Coaching for High School Science Teachers - The Labster Podcast, Episode 17
April Hey everyone, I'm April and you're listening to The Labster Podcast. I'm proud to say that at Labster, we're guided by our mission to empower the next generation of scientists to change the world and contribute to solving global challenges. If you're an educator listening to this podcast, we know you also share that mission, so thank you.
April With me as always is my friend and fellow Labsterite, SJ Boulton, an educational designer and former university lecturer who now develops Labster's virtual lab simulations for students in high school, college, and university.
April In today's episode, we'll get to talk about strategies for teaching with Labster and opportunities for science teachers to access professional development coaching. We have two special guests. We'll speak with Liz Russillo, the 2020 Teacher of the Year for the state of Rhode Island. Liz led her department to a full implementation of the NGSS and teaches with Labster in her classes. In addition to teaching science at Smithfield High School, she's also an instructional coach for Better Lesson, which partners with Labster to provide workshops and one-on-one coaching to teachers.
April So welcome to the podcast, Liz.
Liz Russillo Thank you.
April And today, Liz is joined by Carlin Robinson, a friend of the podcast, education technology expert and member of Labster's High School Team. Welcome back to the podcast, Carlin.
Carlin Robinson Thank you. I'm very happy to be back.
SJ Boulton Oh, it's such a pleasure to have two lovely people on the podcast today, Carlin. It's so, so nice that we get to record together again. I really enjoyed the last time we made a podcast together.
SJ Boulton Liz, I'm so happy to have you here today.
SJ Boulton Do you find that personalized learning is something that you're doing more of now in a more virtual, in a more hybrid learning center, or are you seeing educators shifting more towards a more personalized approach?
Liz Russillo I think so. I think that the pandemic really taught us how to utilize technology because it forced our hand. So when it comes to that, we're able to create playlists and have the students do what maybe choice boards and incorporate some more personalized instruction into the everyday just because we had to.
SJ Boulton Can you tell me what a choice board is?
Liz Russillo Yes, I'm a big choice board fan, so there's lots of different ways to do choice boards. I like something maybe a tic tac toe board where if you picture a tic tac toe board, there's typically nine spots there and I'll put different things in each one of those nine boxes and each one will be related back to the standard, but there'll be a variety of topics covered within there and assessments. Once the students kind of review it, they're able to then say, OK, I'm going to do these three tasks to make a tic tac toe.
SJ Boulton Right, OK. Oh, so they can kind of have a more kind of portfolio based assessment rather than having to follow the strict things that are set, for example, they have some choice over the type of assessment they engage with, but they're all of equal weight, I'm assuming?
Liz Russillo Correct? Yes. Wow. So, you know, when I think about choice. There's choice over how to demonstrate their understanding. And that's what I'm trying to do with my students.
SJ Boulton That's really helpful. I remember when I was an educator myself, and sometimes you would get students come and say, like if you had asked me this, I would have been able to explain. But because of the assessment method that had been established for a particular piece of work, maybe that student didn't get to demonstrate mastery in the way that they would have liked to. So they were perhaps masked or their achievement was masked just because of the the way that they were able to demonstrate their understanding. So it's really I really like the idea that a student might have this little nugget of educational and understanding and mastery goodness inside of them, but giving them different ways to kind of let it shine. It's going to help them. Yeah. Work in the way that they want to do.
Liz Russillo All of our students learn right. In different ways. So just kind of bringing it out of them.
SJ Boulton I was wondering as well, with the choice board that you just mentioned, do you use that also for extra credit or can students gain extra credit with it because they see other assessments that maybe they haven't done?
Liz Russillo You certainly could. And, you know, I've certainly given some opportunities for students to go above and beyond. And maybe instead of just choosing three, they choose a fourth or something like that. Absolutely.
SJ Boulton That's really cool. Oh, I'm so inspired. I'm sorry. I'm just like, oh, these cool things. Like SJ, you're not an educator any more, sadly. But yes, that's so interesting. And I wondered as well. So we're thinking a little bit more about the group setting, as you mentioned earlier, and I suppose a resource like Labster, which is kind of a single player learning experience, if you will, and it can be really difficult to help students get that benefit that they do get from peer support and collaboration. It's really tricky to implement. So where there group plan and strategies that you find particularly successful around Labster?
Liz Russillo So when I did use Labster in my class, I did a mix of the students working in groups or individual. And sometimes I gave the choice there as well whether they wanted to. But I do think that having one computer and the students working together and talking through the questions as they went through, I really liked them to be able to collaborate with one another and communicate through the tasks. One of my favorite tasks in Labster is the roller coaster creation. And that one works so well with the groups because they were able to troubleshoot and talk to each other as they worked through it. And I heard lots of laughing and fun.
