Fabulous Fantails: Furious or Curious?

I finally got my wish for a fantail sighting! After spending a couple of months in New Zealand and only seeing the cute little birds from a distance, I was determined that I wanted to experience one up close and had heard that this happens regularly! And the experience was well beyond what I imagined! The only thing that did NOT happen was that the fantail did not light on my shoulder like Snow White! Another Fulbright teacher, Emily Stanley (from Maryland studying sustainability and natural resources in education), and I were traveling over the Easter Holiday on Golden Bay near Abel Tasman National Park. We had the most amazing accommodations through AirBnB.com at this Eco Retreat set along a hillside overlooking Golden Bay. The setting was stunning and the couple that owns the retreat have an adorable little dog, Tillie, that is the official beach tour guide. Whomever is the leash holder is also the holder of Tillie’s attention and affection! Being that Emily and I both are missing our dogs back in the States, Tillie is a perfect stand in! It was fantastic! She led us down the path of the 10 minute walk down to the beach and would stop several times ahead of us and look very disgusted if we were not following quickly enough! The path winds through several densely forested areas including one portion that is of these enormous eucalyptus trees and the fragrance is incredibly soothing to the nose! In an area of the path before the eucalyptus trees, there is a small stream and lower type vegetated area that we started to notice a couple of quail through the trees. Then, low and behold, several little fantails! Just as Emily had described her earlier experiences with them, they were quite talkative little animals zipping back and forth across the path and doing fly-bys of Tillie’s head. Adorable! And their little faces with what looks like little white beards and white eyebrows are so expressive! I thought their behavior might be aggressive or territorial with their chattering to us and at us, but the owner of our retreat had a different idea that they are excited because as we walk, our footsteps are scattering up food for them! Not sure which is the correct answer, but I am sure glad for the up close and personal experience either way!!

I have to give complete photo credit to my Fulbright teacher friend, Emily Stanley, for her stunning photos with a great camera for the next few pics and for the featured image at the top!

Tillie – best beach guide ever!!!

tillie beach 8


Extraordinary Educator

Tony Cairns is a name that I heard upon arrival from my host family that moved from Sydney seven months prior. When they were researching schools for their own children, they discovered this incredible science teacher at Wellington High School (WHS). There is a wonderful video of him on YouTube describing why he is a teacher and his pedagogy.

video of Tony Cairns

I was instantly hooked listening to him in the video and finally got the chance to not only meet him, but see him in action at WHS! Amusingly, the first time I went to WHS, it was on accident when I was supposed to be at Wellington College! I knew there was a difference between the two schools, but had it in my mind that I was going to WHS because I really wanted to meet Tony. Fortunately, I was early for the Wellington College appointment and was able to trek over to Wellington College from WHS! When I mentioned there was a science teacher I wanted to meet at WHS, the receptionist immediately said, “Tony Cairns.” When I also mentioned his name to my advisor at Victoria University, she also started gushing about all the great classroom techniques he uses. His reputation obviously precedes him! He was super receptive to my visit and responded to my first email immediately with an invitation.

Visiting his classes did not disappoint! His relationship with his students is super evident. They love him and he loves them. Throughout the lesson introduction, he is gaining their attention with his energy, knowledge of the subject and his props. Bursting water balloons, water heating in a kettle, and bags of ice all to display phases of matter. Then the fun part – students getting to conduct their own experiment. And with little instruction from Tony besides the safety protocol, to which he was very attentive, they jumped into their work. I could tell straightaway that his students were well versed on using the lab equipment with bunsen burners, gas, beakers, thermometers and heating stages. He also had a very great system with their working together in groups for collecting data. It didn’t take any time for them to organize themselves and get going. LOTS of activity, lots of movement from the students getting to the task! We even laughed together that many teachers do not tolerate this much activity – but then Tony is not your typical teacher! Turning them loose with a great deal of trust (obviously based on previous instruction!) and faith for them getting to work! And they did! They got to work, collected data, and then when he gave the word, they started to wrap up and used the data in their lab books to write up conclusions. Meanwhile, when there were different situations going on with all the activity in the room during the lab, Tony had his finely tuned eyes and ears on each and every group. Constantly checking on them, working on one side of the room with a group while concurrently talking to a group across the room to help them with their set up.

