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Outside the Box: Adventures with Chris Kesler

Host: Dr Diane Jackson Schnoor

It will not surprise you that Where the Wild Things was Chris Kesler's favorite book as a child. Outside the box thinking is a hallmark of his career. This self-admitted challenging student took many paths on his adventures in learning before becoming a middle school science teacher. Underwhelmed by the resources available to him, he built hands-on and engaging science lessons that transformed engagement and learning in his classroom and school. Those lessons form the backbone of Kesler Science, which currently provides quality, interactive science curriculum to more than 100,000 science teachers in all 50 states. Join us for a conversation about the challenges facing teachers today, as well as some exciting ideas to help lift and support them.

I was fortunate enough to sit at a table with Chris at Science in the Rockies last summer. I was impressed by his humor and his willingness to join me in flinging ping pong balls with abandon. At lunch, he impressed me with his passion for education and his insight into how students learn and how to make teachers' lives easier. I was so impressed that I agreed to join Kesler Science as an elementary education consultant, advising them on projects that focus on connections between PK-2 science and literacy.

What follows are excerpts from our conversation. For the entire podcast, please listen here.

An Unconventional Approach: Chris Kesler's Path to Kesler Science [01:05]

[01:05] Chris: Yeah. So I did not take the traditional approach with being a classroom teacher. I was not someone that was playing school with my Star Wars figures when I was a young kid and wanted to be a teacher. That just wasn't a path. Although my mother was an educator, my grandfather was an educator, so that was kind of in our pedigree, but it just wasn't something I was interested in. I was a tech kid growing up, and I was kind of actually a terrible student. Yeah. I was, in fact, just a really terrible student. I was just kind of dismissive towards school and didn't appreciate learning until later on in life. And so I didn't find my way into the classroom until after many other careers. I went to college later than most. I didn't graduate college until I was 27 or 28 because I had gone back to college. I went and worked for a tech company right out of school and worked with them for eight years and got to experience what a corporate layoff looked like in 2008 when everyone kind of started laying everyone off and training themselves out of jobs over in India and those kinds of things. So that was a fun experience. And it came to a point where I knew I just needed something more adventurous in my life and more fulfilling. I was working with people in the tech job that I had, but it was never fulfilling. You didn't get that sense of accomplishment. So I took a different approach. I went back and got an alternative certification. And it was quite interesting, that process, because I just assumed this was going to be an easy deal and I could go and go get this. But the administrator actually said to me, like, you just don't have the credentials. You're not someone we're looking at, they always need teachers, right? To have someone say, you're not who we're looking for, and in fact, we don't even think you could pass the test to be a science teacher.

[03:17] Dr. Diane: That's crazy.

[03:19] Chris: It's awful. This is a former principal, by the way, and that actually just lit a fire under me that just really propelled me throughout my time in the classroom and into what we're doing now with Kesler Science. But yeah, so I got into the classroom. I was teaching middle school science. I taught everything from 6th, 7th and 8th grade, sometimes a little split here and there and 6th and 7th, and I started creating stuff. We could probably get into this in a little bit, but yeah, so that's kind of how I got into the classroom and I kind of came to the back door from a corporate environment. And at the time that might be the norm now, but at the time it wasn't the norm. You know, you're working with people that have gone to college specifically to be educators, and that was not me.

[04:19] Dr. Diane: Your journey sounds closer to mine. I was a journalist and I worked in political science coming out of college. And so I went back probably late twenties to get my degree in teaching as well, so came to it as an alternative as well. And I think that there's some value in teachers who have good experience.

What are some of the biggest issues facing educators today? [06:03]

[06:15] Chris: Golly, where do we start? So I think obviously with the pandemic that has happened over the last couple of years, teachers have been asked to create a whole new job for themselves. Really? I went into a classroom during the shutdown, and I saw a teacher that was teaching students in front of her that had masks on. At the same time, she has a class of online students since she's literally doing two jobs at the same time. How did that work? What does that look like? What’s differentiation look like? So that alone was a huge challenge.

