Situational Factors Affecting Unit Lesson Plan

One of my favorite parts of being in charge of a 21st Century CLC after-school program was inviting local outreach programs to share their knowledge and conduct activities with my kids. Whether it was REI cross country skiing, MOA snowshoeing, Alaska Zoo rehabilitation, Alaska Native arts and crafts, Total Reclaim electronics disassembling and recycling, or cultural dancing, the level of excitement and engagement went through the roof when something “special” was planned for the day. While an administrator might argue there is little educational value in such activities because they’re not covered on standardized tests, I contend that a quality teacher can develop learning activities that build off ideas presented in outreach programs that may help kids construct knowledge much more concretely than a slide show or lecture. With all the emphasis on skill-drilling, school isn’t much fun anymore. Who can blame kids for poor attitudes and low motivation when the “get-dirty-fun” has been removed from the equation. For all these reasons and more, I’m not racing to get back into the classroom when my time as a stay-at-home-dad is finished.
So, as soon as I landed my current aquarist job, I began scheming ways to develop an outreach program for K-8 kids in ASD. Currently this is just a dream of mine; I’m not sure that I can bring it to fruition. Management at the store and the STEM department within ASD have voiced interest when I pitched the idea, so I’d like to use this opportunity to further develop the concept. At this point, I’m planning to open the invitation to grades K-8 with a focus on tank water quality and the larger implications of pollution in our watersheds. I’m also kicking around the topics of dissecting fish to examine anatomy, determining fish age by viewing scales under magnification, and ATU (accumulated thermal units).

Specific Context of the Teaching and Learning Situation:
The average ASD, K-8 classroom has between 25 and 30 students. There is a multi-media conference room at the store that can seat up to 50 people, so this is adequate for a class of students, chaperones, and the teacher. One particular challenge centers around the fact that field trips are typically one-time events, so I have very limited class meeting time. I plan to use a variety of delivery techniques for this program. I envision starting the field trip in the conference room with an outline of activities. Then I would take the class for a tour of the fish tank maintenance room. The quantity and complexity of equipment is a statement to the conditions that must exist for fish to survive. After the tour, the class would head back to the conference room to conduct water quality testing from tap water, tank water, and a sample from the runoff pond outside the store. I believe this hands-on exercise would help solidify the realization that the quality of typical storm drain runoff is toxic to fish. With this insight, we can begin talking about watersheds, pollution, and what an individual can contribute to combat the problem.

Expectations of External Groups:
I believe society at large expects students to be aware of the mounting pollution of our earth and the impact that humans have on altering ecosystems. I think responsible members of society should expect students to be stewards of the land, water, and natural resources. To be an effective steward requires an understanding of the current issues and ideas to begin resolving the problems we’ve set in motion. Reviewing the Alaska Content Standards for Science education, I believe the water chemistry / watershed pollution topic alone addresses the following standards:
Science as Inquiry and Process:
A student should understand and be able to apply the processes and applications of scientific inquiry. 1) develop an understanding of the processes of science used to investigate problems, design and conduct repeatable scientific investigations, and defend scientific arguments.
Concepts of Physical Science:
A student should understand and be able to apply the concepts, models, theories, universal principles, and facts that explain the physical world. 3) develop an understanding of the interactions between matter and energy, including physical, chemical, and nuclear changes, and the effects of these interactions on physical systems.
Concepts of Life Science:
A student should understand and be able to apply the concepts, models, theories, facts, evidence, systems, and processes of life science. 1) develop an understanding of how science explains changes in life forms over time, including genetics, heredity, the process of natural selection, and biological evolution; 3) develop an understanding that all organisms are linked to each other and their physical environments through the transfer and transformation of matter and energy.
Concepts of Earth Science:
A student should understand and be able to apply the concepts, processes, theories, models, evidence, and systems of earth and space sciences. 2) develop an understanding of the origins, ongoing processes, and forces that shape the structure, composition, and physical history of the Earth.
Nature of the Subject:
I would consider this subject matter divergent because there is no “correct” answer regarding how we should fix issues such as storm drain runoff that contributes to watershed pollution. Much of the value in education on this topic is awareness. With awareness, students can begin conversations about both causes of the problem and possible solutions. I believe one of our primary roles as educators is exposing students to various topics, occupations, causes, and situations in an effort match individual interests to the world at large. Telling a student to pursue a career in conservationism will most likely be less effective than providing an experience that ignites an fire of passion and action within an individual.
Although there are specific skills required to accurately test water chemistry, I think this is primarily cognitive learning. It seems that our natural world generally takes a back seat to profits and economic agendas. The latter are extremely short-term in scope. My goal is to be an advocate for the fish (and other wildlife) by encouraging students to consider our impact over the long-term. There is also a counterintuitive argument that spending more money to regulate industry and improve our watersheds would yield a positive economic impact because of increased use, health, tourism, and the return of more native species. Lastly, I believe the field of aquatics and conservation is relatively stable. Obviously there are rapid changes in specific fields of science that may indirectly affect some underlying assumption, but by-and-large it is a fairly stable field.