Oh, and did I mention that all of this is also being filmed?! Tony had several cameras that the students picked up at their seats upon entrance and started filming his set up. This was for students that may miss the lesson and also for “others to learn from his instruction.” He is a proponent of technology and has written extensive reports on the technology use in their classes and at WHS. Tony also publishes tons of his class videos online. Being able to reflect on his teaching methods and continue to learn is something else that he values. I am not sure how he has the time to do it all, but he is also a member of several teacher groups that share resources that he shared with me! His background is as diverse as his teaching skills – museum curator, teaching from K-university level, Maori genealogy work on 15 million people, author of a book on nuclear war, and on and on! An incredible resource and supported more of my research fully! Truly an exceptional educator!

Weta Workshop

A “weta” is (pictured above) one of 70 species of the insect that looks similar to a large grasshopper and is endemic to New Zealand. Like most other endangered species, these have been impacted by habitat loss from human development. Some of them can bite with their large mandibles, as my friend found out when she picked up one at Zealandia! The one pictured above is a dead one that we found in the habitat boxes on Somes Island (Somes Island is a fascinating island in the middle of Wellington Bay that was used for quarantine when ships would arrive with people suffering from different diseases and for animals when brought in for agriculture and is now a park reserve).

Some of them (Giant Weta) can be up to 9 inches long! Pretty scary stuff! I imagine this is why the movie prop company was coined “Weta Workshop,” because most of their original works were pretty scary props! Weta Workshop is located in Miramar an area of Wellington near the airport. The company was started in the back of Richard Taylor and Tania Rodger’s flat in 1987. The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogy with Peter Jackson took this operation to a whole new level in 1997 when they joined together to bring to life J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels. Since that time, Weta Digital began, which has done special effects work on all kinds of projects including James Cameron’s Avatar. The Weta Cave is open to the public for tours and really gives some great insight to their work and the requirements for the filming industry that is strong here in Wellington and New Zealand!

Also located in Miramar is the Roxy movie theater, which was restored by a group associated with the Weta Workshop and opened in 2011. The cinema was originally opened in 1928 for silent films and then had its last movie showing in 1964. The building became a shopping area and then sat idle for a time before the restoration. Just recently a 24 hour showing of the LOTR trilogy happened and brought people from all over the world! I went recently to the Roxy to see the newest Kiwi film, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, which was fabulous and written and directed by Taika Waititi! The movie is based on a book about a young boy that is troubled and bouncing from foster home to foster home and finally ends up with a couple living out in the woods. Beautifully done with lots of laughs and even some tear jerking moments! And just like the LOTR, the NZ scenery provides an incredible backdrop. Much enjoyed and can’t wait to get it on DVD to share back at home!

Oh!! And how could I leave off the Wellington Airport! This is fabulous! Check out the LOTR flair!


Grateful Eight

Sorry, Quentin Tarantino – I had to play on your movie title! Around Christmas time before I left, the movie, Hateful Eight, came out. While I never saw the movie (too gory for my taste), I thought the play on the title was perfectly suited for the eight teachers coming from the U.S. for the Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching Program! I know I am extremely grateful to be here in New Zealand studying science education and the other teachers are I am sure!

This past week was the midpoint for the other teachers, but closer to the endpoint for me because I am leaving in May instead of June and July like the others based on my project dates. Our NZ Fulbright Director organized a time for us to share our work so far with others and our advising professors at Victoria University. We met and had presentations followed by questions for each of our projects. It was fabulous to hear about the other projects in detail even though we had general ideas of each other’s projects based on our “elevator speeches.” Elevator speeches were what we prepared back in Washington, D.C. to be able to tell our story with people we may come in contact and have only a couple of minutes with which to share our project! Great idea because I cannot tell you how many people I have been able to share this with on a daily basis! The main focus areas of projects of the other teachers are as follows on the flyer that Eric Yates of Victoria University created to publicize the event!

Screen Shot 2016-04-09 at 12.55.54 AM

Just in case you are not able to read the print in the picture above:

Lisa Purcell (Minnesota): Addressing achievement gaps through culture-first content and pedagogy

Angela Palmieri (California): Pedagogical study of Māori bi-lingual education: closing the achievement gap

Elizabeth Pitman (Texas): Building and restoring relationships with at-risk students through restorative practices

Nessa Mahmoudi (California): Bi-lingual/bi-cultural identity formation of Maori youth in schools

Emily Stanley (Maryland): Developing a toolkit for sustainable education

Sue Levine (Georgia): NZ-USA: A shared approach for an inclusive school library

Megan O’Neill (Alabama): Going global with science

Patricia Hemans (California): Teaching at-risk students in trauma informed schools


Eric Yates kicking off our presentations!

