by Lana Bluege
Marketing & Social Media Editor
We place an inordinate amount of trust in our public school teachers. Think about it: we trust them to take care of our children all day, to create safe classrooms, and above all to teach our children the skills and knowledge they will need in order to succeed in life. With an increasing emphasis on the STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) and the simultaneous need for creative, sustainable solutions to environmental problems, teaching environmental science in public school classrooms is an important contribution to our shared future. But how does one go about teaching science in a way that engages middle school students? How do science teachers simultaneously live up to the trust placed on them by parents and administrators, while at the same time building trust in the classroom and encouraging students to enjoy learning? Read on to learn about Jennifer Packevicz, who teaches eighth grade science in Madison, Connecticut in energizing and creative ways. First we will take a look at what drew her to teaching environmental science, then we will hear about her teaching philosophy, and finally we will hear a few stories regarding how she puts her pedagogy into action in the eighth grade science classroom.
Jennifer Packevicz did not always dream of being a science teacher, but instead considered a career in art history during high school. Fortunately for her students, Ms. Packevicz’s love of science overcame her interest in art history. While studying marine biology at the University of New England, one class in particular changed the way Packevicz perceived the world: she realized there was a huge sustainability problem that affected the marine life she studied. Packevicz realized, “The very creatures I want to study are at risk because of human behavior.” After this class, Packevicz changed her degree to environmental science.
Another moment that changed her life occurred at her niece’s soccer game when she took her seven-year-old nephew for a walk to burn off some energy. They came across a dense forest where frogs leaped across their feet. Packevicz explained, “We began chasing frogs and my nephew had so many questions and I had all of the answers! It was a very telling moment for me when I realized I enjoyed teaching kids about nature and the world that surrounds them.”
Just like that, Packevicz knew her calling. She wanted to teach. She began as an outdoor educator and camp director for a small camp in Connecticut, and continues to work as an outdoor educator and ranger at Killam’s Point in Branford. While finishing her undergraduate degree at UNE, she volunteered at a holistic and very progressive school in Arundel, Maine called the School Around Us. Here, she worked with unique teachers, students, and parents. School Around Us allowed students to cook for themselves and vote on lesson plans. Packevicz remembers history classes held in coffee shops where kids discussed current news, and field trips to whale watch. She loved the school and said, “I did not have one bad experience, but I knew that public school was going to be completely different.”
Packevicz went on to attend Antioch University New England‘s environmental science program to attain a master’s degree and a science teacher certification. For her student teaching course, she went back to middle school in Branford, Connecticut to learn from master teacher Marilyn Odell. Here, she learned very valuable information and stated, “Mrs. Odell taught me everything I needed to know about public schools. She helped me to build a bridge between all of the theory I had learned at Antioch and the daily practice of teaching in a public school.”
On the second day of student teaching Packevicz had a rude awakening when Mrs. Odell asked about her lesson plans for the day. Packevicz went into panic mode (as most of us would) and said, “I thought I was shadowing you!” Mrs. Odell calmly replied, “No, you are the teacher now.” I asked how Packevicz reacted. She laughed and said, “Don’t worry, I survived.” Mrs. Odell handed Packevicz the reins and in that moment there was no turning back. It is this engaging and trusting form of teaching that Packevicz still uses today as a middle school teacher in Madison, CT where she teaches eighth grade science. This a rough year where students are on the verge of graduating into high school. It is a scary and exciting concept for students.
I wanted to learn more about Packevicz’s teaching style a decade into her career. She explained that when she started out, “I was much more intense about classroom management and trying to control every variable I could. I wanted my lesson to be perfect. Now, I just have to roll with the punches and let things flow. I used to sweat the small stuff because I would question every decision I made as a new educator, but over the years I have learned to trust that the academic decisions I make will help students learn the curriculum.” She continued, “Every day there are 100 different variables you have to deal with.” Variables include the school administration, other teachers, and of course the parents, not to mention the students in the classroom.
