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Back to the Classroom: Reflections from a Former FOSS Sales Representative

Eileen Massey, Hillcrest School, Oakland, California
September 12, 2000 | FOSS in Schools

Top image: One of Eileen Massey's students shares how she used a one-pulley system in her Levers and Pulleys project.

As I reflect on the 1999-2000 school year and the turn of a century, the changes in my professional life feel as momentous. Teaching is and has been the main focus of my life. I had wanted to be a teacher ever since I can remember. When it came time to choose a college major, it was easy: education. I did my student teaching and taught for several years in New York during the 1970s. I taught science from an old and dusty textbook. I found it boring and abstract; the kids did, too. I knew it should be different, but I didn't know how to change it. Real science? I didn't even know the names of the equipment, never mind where to go to buy it.

I moved from New York to California and became involved with educational publishing. I continued to see myself as an educator, now working with teachers, helping them to explore innovative instructional materials. I worked with teachers who wanted to change the way they taught. I was able to bring them programs to implement that change. I felt that I was making a difference. Teachers would thank me for the new insights I helped them develop.

Then I found FOSS! As a FOSS sales representative I was selling a program that helped elementary teachers with little science background to teach real science. Even I could ask the questions that would help learners discover how to construct an electric circuit that actually worked! FOSS was so complete that, when one teacher in Southern California asked me what a D-cell was and how it worked, we looked in the background information of the FOSS Magnetism and Electricity Module teacher guide, found the answer, and understood it!

But something started to change. Each time I worked with a group of teachers, the end of the day would be difficult. The teachers would be working together, excitedly planning how they would use FOSS with their students. I would eavesdrop as I gathered my materials, organizing them to go on and meet with a new group of teachers at the next site, work with those teachers to get them started with FOSS, and then leave again. I was jealous. I wanted to stay with those teachers. I wanted to participate in the planning and, even more important, I wanted to teach in the classroom.

Those feelings grew stronger. I had my California Teaching Certificate. The media said California needed teachers. I started to look for a teaching job. It wasn't simple. I discovered I had to pass CBEST, a qualifying test. I tackled the test prep books and jogged my memory. I took the test and passed. I worked as a substitute teacher for a while. Even with that experience, I still wanted to be a classroom teacher. I joined the FOSS revision team to earn a living during this transition. As production manager for the FOSS revision teacher preparation videos, I worked with FOSS educators and with students in classrooms every week. Sometimes it was hard. Sometimes students were not eager learners. I still wanted to stay in those classrooms and teach FOSS.

At one of the videotape sessions, I met Caroline Yee, Principal at Hillcrest School in Oakland, California. Hillcrest is a small, public K-8 school. It had a sixth-grade teacher opening for the fall of 1999. I applied and got the position! I would no longer be selling FOSS—I would be teaching it!

I found myself in a self-contained sixth-grade classroom with many teaching responsibilities. In many ways I was an experienced teacher. I certainly knew a lot more than I did my first year of teaching. But many years had passed and in many ways I was a first-year teacher. Science became a very powerful part of my program.

Hillcrest is one of the schools where the FOSS team from the Lawrence Hall of Science does its development work. They chose my classroom for their efforts last year. Although I had described the unique development to teachers and administrators during my years as a FOSS sales representative, this was a side of FOSS I had never actually witnessed. Neither the students nor I understood what FOSS development really meant. The kids were really excited that the authors of the black-and-white boxes were coming to work with them. I may have led them to believe there would be fireworks every day. But that's not what development is like. When FOSS salespeople, like myself, said that sometimes these lessons had to be written, rewritten, and rewritten again, we weren't kidding.

The kids were given many choices during the development process. Each day the FOSS team came in they presented an investigation or other activity. They used different approaches to convey the science content. The developers wanted to see which strategies kids selected and how well the strategies worked. Students had to write a lot about what they were doing. It was hard for the kids to understand why. It felt confusing and repetitive to them. I didn't understand their reaction at first. Sometimes I would say, "What do you mean? Don't you realize what these people are doing? Children all over the country will get the best science instruction ever because of the work you are doing!"

I'm not sure how it happened. At last the kids understood that while they were investigating science something bigger was happening. They began to give direct feedback to the developers. "These directions were confusing. I learned more doing it this way than that way. Why do we do this part after that?" They began to see themselves as part of the team and part of the development process.

During this time, I also had the opportunity to teach FOSS to my sixth graders. As a salesperson, I would usually teach one or two lessons from a module. And I would be teaching them to teachers. I talked so much about really teaching FOSS. Now it was my turn. The first module I taught was the revised Levers and Pulleys Module. As I looked at the boxes of stuff and that thick teacher guide, I had to remember my own words. I spread out the equipment, opened the teacher guide, and watched the teacher preparation video. Would it work?

My students found the investigations challenging. Sometimes they wanted to do things differently. So we did many of the investigations several times and compared the data we carefully collected. The students had small group and whole-class discussions. We all asked questions, and they used the equipment, technology, and print materials to find the answers. This frequently led to more questions. We used the new assessment tools throughout the module. Some of them were really challenging. I tried to help the kids see that we were looking for depth of understanding, rather than just the "right answers." The assessments really did help me see what kids understood and what we needed to do next. For many the process was a struggle. For many it was the first time they found themselves leaders.

As a salesperson, I talked about how science can level the learning field. Students who don't read well, have weak language skills, and are not the most successful in traditional classrooms can be stars in science. If we provide students with activities that challenge their thinking, regardless of gender or how well they have learned to read textbooks, they often can demonstrate that they can think and learn. I had said this so many times to teacher groups. I found out firsthand how well it worked in my classroom.

The first day the groups worked with two-pulley systems, they were challenged to set up a system where the advantage would be greater because of the second pulley. The first student to succeed with this challenge was a student in the resource program. Her standardized test scores indicate she has learning disabilities. I doubt that she or I will ever forget the look on her face when she realized what she had done. She demonstrated her system to the rest of the class. Her participation in all of the curriculum areas changed after that day. She was not someone's research. This was not just a teaching philosophy. This was a student in my classroom. And FOSS and I had made a lasting difference in her life.

I put up my project-ideas folder early in the Levers and Pulley Module and asked the students to add ideas as they thought of them. When questions came up during class discussions, I asked for those questions to be added to the folder. When they read the FOSS Science Stories selections, students' thoughts and knowledge expanded and more ideas and questions got added to the project-ideas folder. I was grateful for the project-ideas sheet in the teacher guide. It helped students formulate their culminating projects.

We used the guidelines and rubrics. We carried on class discussions, and I held individual conferences with the students. They had two weeks to complete their projects. Every student completed a project. The results were great. Some students used the ideas and suggestions provided in the program. Others were able to take their knowledge and develop their own ideas. We all learned from each other.

I'm back in the classroom again, working with the sixth, seventh and eighth graders. I work with my partner teacher and discuss which modules we will teach. We are working on the lesson plans to help all students experience those wonderful moments of discovery, just as my students and I did last year.


You can contact Eileen Massey at