Teaching subject matter to diverse learners

TE 401 section 1 -- science

Dr. Deborah C. Smith

329 Erickson Hall

432-4876 (office), 886-2717 (home)




As Einstein himself once said, he succeeded in good part because he kept asking himself questions concerning space and time  which only children wonder about. (Holton, 1978, quoted in Gallas, 1995)



The purpose of scientific enquiry is not to compile an inventory of factual information, nor to build up a totalitarian world picture of Natural Laws in which every event that is not compulsory is forbidden. We should think of it rather as a logically articulated structure of justifiable beliefs about nature. It begins as a story about a Possible World -- a story which we invent and criticize and modify as we go along, so that it ends by being, as nearly as we can make it, a story about real life. (Medawar, 1982, quoted in Gallas, 1995)



Welcome to the next step in your career as a teacher! I -- and all your instructors -- take seriously my roles and responsibilities as your teacher in facilitating your development as strong, knowledgeable, and confident teachers of important subject matter with children. There are several themes to the work we will all do together in the science portion of 401 this fall.


Power and joy –Science is a subject that many people have experienced with dread and feelings of confusion in school. One of our goals is to help you re-discover the natural scientists that you once were as children, and participate in the feelings of power and joy that accompany deep engagement in, and understanding of, intriguing science problems within a supportive community of learners. We will be investigating the science content we’ll be teaching with children, and learning with understanding so that we can teach for understanding. As we work with children, one of our major goals will be to help them see themselves as powerful and joyful learners in science, too.


Re-inventing rituals – Many of us learned mysterious rituals in our school work in science – “the” scientific method, rituals for moving numbers around and getting the “right answer.” Another of our goals is to re-examine those rituals, to re-invent and broaden them so that they are connected to personal sense making, and then to use that knowledge to create more flexible, authentic and open-ended scientific work with children.


Repertoires for developing teachers – We recognize your need to feel that you are constructing the kinds of knowledge and practical teaching abilities that you will need for the internship and your continuing career as an elementary teacher. We are committed to providing you with opportunities to construct important pieces of your beginning repertoire of teaching and classroom management strategies, as well as ways to learn how to continue that learning, long after our course is over.


Legos and Tinker toys as metaphors for curriculum and planning – One of the most important things for developing teachers to acquire is a view of the inside, invisible structures and reasoning that teachers use when they review, evaluate, or adapt a piece of existing curriculum, or invent a sequence of lessons. We plan to take you inside what may look  like  seamless, flowing classroom lessons, to take apart and put back together again the pieces of lessons that make them work. We will be using the Team One planning framework that you will use as an intern, so that you have a framework for lesson planning and assessment.


Cultures and communities for learning – Learning to teach, learning science, learning almost anything, involves us as learners in particular cultures and communities. Cultures are groups of people who have come to agree about ways of thinking, talking, and behaving that work for them and their purposes. Elementary schools, and teachers’ classrooms within them, have shared ways of working and talking. Likewise, elementary science teachers have shared ways of seeing themselves and the groups in which they feel comfortable. In TE 401-1, we will develop our culture and community for learning, while making progress towards acquiring the ways of talking, thinking and acting that accomplished teachers of science know and can use effectively. We will also work with a larger community of cooperating teachers and interns in classrooms at Averill Elementary School, and begin learning the ways of talking, listening, and acting that support classroom communities with children, in science lessons.


Across those themes, we will build on your previous work and personal experiences, especially in TE 301 and your Family and Child Ecology courses, where you began “thinking like a teacher.” In TE 401, the theme is that of “knowing like a teacher.” We’ll raise additional questions about teaching specific subject matter to children in ways that help them learn with understanding about powerful ideas in science. For example, we’ll consider:


*What is science? How do scientists do their work? Who can do science and belong in scientific communities? What’s special about science and how is it different from social studies, for example? What does it mean to “know” something in science?


*What do we need to know as teachers of science, so that all our students have access to. and opportunities to learn the big scientific ideas with personal understanding?


-What do we need to know about the scientific content ourselves? What does it mean to understand something in science? How do our feelings of understanding and belonging in the scientific community affect what we offer children? What do state and national standards hold as the important big ideas that children at different grade levels should understand in science?