So incredible to be amongst these “Titans of Teaching” as our ever-humorous, Irish leader, Colin Kennedy, refers to us LOL. I truly enjoyed taking the time to share our projects and our data so far! Looking forward to seeing how they all shape up over the coming months!


Between Two Gardens

Before I even arrived in Wellington, I knew that my apartment was very near the Botanic Gardens and from Google Earth saw that they were beautiful! I imagined (and since have been able to experience) walking through the gardens on my way to Victoria University. What I did not realize, until my arrival, was the massive amount of non-native species featured in the Botanic Gardens! I was so surprised from a nation that is VERY concerned about bringing in non-native species and pests and have hefty fines for anyone that does and even had my own hiking boots sprayed upon inspection in customs that there were non-native species featured here! Huge redwood trees and sequoias, oak trees, camellias, hydrangeas, maple trees and rhododendrons! Mind you, these gardens are beautiful and these plants are spectacular, however they are not native species! Interspersed amongst these exotic plants are the native ferns and trees, but I was so surprised with the flora!

I was impressed with James Hector having the foresight to preserve the area in 1869 and then most of the pine trees were planted in the 1870’s as part of the redevelopment and beautification projects of the time. There’s even a placard about one of the men that planted the pines every day and his sweet wife would bring him his lunch to eat each day in the gardens over many years. And not until one day when my host family noted the “Otari-Wilton Bush” down the hill north of my apartment did I know that there was a native forest preserve! Otari is a Maori word for “place of snares” for the good bird hunting that used to occur here and Job Wilton is the farmer that dedicated these 100 hectares to being preserved in their native state in 1860. Fortunately, the City of Wellington continues to preserve this area and has wonderful trails throughout. There are two groves of original trees with one holding the oldest tree in Wellington  – a rimu tree estimated to be 800 years old! Below are some of my favorite pictures from Otari-Wilton. The moral of the story is that my apartment sits between two of the most spectacular natural areas in Wellington, and I have had the pleasure of enjoying them both!



And the beautiful Karori Cemetery that backs up to Otari-Wilton and has 83,000 people buried over 40 hectares of land since 1891. There are many buried from the wars, a tragic shipwreck in 1909 and some of the members of Shackleton’s Expedition to Antarctica (carpenter Harry McNeish and a replica of his cat, Mrs. Chippy that had to be killed on the expedition when the ship was lost in the ice). Interesting history! Also, many of the graves are from the from the 1918 influenza epidemic in New Zealand that killed 8,600 people.





College = High School, birds migrating north, “falling back” with time change in April and other differences in the Southern Hemisphere

Interestingly, “colleges” are “high schools” are names for secondary schools here in NZ. And “universities” or more commonly, “unis” are where students go after high school.  Now, this is not as drastic of a difference as driving on the other side of the road here with the driver’s seat on the opposite side of the car from the U.S.(please note how I specifically did not say “wrong” side of the road – because I am a firm believer that maybe in the U.S. we are driving on the “wrong” side of the road and actually had a rental car employee chuckle when he mentioned that Americans “drive on the wrong side of the road” and I said, “Or maybe you’re on the wrong side” LOL for both of us), but there are some minor nuances in language such as this that can take a bit of getting used to. And can even cause the native Kiwis to ask me to repeat myself when my southern Alabama drawl gets in the way! (Humorously, a year 9 student at school today told me that I “don’t sound like I am from ‘Alley-bammer'” until I continued talking and then said, “OH! I hear it now!”(I was also impressed with this child not only knowing where Alabama was, but that his favorite book is To Kill a Mockingbird!! Awesome stuff) :P) I am just going to list a few of these terms below:

NZ speak                                          U.S.

chemist                                      pharmacy

way out                                       exit

toilet                                           restroom (I know this one is not that different, but it takes a                                                                 repeat if you are asking for directions to one and don’t use                                                               “toilet”)

queue                                           in line (as to waiting in line)

letting                                        renting

heaps                                          lots of

brekkie                                       breakfast

chippies                                      chocolate chip cookies

jandals                                         flip flops

chips                                             fries

motorway                                 interstate (but no states, therefore no “interstates”)or highway

tramping                                   hiking

torch                                          flashlight

gumboots                                 rainboots

bach                                          (pronounced “batch”) beach cottage

timetables or spell tables        schedules for school

sunnies                                     sunglasses

wellies                                        (the original town of Wellington and rain!) rain boots

