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In this teacher’s classroom, science leads students to more questions

Jessica Noffsinger a teacher at  STEM Magnet Lab just won a national award.
Jessica Noffsinger a teacher at STEM Magnet Lab just won a national award.
Nicholas Garcia

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

“I’m not any good at math!”

“I just don’t get science!”

As early as second grade, students start convincing themselves they just aren’t cut out to learn two subjects that are essential to navigating life and understanding the world.

Teachers like Jessica Noffsinger can convince them otherwise.

A teacher at the STEM Magnet Lab School in the Adams 12 Five Star School District just north of Denver, Noffsinger was recently named one of the nation’s best science teachers, recognized in the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.

As part of the prize, Noffsinger got $10,000 and the chance to fill out our new How I Teach survey! Below, the educator explains the most important elements in a science lesson and how she keeps parents informed of what’s happening in her classroom.

School: STEM Magnet Lab School

Current subject/grade:
8th Grade Science and Engineering and 7th Grade Math

One word or short phrase you use to describe your teaching style:

STEM in Colorado | A Chalkbeat special report

PART 1: Little access to STEM education
PART 2: St. Vrain goes all in on STEM
PART 3: What the heck is STEM?
PART 4: A scrappy STEM school with something to prove
FIRST PERSON: How my STEM education is going to help me get clean drinking water in Ethiopia
HOW I TEACH STEM: An award-winning teacher shares her classroom practices.

The Gay & Lesbian Fund for Colorado provided financial support for this series.

What’s your morning routine like when you first arrive at school?
On an average morning I get to school, prepare the lesson for the day, visit with other teachers for a few minutes, grab a Diet Dr. Pepper and head out for morning driveline duty!

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom is organized chaos. At any given time you will find a huge assortment of science tools for investigations (right now it is physics cars and ramps) as well as engineering projects in progress (light wave equipment). Our furniture is set up for group work and students sit in rolling chairs to get more movement into their day. There is a Friday Superstar board that celebrates student achievements as well as the “Noffia” wall that features pictures of all the students I have taught at STEM Lab. There are computers for each student and a lot of books to reference too!

What apps/software/tools can’t you teach without? Why?

  1. PhET Simulations from CU. These provide my students with an opportunity to collect real-time data and make decisions about their investigational design.
  2. Google Classroom. I love how this allows students to turn in their work to one place and access assignments from anywhere!
  3. Google Docs! The docs allow my students to collaborate with each other (and me!) from anywhere. I also love that I can give kids feedback in a timely manner.

How do you plan your lessons?
For me, a lesson plan must includes four things. First, there is important science or engineering content that comes from our standards. Next, I work on developing students’ skills as scientists. After that, I figure out how we are going to incorporate literacy/math skills. Finally, there is some form of engagement that will make students want to participate in the learning. When these four qualities are balanced, learning becomes a magical thing!

What qualities make an ideal lesson?
The best lessons are those that make students ask more questions, get excited about an idea or challenge their current thinking. Our school focuses on Problem Based Learning and this provides students a framework to do these things on a regular basis.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
Sometimes it is pulling students into a small group to reteach the idea in a different way. Other times it might mean setting up a study session before or after school to give the student one on one attention. If there are many students not understanding an idea, it is time to stop as a whole class and figure out where we are stuck. From there, I can plan our next steps.

What is your go-to trick to re-engage a student who has lost focus?
My favorite go-to is to have a student take a brain break. This could be a 30-second dance party, moving to work with a new partner, or going to get a drink in the hall. Nine times out of 10, it is enough to get refocused. If not, it is time for a conversation to figure out what is going on and how we are going to move past it together.

How do you maintain communication with parents?
I send home a short email to all parents one or two times a month so they have a general sense of what is going on in class. I also email specific parents when issues arise or call them if technology is a barrier. I also try to be present at a wide variety of school events to build relationships with our families outside of the classroom.

What hacks or tricks do you use to grade papers?
Ah…..grading. This is the one part of my job I would happily trade in! I think my best hack is to write student-friendly rubrics ahead of time so that kids put exactly what they need into assignments. It is still a lot of work to grade them, but I usually get so excited about seeing my students grow that it becomes bearable. The other trick I swear by? Have an amazing playlist of music to listen to while you grade! Mine is named “FUN.”

What are you reading for enjoyment?
My most enjoyable reading is whatever my sons’ pick out for read aloud before bed. Lately, that has been a National Geographic book of answers and “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.”

What’s the best advice you ever received?
My former principal Bobby Ortega always said, “Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” I have this hanging above my desk and remind myself of it daily. Relationships are key to student learning and I have to meet my kids where they are. Then we can journey forward together.

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