Getting help

I have called two friends in the last week to seek help with my classroom. Two friends, three special ed teachers, four other teachers. Lots of people taking an objective, non-judgmental look to answer the question: what can I do to bring my wild bunch under control? What sensory adaptations can I make to my room and curriculum to meet the needs of these  students? How can I offer rich, deep thinking, a strong curriculum in reading, writing and math and science, and yet also offer sensory play and art?

I am hoping that with friends looking out for me, analyzing my classroom, that I can find a balance that works for this population of children.


What I learned these last two years…

Some years I ask children to assess what they have learned in my class. This year, I think I ought to ask myself the same thing. What did I learn teaching over the past two years?

This year and last year, I added several curriculum areas to what I feel I understand and can teach well up through the middle school level: Physics of Light and Sound, Force, Energy and Motion, Simple Machines, Genetics, Plate Tectonics and Evolution, microbiology, Sex Education, Physiology.

I have also learned a tremendous amount about organizing a class, though I still have a way to go in this arena. It’s amazing the amount of material, ideas, time frames, and people we have to keep organized at any given time. For me, eight different grade levels, 75 students, fourteen different subject areas each year — or 27 over a 3-year span, twenty-five discreet lessons to teach each week for 30 weeks of teaching — or 750 discreet lessons! Three big projects for three different grade levels spanning 3-months each, including the first big “science fair” project the school has done, with a testing day and presentation day. I learned to guide students in making these project, in creating inventions.

I learned in the social-emotional realm, too. I got better at managing a classroom of children by helping them set up a Responsive Classroom-type rule system at the beginning, and reviewing in periodically throughout the year. I learned when to contact parents for behavior problems, and how to conduct a parent conference in this regard.

I responded to parent requests for stronger teaching of lab reports, and created a system for teaching and grading these — and watched student work improve!

I conducted my first long-term project-based learning project spanning the entire school population, and held a public exhibition of student work. I wrote grants and got money and volunteers to build and expand a school garden program. I held an exhibition of student work at a local community college so students could educate the community about nearby nature.

I led 75 student on multiple field trips into our local canyons, and gave some children their first exposure to nearby nature. I also took students on field trips that gave some of them their first exposure to a scientists’ lab, and a university setting.


I gave students a sense of how fun science could be, and integrated art, writing, technology and ethical inquiry into an inquiry-based science program. Many students said, “I had no idea science could be so fun!

I feel very fortunately to have been able to grow so much, and to offer an opportunity to grow to so many children. I feel proud and lucky to be a science teacher.



Guinea Pig

A guinea pig lives in my classroom part time. I often take him home for a week or two to give him a break from the hustle and bustle of classroom life. He’s not a particularly friendly pig, it turns out. I bought him as a baby from a pet store last summer, where he was constantly harrassed by the hands of small children reaching in and poking him. So he comes with some emotional baggage, you could say, snappish and jumpy. He’s verbally social — loves to say hello — “Wheek, wheek, wheek!”  — loves treats like broccoli rinds, and loves to have you put your nose right up to his cage to say hello. But the pig prefers not to have physical contact with anyone. A prickly pig.

As an introvert in an extroverted world, I must say that I am a little bit like the pig. If I have too much time with the crowd, I am prickly. Too much noise and I become jumpy. Too much chaos, and I am ready to dive for my shoebox, too, or bury myself in a newspaper for a while — though at least I don’t EAT my newspaper like he tries to do.

Some kids are guinea pigs, too. They need a little less chaos, a little calmer environment. Sometimes the noisy joy of group learning freak them out and they dive into their shoe boxes and seek a place alone on the playground. I recognize them when they step into my room. And I try to give them what they need.

I used to think that party people made the best teachers because they could keep their energy up all day, even in the midst of the crowd. But we guinea pigs can be good teachers, too. We’re sensitive to the other pigs among us, and know how to give them space and hear what they have to say. And as long as we have a shoe box to go into now and then — i.e. enough prep time alone — we can be pretty social when we need to be. Wheek, wheek, wheek!

Susan A. Olcott

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