The food is most amazing here and everything seems more fresh and with less preservatives than you will find in a grocery in the U.S. There is also this lovely fruit, feijoa,


that has a green skin and is just recently getting ripe and can be found in the grocery stores. You may recall from my Auckland school visits blog that I finally was introduced to these after hearing so much about them! They are fruits from heaven. You can cut into the center and scoop out the center to eat the fruit.


The closest thing that I can imagine to compare it to is a very fresh, very light (NOT as sweet or tart), very subtle green apple flavor mixed with pineapple. And these are ripe in the late summer/ autumn. Which leads me to my next notable difference of the seasons. Here in April, time just changed, but opposite to Northern Hemisphere, time fell back an hour for Autumn (more commonly called instead of “Fall” because not too many leaves actually “fall” from the trees), instead of my friends back home just “springing forward” an hour. So while I was only five hours behind, but a day ahead different from home a few weeks ago, I am now seven hours behind and a day ahead than home! Also, when talking about birds “going North for the winter” or “nor’easters being warm weather bearers” because they are coming from the Equator instead of the Arctic blasts from the North Pole it can start to mix things up from what I have been used to all of my life! Which has been another wonderful part of this entire experience here in NZ and that is discovering differences and the similarities whether in science education, in nature or in the language to bring awareness to an appreciation of these wonderful things that make our planet go ’round. Thank you, Senator Fulbright, yet, again for showing me these cultural differences that I otherwise would not have absorbed without living and being immersed here!



School by the Seaside

seatoun view_

Photo courtesy of Emily Stanley, Fulbright DAT

It is hard to believe that when you look at the picture above that you are actually looking through a window and not at a painting!! The views from the Seatoun Primary School (that we were able to tour thanks to our Fulbright NZ Leader Extraordinaire, Mr. Colin Kennedy, and his lovely wife that teaches there!) are stunning! Even though, my project is on science education at the secondary school level, I thought it would be helpful for me to see where some of those future high schoolers get their start, so when we received the invitation, I was in! The school is situated right along the coast of the southern portion of Wellington along the Cook’s Strait. All of the classrooms have these amazing windows with natural light coming in (as most all schools that I have visited in NZ have!) and spectacular grounds surrounding the school for some wonderful outdoor play!

Photos courtesy of Emily Stanley, Fulbright DAT

This school was super impressive not only with the views, but also with the students and the programs! The principal, Mr. John Western, was gracious enough to take time out of his schedule to share with us the activities and community collaboration that makes this school so great! He led us on a tour of the school (built in 2002, 418 students, year 1-8) after an incredible presentation by two of the Level 5 students that are the top leaders of the environmental program – Enviroschool.  This program is one near and dear to my heart with my background in Environmental Science as an undergraduate degree and for teaching! These two boys explained all of the projects they work (recycling, gardening, composting, waste audits, fundraising, etc.) on with the rest of the school and how they have to apply to be environmental leaders each year! This position is also voted on by the teachers after they apply! Not only are these students interested in these topics, but they are infused throughout the entire school culture! They have meetings on Wednesdays during lunch period and they create a beautiful scrapbook each year highlighting all of their work. They also go on a field trip with other schools to work on environmental ideas together  – what a way to create some meaningful collaboration! Below is a picture of the timeline created about their projects. They students also have a “vision map” of the community in which they brainstorm the areas of need for their Enviroschool, so it is really student driven and led even at the primary level! The school as a whole has a very dedicated staff and community and are focusing on a theme this year – “Growth Mindset” – using the book by Stanford University psychologist, Carol Dweck (2006), titled Mindset.


On the tour we discovered an entire kitchen for children to take cooking classes (see below) and a music room with all kinds of instruments, a fabulous gymnasium for their morning calisthenics led by students, comfortable rooms with reading spaces and all kinds of learning taking place! We even interrupted a student leading a presentation about his experience with water testing through the environmental studies field trip for the class! He did not skip a beat with our stepping in to observe, and I was so impressed with his speaking skills for an audience! This is something that even high schoolers struggle with sometimes and he was explaining using a turbidity column for water testing! I was impressed royally! We also learned that they are a BYOD (bring your own device) school, but also have laptops available on carts for classrooms to use. Additionally, they are textbook free and teachers use other resources for the learning materials!


