When Carman Kessler had a chance to pilot a Mi-STAR unit, she hoped for good results. What she got was a transformation. "I've never seen anything like this," she said.
Kessler, who teaches science at Northeast Middle School in Midland, recently completed the eighth-grade unit on natural hazards. She works with both general education students and students with special needs, including a few who have autism spectrum disorder.
Kessler has long used an inquiry-based approach to teaching, which is fundamental to Mi-STAR. But it was something else in the curriculum that took her students to the next level.
"It's the Unit Challenge that makes Mi-STAR so powerful," she said.
Each four- to six-week Mi-STAR unit revolves around a challenge-a larger problem that student teams work to address. The natural hazards unit focuses on tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and hurricanes. The lessons go beyond characterizing natural events; students use data to estimate how often they will occur and calculate their economic and human costs. Ultimately, they write a public service announcement to warn of an impending disaster in a specific state, and the teams present their findings to the rest of the class.
At the beginning of the pilot, Kessler had her doubts. "Piloting a unit is not easy under the best of circumstances, and I knew adapting it for students with learning disabilities and diverse needs would be an added challenge," she said. "Nevertheless, I knew these kids were phenomenal, and I figured they would be up for it."
They had a rocky start. "The first and second lessons in the unit required students to address the class, and some of my students struggle with social communication skills," Kessler said. "But together we worked this out, which is all part of the piloting process."
She also quickly realized that she needed something extra to engage her students, so she created a model floodplain early in the unit. "I had them make paper buildings to correspond with a particular role in the community, put them in the floodplain, and then flooded the model," said Kessler. "Naturally, many of their houses and businesses were destroyed, and they began to internalize the devastating effects natural disasters can have on people."
Because it was so successful, Mi-STAR may add this activity to the unit. "That was the beauty of working with Mi-STAR," she said. "They listened to the pilot teachers and applied their feedback to make the units middle-school friendly while maintaining the integrity of the science."
By lesson three, when the Unit Challenge was introduced, everything was starting to make sense to all Kessler's students. "They became more and more engaged. I credit the Unit Challenge, a capstone of sorts, for giving the unit purpose and direction," she said.
Additionally, the NGSS Three Dimensions of Science Learning also played a huge role in student engagement. "As my kids worked with different Cross-Cutting Concepts, Disciplinary Core Ideas, and Science and Engineering Practices, I could see how various aspects of the lessons played to their individual strengths," said Kessler. "One child would be great at designing a solution, like an engineer. Others would be drawing, like graphic designers. Others would ask questions and inspire the rest of the group. To see that unfold was astonishing."
As some of Kessler's students with special needs struggle with pencil-and-paper tests, she used a proficiency scale to assess activities and the final Unit Challenge. Students would achieve level two when they were able to complete a task with assistance. At level three, they can do the task with minimal help. Level four is the highest and is geared for students who work independently and choose to go above and beyond requirements.
"Some of my kids with special needs achieved levels three and four," she said. "That just doesn't happen. I was also surprised at their perseverance. They often become discouraged when learning becomes difficult and may want to throw in the towel, but that didn't happen either.
Though the lessons had been progressing pretty well, Kessler was a little apprehensive as the unit drew to a close. "One of the boys who has autism spectrum disorder really struggles with his verbal portrayal of information and often, when I ask him a question, he will sometimes give an answer that's completely unrelated." He'd had to prepare most of his team's final Unit Challenge report himself, as his teammate was absent for several days. So they stepped up to the plate together, introducing the class to their state and its primary natural hazard.
"Then this young man began speaking, and I was flabbergasted," she said. "Not only were his verbal skills excellent, he began telling us things that I didn't even realize he knew. When he started explaining satellite technology, I turned to Jen Lenon, the teacher leader who supported me and my students throughout this unit. She looked back at me, and her jaw dropped as if to say, 'Where did that come from?'"
At the end of the pilot, we celebrated with a Natural Hazards Banquet-featuring Twister Twizzlers, "tsunami" and cheese, and an earthquake-themed "Earth Cake"-and watched part of the movie "Night of the Twisters." The kids had so much fun.
The Mi-STAR unit has been over for several weeks, but it has had lingering effects on my students that I never expected. They are thinking more deeply, and they are doing it on their own.
For example, during a recent lesson on genetics, I asked them to submit some questions, and the results totally surprised me. While before they might have asked, "What is a chromosome?" now they were asking about things that really matter in their lives: "How do personalities fit in with genetics?" "Why do some kids have the same parents and not look like their brothers and sisters?" And some were very moving: "Why do birth defects happen-speech impediments, blindness, deafness, autism?"
Piloting Mi-STAR has affected me as well. I see teaching differently now: It's no longer about my students completing this task, followed by another task, and then taking a quiz. That approach feels superficial to me–and maybe to my students as well. I'm pretty sure one of my girls who had always been engaged is now starting to get bored with the traditional ways of teaching.
Yes, the pilot was exhausting, but it was more than worth it to see my students mature as learners. And being part of a new curriculum turned out to be a feather in their cap. Often they sell themselves short, but Mi-STAR gave them a sense of importance, and they were very proud to be involved with a Michigan Tech initiative.
This spring, I'll be teaching Mi-STAR's eighth grade unit on climate change. I'm really looking forward to that, because I anticipate similar student success. Plus, a teacher can't have too many moments like this: Near the unit's end, when my class began pulling everything they'd learned into their final Unit Challenge reports, a surprising thing happened. They were so engrossed in developing their presentations that Jen and I looked at each other and said, 'I don't think they need us.'"
It was wonderful.