Tale from the Field: How Our BEETLES Implementation Was a Learning Experience for Everyone Involved
By Keith Williams, Executive Director, Richard Garber, Director of Education, and Salena Garber, Education Manager, NorthBay, Elk Neck State Park, Maryland.
(Note: This post was originally published in the BEETLES Guide for Program Leaders. Check the Guide for Program Leaders publication out for additional implementation support and Tales from the Field.)
When Daksha and I came back from the BEETLES Institute (in August 2014), we were extremely excited and wanted to implement BEETLES in a big way and right away. We experimented with rolling it out a few days after the Institute. It was too much too fast. We had been quite proud of our program and knew combining character with hands-on science investigations to be an effective method of teaching kids how they can make better choices in their lives. Our curriculum consists largely of 3-hour lesson blocks 7 times per week for our five-day residential program. Students focus on issue investigation with our several seasonal lessons such as wetlands, clams, fish, baygrass, trees, vultures, deer, vernal pools, monarchs, eastern bluebirds, erosion, food 101, fungi, and pollinators. Our lessons were originally written using the 5 E format. When we introduced the BEETLES learning cycle, our staff did not understand how to adapt lessons to be more student-led and allow greater time for observation and exploration within our time constraints.
Educators teaching the IEEIA based NorthBay lessons often began with an engagement game followed by a lecture giving background information using a whiteboard. Issue investigation consists of identifying an issue, research question, study design, data collection, and evaluation, with a conclusion, and recommended actions. When we got back, I told folks to stop using whiteboards and lecture. The team was excited to try something new but apprehensive about changing methods they felt were effective.
Our most experienced educators were very resistant because they felt a great deal of ownership in the existing program. They were afraid that we were throwing out all the lessons they had worked hard to develop over the years. Their perception, and that of many of our visiting classroom teachers, was that we were throwing out rigorous science curriculum and replacing it with wandering around in nature. For the first couple of months, there was a lot of confusion and internal conflict. We certainly did not have universal buy-in and the changes were argued continually. It wasn’t all bad, because if you’ve got a roomful of people arguing about the best way to teach, you’re in a pretty good spot! They were definitely engaged and wanted to be effective educators. As they modified lessons, their timing was thrown off, and they weren’t finishing on time. So we said, “what if you don’t have a timetable,” and encouraged them to break out of the 3 hour time block they had become accustomed to. For some, it worked but gave students different week-long experiences and was often met with resistance by visiting faculty. Most went back to the 3-hour block. At this point, we were not successfully implementing BEETLES while maintaining our issue investigation curriculum. Changes were made that were drastic and not consistent with a healthy transition. There was a general impression among educators that we already expected a lot of them, and that we were now adding more outcomes for them to reach. They needed to realize we weren’t giving them more outcomes, but a new pathway to reach their outcomes.
The turnabout came when we sat down as a team in small groups to re-vamp our lessons using the BEETLES Learning Cycle. We launched the meeting with a tone of understanding and clear expectations. Everyone agreed student-centered education was the goal. The staff had been through the BEETLES Teaching & Learning professional learning session, so they had a good understanding of the Learning Cycle. We realized that although our lessons in the past had been written out using the 5E “learning cycle” model, they weren’t always designed well. We also realized that in the past our staff didn’t understand the Learning Cycle model well, and we didn’t emphasize it enough. Instructors often used a game to engage students with the topic, but students were more focused on the game than on the topic. Instructors would also deliver a lot of content right after the game, skipping the Exploration phase. During the small group work, we assigned one existing lesson per group to incorporate BEETLES and to redesign to be Learning Cycle-based. Our staff was really up for the task and got to combine their deep experience and creative ideas with ideas they had learned through BEETLES. Our new lesson write-ups offered multiple options for educators to choose from to do during the Invitation and Exploration components. It worked really well. This strengthened and clarified the baseline expectation of how we should engage in learning with our students.
Another component that helped turn things around was that we had an educator who was a natural at teaching the way BEETLES suggests. He totally embraced it, because he felt like it was true to what was already making him successful. His confidence created demand for others to observe him teaching. In turn, many of our educators that were resistant to change in concept, embraced it as they saw it in action. Our most vocally resistant staff member was also our most senior. He echoed many of the concerns we had heard regarding a loss of academic rigor. I took the opportunity to observe him teaching and found that, despite his detractions, he had begun implementing BEETLES. He let students guide the lesson, and it flowed beautifully. The perceived lack of control created by sharing control of learning with his students was what he had feared. It took time for him to prove to himself that it would be alright. The natural curiosity of his students coupled with his skills of questioning and facilitation would always be enough to reach amazing outcomes.
There was one other aspect of integration that proved valuable. Daksha was right in the middle of program creation/growth with our outreach program when she returned from the BEETLES Institute. Daksha had total freedom to create the program from the ground up and get it out to schools. The curriculum was created as a new integration of our IEEIA core curriculum, BEETLES and NGSS (Next Generation Science Standards). Daksha got right to work in our partner schools and created a huge demand very quickly. Lessons were delivered in the classroom, schoolyard or local environment and it proved incredibly successful. Teachers praised the rigor and alignment with NGSS and took the learning cycle without batting an eye. The demand created a need for our field educators to get out with Daksha and work in classrooms and schoolyards. This additional experience of delivering programming side by side with teachers gave a huge boost of confidence to our staff. The fears of losing the rigor associated with our program gave way and we moved rapidly toward true across-the-board implementation.
BEETLES implementation has been a learning experience for us all. While our educators learned to give up some control I had to learn the same lesson. I learned to give our team the space to grow and allow them to build trust in themselves and BEETLES in whatever way worked for them. I found that just one approach isn’t effective and I had to be open to allowing each person their own journey. Today, BEETLES is integrated in every aspect of our program from field experiences with 6th graders to Professional Development with seasoned classroom teachers and outreach programming in schools. We are still learning and growing and look forward to sharing the struggles and successes to come!
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