Kitchen for cooking classes! Oh, and the school is “water only” for all the students! Refillable water bottles, of course! How inspiring!

So great to get to see one of the places where the wee ones get their start to have some of the best base for science education in NZ!




Auckland School Visits


So this was an unexpected, most incredible treat of a school visit and way beyond anything I could have imagined when I was going to one of the largest schools in the nation and the largest metropolitan area in New Zealand! As you can see from the pictures, a farm on campus! And it was located smack-dab in the middle of a great residential area that was highly developed all around! Someone with some fantastic foresight and dedication has helped to preserve this little island of Eden for high school (“college” is the term for most secondary schools in New Zealand) students that attend this school in Auckland. The agriculture and horticulture classes have the privilege of using these facilities and learning everything from milking cows to operating tractors to food production. Amazing learning environment. And to boot, the farmer and his wife live at the top of the hill to look after the 10 hectares of land, beef and dairy cows, sheep, chickens and pigs. According to the adorable students that took me on a tour (I will call them “Stan” and “Molly” for anonymity’s sake for my research requirements :), the only animal they could imagine missing were goats! It was so cool. Stan and Molly were the top seniors in their class and had taken the three levels of the courses and were really knowledgeable about the animals and the plants they were growing in their garden plots. I was super impressed that they had these facilities, as agriculture is the largest sector of exportable goods for NZ. However, if they are like most urban students that I have experienced, they have little knowledge of their food supply. Therefore, an area like this is vitally important for a connection with these rural practices.

And this was just the cherry on the top of the cake that was this school. Twenty-eight teachers in science alone and the head of the department is most amazing. I looked at the timetable (schedule) for the teachers, and I could not hardly make heads nor tails of it, much less imagine being able to organize it all! Not only did she do this, but was organizing field trips for her students and organizing the upcoming student/parent/teacher meetings. Yet, another commonality that I see as being stronger in NZ than even the amazing schools in which I have worked in the U.S. – parent involvement for meetings. Interestingly, the parents play a role not of the recipient of the information in these meetings, but more of observers of the goals being set between the student and the teacher. I am really impressed with how much responsibility is put on the students to set their goals and work out ways to attain those goals – ownership is strong with this method. Definitely setting the stage for responsible and self-functioning students/future citizens.

The other critical factor that helped the science department to function so effectively from my vantage point was the science lab technicians! These two technicians were phenomenal and the support they offer the teachers and students is such a godsend. I cannot imagine how much teachers in the U.S. could actually focus on teaching and planning activities for students to have authentic learning opportunities if they were not having to gather, organize, order, clean and find materials! All the science teachers have to do here is make a list for their labs and give it to the science technicians! It is like they are the fairy godmothers/godfathers (many are male and I don’t want to discount them 🙂 of science departments! They organize everything, order everything and make it appear and disappear to be cleaned for each class!!! Astounding! This enables the teachers to use their teaching skills to create effective learning lessons and assessment tools that require deeper thought than multiple choice assessments for the students! Brilliant! I wonder if I can start a movement for these in the U.S.? This may be the answer for science teaching reform! Wow.

The other school that I had the pleasure of visiting and observing/experiencing was a school of one of the Distinguished Award in Teaching Fulbrighters that came to the U.S. from New Zealand last year! David Taylor was so kind to offer his school for me to visit! He also organized some great learning opportunities for me while I was there! I was able to see several different level science classes and gained some incredible feedback from one of the most incredible science teachers! He was a high-energy, former physicist turned educator with a passionate attitude about his profession. When I compared our daily timetables in the U.S. with schools in N.Z. where most start near 9am and release at 3pm, he stated something so profound, yet so simple, “Sometimes more is not more.” Nailed it.

