Students Choose What to Learn: Freedom to Learn in the Science Classroom by Terrill L Nickerson

Guest Post: Terrill L. Nickerson

Terrill Nickerson is veteran high school science teacher with 26 years experience.  His first 15 years teaching science began in the Native American community, beginning on the Hopi Reservation in NE Arizona, and then on to teach at Santa Fe Indian School in Santa Fe, NM.  He is now teaching in various charter schools in New Mexico and Southern Colorado.  He holds bachelor degrees in Archaeology and Geology, a Masters of Science in Education, and is working on his Ph.D.  After several years as a professional archaeologist and paleontologist, and experiences writing curriculum for CDC, he pursued a career in science teaching.  Terrill says that because of the width and breath of his experiences, he is able to bring real-life experiences to the classroom, and use the practical science experiences he used in the field.  He brings project-based teaching to his students, involving them in designing data collection devices to be used in their own investigations.  His work in the Native American community led him to become a practitioner of Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences.  He now teaches in a small rural, agricultural community, with a large migrant work population.  

Terrill L. Nickerson commented on a recent blog post, Instead of School’s Industrial Culture, Students Need the Freedom to Learn.

I contacted Terrill to ask permission to use his comments for a post on this blog, as well as a bio.  His bio is amazing, and his experiences shed light on how great teachers work.  This is a teacher who not only has degrees in science and education, but worked professionally in various fields of science.  His teaching experiences in Native American and migrant family communities supports the notion that good teaching is experiential and problem based.

Terrill explains that students in his classes thrived in an environment where they were given the freedom to learn and to choose what they wanted to learn.

As you read Terrell’s “letter” think of the ways your own experience as a teacher resonate with his.

I am sorry to come to your post so late. I am a high school science teacher with 26 years in the classroom. I am also a doctoral candidate (ABD) in Education working on my dissertation. Your humanistic approach sounds like an extension of John Dewey’s philosophical approach to education (this comment is not a judgement, just an observation).

Most of my teaching career has been involved with marginalized or underrepresented populations and cultures. I began teaching science prior to NCLB and Race to the Top. As such I started my career at a time that experienced a trend recognizing that the schools were failing to address the needs of the highest ability students. Teachers addressed large class sizes and mixed ability classes by teaching to the middle.

Teaching at a Native American School

Fortunately, I chose to begin my science teaching career by moving to a Native American reservation in central Arizona. Becoming immersed in another culture (literally, I was 90 miles from the nearest main stream population), I had to adapt an anthropological/humanistic approach to my teaching. It was imperative that I respect and honor the culture and inherent knowledge of my students, while still teaching main stream science. I am told that I was very successful in this capacity, so much so that I was recruited to teach at one of the best known and respected Native American schools in the U.S., the Santa Fe Indian School [SFIS], in Santa FE, NM. I spent the next 12 years teaching there.

All Students are Gifted

Figure 1. Santa Fe Indian School website

Figure 1. Santa Fe Indian School website

Now to my point about your article. Because of the venue I found myself immersed, I was asked to coordinate the SFIS Gifted and Talented program. At the time that I took over the program, the school was operating under a unique paradigm about the definition of Gifted and Talented. My predecessor, had just completed her Master’s on the meaning of giftedness in the Keres Pueblo cultures of New Mexico.

According to her research, the Keres language lacked any words pertaining to the word “gifted”. In the Keres language cultures, “all students are gifted”, it’s just a matter of finding their personal area of strength, competence, or interest. This meant that some children are gifted drummers, some are gifted singers, some are leaders, some are artists, etc. That is to say, everybody had a natural talent or giftedness. Therefore, the gifted program sought to recognize as many students as possible, recognize their talents and include them in the program.

Of coarse, this philosophy did not sit well with the state and federal authorities, who saw it as a way to milk Special Education funding (Gifted and Talented) into the school. The policy at that time was that no more than 5% to 10% of a population should fall into the category of giftedness. We succeeded in identifying and servicing about 30% of our students (7-12) as having some form of giftedness. Needless to say, this created a case load of about 120 students for myself and my colleague to service. We were subject to all the paperwork and requirements that accompanying any Special Education program.

Democratic Curriculum

The way that I found to address this was to create a special program, generically called the Gifted and Talented seminar. The class was team taught by my colleague and myself. Given the ranges of talents, abilities, and interests represented, my colleague and I decided to design the class on Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences philosophies (just coming into vogue then). Similar to your “Learn cloud Map”, my students democratically selected subjects they were interested in learning about, and then voted on which topic to pursue. My colleague and I then went out and gathered lessons, content and activities representing all of Gardner’s intelligences to form the curriculum. Everybody was given the opportunity to be an expert at some point in the unit. The “buy-in” was complete because they helped design the curriculum. It was very much like what you described in your article as “humanistic education”. Unfortunately, state and federal guidelines eventually forced SFIS to fall into line and alter their humanistic philosophy about Gifted programs.

I enjoyed your article and found a substantial amount for which I can relate. NCLB and Race to the Top has made my previous experience difficult to duplicate.

Terrill’s documents one way to give students the freedom to learn.  What are some ways that you have worked with students to “design the curriculum and in so doing the freedom to learn?

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University.