And now you've got the challenges where these kids have been out for a couple of years, and they may not have had the same instruction that they would have had when they were in the classroom. And there's kind of some gaps there, right? So I taught science, but obviously if your reading and your math skills are two years behind, like, how can we talk about force and motion and Newton's laws when you can't even do the math to do that right or read and understand some of the concepts that we're trying to teach? So I think those are the biggest challenges now.

And then the other issue is I know a lot of teachers that are, it seems like the attrition is a lot higher now than it was when I was in the classroom. I guess I've heard now that you're looking at four to five years for an average teacher staying in the career. So you've got this huge turnover happening. Is that good for students? No. Is it good for campuses? No, absolutely not. There's just a lot of challenges that teachers are facing right now.

[08:12] Dr. Diane: And I wonder if there are some opportunities within those challenges. I know that there's a lot of emphasis on the reading and the math right now and trying to bridge those gaps, but at least from my own preferences, I've always loved using science as that connector to be able to build in the reading and the math with younger children. And I wonder if this is an opportunity to work with teachers, to be able to say we can connect it all in a way that's exciting and fun for you.

[08:40] Chris: Yeah, I think it absolutely is. Even before all this stuff, that was what we're doing with Kesler Science. We've got reading comprehension passages, and you're inferencing and using those math skills. And if you're using this, other classes and teachers of other subjects could use the stuff that we're creating for the science classroom in their own classroom. So it's really a cross curricular opportunity, and I think that's always been there. I think people have been hesitant to do because it requires work, and if it hasn't been done for you, then you have to create it. And that was one of the challenges I came across when I first got into the classroom. I expected, I'm walking off the street into my first day of the job, and the principal is going to stand there, “This is your curriculum, and here's what you're going to teach. And actually, here's a schedule of every day and what you're going to do each day.”

[09:38] Dr. Diane: That sounds like a lovely fantasy.

[09:40] Chris: Yeah, it's a total fantasy world, but it's kind of unknown outside of the classroom or outside of campus. It's like, my friends think that's how it works. Even now, they think that. How do you create lessons? We need you to create lessons for classes. Doesn't that come from the district or the principal? Absolutely not. The state standards dictate what you're doing, and then from there, it's sometimes a free for all, depending on the district or even the campus. So, yeah, we've been able to just really fill that gap nicely and I think just give teachers an opportunity, especially those that found themselves in the same situation that I was in, where they just did not have those particular resources. Now they're at their fingertips. It's fantastic.

What is the 5E Model and what does Kesler Science offer classroom teachers? [12:10]

[12:10] Chris: Like I mentioned before, I was always the kid at the back of the class. I was disengaged and just apathetic towards school in general. And so I made it my goal to reach out to that student when I was in the classroom, and how was I going to get that student? Of course, having no resources, I needed to start creating my own resources. So one of the first things we did, just a teaching partner and I, we had gone to this workshop, and they did these interactive notebook templates, and I'm like, that's kind of fun. And it's a great way to get something, keep kids hands on...

Another thing that I was having issues with was just finding really good labs to do with students that didn't cost a lot of money. I wasn't sitting on a million dollar lab supply closet in my classroom. So it's like, gather the best nonperishables from Walmart you can find, and let's build a lab out of it.

What I started doing next in my own class is I built these station labs. And so what I ended up doing is I created these four stations that would be where students are receiving new input, and it was like, you're reading about something, you're watching a video, you're doing an exploration, you're researching. And then the other four stations we call the output stations, and what they're doing there is they're going to test their knowledge that they learned in the four input stations. So they're writing about what they learned. They are organizing and using some kind of manipulative, and they're just taking a little assessment, kind of a standardized four question assessment to just kind of build on what they've learned in those input stations. And I scaled that up. I just started doing that for every single lesson.

