Young scientists embrace their learning – by teaching it

December 20, 2018

SPEARFISH — About a dozen sixth-grade students at Spearfish Middle School enjoy science so much that they’ve approached their teachers about preparing and teaching lessons themselves.

“Having my young scientists teach each other is demonstrating extreme ownership of their learning,” sixth-grade science teacher Leslie Wangeman said. “It means that they have bought into the importance of what we do in the classroom. The scientists teaching have a much deeper understanding of the topic, along with creating empathy for the amount of time and effort that their own teachers put into lessons. The scientists that are the students in the classroom are much more engaged in their learning, since they are listening to peers.”

Wangeman and Kelly Singer, sixth-grade science teacher, decided to honor the initiative the students showed, allowing students to teach lessons, which in turn gives the teachers more time to work with students who are struggling with concepts.

Wangeman explained that about a month into the school year, sixth-grader Gracie Skaley approached her about teaching a lesson on weather, and after Skaley taught her lesson, Wangeman had about a dozen other students approach her with the same request.

“To teach a lesson, the scientist must make an appointment with me where we go over the (state education) standards that we are covering,” she said. “They choose what standard they want to teach. The scientists then create a lesson and set up another appointment with me to go over the lesson. Then we plan a date, and they get to teach it. It is a tremendous amount of work on their part. My young scientists have really embraced being in charge of their own learning and have made learning more engaging, and rigorous, than if I were to teach it.”

Students Cami Lyons and Malaya Naescher taught a lesson using pennies about a month ago, covering chemical and physical changes, and Tuesday, they presented a science scavenger hunt that they had created for their peers.

Naescher said that they had fun teaching the first lesson but wanted to do something a little different this time.

“It has been so much fun doing this. I love doing this type of stuff, and every time we teach something, it just gets better,” Naescher said.

“Our hope for the scavenger hunt is for everyone to get a little bit of learning and hopefully for them to like the scavenger hunt,” Lyons said, describing that the students had to go around the school answering questions about what they’ve learned so far this year or finding objects that demonstrate one of the topics that they’ve learned about, as a hands-on review. The teams that completed the scavenger hunt the fastest won a prize.

Naescher said that the most interesting part of the lesson was coming up with ideas and hiding the clues for the scavenger hunt, and the most challenging part was putting it together to make it happen.

Both Naescher and Lyons mentioned teaching as a future career goal and recognized the skills that come with an experience like they had Tuesday.

“It expands my learning by helping others in their learning,” Lyons said. “It is teaching me to teach others how to be successful.”

“Every time it is a blast,” Naescher added.

Wangeman said that she and Singer were looking forward to the review that the scavenger hunt would provide to their students.

“Learning comes first, and this is a great way for our scientists to review the concepts,” she said. “We both love seeing our scientists moving and working as a team. The other big benefit we look forward to seeing is if the scientists show determination and when they face a problem/mistake, their ability to overcome it.”

Wangeman said that the impact this type of experience has on students includes both social and academic achievements.

“The scientists are learning to respect each other and listen when they are being taught by a peer,” she said. “They are gaining more in content, because the young scientist teaching can explain the topics better to people of a similar age group than coming from their ‘old’ and ‘uncool’ teachers. Those students who set up the scavenger hunt learn the logistics and content that go into creating a lesson. They also get to create the learning environment that they want to be a part of. Who knows how a sixth-grader learns better than a sixth-grader?”

Wangeman added that the collaboration occurs because of the support that they receive from our fellow teachers.

“They are always willing to let students take on challenges and try new ways of learning. We are lucky to work with such amazing and caring professionals,” she said.

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