-What do we need to know about children’s own ideas about how the world works, and about ways of finding out what children think and have learned? How do we know if children have learned with understanding? What would they be able to do with their understanding?


-What are the ways that accomplished elementary science teachers design and teach lessons that are appropriate for children at different levels of understanding? By what criteria can we design, or select, or modify curriculum materials and activities, so that they support children’s learning? How do we engage children in science lessons and help them make progress in their thinking? What do we know about  the roles that teachers can take in helping children to understand science?


-How do we establish physical, social and emotional environments that support children’s learning as individuals and as groups? What norms and routines and kinds of talk help create a community that works smoothly to make space and time for learning?


*How can we best use our prior knowledge and experiences as teachers and learners to make progress, both individually and together, in our learning to teach elementary science? How do teachers learn things they don’t yet know? What are the roles of reading texts and articles about science teaching and learning together, of discussions of our own ideas, of activities in public school classrooms and in our Erickson classroom, of individual study, of the communities in which we’ll be working – with our peers, with children, with teachers and interns at Averill Elementary School?



Learning to teach elementary science in a community of support


We take the view that you already bring with you knowledge about science learning and teaching. You may have noticed things about your own learning in science classrooms, and resolved that you will “never do that with kids,” or “I want to be the kind of teacher Ms. Gold is.” You may have been a camp counselor, or a day care teacher, or a swimming instructor, or done student teaching in your FCE program, and come away with strong views about what “good” teaching and learning look like.


In TE 401, we offer opportunities in which you can expand your learning, acquire new and/or revised teaching practices, and begin to take on the discourses and identities of accomplished teachers in science. We do that by providing ways to slowly take on small and carefully sequenced pieces of the complex performances that accomplished members of the elementary science teaching community know and can do.


If you’ve ever learned to play a new instrument or a new sport, or to dance a new dance or sing a new song, you know that it’s very difficult to jump right in with accomplished practitioners and play or dance or sing along. Similarly, teacher-learners need to engage with authentic tasks of the teaching community, while not trying to take on everything at once. So, you’ll gradually be taking on tasks such as questioning children closely about their ideas, and listening carefully to their ideas, both with individual children and in small groups. You’ll be planning for and teaching lessons with a colleague and a small group of children, rather than teaching whole class lessons by yourself. You’ll be exploring the content and curriculum standards for one topic in science, and learning how to teach it deeply and well with children, rather than hastily reviewing the entire K-6 curriculum in science, and trying to memorize all the science you now realize you need to know for teaching.


We already know – because you’ve chosen to be a teacher -- that you intend to be people who change the ways that children have been (not) learning science in school, and provide healthy, supportive communities for all children’s learning, no matter what their background, race, gender or ethnicity. We know that you are committed to providing engaging, interesting tasks for children, and teaching in both what the community currently holds and what you believe to be best practices. It is also clear that you want the kids you teach to feel confident and competent in science, and see themselves as legitimate members of the scientific community, in ways that you may not have had opportunities to do.


By December, we plan and intend that you will have a broader and richer repertoire of teaching knowledge, practices and discourses, along with a solid confidence in your ability to learn to teach science. We plan and intend that you will have made progress in clarifying and deepening your feeling of belonging in science communities, with elementary science teachers, and with other  learner-teachers (including experienced teachers and interns). We plan and intend that theory and methods will be so intertwined that your teaching will reveal your theories and beliefs, and you will be able to justify/explain your teaching choices as the embodiment of your theories and beliefs.



The real nitty gritty (or things we are required to say in the syllabus)


This is a 5 credit course. It is the next step in your candidacy as a teacher. It will take time, energy, commitment, and downright persistence to learn well and with understanding all the things that you’d like to know and be able to do. University policy expects that, for every hour of class time, you will be spending three hours outside of class studying and preparing. This is even more important in teacher education, because children deserve teachers who commit themselves to serious study of their profession and the subject matter they teach.


