Season 3, Episode 1: Bringing Science to Life Through Shared Experiences
Jim Cowen: This is Jim Cowen from the Collaborative for Student Success, and this is the Route K-12: Exploring Education Recovery podcast. Each episode, we travel the country on a kind of road trip to talk about the ways public education is evolving in the wake of pandemic disruptions and a continuously changing world. Along the way, we’ll hold up the best examples with the hope that those practices are repeated in other schools.
Our guest today is Autumn Rivera, the 2022 Colorado Teacher of the Year. Autumn teaches sixth-grade science at Glenwood Springs Middle School, where she’s currently at right now and on her lunch break, I should add. Her classroom is described as a place of deep learning and a source of joy. Since being selected Teacher of the Year, Autumn has shared her story and expertise with thousands of teachers through the Colorado Education Association, the National Network of State Teachers of the Year, and the National Science Teachers Association.
I also just saw your piece on NBC Nightly News, which was very cool. Well done with that; discussing your work with parents and advising on some parent communication, so that was really great. Autumn, thanks for joining us today.
Autumn Rivera: Thanks so much for having me. I’m excited to be here.
Jim Cowen: Last week, I had the great fortune to go and see the Teachers of the Year in person during their whirlwind tour of D.C. and so I was thinking about the whole process and there was so much energy and so much excitement with that group of teachers that I just kept thinking, like, “what’s this like to be part of it?”
You were part of it. You were not just Colorado Teacher of the Year, but a finalist for National Teacher of the Year. What is that procedure like to go through?
Autumn Rivera: It was really funny because when I was nominated for Colorado Teacher of the Year, I didn’t know it was a thing. I didn’t know that there was a National Teacher of the Year, so I went in very blindly, which was probably good for me because it was a big risk. You know being teacher of the year means that you’re an advocate for your state, for your teachers, for your students. And being a finalist for National Teacher of the Year is even on a bigger scale, and so to be able to do that has been such an honor.
My 2022 State Teachers of the Year cohort is the family I didn’t know I needed. It’s a group of teachers that are so positive and so supportive. They really spent a lot of time supporting each other, helping each other advocate, coming together for different situations that we really need to have stronger teacher presence in. And so, to be able to be a part of that cohort, to be part of that experience, to not even know that that was going to happen and then be a year out, it was fun to watch the pictures of the 2023 cohort in D.C. last week and just remember like, “oh yeah, I was there. I remember that part.” And just to celebrate. It’s a great experience that I wish all teachers could be a part of. I wish that we could celebrate teachers and honor teachers the way that we are through the National Teacher of the Year program because it really helps you understand your power and understand how you are able to work with others to really advocate on behalf of our students.
Jim Cowen: How did your students react when they got the news?
Autumn Rivera: So, they actually called me down to the media center. My principal came down and was like, “I need everyone to go down to the media center.” And I was most surprised at how quietly my students lined up. I’m like, “you don’t do that for me.” Like, “what are you doing?”
And we walked down. And when we got down there, there was tons of balloons and cameras and everything, and so they were just so excited, and it’s been fun to share this trip with them. I’ve gone through two classes now of students that have been part of me through this journey, and so it’s not an isolated journey. It’s a journey I talk about with my students all the time. “I’m going to D.C. tomorrow for an award through the NEA Foundation,” and so to talk to them about it, this is what I’m doing. This is what’s going to happen. “I’m meeting with one of our state senators – Senator Michael Bennett on Friday.” And so, I told my kids, “Do you want me to bring anything? Do you want to write a letter? Is there something that you’re passionate about? Like, I’m going to meet with him. Let me give you this.” And I had a couple students like, “yeah, let’s do this.” And so really trying to have it be not an isolated experience, but an experience for the students to be along for the ride has been something that’s been really fun.
Jim Cowen: How do you ease — I say this because there was so much activity that the teachers went through — how do you ease back into your classroom after going through that kind of whirlwind? Is there like some sort of American Idol style, you know, tour around the state where they drag you around to talk about it?
Autumn Rivera: Well, it’s so crazy because each state does it differently. Some states you get a sabbatical for your year of service. In Colorado, unfortunately, we do not get that. So, it is a little tricky to balance all of the demands of the position and teach full-time. But I was able to have a lot of support from my district, which has been really great.
