A Shared Vocabulary for Good Teaching
Although educators are often encouraged to specialize, Sheila Barbach has taught science at just about every grade level there is, from community college to middle school.
She first encountered POGIL during her community college days, when she taught a remedial science class using the method. When Barbach started teaching middle school science at Gerrard Berman Day School in Oakland, New Jersey, she knew she wanted to bring POGIL with her—she just wasn't sure how.
"The challenge wasn't so much the content but the interpersonal skills," says Barbach, who does a lot of team-building with her students before launching a POGIL activity. "Pacing the class so that they have enough content knowledge going into the activities and having the right content standards made a big difference," she explains.
As the general studies principal at Gerrard Berman, Barbach now uses POGIL frequently. But she remembers what it was like to be the only teacher using the method—and how challenging it was to encourage teachers in different disciplines to experiment with active learning pedagogies.
"When I was hired, I didn't feel like I knew enough about teaching POGIL to give advice," she recalls, "but I knew I wanted to encourage teachers to try more hands-on teaching. A lot of the time, elementary science teachers are teaching through nonfiction reading."
Recently, Barbach earned her M.Ed. in school-wide change initiatives, so she often finds herself playing the role of coach for teachers who want to bring inquiry-based and student-centered learning into their own classrooms.
To shake things up at her school, Barbach even trotted out the "fishbowl" exercise POGIL facilitators use at national meetings and regional workshops. It worked, and even the ELA teacher wanted to figure out a way to use the method.
"What I do think I'm good at is coaching teachers to reflect on how they teach, their own goals as a teacher, and how to incorporate inquiry-based learning into their teaching," Barbach says.
As it turns out, Barbach's commitment to coaching others might have something to do with having such a dedicated coach of her own. Her mentorship with Mare Sullivan, a veteran POGIL facilitator from the Seattle, Washington area, has helped Barbach find her footing in The POGIL Project.
"Mare is an incredible person. She's generous with her time, and she's generous with her knowledge," she says.
"I was concerned that when I left higher ed and moved to middle school that I wouldn't have a space in The Project anymore," Barbach continues. "Mare is very supportive of people's growth. She finds people and makes a connection and steers you in the right direction without being prescriptive. With her, I really felt like I found a place in The Project as I transitioned to middle school. It made me feel confident that I could still be involved in The Project and expand its reach."
In addition to beta-testing new middle school science activities with Sullivan, Barbach also facilitates The POGIL Project's eSeries workshops, digital trainings for teachers who might not have the time or money to attend a longer POGIL workshop.
"It helps lower the barrier for teachers who might be struggling and helps them in a collaborative way," Barbach explains. "The eSeries is an opportunity to expand the reach of The Project and also support teachers growing in their pedagogy."
Even with new resources like the eSeries rolling out, Barbach feels there's more she and POGIL can do to reach teachers who are interested in POGIL. She thinks often of teachers at the elementary school level, for example, who don't necessarily have many POGIL activities to choose from, and who may feel the need to design their own.
Barbach's fascination with pedagogy, process, and access spurred her to collaborate on filming videos that demonstrate POGIL roles. "The facilitation, the process, is crucial," she says. "It's the whole thing, and it's much harder for teachers to learn facilitation than for students to learn an activity."
Now, Barbach is transitioning yet again—this time, to the role of administrator. It's made her think about how best to support teachers as they seek the professional development they need to continue growing in the classroom, she says.
"I'm really thinking now about my role as an administrator, and what that looks like with POGIL," says Barbach. She believes POGIL has a place at all levels of the curriculum, from K-12. "I think when your administrator's on board and facilitating professional development," she adds, "the POGIL Project is a way for everyone to develop a shared vocabulary for what good teaching looks like."