We also expect that this professional commitment to learning to teach and being a supportive colleague includes being respectful and responsible in responding to other people’s talk and behavior, being cooperative in helping the class function well as a learning community, being open to new ideas and reserving judgment about others’ reasons and actions, and being willing to engage in lively and knowledgeable discussions about ideas and actions.


Professional responsibilities. While we are teaching at Averill Elementary School, we expect that all of us will dress, act, and talk in professional ways and will be respectful of children and other teachers in classrooms and their needs to learn and teach. For both Erickson and Averill class meetings, we expect that all of us will be on time (or even a little early, to take care of conversations and organizing), ready to learn when class starts, and prepared to participate in an informed way (yes, this means having done the readings and assignments, thought about them, taken notes on them, raised questions about them).


Attendance. If we were second grade teachers, and could not be present to teach our class of children due to sickness or emergency, we would call the school and let them know, so that they could make arrangements. Similarly, we view TE 401 course attendance as an opportunity to build professional habits. If I will be late or if class is cancelled, I will contact you with as much notice as possible. If you are sick or have an emergency that requires you to miss class or be late arriving, I expect that you will call the night before, explain the problem, and make arrangements for another student to gather handouts and take notes for you. Except in extreme emergencies, absences and latenesses are only excused if they are negotiated before class. You have one free unexcused absence for science, for emergencies. All other unexcused absences and lateness are cause for concern, and may result in a conference with Team one leaders, and/or reduction of course grade, and/or failing the course.


Snow days

If we are scheduled to be at Averill and they have a snow day, you will need to listen to the radio or TV for school closings. If the school is closed, we will not meet that day, so that all of us can stay safely off the roads.


Written work. There will be both formal and informal writing during the course. Journal writing, in-class writing, observations and notes from classrooms, and lesson plans and coaching can be informal, handwritten, with major focus on the ideas, not the mechanics. Formal assignments, such as the interview assessment analysis and the Raizen and Michelson self-reflection should be word-processed, and free of grammatical, spelling, and punctuation errors. I will return assignments to you  for revisions, if they include more than five of these kinds of errors. Please plan to hand assignments in on time, as I have carefully arranged assignment due dates so as not to conflict with other courses.


Grading scale. The TE 401 instructors have agreed on the following scale for assessing work:


96—100          4.0       outstanding, exemplary work

91-    95           3.5       high quality

86-   90            3.0       good, performing at expected level for senior year

81-   85            2.5       fair performance, below expected level

76-   80            2.0       significantly below expected level of work, cause for concern


We know that you are committed to being the best teacher that you can be. So, if assessments of your work are falling below 3.0, we’ll be concerned about your future in a teaching career and especially about your readiness for the internship, and will ask you to meet with us. TE 401 is a requirement for taking TE 402, so all work must be completed before 402 starts. Remember that in order to pass TE 401, you must pass both the science, the mathematics, and the technology threads.



Opportunites to learn and assessments of your work in TE 401


On-time attendance, and regular, informed participation in class discussions (10%)


In class writing, journal writing, classroom observation notes (10%)


Autobiography of your science learning (10%)


Design of assessment tasks and analysis of children’s interviews and work (15%)


Lesson plans (2) and reflections (2) and coaching of partner (2) (20%)


Raizen and Michelson self-reflection notes and final paper (20%)


Understanding of science content for light and shadows unit (15%)


Total = 100%




TECHNOLOGY REQUIREMENTS. As you know, all Michigan teachers must be able to pass the Michigan technology requirements before being certified. In the senior year, all the 401 and 402 instructors have planned ways for you to pass all these requirements. We will be doing the email requirement in science, as part of our coursework. This will  be graded pass/fail, and must be completed by December 14. If the technology requirements are not completed by Dec. 14, you will receive an Incomplete for the course, and cannot start TE 402 in January without finishing the work.




Driver, Rosalind, Leach , Squires, and Wood-Robinson. 199x.  Secondary students’ ideas about science.


Michigan Essential Goals and Objectives in Science Education. 1991. (affectionately known as MEGOSE).


Wenham, Martin. 1995. Understanding Primary Science. ISBN 1-85396-246-5.


A packet of readings is also required and can be picked up at Paper Image, on Trowbridge.