And it was awesome. Like, we could complete one of these station labs in one day. And first of all, it was student led. I wasn't having to teach any longer. All the students were learning on their own. I found myself being more of a facilitator of the learning rather than being the sage on the stage. And students were really enjoying it. They got to move at their own pace. They worked in groups. We could kind of change that up. Now, it's not something you want to do every day, but you do one of those a week, and it becomes a lot of fun, and then you can go and really dig into the misconceptions. So we would do that at the beginning of a lesson. And so now they come to me in the middle of a lesson when we're actually going to, like, let's get focused on the real side, like the real stuff here. They already have, like, input for me. They can come to me and say, oh, I remember this from the video, or I remember this and that, and we can have a great back and forth conversation when in the past is me standing up there teaching about density of a rock. That's so not engaging.

[15:40] Dr. Diane: Right


[15:41] Chris: Yeah, those are kind of some of the things I was doing. And this was not, I was not selling these at the time. I was just building these from my own classroom and my teaching partner's class. And it got to be a point where people are in the district like, what in the heck are you doing over there? I want to be included on this. And we share it out with the district, and then we'd put it out on Twitter, hey, you check these out or whatever. And it turns out people will pay for this stuff because it was pretty awesome. It got to be where I would put some of the stuff on Teachers Pay Teachers, and we kind of went that route and then beyond that, it's grown so much beyond that, but it really kind of took the whole 5E lesson. Well, what can we do? Where the station lab is just one piece of the 5E lesson. Now let's add this whole engagement piece, and then the exploration piece is the station lab. And then you've got the explanation piece, which is a traditional kind of PowerPoint and a back and forth interactive communication with the students. And then you've got the Elaboration piece where students are coming up with their own student choice projects and just really taking their learning to the next level. And of course, the last piece, the evaluation piece, is doing some kind of assessment project.

At the end, I started building fully fleshed out 5E lessons around all these middle school concepts, and one thing led to another in this. These are now just all over the place, like you said at the beginning. I mean, hundreds of thousands of classrooms across the country and just has really taken off. And we did that for middle school, and now we're actually coming down into elementary school. It’s got lessons for fifth grade and fourth grade, and we're working our way down all the way to the primary grades. But it's been an amazing journey, and it's fantastic for students. It's been fantastic for teachers.

And I couldn't be more proud of what we've done and the people that I'm working with. The other thing is this is all teachers. I'm not a corporation. I'm not a large company by any means. Of course, I do have some full time employees now, but we're all teachers. We're all former science teachers. And that absolutely matters when it comes to creating a lesson, because people trust another teacher.
What kind of professional development opportunities does Kesler offer? [19:32]

[19:38] Chris: So we've got a bunch of stuff in the last two years. We put out what we're calling the STARS Science Conference — Science Teachers Are Rock Stars. And so we put together, obviously this started in 2021, so we were still kind of in virtual mode by that time. Maybe some day we bring this out into a live scenario, but the first couple of years, we've put together like 20 presenters on different topics that science teachers would definitely be interested in an hour long sessions and allow them to watch these professional developments on demand. We obviously do professional development about our curriculum as well. As a Kesler Science member, they get access to those. And then something super exciting in the last couple of years, we brought in Steve Spangler. And can I talk about Steve?

[20:34] Dr. Diane: Yeah.

[20:35] Chris: Okay, great. So Steve and I had a podcast back in 2013.

[20:41] Dr. Diane: I listened to that podcast recently.

[20:45] Chris: You're the one. So this was a podcast we put together called EduAllStars. And it was with a coworker of mine named Todd Nesloney. He's also known as @techninjatodd on Twitter. And honestly, it was totally self-serving. We wanted to talk to educators outside of the walls of our own classroom, find out what they're doing to be successful. And so one of the episodes we had Steve Spangler on, and we talked to him for an hour, and it was kind of awesome. It was like, in my wheelhouse, finally get to talk to a science teacher and so forth. But we never connected again until 2020. And we had a mutual acquaintance that brought us together, and we decided, we sat down and had a zoom. She kind of set that up, and we had to zoom in, and we just knew we had to do something together. And what ultimately ended up happening is we have taken Steve's high quality video content, which he's done masterfully over the years, and built lessons around that. And so we've taken a lot of his content and are building lessons. And also we brought him in because he's such a dynamic speaker, we brought him in to do monthly professional development with our Kesler Science members.