SJ Boulton It's a nice context as well, I guess. That simulation, for people that might not have played it yet, it's about conservation of motion and a little bit about momentum as well. So you have roller coaster cars and you have to set the height of the track in order to reach certain speeds, something that, to be honest, I think I learned with rolling balls down ramps on a bench. It's much more fun to do it with a roller coaster and build the best roller coaster ever and get it to loop the loop.
Liz Russillo And it's so relatable. The kids love roller coasters. We started that off by watching some YouTube videos of some great roller coasters and the kids shared about roller coasters that they had been on. So it was such a fun experience for the students, too.
SJ Boulton What a nice way to do some kind of recall of prior learning as well. Just not only is it like the emotional response to the experience of roller coasters in the past, but also, you know, you're starting to contextualize those experiences in the actual grounding of the physics behind them. So. Oh, I love that.
Liz Russillo Fingers crossed, this year will be able to take a field trip to an amusement park and really see the learning happen there. We've done that in the past.
SJ Boulton Can I come?
Liz Russillo Yes, Absolutely
SJ Boulton Excellent. We'll get some new Labster simulation ideas. Yes, I love it. Excellent. Oh, I suppose we should probably shift gears a little bit right now because I have so much I'd love to talk to you about. So I'd love to talk about professional development and all the awesome work that you've been doing in your instructional coaching role. So as I understand it, you are an instructional coach for BetterLesson, which is a really special professional training organization that's partnered with the NEA and the Learning Accelerator and the Gates Foundation, which is just phenomenal and wow! But I was wondering what actually is an instructional coach and what can they do with with educators? What kind of experiences could an educator expect when they enter into that relationship with a coach?
Liz Russillo So the instructional coaching with BetterLesson is really a classroom embedded, learn-by-doing professional development that teachers really love. And it is completely personalized. It's ongoing throughout the school year and it's one hundred percent tailored to the needs of the individual educators and then their students in their classroom. The teachers are able to determine what their growth area is. And each time that we meet, we really looked at making these small shifts really for big rewards at the end around their practices.
SJ Boulton Right. Oh, and is that a relationship - so say, for example, if I was an educator and I was coming to a coaching relationship, would I build a relationship with one person or is it more of like a group dynamic? I understand it's peer to peer, right?
Liz Russillo Yes, it is. So you would build a relationship with one person. Typically, the coaching can happen in one of three ways. There is a four-block of coaching, a semester of coaching or a year long of coaching. And you stay with the same coach for your sessions.
SJ Boulton Right. OK, so it really is that very personal experience as opposed to being part of, say, for example, like a personal development group that lots of different places offer. And wow, you must really have to dig deep into yourself and figure a few things out during that relationship.
Liz Russillo Absolutely. But, you know, the great thing about it is that it is the teacher is in the driver's seat. So when you're thinking about what it is, though, shifts that you want to make in your classroom, you have a thought partner to support you, because being a non-evaluative, really just experience for the teacher, they get to decide where they would want to go.
SJ Boulton Wow, that's really cool.
SJ Boulton With the relationship? Is it quite intense? Do you meet very often or is it something that's much more sparse or is that something you choose yourself with in collaboration with your coach?
Liz Russillo So I always tell teachers when I begin coaching that this is not meant to be more work or a burden for them. Typically, we meet every other week and the sessions are between 20 and 30 minutes. It's completely driven by the teacher's schedules. And so sometimes, you know, we'll try to meet a little bit more sporadically, but typically it is every two weeks or so.
SJ Boulton That makes sense, I really like it.
Carlin Robinson Great. Liz, Carlin here, I wanted to jump in as we shifted gears. One of the areas that you coach in is very near and dear to our hearts here, SJ and April. And that's developing strategies for teaching with Labster virtual labs. So we've heard, first off, Liz, we've heard, great feedback from teachers who have taken your training. So thank you for being an ambassador to integrating technology with your classroom. But why - can you tell me yourself - why is it so valuable for teachers to learn from other teachers?
Liz Russillo Well, you know, I think that the best professional development comes from other teachers, because teachers have lived it, they've been able to do the work to see what works, what doesn't, and are able to share. Teachers should be sharers because we want to learn from each other.
Carlin Robinson Exactly, and we hear that a lot, do you? So was there an aha moment where you said, you know what, we need to start looking for some professional development? Can you tell me a little bit about that.