Packevicz emphasized the changing dynamics between parent, teacher, and student that occur during eighth grade, a pivotal time in a student’s life. “This relationship has changed so much throughout my years. Initially, parents did not trust the competency of the teachers, but things in our society are changing. Teachers are now speaking up about how passionate they are in the classroom and the fact that they chose this profession!” She continued, “When I first began teaching, people assumed I wanted a comfortable job that allowed me to take the summer off, have long vacations, and get out of work at three.” She laughed and said, “When I get out at three, I have to go grade papers and create lesson plans. The job is not finished when I leave school.” Packevicz reflected, “You have to realize that parents are entrusting you with their most treasured contributions to the world: their children, and as an educator you have to respect and honor that. Nowadays, the parents I’ve dealt with really work harmoniously with educators because they have the common goal of helping students learn and reach their potential. I am lucky to work in an academically motivated community. This is a societal attitude shift toward seeing teachers as dynamic professionals instead of people who couldn’t cut it in their given field.” Packevicz speaks with conviction, “I went to school to become a teacher and I chose to make less than my peers in the science field because I want to make an impact.” Packevicz believes perceptions of teachers are changing for the better due to teachers’ vocal stance on why they chose their profession and because of the dramatic change in teaching style. She explained that lecturing students is now frowned upon and while it is efficient, it is not engaging. Both students and teachers are coming into the classroom with a different mindset.
Packevicz’s teaching style forms around helping students solve problems using the intelligence each possesses while working together as a team. I asked Packevicz how she begins her school year with a new group of students, engaging this pedagogy. How does she form that relationship of trust that is imperative to a successful year? She explained that many education professionals gave tips on how to be a great teacher such as, “Scare the kids the first day so they will never know where they stand with you.” She admitted this style was never an option for her: “It could never fit my personality.” Instead she opts for a fun learning style that allows kids to have amazing experiences. Packevicz stated, “What works for me is games and getting the students to smile, have fun, and talk to their peers. That is really where my training in outdoor education comes in.”
I insisted that she explain one of her games. Packevicz smiled and explained a game she always plays on the second day of school. It starts with a ball. At first the students toss it around to each other, looking the next student in the eye and stating that student’s name. This allows Packevicz — as well as the other students — to learn each person’s name. Once the ball has been passed around and names are shouted, round two comes along. This challenge requires the ball to come in contact with every person in the fastest time, but the ball can only be touched by one person at a time. When they complete this challenge Packevicz encourages them to try and beat the world record and she lets them know when they come close. Packevicz admitted the fastest time was .3 seconds.
The game seems like a great way for students to learn names and have fun on the second day, but it is so much more than that. Difficulties sometimes arise when the kids begin shouting at one another with different ideas to try: “Maybe we could all stand in a row,” or, “What if we get really close together?” At these points she calmly asks, “How can you figure out if that idea works?” The kids respond tentatively, “Try it?” And she says, “Yes, we should get some data.” Slowly, Packevicz works scientific terminology and information into the game. “That is how I form trust at the beginning of the year. If they can trust me to teach them important information then we will have fun in the process.” She allows them to take the problem by the reigns and find a solution, a strategy she learned from her mentor, Mrs. Odell. Packevicz concluded, “Every year kids come up with new approaches to the problem. They become satisfied with their progress and learn to work together. At the end of the day I ask, ‘Was that a science experiment?’ and, ‘How does one define science?’”
I remember, as most of us will, a favorite teacher who made learning fun. The memory of that teacher sticks with me throughout life. Jennifer Packevicz is that teacher for her students, and this engaging style of learning is spreading like wild fire throughout the educational system. I began to think back about my fantastic teachers and I remember little about the specifics of what they taught me, but I do remember feelings and experiences. Packevicz, too, remembers teachers that pushed her to reach her full potential. This is the teaching that Packevicz brings to the classroom. With teachers like her in the classroom, the public school system can form a continuous cycle of strong and passionate teachers that will educate the next generation. Jennifer Packevicz admits that it would be great if a student came back to tell her they want to go into a scientific career, but overall, “I really want them to be able to approach any problem with confidence in themselves. I want them to walk away with confidence that they can approach anything and figure it out. That is my subliminal teaching message.” And it works.