And we just formed this fantastic partnership where he (Steve Spangler) gets to shine in what he does best, and we get to do what we do best, and we get to blend them together and make just really great content for science teachers everywhere.
What are some of the big surprises in building Kesler Science? [25:51]

[26:05] Chris: How much healthcare costs for employees is a big thing. When I left the classroom in 2015, I was working in this little loft coop space, and I was doing everything on my own. I was doing email, all the technical support, everything on my own. And I was able to do it, but it was crazy. And I think one of the biggest surprises now, looking back at I was able to do all that and just be, like, finding all the people that work with us for Kesler Science now and how that company has grown into what it's grown into.

Having Ali Stone around and leading all the teams that she leads, it's been shocking, it’s just been shocking the growth that we've experienced. And the best part about it is that it's helping so many teachers and students, and it's just been an amazing experience.

What encouragement would you offer educators today? [27:23]

[27:37] Chris: So I think the biggest thing for me and the biggest growth that I found was when I went outside the walls of my own school. I was in a smallish rural school district. We had five science teachers through grades 6, 7, and 8. We had five science teachers, and that's great. And we worked well together as a team. We meshed together no problem. But you're limited on what those people can bring to the table. And there's tens of thousands of science teachers out there that have so much knowledge that is out there and willing to share with you. But you have to go and ask. You have to find the right places to find that. Twitter is where I started, and Twitter is a little bit different now than it was back then, but at the same time, there's lots of educators out there willing to help.

And then the other thing we started many years ago is a Facebook group called the Kesler Science Professional Learning Network, and there's nearly 20,000 science teachers in that group, and it's just a place to go and get fed. You would think that it would be a place where teachers just vent, vent, vent, vent, vent. And that's not because of the processes we put in place. We allow that. But at the same time, it's not helpful to anyone if that's all it is. So finding a place like that, that you can just talk to other science teachers and find out what's going on, what works for your classroom. When you're teaching atoms and in a group like ours, within minutes you're having responses come in. So it's almost like a real time conversation that if you're willing to put in the work and just make yourself a little vulnerable to go out there, even if you don't add to the conversation, take a little bit, and then eventually you maybe get confident enough to start adding to that conversation. And it's just been one of the coolest things is building that Facebook group. It's a lot of fun when I can go to a conference and sit in a room and there's 100 science teachers, they're all in the group, and it's like we all kind of know each other and we're taking the group picture and it's just like it's like a family reunion or something. And it's just a really cool experience to be around like minded individuals, right? Let's face it, your spouse doesn't want to hear you talk about your science teacher job.

[30:25] Dr. Diane: After a certain amount of time, you're on a leash.

[30:30] Chris: You got a little leash, but after that, you're done. So it is nice to be able to be with your people and have those conversations.

[30:39] Dr. Diane: So it sounds like it's really all about building connections, which is what we talk about on this blog all the time. It's building connections to the curriculum, building connections to picture books, building connections to one another as human beings. And we as teachers are no different. We need the same connections we're trying to give our children.

[30:58] Chris: Yes, we absolutely do. And I'm one that comes really easy to but I understand too, that there are people that there's a wall around, right, and they don't want to build those connections. I would just say try it, right? Just go try it. Like I said earlier, just take a little bit. It's okay to take. And it's expected that you take, but you have to find where to take from. And if it's especially if you're in a negative environment in your own campus, it's going to be terrible. I talk about this all the time, so you can talk about it here. I suppose. It's like the teacher break room on my first campus. I called it the fun vampires. They suck the fun out of everything. And it was not a place I wanted to be. I ended up generally going grabbing my lunch out of the refrigerator and going back and having lunch with my teammate, because that's where I was fed rather than, oh, my God, so and so today. And it's easy to fall into that trend.

[32:07] Dr. Diane: Very much so.

[32:08] Chris: I totally fell into it, like, a lot. It's so easy to do. I'm not above that, by any means, but as long as you are self aware and can realize that it's actually happening and that you're falling in, you're going to be better off.

