Originally published in CenterEd on November 1, 2013
Amie Jonckowski is far from your typical high school teacher. She was a medical researcher before she took the plunge into education, and then she bypassed a traditional school setting and headed directly online, where she teaches chemistry and physics at Oklahoma Virtual Charter Academy (OVCA).
Jonckowski first came to OVCA as a parent: All four of her children are students at the school and are doing very well, she says. It was through this connection that she became aware of a need she thought she could meet.
“The school really needed a physics teacher, and I felt like they could use a chemistry teacher who actually liked chemistry,” she says with a laugh. “I maintain that I have the easiest job in the school because I have all the over-achievers: Nobody signs up to take chemistry and physics without knowing full well they’re probably going to have to put a little work in.”
The right learning goal and scale make all the difference
Having a class full of highly motivated, technologically savvy kids gives Jonckowski a good deal of creative freedom when it comes to engaging them in the content she teaches. And since her school is in the midst of implementing the Marzano Teacher Evaluation Framework, she has gotten a great deal of mileage out of Domain 1’s strategies and behaviors.
She uses a modification of Marzano’s four-point scales to track student progress and has found that her students really take ownership of the tool. “I try to keep my scales really simple, so I just have a 1, 2, and 3. The students assign random adjustable values to themselves — I’m constantly getting a 2.7 or 2.9 from them, which cracks me up.”
Friendly controversy and the freedom to make mistakes
A particular favorite is Design Question 5, Element 30 from the Marzano model, which advocates the use of “friendly controversy” with students.
“I think being in an environment like ours encourages students to be free thinkers and to go beyond what they’ve heard and pop out what they really think,” Jonckowski says. “It encourages them to put all the pieces of all the different classes together and form opinions on things that they might not have thought about before.”
She takes the idea of friendly controversy a step or two further and encourages her students to take risks in their learning. “I don’t want them to ever be afraid to be wrong,” she explains. “I want them to throw it out there and then let that evolve and change into the right thing. In science there are no absolutes, so everything is constantly in flux, and I think that’s what I like most about it.” (Design Question 3, Element 18)
When it comes to making mistakes and learning from them, Jonckowski practices what she preaches. She offers her initial experience with the virtual lab software she uses with her students as a humorous example of what can happen when you let your students in on your own learning curve.
“We have virtual laboratories in my courses, where students can mix chemicals onscreen, pay attention to what happens, and make statements about what’s happening. I thought I would hate it, because the best part about science lab is that you can make mistakes,” Jonckowski says. “That’s how some of the greatest things have been discovered, right? But you can still mess things up in this lab, which is important to me.”
She goes on: “It’s very sensitive. In one physics lab, I will tell you, I was knocking things off the shelves. Things were flying across the lab. We laughed so hard we were crying. So in some ways, it could actually be more difficult than a ‘real’ lab.”
The transformative power of the Marzano Teacher Evaluation Framework
As Jonckowski and her colleagues become more comfortable with and more adept at implementing the Marzano strategies and behaviors in their practice, they are noticing a distinct improvement in their ability to monitor student learning and make necessary adjustments in their own teaching practice.
“Because of my Marzano training, I feel like I’m more comfortable as a teacher and with adding some of my own ideas and changing some things out,” she says. “Putting these strategies into practice has demanded a lot more critical thinking on our part, because they weren’t necessarily designed for what we do. We collaborate on a lot of different ideas, and I think we’ve got a pretty good handle on the model now.”
She admits the journey to implementation has been a bit rocky at times. “We had to realize we couldn’t do everything all at once. We had to really focus on four or five things we felt we could do well, things we felt were most important, and get really good at those before adding other things in gradually.
“If you try to do it all at once, you’re going to be a jack of all trades and master of none. So that’s where we are: We’re just baby-stepping our way, and whatever doesn’t work, we fix it and go on.”