A weekend interview with ...
... Kathryn Bylsma, science department chairwoman at John Long Middle School in Pasco County. Bylsma, who was a microbiologist before becoming a teacher 15 years ago, served on the committee that wrote the state's proposed revisions to the science curriculum standards. She talked with reporter Jeff Solochek about her time on the committee.
How did you get involved with the state standards? There are very few teachers from this area, and some districts have none.
I'm not sure a lot of people knew that this was going to occur. I work for FCAT Explorer. Every year I'm on the content item review, and I asked ... (the) last time we met, 'It's time to revise the standards. When is that going to happen?' So during the course of the summer I sent another letter to ... my contact with FCAT, and she said, 'Well, it's about time. Let me forward your name.' Then (a state coordinator) sent me an e-mail and asked for my resume. So this summer I sent them my resume and the next thing I knew, because of my opportunities with Pasco County, I guess that was what they were looking for.
Tell me about the opportunities you've had.
I write a lot of curriculum for Pasco County. ... I do a lot of workshops in the summer for science. So it's just something I have a passion for.
Why are you so passionate about science?
Science is how things work. It's a very general category. It applies to darn near everything. There doesn't have to be a specific procedure to it. That's what I like about it. But I can explore. And I want my kids to ask questions. How does this work? Or, why does it work this way? That's how I approach science, and we need to encourage kids to do that.
When you saw that you were going to be looking at the standards, what was the part that was most exciting or intriguing about that?
Having taught in elementary school for 11 years, I heard an awful lot of teachers say the standards were written awfully vaguely. And even in our workshops that we facilitate every summer, I heard teachers say, 'I don't know what this means' for them. I really saw this was an opportunity for us to clarify for teachers what it was that students at a developmental level should know and be able to do. That's why I raised my hand. ...
Why do you think they needed to be changed? ... Some people said Florida had F-rated science standards.
The nature of science. We've learned so much since the last time the standards were written about child development, about what is developmentally appropriate for a child to be able to process. So taking that information and applying that to what our standards said to teach this child, is that appropriate? ... I think teachers are going to be absolutely thrilled.
Why then are people focusing on just one standard, the evolution standard?
If you say that word (laughs). I had said up front, 'Can you just say change'? And I don't think you'd have had that same response. I really don't. I think the general public does not necessarily delve into what the change is, and that this is a theory about the change. It's not a law. Helping kids understand the nature of theories based on this information, have a thought, and pursue it from there. I think this will help clarify.
How does this differ from what you do in class now? If I were come to your class and listen to you talk about change, about evolution, whatever you want to call it, is it going to change much?
It really standardizes. It truly does go back to that word. It says we're all going to approach this from a theory standpoint - there are no laws as far as this goes. The change theory. We think this is what happened based on the evidence we have. And in our classrooms, typically, that is how it is approached. I think the general public is not aware of that.
Do you ever have students who raise their hands and say, 'That's not what they taught me in church,' for instance?
Oh absolutely. Absolutely. You routinely come in conflict with children's moral standards from the home. And that's why you have to say, 'In the science community, this is the information that we have.' Now, your belief system is your belief system, and it's not my right to trample on that or to mix you up, confuse you somehow. It's not up to me to do that. But in the science community, this is the evidence we have.
If evolution is the science, as the way that most scientists accept it now ...
Don't say most. You can't even say most. I understand that, yes, this is a working theory. And as a science teacher, I am conflicted in my beliefs. But I am willing to understand that melding the two is a possibility. So I try to show kids, just like any other decision making, I understand based on this information. But my parents have said this. Now let me put the two together. I am compassionate about that. I raised kids. I get it.
But there is so much more in the standards than just this one thing. And it has gotten all the attention. Do you think it is a bad thing that people are paying so much attention to one piece to the exclusion of the rest?
I think a lot of public energy has gone into just that strand, and science involves so much more learning. I am glad there's a lot of input. I think that's terrific. I just hope they gave equal time to earth science or physical-chemical.
It doesn't seem like it, given what we've seen so far.
It's interesting that you say that. Because the public comments that we got on earth space were directed to climate change.
Really? What did you see?
A lot of Al Gore comments. (laughs) We said nothing about Al Gore. The climate has changed. That's what the data says.
So people were trying to politicize that one as well.
Oh heavens yes. Those topics are very hot topics, and I understand that. But the data says. We really have to hone in on that topic. ...
How did you consider all the public comment?
We were instructed first and foremost last summer to create, to form, world-class standards. ... We used the PISA standards that rated Finland first and foremost in almost every area. The Singapore standards were very high as well, internationally. Then we were instructed to use Massachusetts and Indiana, the National Academy of Sciences. We used a lot of world-class standards. Then we took into account developmentally appropriate data. Taking Science To School, an awesome text from the National Academy. ... It's been a long process.
Do you think when the board looks at all this, they're going to take in the full effect of all everything? Or do you think they're just going to come down to a couple of political things?
I hope we don't politicize this. I hope that we keep this at a higher level, we have our students stretch and think beyond. Because standards are a norm, and I think our kids are much more capable than that. We need to give them the opportunity. I look forward to implementing these standards.
Do you teach them anyway?
I'm an inquiry based teacher. That's not done a lot. I pose a lot of questions and then we investigate from there. What does the data say? Research this topic. That's how I teach.
It seems like that's what good teachers would do. Why do we need these?
Well, you've got a lot who don't have the same background either. You've got to take that into account. You've got to boost that background. You can't work beyond problem solving if they don't have the background. ...
Will teachers have to go back and get more education in order to meet these standards?
At this point we don't honestly have anything in place. ...
The school district seems lucky to have somebody from the district involved in the process.
I'd like to think so.
Pinellas had four but Hillsborough had none and Hernando had none. Do you make yourself available to other districts to go and help them?
Truth be told, no one has asked me to do that. I just feel so fortunate to have been involved in this. ... To make sure that students have every available opportunity, that has to be our first criteria. There can't be anything beyond that. So teacher training will follow. Staff development and professional development will follow. But it's funding. You have to have money. I'm hoping the public will really support us that way, too. We have to get this to kids.
It's really interesting, because there's the FCAT science, and it was so dismal when we looked it it. And yet you're writing things that say we have to go farther, deeper, know more. I'm wondering, they couldn't even do what was asked of them before ...
FCAT is written to thinking skills. It truly is. And that's what I tell my kids. You can do this if you just think about that question it is asking you. So it is not memorization. We really need to teach our kids how to think. They're going to be taking care of me. So I feel compelled that we have to help them do that.
As you come out of this whole process, what did you learn?
I learned so much about listening to ... well, you have to understand, we had the whole gamut. We had people from the universities telling us, and from the business community and the fine arts community, letting us know what they needed students to have, what kind of background these students need to have to be successful. So all the university professors were telling us ... and we did filter from twelfth grade down, we need the children to know this, this and this. OK. Then, when is it appropriate to build to that level. And that was so helpful. You don't generally get the opportunity to talk to the professors. Our high school kids I think will really benefit there. ...
Do your students know that you sat on this committee?
They do. And I wrote out a letter this last time because my administrators had asked me to communicate thoroughly to the parents why I am not in the classroom. The kids seemed to understand that 'She's doing work.' And I have a blog site, so I talk to them every day when I'm gone. How did it go today? What are the hurdles? What do we need to do differently? So I stay in constant communication with them. And the parents have been so supportive. I think that most of our parents understand that I'm out of the classroom for a constructive reason. I'm not at the beach.