Kentucky District Devastated by Tornado Is a National Model for Science Teaching

Graves County Schools’ top-notch professional learning has made it an example for transformational science instruction

Ashley Schultz teaches the OpenSciEd Genetics Unit to her 8th grade class. (Knowledge Matters Campaign)

Get stories like these delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up for The 74 Newsletter

This is the third in a series of essays from a Knowledge Matters Campaign tour of school districts using high-quality science curriculum. In this piece, Susheela Valdez, a science consultant working with the Knowledge Matters Campaign, interviews Amanda Henson, supervisor of elementary instruction for Graves County Schools in Kentucky. Henson recounts how top-notch professional learning has been the secret to the district’s successful implementation of high-quality science curriculum. Follow the rest of the series and previous curriculum case studies here.

I, Shusheela Valdez, recently had the pleasure of joining the Knowledge Matters School Tour on a visit to Graves County, Kentucky — just down the road from where, a year ago, Mayfield, Kentucky was decimated by a Category 4 tornado. The School Tour traveled to this little community in the southwest corner of the state because of the reputation it had received as a model district for implementation of the OpenSciEd curriculum. We wanted to see what that looked like and learn how it happened. 

For the last eight years, I have trained educators from Kentucky to California on implementing OpenSciEd, a high quality open source curriculum aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards. I can say without a shadow of a doubt that the instruction in Graves County — and the elegant way in which this amazing curriculum came to life — was the strongest I’ve seen anywhere.

Amanda Hanson is one of two instructional supervisors in the district. We spent some time together processing her district’s story. Below is a transcript of that conversation that has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Valdez: When did you adopt OpenSciEd and why?

Henson: Our journey began back in 2018, not long after the Next Generation Science Standards were adopted. I was visiting many classroom teachers’ rooms at the time and when we saw what our new state assessment in science entailed, we were like, “ow, we are not preparing our students to do this!” I talked to other teachers and we were all pretty overwhelmed at what our kids were expected to do. We knew we needed help and started looking around at what was available. OpenSciEd really rose to the top.

Why was it such a right fit for your district?

One thing is that we’re a huge “cooperative learning” district. All of our teachers are trained on and implement Kagan Cooperative Learning Structures in their classrooms. Students are very familiar with talking and discussing as a group. Our structure is to have students talk in an organized manner, and not opt out — to ensure every voice is heard. So we had that in place and were making some important progress — and then we looked at OpenSciEd and recognized that that’s how it’s designed: it’s designed for that kind of student thinking and student talk. It just fit really well with what we were already doing in the district.

What would you say was the secret of your success?

Without a doubt it was the professional development we received. We knew we couldn’t throw a new curriculum at teachers without providing extensive support. We were extremely fortunate to receive a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York that enabled us to bring in an external partner, Tricia Shelton, chief learning officer for the National Science Teaching Association. We received two days per unit from her, so 12 days total. 

Because we were a “field test” — pilot — district for OpenSciEd, we got additional coaching from NSTA. They wanted to know how the curriculum was working in classrooms. What does this look like? Where do students struggle? Tricia would come in and watch our teachers, co teach with them, model lessons, etc. This was invaluable. The other thing that was great about this is that it conveyed to our teachers a culture of open, continuous improvement. Now we have teachers who can do that modeling, that coaching. If a teacher has a question, our more experienced teachers will say, “Come on in and watch me do this lesson.” And because we’re doing the same thing district wide, we have lots of opportunity for ongoing collaboration and support. 

Tell us a little bit more about the Kagan structure and how you think it’s such a powerful bedrock for OpenSciEd.

Kagan structures allow the teacher to be the facilitator of instruction and OpenSciEd is designed perfectly to encourage this. The OpenSciEd curriculum asks many open-ended, high-level questions. The teacher can pose the question and use a Kagan structure to facilitate student talk in a manner where all students must think and engage in the task. This allows for rich conversation in which the students want to explore the topic and they are in turn taking responsibility for their learning. Students are on task learning and having fun, as well as building a teamlike approach and collaborating with one another. Every student has a role, no one is left out and equal participation happens as students show positive interdependence where they need each other to learn.

What are some of the highlights of the student experience you’re seeing as a result of your implementation of this curriculum?

Students are really exploring, they’re learning, they’re talking, they’re discussing, they’re figuring things out. Most importantly, they’re excited. You saw it in the classrooms you visited. The students were all very focused. There’s not a single student off task. I really think we’re training our students to take ownership of their learning. That’s one of the beauties of this curriculum.  There are guiding questions but the teachers are taught to hold back so that students get engaged in finding the answers for themselves. Our students are really engaged in science.  Across our buildings, it’s one of their favorite subjects.

I also love how kids are learning that it’s ok to struggle, and it’s even OK to be wrong. We saw that in one of the classrooms you visited. One of the students, who happens to be very bright, was wrong about something he’d written down and another student came in and corrected him and it was OK. He even said, “Thank you for helping me”. That’s the culture we want to build for our students. 

Is implementation of this science curriculum supporting your literacy goals?

An additional bonus of OpenSciEd is how reading and writing are embedded into the curriculum. They do a lot of writing, but they hardly notice it because it’s just so natural for them to record what’s happening. And because of how much collaboration there is, they’re constantly explaining their thinking. The curriculum is designed to ensure that students grow in all areas, not just science.

Get stories like these delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up for The 74 Newsletter

Republish This Article

We want our stories to be shared as widely as possible — for free.

Please view The 74's republishing terms.

On The 74 Today