LAKE IN THE HILLS – Lori Knasiak remembers listening to her professors at Northern Illinois University give lecture after lecture without much interaction from the students.
Years later, the eighth-grade science teacher at Marlowe Middle School is now working to change the way her students engage and learn in the classroom.
Knasiak is one of 65 science teachers selected from across the country this school year to participate in the National Education Association’s Science Master Teacher Project.
As part of the project, Knasiak develops and uses new lesson plans aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards. Featuring Common Core elements, the new science standards put greater responsibility on the students to grasp topics like biodiversity.
Knasiak also posts lesson plans and classroom strategies online at BetterLesson.com, a free site available to any teacher as they transition to new standards.
Knasiak recently talked with reporter Stephen Di Benedetto to detail the project and the changes she’s seeing with her students this year.
Di Benedetto: What have you been doing with the project so far?
Knasiak: I take those new standards and create lessons based off them. The goal of the Illinois science standards were very content focused. These new standards are more focused on a higher level understanding of fewer concepts. Big items like evolution and climate change – as far as eighth grade goes – they want students to have a full understanding of the impact of those concepts. They want students to have a deeper understanding of bigger, relevant issues, like biodiversity, and how that affects the world around them, instead of memorizing a bunch of content facts.
Di Benedetto: What are you doing with the lesson plans that you are making?
Knasiak: I am writing pretty much brand-new lessons that I’ve actually never done before. All of these teachers – the 65 of us – everything we do this year is posted on BetterLesson.com. All teachers have access to this for free. They not only know exactly what we do, but why we chose to structure the lessons. It includes all of the resources we used with students – worksheets, handouts, PowerPoints – along with explanation on what we are doing, how we are doing it and how it relates to the Next Generation Science Standards, and the Common Core English and math standards when it’s appropriate.
Di Benedetto: Do you feel like a guinea pig with this shift to new standards?
Knasiak: I would say absolutely. I think it’s really exciting because it gives me a lot of freedom to try things. But because everything I’m doing is new, I’m not sure always how it’s going to go. I’m used to collaborating with my science team. This puts me back in isolation a little bit more than I am used to, which is challenging and exciting on its own. It’s definitely different from how I’m used to working.
Di Benedetto: Why is it important to share your work on the new standards with other teachers?
Knasiak: Change is hard for everybody. The shift from the Illinois state standards to the Next Generation Science Standards is significant. ... My job is to share that knowledge with the students, and their job is to memorize it. Now, they really need to actively find that information and know how to think about it at a deep level. They need to be able to apply it. You need to incorporate engineering into your science classroom now. You actually want them to be creators at a pretty high level. That’s a different shift and mindset for a lot of teachers.
Di Benedetto: You’re obviously applying these practices this school year. What effects have you been seeing on the students?
Knasiak: I think the engagement is far higher because this kind of learning allows you to do a lot more projects that allows kids to have a lot of choice and freedom. They are able to collaborate with each other, which is an essential skill in the world today. I think they remember content more because they are finding ways to make it relevant to them and their goals. They are just really engaged. I have not seen this level of excitement in quite a long time. It’s exciting.
The Lori Knasiak Lowdown
Family: Husband, Mike; three children: Ethan,13, Kaylee, 11, and Jordan, 8
Tenure at Marlowe: Science teacher for the last 12 years
Education: Bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from Northern Illinois University
Favorite book: An avid reader who tries to read what her students are reading. Most recently, Knasiak enjoyed “Big Little Lies” by Liane Moriarty