Liz Russillo So a few years ago in my district, we had a little bit of a shift in our professional development in terms of our contract language. And at that time, I decided to take on a project and really work on developing professional learning series for the teachers in our district. So I put together a bunch of different educators, my colleagues from across the state, and they came in and we did a series of workshops. The feedback was amazing. Teachers were asking, can we do this again? And it was all for teachers and then by teachers. And then that led me into the year that I was the state teacher of the year where I worked at the Department of Education one day a week. And I really kind of put it as my mission to continue that work. Put together a conference that was tagged as "For Rhode Island Educators, By Rhode Island Educators," and then again moved to BetterLesson, where all the professional development is really the same type of thing. You know, it's for teachers and then by teachers, at any time that I read any of my sessions with teachers, I'm always relating it back to my classroom and things that I've tried and being really honest about the growth areas that I've needed to work on myself as I've tried some of the strategies that I'm talking about.
Carlin Robinson Sure, sure. So let me understand. Let me make sure I understand this right towards the end of 2019 and therefore obviously for all of 2020 and now we're halfway through 2021. You took on all of those extra roles and you also at the end of twenty twenty you were awarded as Rhode Island Teacher of the Year. You were able to manage all of that.
Liz Russillo Yes!
Carlin Robinson OK, what about right? That's incredible. Tell me how you did that.
Liz Russillo Yeah, some days were longer than others, and I'll add that I have two little girls, and my priority certainly is that make it work with them. I always kind of tease that I taught and worked at the Department of Education. My daughters played on five basketball teams that year and I did not miss a game. So I priority, certainly, you know, is the bomb. However, I think teachers are really good at multitasking and working in the evenings and when something's important, you make time for it. So I will say I also had one day a week that I did work for the Department of Education. So I was offered that time each week.
SJ Boulton Can I jump in with a really small question? Is that OK? You've mentioned a little bit this around teachers identifying their growth areas. And also, like I'm thinking about all the myriad things that you've been taken on over these different roles. And I have come to the conclusion that you just don't sleep. But could you give us some insight around, like, what are the most kind of common - what's a growth area in the first instance when we're talking about teachers and education? But also, can you give us some examples of, like, the kind of things that teachers most commonly look to develop, some common themes?
Liz Russillo Yes, so when we work in coaching, basically what kind of happens is the districts might say that they have a big initiative that year and so some of the big areas might be around formative assessment, differentiation, social-emotional learning, culturally responsive teaching, blended learning. And then once we're in there, I'll kind of share some of the growth areas within that area. So, for example, in blended learning, which, of course, Labster ties right in, one of the growth areas will say that I can use the SAMR model in order to effectively and meaningfully integrate technology into my classroom, to drive student engagement and learning. And that would be kind of a big area. I'll share that last year, of course, many of my teachers' growth areas were around virtual and blended learning.
SJ Boulton I can't believe you just hit on one of my favorite topics at the minute, which is SAMR,
Liz Russillo Oh, me too.
SJ Boulton As you can imagine, us being as we are, an edtech resource and something where we are really looking to challenge the paradigms of what it means to teach in the digital space. SAMR is a framework that makes a lot of sense to us and that we really want to kind of understand how we can support educators in really both transforming and enhancing the learning that they're doing or their techniques.
SJ Boulton Tell us what it means to you in the context of your teaching.
Liz Russillo So, you know, thinking about the same model and how that goes in my classroom, I'm really trying to get towards that other end of the SAMR model of redefinition. Doing that in terms of using the simulations in my classroom, using the choice boards, because we want to make sure that we're using those digital tools for that meaningful technology integration. Certainly, there's nothing wrong with substitution, but as we can get more towards doing new things with our students and reimagining what our classrooms look like, it's only going to be better for the students and prepare them for their future.
SJ Boulton Absolutely. For those of our listeners that might not have come across the SAMR model before, this is a model for really leveraging the transformative power of edtech resources or digital technologies in the classroom.
SJ Boulton So we're going from substitution as like the simplest level of direct substitution or technology being a direct substitution for something that we already do in the classroom all the way through those levels to definition, which is where we're using technology to do something that we can't necessarily do in the classroom. If anybody's interested, I highly encourage you to go and have a read of the myriad papers and research and resources that are available on the SAMR model, because it really gives a brilliant framework to my mind of like how we can implement digital technologies in deductive spaces to really get the most out of them. Is that something you would you feel, Liz?