[32:26] Dr. Diane: Well, and that's where the power of finding external groups is huge.

[32:30] Chris: Sure.

[32:31] Dr. Diane: I know. I've heard Steve say, and it's true for me as well, that if I go into a professional development and I hang out in your staff room for five minutes, I can generally diagnose whether it's a healthy environment or an unhealthy environment, all in the way that you're relating.

[32:47] Chris: Yeah, 100%. We've done professional developments, even virtually, where you can feel, like, the tension that's coming out of that library or wherever the teachers are set up, and it's infectious, and it's easy to get caught up in, and you've got to steer away from that.

What picture book connections can you make to the life and times of Chris Kesler? [33:10]

[33:10] Dr. Diane: I always like to connect back to picture books because this is me, and it's what I do. And I know that you said school wasn't your thing as a kid, but I'm wondering, were there any picture books that maybe you connected with as a child or that as an adult now with kids of your own you've connected to?

[33:27] Chris: Yeah, definitely. I was a reader growing up. I just don't have a ton of early memories with picture books other than Where the Wild Things Are. That was the book, right? I remember vividly what the illustrator looked like and those pictures looked like in the story, and I was the kid who was in my room a lot for something bad. So it was like that resonated very well with me.

[34:01] Dr. Diane: You also think outside the box, and that's so much of what that book is about. I mean, if you look at the art, you're breaking out of the frame, literally.

[34:09] Chris: Yeah, absolutely. It's about dreaming beyond your current environment and finding love, I guess.

[34:19] Dr. Diane: That seems like a perfect Chris Kesler book.

[34:21] Chris: Yes, it is. It's definitely a Chris Kesler book. I love picture books. We've got a handful here that we read all the time, and I just like them all again. It's making the connection. Right. It's not even necessarily the story. But you know what? I get to lay in bed with my son and chat about whatever we're reading or with my daughter and have a discussion that you don't get to otherwise. It's a very vulnerable moment, I guess you'd say it's an intimate moment. Reading with your kids is something that I remember my parents did with me, and we do that with our kids now, even though they're not little.

[35:18] Dr. Diane: We read aloud for years and years, long past when they could read to themselves, because it was that connection and that time that we built together. And my oldest actually just entered a classroom this year. She's working with the AmeriCorps program in Richmond doing literacy lab work. So she's helping to bridge that gap in reading right now. But I'm sure a lot of that comes from the reading that we did.

[35:41] Chris: Yeah, there's just no lack of finding something that's interesting, too. There are so many books out there. I don't like reading. It's not an excuse anymore. There's something for you, and you’ve just got to find out what it is.

[35:56] Dr. Diane: And there's such great books that connect back to the science and the STEM as well. And that's part of what I love to do, is to make those matches and help people find ways to build those connections between teaching science, teaching STEM, and the rest of their curriculum.

What brings you hope? [36:12]

[36:20] Chris: Well, I think we've had a lot of rough years over the last couple of years, and I think that even with a looming recession on the way, it appears it can't get much worse. We've kind of been under a cloud for a long time. I think that what I'm hearing from teachers that are in the classroom, this is the year that they're seeing kids explore more and wonder again, and they did not see that over the last couple of years. But I'm not seeing the same tensions that I saw back even last fall in the classroom. So I'm thinking that we're coming out from under our cloud, and maybe bright days are ahead, and I'm just hopeful for students who ask questions. I think that's what it boils down to...And that process of learning is just super important to never stop asking why.

Follow My Antarctica Adventures in Learning on Social Media

Dr. Diane will be on a huge Adventure in Learning during the month of December. Follow me on Instagram or Facebook as I explore the amazing science and mysterious beauty of Antarctica. While I'm traveling in Antarctica, don't miss the final episode and blog post of Season 1, featuring Charleston Stage teaching artist Jenna Barricklo. We will take a short break for the holidays and resume our Adventures in Learning at the start of January 2023.

Are there questions you have about Antarctica? Are there topics you'd like me to cover in 2023 or podcast guests you'd like to hear from? Drop me a line.

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