls.

researchNone of this was easy. I felt responsible for ensuring students gained the knowledge and skills they needed to be prepared for the coursework and content they would encounter in the upper grades. Most of all, I felt some urgency to develop in them the sense that school should be more about them as people—as active lifelong learners—so they could develop habits of mind and science literacy that would transcend our year together.

While working to shift to these classroom qualities, I needed more tools, and more ways of looking at what I was doing. Because I had continued strengthening my PLN and my relationships with other teachers who shared my vision of student-driven learning, if a lesson or unit wasn’t working, I had colleagues ask for help. In turn I helped other teachers who were struggling with their own classroom questions. It was a very collaborative exchange. . . .

Because of the blossoming of virtual networks and communities, many of these interactions occurred online. If I read a PLN colleague’s blog describing an amazing lesson or instructional strategy that I hadn’t tried, I was inspired to think beyond where I was in my own practice. Quite often we exchanged ideas through blog comments until I understood the exact process they were using with their students. Sometimes our conversations led me to brainstorm ways to integrate a new technique or strategy into my classroom.

The inspiration I gained from my learning network pushed me to identify other areas where I could improve. Taking big steps and small, I gradually shifted my teaching practice to support a heavier emphasis on inquiry and problem-based instruction, with my students directing more and more of their own learning.

Enjoying the Ride

MR-rider-no-text-smI believe every teacher can make this journey. Where and how we travel and how long we decide to linger along the way may be different, but there are two essentials we all need to take with us: connection and self-reflection.

By connecting with the right colleagues, you will enjoy honest, professional conversations and help each other improve. There is an unparalleled synergy that develops when you can find fellow educators who share your interests, your hopes for students, and your willingness to collaborate.

By reflecting critically on your teaching practice, you’ll know what you did well and what needs improvement. And when you take action to improve the missteps nagging at you, there’s not only a feeling of tremendous relief but a surge of creative energy as you watch your students growing into self-reliant learners.

This is the road I continue to travel. What you’re about to read is an explorer’s tale—an account of the first year of my lengthy expedition. I have a lot more to learn, but I do know this: excellent teaching is not so much something we achieve as something we pursue.

It’s like mountain biking, another passion of mine. Heading toward the mountaintop helps me focus, but the greatest joy comes in the pedaling and enjoying the ride. I love my teaching life more than ever before.

© Marsha Ratzel 2013

Marsha Ratzel is a National Board-certified science and math teacher in the Blue Valley (KS) School District and a popular blogger (Reflections of a Techie) who has also written about connected learning and expert teaching practice for Education Week, Voices from the Learning Revolution, Educational Horizons and other publications.

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