But it is sometimes like two worlds. Like I have my Teacher of the Year world and then I have my classroom world. And so, I try as best as possible to share the two so it’s not as jarring when I go between the two worlds. Especially coming back from the DC week [there] was a moment of like, okay, “what just happened?” Like that was a crazy period.
Jim Cowen: So, you’re a sixth-grade science teacher. Can you tell me about your approach to teaching science?
Autumn Rivera: I think when I think about how far I have grown as a science teacher, like when I first started teaching science, I was the here are all the words, write the definitions, match pictures. There was a lot of copying down notes. Like that was how I taught science. I really have grown and changed through a lot of professional development, through a lot of just networking and being challenged and pushed to say like, “science isn’t that,” and so now my classroom is a lot more based on phenomena, asking questions.
Yesterday I took my students on a field trip to go out into the field because I don’t want to assume that my students have had similar experiences. Because as soon as we assume that our students have had similar experiences, and we build off of those presumed similar experiences, the equity in our classroom has already [become] completely unequal. It’s completely out of whack. And so, I have really realized that instead of assuming my students have had these experiences, I need to provide them. I try to provide common experiences as much as possible. When my students studied the Colorado River, I made sure I took the students rafting on the Colorado River so when I’m talking about the river, they know what I’m talking about because they’ve all been on it.
Next year when we talk about potential and kinetic energy, I’m going to take my students to a local amusement park and have them experience an alpine coaster. So, when I talk about going down the hill of a rollercoaster, they understand what I’m talking about. It’s not this assumed knowledge. It’s a common experience and a common foundation. And so, I try to build my entire classroom based off of common experiences. So then when we continue to start growing, my students are able to have this common foundation that we can grow together — as opposed to having people at different levels of the starting line, we can all start from the same place and grow from there.
And it’s been a really powerful experience to have that time. A couple years ago this experience was so powerful that I actually had a group of students rally together around a common experience and ended up raising money to donate to a local lake that was up for sale. That local lake was able to be preserved by a local land trust and is now the newest state park in Colorado.
Jim Cowen: That’s great.
Autumn Rivera: And so, because of that experience of students having that common knowledge and that common experience, they were able to really come together. So, it was really powerful.
Jim Cowen: How many years have you been teaching now?
Autumn Rivera: I’ve been teaching 18 years.
Jim Cowen: So, you’ve had students that have moved on. Have they come back to you and talked about what science has meant to them now?
Autumn Rivera: Yeah. I have had multiple students come back. I just actually had dinner with a student and her mom last week who is a senior in high school. And just to hear like what she’s going to do and what she’s excited about, we celebrated her getting into Connecticut College. She’s very excited for that. And so, just to have a moment of celebration is so cool. That’s the best part about teaching. It’s not just a one-time thing, it’s like a lifetime experience.
And now I’m friends with students that I taught at the beginning of my career who are now teachers themselves. And so, we kind of could, you know, share notes and compare and contrast and have venting sessions about things that are happening in our classroom. It’s fun to see students as now colleagues. One thing I hear — and especially with being a sixth-grade teacher, a middle school teacher — is this is where students a lot of times develop their passion for science. It’ll start in sixth, seventh, and eighth grade, and then they carry that into high school and then into college. And so, to have students come back and say like, “it was your classroom where I realized I wanted to do something with athletic training because you taught me about the human body and that’s what I want to do.” And that student is now an athletic trainer in the district that I taught in and she’s doing that. And so, it’s so exciting to see that piece and be able to celebrate what just was a simple comment.
We started these documentary projects where students are researching underrepresented scientists; female scientists, scientists of color, scientists in our LGBTQ+ population, really trying to let students see that these hidden figures are not just, you know, in movies, they’re everywhere. We’re doing this piece and I just had this moment where kids were looking at these different scientists and I just thought like, “what if this is one of their moments that they think ‘I remember when I wanted to be a scientist, it was when I was in Ms. Rivera’s class and we were looking at these cards’” and I just was like, “this could be a moment for one of my students,” you know. Like, when did you decide you wanted to do this? Like, how cool would it be if that moment was in my classroom that time? So, it’s a great thing that just keeps giving back.
