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February 17, 2010 > Parent docents assist teachers for Science lab success

Parent docents assist teachers for Science lab success

By Miriam G. Mazliach
Photos By William Mancebo

What one first notices upon arrival is the charming exterior faŤade welcoming visitors to the Warm Springs "Grammar School" which opened in 1936.

Down one of the school's hallways, Pegeen Brosnan's 6th grade class enters Room 1B, the Science Lab, which has been carefully prepped by two parent-docents, May Chen and Verne Helm, for today's lesson on "Magma" and "Plate Tectonics."

Principal Brett Nelson says, "Initially we had 4.2 teachers for classes in Music, Science, Computers and P.E. Unfortunately, budget reductions resulted in a reduction in allocated prep time. Science went from one specialist to 0.4, which means only twice a week, and one full time P.E. specialist."

The parent-docents started planning last year. "To make up for the potential loss of time with the Science specialist," Chen explains, "the president of the Parent Teacher Organization (PTO), Jennifer Apy, decided to meet with the 6th grade teachers. She suggested a plan, using parent-docents to help teach on the week when the students didn't have the Science specialist." For the time being, the teachers agreed as it was the best solution for students.

Parent-docents meet to plan out tasks for the week's activities, assist with lessons and set up the materials in the Science lab. Chen explains, "Basically, we approached it with, what can we do to fill in the gaps? We added in resources and materials, according to the lessons and divided up the schedule. There are seven - 6th grade classrooms and each has a docent team," says Chen.

"Each team prepares one of the lab lessons and teaches the other teams who work with their classrooms at assigned times," says Chen. "So on the week the Specialist doesn't meet with the 6th graders, the parent-docents pick up the slack, working with the classroom teacher in the Science lab."

The lab reinforces theories learned in classrooms earlier in the week.

Regarding Science instruction, Nelson adds, "Having previously been the Vice Principal at Horner Junior High, I know that students, who have been exposed to a strong Science program with lab parameters, do better at the Junior High level having had that previous experience. That is a key factor," says Nelson. "With the loss of the Science prep time, it cuts mostly into the fourth and sixth grades; fifth grade has more allotment because of standards testing in Science and so are guaranteed the Science specialist every week."

In the Science lab lesson being taught, students are learning about magma - molten rock within the earth and plate tectonics - the movement of the earth's plates.

After viewing a brief film segment on the subject, parent docent Chen asks the class, "What happens when baking soda and vinegar are mixed together?" A student answers, "Bubbles will form."

To reinforce the lesson of magma and gaseous pressures, the students seated in small groups at the various lab tables, will be conducting an experiment. Chen tells the students, "Pay close attention as you pour in the vinegar and observe what happens."

The teams of students each mix the baking soda and vinegar together in their beakers, stirring with long twigs gathered by the parent volunteers. The students watch as white frothy bubbles begin to rise inside their glass containers.

The animated faces of the students reflect that "learning is going on here."

Their classroom teacher, Pegeen Brosnan, who has been teaching at Warm Springs for 14 years, adds, "Science Lab is always one of the favorite times of the week for the students. It's the time when they can put into practice with hands-on activities what we have been studying in our textbooks and classroom. But it's not the same as a lab station, like this Science room."

Brosnan, a member of the Fremont Unified District Teachers Association (FUDTA), is concerned that with the budget cuts, parents need to understand that eliminating the teacher prep and losing teachers, affects students' learning. "Teachers at this site know that the docents are a 'band-aid' for this desperate time. Having volunteers does not replace the quality of the program that was cut," says Brosnan.

A discussion ensues among the students, Brosnan and the parent-docents regarding the experiment. An explanation is given on how magma rises due to heat in the core, causing an increase in pressure. Surrounding rock pressure decreases, bubbles expand and grow, creating eruptions as it rises.

Brosnan asks the class to think of suggestions related to daily life that reflect a similar action. Student answers include: carbonation in sodas, yeast rising and dishwashing soap bubbles.

Verne Helm, the second docent team member expresses his thoughts on parent-docent involvement with the Science lab. "It's worthwhile and gives kids exposure to what they're learning in the classroom and a lot of fun."

Brosnan, Chen and Helm continue the lesson by discussing the movement of the earth's plate structure known as plate tectonics and answer questions about the formation of volcanoes. Helm takes the time to draw a diagram on the board for students, detailing how the Hawaiian Islands were formed through volcanic activity and plate movement.

Both Chen and Helm have daughters in Mrs. Brosnans' class. "As long as we are having budget cutbacks," says Helm, "there are parents who have stepped up to fill in. We get a lot of support from the teachers. It's a stop-gap feature and not long term, but very necessary for the students to experience the lab process," adds Helm.

Warm Springs' PTO really spearheaded the parent-docent program, according to Brosnan and has offered their expertise to other PTOs. "Well really, it's been positive. It's not the perfect solution, but in the meantime it's working," she adds.

As the students exit, the words engraved on the front wall of the Science lab resonate with all those who have been between its walls:

"I hear and I forget;
I see and I remember;
I do and I understand."

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