Some additional photos of the beautiful city of Auckland and the nearby island of Waiheke



The tui (Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae) might possibly be my favorite New Zealand bird. I think the kiwi would be a contender, but I would really like to see one before I make that decision! The kiwi is really rare (unfortunately most are either threatened of becoming endangered or vulnerable) and they are also nocturnal. The fantail is pretty stinking cute and has beautiful plumage that opens into a fan, but I have only been able to see these a few times fairly quickly. So, the tui remains my top bird so far in New Zealand. Why the tui? The tui has absolutely the coolest sounding calls! They have range like I have never heard before and make me feel like I am in a jungle setting when I hear them walking through the Botanic Gardens or the footpath up to my house.  And some of their calls sound like a Star Wars creature (I am pretty positive that at least one of the characters in Star Wars has a language based on the tui calls, and I am sure that my godson will be able to tell me which character it is exactly – I am going for C-3PO or R2D2 !) Tui also have these two white tufts of feathers under their throat that really stands out among their black, almost iridescent, feathers. I think when you click on the link below to hear my own video of their calls, you may agree with me!


Because I was not able to capture a great picture of them, I am sharing the photos from the digital encyclopedia of New Zealand birds below – more examples of their calls are found at this site as well (http://nzbirdsonline.org.nz)


Tui. Adult. Dunedin, August 2009. Image © Craig McKenzie by Craig McKenzie Craig McKenzie


New Zealand fantail. North Island adult calling. Wanganui, May 2012. Image © Ormond Torr by Ormond Torr


Little spotted kiwi. Adult male at burrow entrance. Long Island, Marlborough Sounds, November 2011. Image © Andrew Digby by Andrew Digby © Andrew Digbyhttp://photos.andrewdigby.com

Observations of Science Ed

During my school visits, I have learned a ton about some of the similarities with my own school experiences in the U.S. (i.e. great teachers – see my “Inspiration” blog) and many things that are different here in New Zealand. This is one of my main focus areas- to determine some of the differences to hone in on and “takeaway” (Kiwi term for take-out food) to the U.S. to improve our suffering science scores! Some interesting differences  in the overall school day that I really appreciate are things like classes starting later (8:45am or 9:00am in some schools, but they still release at 3:15pm!) and tea time in the morning around 10:30 or 11:00am! These two events are fabulous, and considering a typical teenager’s need for sleep (just ask any of them! LOL), I am sure all would agree! Tea time includes not only tea and coffee, but usually a scone or other baked goodie that is provided by the school! How fantastic is this?! Any teacher from the U.S. reading this and unaware of this goodness is surely going to put this on the next agenda in their own school!  The kitchen area adjoining the faculty meeting area is the locale for this event in schools and is a hub of important discussions about schedules or other important issues of the day. This is also an important piece to my observations of the informal teacher collaborations that seem to be more frequent here in New Zealand. It definitely creates an authentic collaborative space for teachers to grow and work together for the students’ benefit!

I have been thrilled that most class sizes so far are no more than 24 students in a science class. This is possibly one of the greatest ways to ensure a teacher can reach all of his/her students effectively – keeping class sizes small. Is it possible to teach more than 24 students at once? Well, of course. But is it effective? My personal experience says, “no.” I also believe that most teachers would agree (and most research! For further support on this topic from the New Zealand Education Institute click here) that too many distractions for those teenage minds and attention spans happen beyond the 24 student threshold.

Another difference, interestingly, is the assessment methods for science coursework in the secondary levels (the assessment methods may be similar at other grade levels or “years” as they are called here, however my study is secondary school science education and I am limiting myself to this). The grading scheme is completely different than that of schools in which I have worked in the U.S. In the U.S., we typically have the old 10-point grading scale for our assessments (A=90-100, B= 80-90, C=70-80, D=60-70 and F<60 and no credit is gained for the F score). In New Zealand, there is an “Achievement” ranking for their “internal” and “external” assessments. The internal assessments are those resources that are given by the teachers in the classroom to indicate the students’ comprehension of subject matter while the external assessments are those provided by the National Certificate for Educational Achievement usually by examination at the end of the year. Both the internal and external assessments are scored with “Achievement,” “Achievement with Merit,” or “Achievement with Excellence”(from the lowest ranking to the highest respectively). Essentially these are correlated with an “A, B, or C” on the U.S. grading system and if a student does not receive at least “Achievement,” they have not acquired the skill or knowledge and do not receive credit. Which points to another difference, and that is the credit schema. Credits are received by the students in the internal assessments as well as the external assessments. All of their credits can add up to the credits needed for graduation at Year 13. There are not nearly as many internal assessments as we have in the U.S. I know at most of the schools in which I have taught, teachers are required to provide approximately 3 grades (minimum) per week to be able to paint an accurate picture of the students’ grades. It is also my understanding that we have those grades in the system for the parents to have a transparent view of their child’s performance in the class at any given time. Here in New Zealand there are days of “parent conferences” at all years or grade levels for students, even students in the secondary schools. This was also surprising to me because most parent attendance at open house meetings drops dramatically by the time their students reach secondary level, so I was impressed to see the successful interaction at these levels here. Additionally, the students play a much larger role in these meetings than most “parent-teacher conferences” to which I am accustomed. The student is required to set goals to attain and come up with ways to reach those goals while the parent is there to be a witness to that goal setting and offer support for the student at home. I think these conferences that are held on scheduled days during each quarter (students have a break from school to accommodate these days), carry weight on the absence of the teachers not having to enter weekly assessment grades. This forces the student-teacher-parent collaboration to become reality and a true team environment.