Characteristics of the Learners:
This topic poses one of the biggest initial challenges for me. Since I am not the regular classroom teacher, I am not in tuned with life situations of the students I will teach. I have enough experience teaching, however, to fully realize that this factor has everything to do with the attitude a student brings to school. If a student hasn’t had breakfast that morning or comes from an abusive home, they will most likely not get much from the an activity, no matter how engaging it might be. It comes back to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. If the basic needs aren’t being met, kids can’t focus on much else. Along these same lines, I need to educate myself to the prior experiences, knowledge, skills, and attitudes students have regarding the subject. I think the best way to overcome these barriers is to collect information with survey questionnaires and informal discussions with the classroom teacher prior to field trip day. Differences in individual learning styles is another characteristic of learners that must be considered. I am a constructivist at heart, so I try to plan hands-on activities in most of my lessons. It is way more powerful to test the pH of vinegar, pour it over a hard boiled egg and witness the results on the shell than to merely lecture on the corrosive powers of an acidic solution. That said, I still plan to combine spatial, interpersonal, and linguistic components to accommodate all learning styles.

Characteristics of the Teacher:
I think my first post, “The Blind Aquarist”, summarizes my experience, knowledge, skills and attitude about the subject matter. Two years into this job, my comfort level is steadily growing. But I still have to lean heavily on experts when it comes to technical questions about equipment or disease. The class(es) I plan to develop are more concentrated than this. Water quality testing and treatment is something I do daily. Although I’m not a chemist, and don’t necessarily understand many of the granular details of chemical reactions I’m initiating, I do understand the impact of various chemicals with regard to overall water quality. Still, some of the material puts me at the edge of my expertise. I’m not inclined to stand in front of a group and teach something I don’t fully understand for fear of a 3rd grader stumping my knowledge. As I flesh out the details of individual lessons, there will likely be gaps in my own knowledge that will need to be filled. I have not taught this course before and that brings a unique set of challenges. There are classroom management, transition, material, and content issues to consider and plan for accordingly. This is considerably more prep work than a teacher merely redesigning a course. If I can make this outreach idea happen, it is something I would like to continue offering in the future. I think there is a need and an interest in this type of outreach program. The desire to do this for a long time leads me to two realizations. First, I want it to be great. I want management at the store to be invested in the idea and support me with materials, space, and growth ambitions because they recognize the value of a prevalent conservation mentality as well as potential profits from life-long customers. Second, there is room and time for improvement. I’m a perfectionist who will sometimes avoid a situation if I don’t think I can make it seamless. That attitude keeps me from trying new endeavors sometimes. Teaching isn’t perfect. It’s messy and that’s fine as long as we keep an eye toward improvement. A long-term perspective buys me a little grace for the inevitable stumbles I’ll face along the way. Course design is new to me, teaching isn’t. I think I’m pretty effective at engaging a group of students and keeping things mostly on-task as they work independently. Managing a group of kids without the rapport a teacher has is going to be a challenge.

Special Pedagogical Challenge:
As stated, the fact that an outreach coordinator is not the regular classroom teacher presents a whole slew of situational factors. I won’t have the mutual respect that (good) teachers and students share. I don’t know specific learning styles or home situations of my students. Maybe most glaring, I only have a couple hours on one day to hook, engage, teach, and hopefully spark an interest in the topics. Survey questionnaires and conversations with teachers prior to field trip day will combat some of these issues. A fun, succinct, hands-on set of activities is my best plan of attack against these challenges. I also plan to provide learning objectives to teachers prior to the field trip and encourage them to develop a KWL charts that kids can work on before and during our activities. Now the real work of course design begins!

3 thoughts on “Situational Factors Affecting Unit Lesson Plan

  1. Hi Craig,

    Very thorough review of situational factors. This is a great project and one that I’m sure students will benefit from and enjoy!

    Two quick questions:

    What did you mean by “nuclear changes” in this sentence? “Develop an understanding of the interactions between matter and energy, including physical, chemical, and nuclear changes, and the effects of these interactions on physical systems.” Changes in the cell nucleus? Mutations?

    Secondly, K-8 seems a pretty broad range of ability to me. I don’t spend any time in that role. Would you (or how would you?) modify your content or activities accordingly?

    You might consider developing a range of online curriculum options supporting the field trip – pre and post? Or perhaps you folks could facilitate in-classroom aquarium activity? Learning materials to accompany any classroom aquarium?

    Just some thoughts.

    Nice work!

    1. Hi Craig,

      This is going to be so cool! My boy just got to be in on a salmon dissection at a weir on a nearby river. They then returned to the classroom with salmon eggs they will hatch in their class aquarium/incubator (I’m not actually sure) as part of a unit they are doing on ‘cycles’. He’s first grade and I think the whole trip was k-6. There’s nothing like getting to hold a fish eyeball to get a 6 year old boy’s attention!

      I was thinking the same thing as Owen here…

      ” You might consider developing a range of online curriculum options supporting the field trip — pre and post? Or perhaps you folks could facilitate in-classroom aquarium activity? Learning materials to accompany any classroom aquarium? ”

      If there were 5 lessons, 4 of them you go into the class and the field trip as the bonus. It would be pretty cool if after the field trip they were able to test the drains at their own schools and figure out ways to make improvements in their own environment.

      I tend to get too excited about stuff like this. I’m kind of a nerd:)

    2. Well, to be honest, many of those expectations of external groups came straight from the Alaska State Standards. Looking back, I see that I neglected to properly cite those.
      I interpret nuclear changes in this context to be related to fission and fusion. Second, at this point I’m concentrating on developing a water quality unit for this class that would likely cover grades 4-6. I could likely modify activities to target slightly younger or older students. I think I would rather focus attention on creating a unit around fish anatomy for the younger kids and something about stream ecology and conservation with the 7th-8th grade range.

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