District Spotlight: “TOSA” takes Science to Another Level”
Natalie Hay, Nordhoff Science Teacher, leads a class of 5th graders at Mira Monte in key science concepts
as the District’s new TOSA (“Teacher on Special Assignment”)
Leadership at Ojai Unified School District (OUSD) had an interesting curriculum challenge to solve for at the start of the 2017 - 18 school year. The District had just completed its successful integration and adoption of “Common Core” standards, the required math and language arts learning standards for K - 12 students in public schools throughout the U.S. after five years. Though a great accomplishment for the district, it was not long before OUSD, and 20 other school districts in Ventura County, were tasked by the California Department of Education, and the Ventura County Office of Education (VCOE) to turn their attention to implementing a new set of curriculum standards - the “Next Generation Science Standards” (NGSS).
The focus of NGSS is to teach practical yet innovative science concepts to public school students in grades K - 12 by focusing on “Performance Expectations”. The standards are written in a way that emphasize how students perform on key science concepts to demonstrate what the student has learned. The new standards do not dictate the manner or methods by which the standards are taught, leaving curriculum and instructional decisions to local educational agencies, districts, schools and teachers.
To help districts integrate the new science requirements, the VCOE provided basic training and resources to assist teachers and administrators. But OUSD quickly realized this general overview was not enough to help its teachers quickly and easily implement these learnings in the classroom. That’s when OUSD came up with a unique solution - to assign a “Teacher on Special Assignment” (or TOSA) who would not only help design and develop the district’s NGSS curriculum, but would also teach the science standards directly to elementary school students in the classroom, while also helping teachers learn the standards they will eventually integrate in their daily curriculum by observing and assisting the TOSA in their classroom as well.
Natalie Hay, Science Teacher at Nordhoff High School, was selected by the district to fill the TOSA role and take on this formidable task. Natalie earned her science degree from the University of California Santa Barbara, and credits their “SciTrek” program, for inspiring and shaping the learning modules she’s designing for the district.
“The NGSS are exciting to me as a science teacher because they acknowledge that science instruction is as much about teaching the process of science as it as about teaching the concepts," said Hay, "This is not a new idea in education by any stretch of the imagination, but it has recently been at the forefront of the conversation about science instruction now that it is written into performance expectations. To really understand the process of science, running experiments and participating in the experimental design process are necessary. So, my goal as TOSA is to support the instruction of science concepts with my fellow elementary colleagues through bringing in the materials and outlines to support as many experiments and conversations about how to design and conduct experiments with our students as possible.”
Hay’s schedule was refined for the 2017 - 18 school year so she is able to teach science at Nordhoff from 1st – 4th period. She then moves over to Mira Monte to teach science on Mondays and Tuesdays to their 6th graders and then on Thursday and Friday to their 5th graders. Hay will teach science at Mira Monte until December 1st, then in January 2018, she will teach science to 5th and 6th graders at Meiners Oaks, San Antonio School and Summit through March. Then from April – June she will teach 5th and 6th graders at Topa Topa. “Eight weeks of science is about the right threshold for students at this age,” said Hay.
The Mira Monte 5th graders have been learning science in an exciting new way by Hay’s introduction of a version of “What’s in the Box?” Students use various senses to deduce what they think is in a black box with contents they can not see. Just when the students think they have figured out what’s in the box, Hay then adds a “discrepant” event or “data curve ball” about the contents of the box that encourages students to consider another set of outcomes. Hay has the students record their observations and distinguish between what is an inference vs. a claim supported by data to make their conclusions. Over the eight weeks Hay is in the class, students will perform multiple experiments on the same set-up, changing the variable. With each experiment, students are honing their critical thinking skills.
“We want our students to not only be excited about science, but we also want them to be successful at drawing conclusions that are structurally sound,” said Hay. “I am encouraging students to ask questions that are ‘testable’. I want them to understand and be comfortable with science vocabulary. And not to just memorize definitions, but to identify real evidence, so that when they’re reading or hearing claims, they are demanding evidence those claims.”
Dr. Sherrill Knox, OUSD Assistant Superintendent, is excited about the innovative approach the district has made with a TOSA focused on science at the elementary schools. “I haven’t heard about this approach being used at other school districts,” said Dr. Knox. “In the typical teacher development model, teachers are trained at a central location in a conference style session. But it’s not realistic to expect teachers, particularly for a course like science, to easily transfer knowledge in this way. In our model, our TOSA is in the classroom with the teacher. So the students are not only learning, but the teachers are inspired and seeing what is learned and done in the class.”
In terms of budget, the TOSA role is only covered under the budget for the 2017 - 18 school year and is paid for by Educator Effectiveness funds. The district is considering creating this position as part of the “Career & Technical Education” (CTE) curriculum which would then qualify the position for different and additional funding. In the meantime, outside of Hay’s role, all additional in class support is covered by classroom volunteers, of which Hay says she needs at least four volunteers in the room for a given lesson to make it most effective.
But for now, Hay is focused on this unique opportunity the district is providing her and elementary students to embrace science and the new science standards at an early age. “Science lends well to the nature of learning, so I want to help students value the learning process that science provides. Science is also a journey. And it can be hard to grasp. But I hope students come away excited about the structure that science teaches, and how it can be applied to the science classes they will take in Junior High School, High school and college as well as the learning they will do in other career roles and settings.”