Liz Russillo Yes, absolutely. And in fact, I know and I work at BetterLesson, we have some workshops really designed right around that, getting to that redefinition. Absolutely.
SJ Boulton That's so cool. Yeah. And I guess, you know, one of that redefinition kind of elements, although we do do, although educators are really searching for ways to help students have some autonomy over their learning and really identify what the gaps are in their own learning so they can take a proactive approach to filling them, technologies that really redefine what it means to do formative assessment in the classroom can be super valuable.
SJ Boulton Honestly, I think it's one of the most useful ways that Labster can be implemented. From my personal perspective on the curriculum side, I just I think there's so many opportunities to take different tools and resources and the key is in the implementation, how you choose to use it in the classroom. You can have the best thing in the world, but if it's implemented in a way that is suboptimal, then we're not going to see the benefit.
SJ Boulton When I think about the way coaching in a professional development sense has been framed in the past, it often feels like something that's reserved for the elite or the people that are really at the top of the game, that have high powered careers, that have incredible drive, motivation and high level goals that they're trying to achieve. But and that can sometimes make coaching feel incredibly exclusive and something that maybe isn't for me, SJ at the beginning of my career, who is still trying to figure out what what I actually am interested in when it comes to teaching or what my place is within the industry. However, what I'm hearing is kind of a real paradigm shift around who coaching is for and who can benefit from it, and to be much more holistic, much more inviting and really demonstrating the true value of coaching to any educator that is looking to improve or recognizes that they have more to give in the industry.
Liz Russillo Yeah, I think that's actually really well put. I will share that, a few years ago, my kind of path of working with BetterLesson started because I was coached. My district sent out an email saying, hey, is anybody interested in receiving coaching this year? And of course, I jumped on that in a second because having somebody else have some eyes on my classroom and offer me some ideas, and that's really where it started and then kind of springboarded forward from there. But absolutely anybody can grow as an educator.
SJ Boulton I wonder, though, so I can imagine, especially early stage career teachers or career educators, the idea that you've just mentioned about eyes on my classroom, that can feel so intimidating. Especially if you're, you know, maybe only just building your confidence. Like, what advice would you give an educator who might feel a little intimidated by the idea of having, like, somebody who's got so much more experience, like looking at you, potentially judging and critiquing you. But what what can you do to help them see the benefit or to help them take that first step?
Liz Russillo I would really say that this is a collaborative relationship. It is not an evaluative one. I'm learning from new teachers just as much as they're learning from me because they have fresh ideas and new things that they're doing with their students that maybe I hadn't thought of. It really is a partnership. I like to kind of think about the coaching relationship as really symbiotic because you're each going to be growing together and as a new teacher, as any teacher, it is really just to kind of think about that you're growing together and it's not about evaluating or critiquing what's not working in your classroom. It's always in the frame of how could it be better?
SJ Boulton That makes a lot of sense. And it really is just about taking a deep breath and choosing to get some help, choosing to initiate that relationship and finding somebody who has the same desire to improve that you do. And I love that you frame this as a collaborative relationship because honestly, it can it can feel difficult to frame a coaching relationship in that way. But you're absolutely right. And so kind of in that thread, I know there's a lot of teachers listening to this podcast that might be wondering how they can get started with professional development. And I know you've said in the past that this is typically something that the school district will invest in and open up for teachers, much in the way that you experienced it yourself. So if a teacher wanted to start up a relationship, or was interested in taking a workshop, for example, much like your own, who would be the best person to contact about taking a virtual workshop or maybe getting one-on-one coaching with yourself.
Liz Russillo So I would definitely suggest for anybody that would might be interested to go ahead onto BetterLesson. When you're on there, you'll see some different opportunities to contact and then to talk to your district leadership and explain to them why it is that you think that you would benefit from coaching, but ultimately, why your students would benefit from the coaching experience.
SJ Boulton Absolutely. I mean, ultimately, it is the students that gain the end point benefit of all of this personal development of their educators. And that's something we definitely shouldn't overlook.
April And that's all the time we have for this episode. Thank you, Liz Russillo from Smithfield High School and Carlin Robinson from the Labster High School Team, for a fun and illuminating conversation that ranged from strategies for implementing learning technologies to coaching opportunities where teachers can learn from other teachers. I also want to say a big thank you to you, our listeners. SJ and I hope this will open up conversations about how your districts can take advantage of professional development opportunities. Of course, we know you'll have your own ideas and thoughts, and we invite you to send us your feedback at labster.com slash feedback. And that's all for us today. Keep teaching, keep learning, and stay safe.