Michelle Ott: My Experience as a First-Year Living Environment Teacher at a New Visions School
Michelle Ott, a first-year teacher at New Visions Charter High School for Advanced Math and Science III (AMS III) in Brooklyn, shares her experience in how the New Visions Living Environment Curriculum pilot program helped her develop the tools, network and resources necessary to build engaging lesson plans that will not only help her high-need students pass their Regents exams, but also gain the critical skills and knowledge to be successful throughout their education.
In my first year of teaching, I’ve dealt with issues that were hard to foresee from my formal training. Even though I’m completing a teaching preparation program geared towards teaching science in high-need schools, my first year in the classroom has been full of new experiences and challenges. I’m teaching 10th grade Living Environment, and constantly figuring out what works best for my students, many of whom are at different academic levels and struggle with basic reading and writing skills. One of the concerns I had coming into my first year was how to balance the Common Core standards with NY State Regents test preparation. In my experience with student teaching, I observed classrooms that were so heavy on Regents preparation, it seemed as if every activity was about the test, and there was no room for fun or engaging activities. I knew that I wanted to do more in my classroom, but was also uncertain of how to find the balance. While there is so much Common Core material on the internet, it can be easy to go down the rabbit hole and lose hours searching for the right resources.
Before I began participating in the New Visions [Living Environment curriculum] pilot, I had no idea what to expect; I knew that my principal supported it, so I went to the first professional development session (PD) with no expectations. I quickly realized that this was a great opportunity for me. I’ve learned so many lessons from being in this community of peer teachers and experienced educators. In other experiences, I’ve noticed that teachers complain about all the reasons outside their control that students aren’t succeeding; but this PD was so refreshing, because it felt like everyone was there for a common cause, with open minds, talking together about how we could help our students. In my teacher training, I learned a basic teaching cycle in which we introduce a topic and then do an activity around the content; but this pilot has exposed me to a new way of thinking about lessons through the “Five E’s.” With the Five E’s, we go through a learning cycle of engaging, exploring, explaining, elaborating, and evaluating. This has forced me to have a lot of foresight about my lessons and what I want students to get out of them; but I’m also able to adapt the cycle to suit the needs of the specific content. I still find planning my lessons challenging at times, but I realized that I’m so fortunate to work at a New Visions school, where I have the opportunity to get this type of support.
The resources that I have access to through the pilot are extremely useful, and I appreciate the built-in flexibility. I find it reassuring to know that someone has gone through all the resources available and picked out good options for us based on our students and the way we want to teach Living Environment. Now that I’m becoming more comfortable with how I want to lead my class, I’m able to choose from these resources depending on what skills I’m focusing on. I’ve also found that there are options for differentiated learning, to adapt to students at different levels, especially those that struggle with reading. Moreover, New Visions picks really interesting and thought provoking resources. For instance, I can introduce a lesson by asking my students how healthy it is to eat bugs. I think that students get more excited and engaged when they have an intriguing question like this, and it’s helpful for developing writing skills.
Another opportunity that this program has afforded me is greater ability to collaborate with my peers. In a PD session, I met another LE teacher from Humanities III [another New Visions charter school], and she has now become someone who I collaborate with very closely. We meet at least once a week in person, and communicate regularly via email to go over lesson plans and talk about our classes. It’s also exciting to engage with both charter and district teachers. Through the pilot Google+ group, teachers can ask questions and share resources, and I think this online community has a lot of potential. Recently, I was preparing for my first required New York State Living Environment lab activity, and I was getting really anxious about having materials ready. Late at night, I posted in the G+ group asking if anyone had any resources, or general advice to share, and by the morning I had responses from other teachers. That support felt great and put me at ease.
Now, I feel optimistic about the balance between Common Core and standardized test preparation. I feel that the lessons in my class are building skills that will help students succeed on tests, but also put them on track for succeeding long term. With this type of teaching, students have to think critically everyday, not just on one bonus question in a test. I think that is so important because it will help prepare students as they go forward towards college.