This is the third in a series of conversations with ISA coaches.

With over 10 years experience as a New York City educator, Mariam Naraine-Zebrowski joined ISA in 2012 as a science coach. At the high school level, she has taught living environment, earth science, and chemistry. At Manhattan Hunter Science High School, when it was just starting, Mariam was responsible for creating the science department, which included mapping out its four year science sequence and designing the school-wide science research program.

Mariam spent several years in the non-profit world, developing programs to help underserved NYC students in middle and high school move on successfully to college. During this time, she coordinated the NYC Junior Science and Humanities Symposium.

As an ISA science coach, Mariam focuses on science education through inquiry and project-based learning. During individual coaching sessions, her main goal is to help teachers shift their teaching practices from a teacher-centered classroom to a more student-centered experience.

First, Mariam, what led you into education and specifically working in the realm of science?

My parents are both educators, and so you can say being an educator is in my blood. My first memories are of being in a classroom. My parents taught in a rural setting on a Native American reservation, and my siblings and I were literally raised in a school building. It was one building where all grades and every subject were taught, and my parents were the only teachers. It was here that I was first introduced to science.

I remember little experiments that I undertook, such as germinating seeds or making water clean using a filter of rocks, sand, and coal. However, one science-related experience stood out clearly for me. I remember my parents waking me and my siblings up at about 2:30 am one morning to watch a lunar eclipse. I still remember not understanding the mechanics concerning what was happening, but I was still fascinated by it. This fascination continues to drive my passion and love for science. The more that I am exposed to the various aspects of science, the more questions I have and the more I want to learn. Science is a world of answers that creates more questions that lead to more answers, which, yes, lead to more questions.

When schools went to virtual instruction in the spring because of the pandemic, what were your initial thoughts and, since that time, what have you heard from teachers and school leaders?

Like most educators this spring, I thought the move to virtual instruction was like learning to swim while in the middle of the ocean in the middle of a hurricane. It was as if NYC, where I live, was under attack by unseen enemy. The first couple of weeks were incredibly difficult, as schools and teachers contacted students, got students connected, defined boundaries for virtual learning time, and worked with teachers to identify what supports they needed. At first, I felt helpless. I knew I needed to be there to support the teachers I work with as they experienced this new way of teaching, but everything was so fluid, so up in the air. Slowly but surely, working together, we defined what support was needed and how the support would look.

As we all did at that time, I learned that relationships were even more important; when meeting with teachers, it was important to listen to their experiences not only with virtual instruction but also to listen to their fears about the virus and to their concerns about family and loved ones. Smart school leaders were concerned not only about instruction but also about the emotional state of their teachers. We were all concerned about that issue.

What do most schools get wrong about science teaching and learning?

The general misconception about science? That all science is the same. For example, if a person is passionate about earth science, people may think that that person is also passionate about, say, biology—and so they might think that an earth science teacher can teach biology just as well as she can teach earth science. Each subject within science is unique and intriguing, and each requires years of building content knowledge and hands-on experience to teach effectively.

A major misunderstanding about studying and learning science has to do with who is identified as a “good” science student and who is not. Students who excel in some area of science are not “good” just because they have a passion for biology or astronomy or physics. Sure, that helps. But these students are successful because they, with the help of their teachers, learn to use the right strategies to facilitate their learning. They learn to ask good questions, for example, and their growth mindset is often off the charts.

No doubt, in these last several months, you’ve seen some dynamite virtual teaching. What best practices have you seen in science classes that you want all science teachers to use?

In my opinion, teachers who work to master the three “Rs”—relationships, reality, and responding—have success at virtual teaching.

  • Relationships: As in a face-to-face setting, teachers who build an online relationship with students seem to have more success with students in a virtual world. I see teachers checking in with students individually when in Google Classroom or via text or emails. Having a good relationship with students is now even more important.
  • Reality: As in a regular school setting, teachers need to understand the reality that their students are now learning under and adapting to. I remember one teacher in April was frustrated with the difficulties of teaching to blank screens, as students kept their cameras off. He and I discussed why some students may not to turn their cameras on. For instance, some students might not have a space for virtual learning and so do not wish to show it. This teacher sent two notes to his classes, one on how to change a background into something virtual and another on how to create a Zoom/Google avatar. Both tutorials increased participation.
  • Responding: Now more than ever, students need feedback from teachers and their peers. Teachers who create opportunities for this to happen have more engaged students. Responding to students’ questions and comments gives students more of a sense of belonging and helps to create and maintain a sense of community.

Think back to your own teaching days, Mariam, and a special bond you had with a student or a class. What made it special? For you and your students, what made the learning work?

When I first read this question, I laughed out loud thinking about the range of responses my former students would give if asked them this question—and so I thought: Why not ask them? I reached out to a few of my former students and got the following responses: “It was fun.” “I can ask you anything.” “You cared about us.” “You were hard.” “You were a science geek.” “I can talk to you about anything, not just science.” “Even after your class, you remember us.”

I take pride in being a science geek. Yes, I watch Star Wars and Star Trek, I love Bill Nye and follow Neil deGrasse Tyson on Facebook, and I track hurricanes and locust invasions and still try to catch every solar or lunar eclipse that I can. I’m happy my students were able to see my love of science, and it helps them remember and enjoy my classes.

Asking questions is what drives science. It’s the reason today we have landed on the moon and we know more about the predicting the paths of hurricanes, and it will be how we develop a vaccine for COVID-19. Teaching students to ask questions and letting students be comfortable asking all kinds of questions are the best learning tools any educator can give her students.