Jim Cowen: So much of the educational foundation is focused on English language arts and math. Do you believe that strong science curriculum actually bolsters both of those fields?
Autumn Rivera: Yeah. I think one of the things that we are, unfortunately, missing out on is with certain standards that are set for our nation that are specifically focused on math and language arts, and with that comes our high-stakes testing that are focused on math and language arts, our non-targeted standards…there’s learning loss there.
That is a really horrible thing. It’s really sad. Science and social studies and, you know, the arts are where you apply that knowledge, you know? And if you’re only ever learning the basics of something and you’re never applying it at a higher level, then you’re never really building that skill. And so, I really try to push increasing that writing, increasing that math, involving the math and language arts teachers in my classroom and vice versa.
The project I’m doing right now is a project we’re working on in all of our subject areas because we want to help students know that it’s not just like math is only for this hour and then you’ll only do reading for this hour. Like, no, no, no, you do it all the different times. And helping them understand that it crosses over, I think that piece is really powerful, especially where we’re going. So many of the jobs that our students will have in 15 years don’t even exist right now. And so, we need to really make sure we’re preparing our students. They understand the technology, they understand the coding, they understand all the pieces that are coming because those are the jobs that are going to be there for them. And we want to make sure that they’re as prepared as possible.
Jim Cowen: It’s a tough time for teachers right now. It’s a tough time for education. We, you know, are just continuously seeing tough learning loss brought on both by the pandemic and from the fallout from that. What can you tell a teacher who’s either contemplating coming into the teaching field or is in it now? Like what would you tell yourself, you know, as you came in 18 years ago?
Autumn Rivera: Yeah, I think first off, I would love to just name this idea of learning loss that’s been thrown around a lot by different people. I would like to change that word to “learning shift” because I feel like my students didn’t lose learning. They just shifted what they learned. You know, they learned how to learn online and in person, sometimes at the same time. I’m pretty sure half of them maybe have PhDs in technology at this point because of all the technology that they had to learn to use. So, I really want to celebrate, like our students survived a pandemic going to school. I did not have to do that. I don’t want the students to feel guilty that they somehow did something wrong during that piece.
But I think as we celebrate what our students have shifted in their learning and learn how to kind of work with that to move forward for teachers that are coming in, I think it’s just fun. I love teaching. I love being a part of it. I love coming to the classroom. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all easy. I have a mountain of grading that I need to get done that I just keep pushing a little further on my desk that I need to actually finish. It’s also May in education. April was the longest year, you know, it always is the longest year. Not longest month, the longest year. It could be a really hard time in education.
But naming that, and then still having fun, having a great time with students, challenging them, pushing them to take new risks and see new things. Allowing them to have new experiences. That’s a great part about teaching is you get to be there for so many firsts, so many “aha moments” to build those relationships.
I think that I would tell myself, if it was 18 years earlier, “it’s going to be rough, but you’re going to love it at the same time and just keep enjoying every moment because it continues to be a new day, new challenges, but also new memories and new relationships.”
Jim Cowen: Well, I know your students are getting ready to come back in from lunch, so I appreciate the time that you’ve spent with us today. I appreciate the time that you’ve spent with the Collaborative for Student Success on our upcoming workshops that we’re doing at the National Network of State Teachers of the Year with the National Science Teaching Association. You’re staying busy and we love it, and we appreciate it.
Autumn Rivera: Awesome.
Jim Cowen: So, thank you for taking the time today.
Autumn Rivera: Yeah. Thanks so much for having me. I appreciate it.
Jim Cowen: This is Jim Cowen from The Collaborative for Student Success. Thanks for listening to today’s episode of Route K-12: Exploring Education Recovery. Where each week, we showcase ways federal recovery funds are reshaping schools by talking to the people doing the hard work to educate America’s kids. Reach out to us at EduRecoveryHub.org/Podcast or follow us on Twitter at our handle @StudentSuccess.
About Jim Cowen
Jim is the the executive director of the Collaborative for Student Success, a non-profit organization that defends strong K-12 policies that benefit all students.