All this information to shine the light on the fact that the grading scale is very interesting and different from the ones to which I am accustomed, but the most poignant difference is the format of the assessment. In New Zealand, the science assessments are in essay format. The students are required to write out the explanations including the correct terminology for the questions. This is a fantastic assessment tool! The student not only has to comprehend the question, but they have to answer with the correct vocabulary terms in a way that communicates their understanding of the topic (and “fluff” or extraneous verbage is not counted towards the “achievement” level and can sometimes hurt the score-just FYI for those of my students that like to do this on essay questions :). I know my own students are just short of “freaking out” when I throw in the essay or short answer questions on assessments, but it is my teaching philosophy that if they learn the information, they can answer in any format provided! Unfortunately, in the U.S., while we are rushed to grade approximately 150 students’ work X 3 assessments per week for a grand total of 450 papers or assignments per week (and if each assignment is only 10 questions, which most are more than this, that is 4,500 items a teacher reviews each week!), we often lean on the Scantron or multiple choice grades to accomplish this beast of a task! While teachers in the U.S. are aware that this is not always the most effective tool for assessing student comprehension, Scantron sometimes seems to be the only way humanly possible. Additionally, teachers are supported for these multiple choice formats in the fact that the students’ progress on tests like the ACTs (which have become Alabama’s high school graduation evaluation tool) are multiple choice and they need the practice to perform well on these high stakes tests. Ugh.

To ensure the students here in NZ are learning the required science topics, there is a great deal of time spent on the topics and lessons in many different formats. There is hardly any lecture with the use of PowerPoints (which is so refreshing – read more on the topic of how PowerPoint lectures kill critical thinking skills here), but more of a teacher-led discussion throughout readings with the students’ input and questions aloud or in their own “SciPads” (NZ curriculum based books) or other e-books. The students are responsible for being engaged and jotting notes or highlighting in these sources of information for the topics, and for the classes that I have observed so far, all were! The information was also reinforced or sometimes through inquiry driven lessons through lab practicals. The lab practicals are done on almost a daily basis on their topics and are thoroughly carried out with deep layers of evaluation and  investigations by the students. This thought leads me to another incredible observation – that of what is known as the “technician” in each science department at each school! A technician is a person hired within the science department with the sole task of keeping track of the chemicals or supplies needed for each teacher for each lab and preparing those for each class on a daily basis. Some schools even have TWO technicians! This was absolutely phenomenal to me! An assistant in one of the science teacher’s greatest time mongers – preparing labs for students – and not just a Senior student that has an extra period to help out!? I was floored and the NZ teachers with which I spoke were equally floored that we do not have those in the U.S. schools in which I have been! Their immediate response was, “How do teachers have time to set up and do labs?” to which my response was, “Exactly my point.” Additionally, the NZ science department heads have a reduced teaching load to be able to schedule and address department concerns and needs.

These topics really stand out in my investigations of science teaching being an integral part of the success of the student scores in science on global tests like PISA. I am finding some of the greatest pieces to the successful puzzle is being able to provide the resources to the teachers (time, lab materials, equipment) which in turn enables them to do their jobs most effectively. The depth of the science topics that the students seem to be attaining is crucial, and I have seen some ways that they are making this happen in NZ. I know this is not across the board and is not a blanket for all the schools and all the teachers, as my interviews with some teachers indicated they are really concerned with students’ lack of problem-solving skills and application of science topics, but for the most part these assessment tools and teaching methods appear to be quite effective. I have a few weeks of observations to go, so stay tuned on how my research goes!