Fourth grade teacher Jessica Frazer joins us to talk about her experience in a STEAM certified school at West Jackson Elementary School in Jackson County.

Jessica Frazer

Fourth grade teacher Jessica Frazer joins us to talk about her experience in a STEAM certified school at West Jackson Elementary School in Jackson County.


Ashley Mengwasser: Good day, Georgia educators. I'm Ashley Mengwasser, welcome to another episode of Classroom Conversations, the platform for Georgia's teachers. Classroom Conversations is presented by the Georgia Department of Education and Georgia Public Broadcasting. What do I have for you today, you say? Here's a clue. Do you hear that? In the context of education, it can mean only one thing.
STEAM. A beautiful thing, STEAM, for Georgia educators and young learners alike. Bringing STEAM into your classroom does have a prerequisite, STEAM certification. This is what happens when schools move their instructional practices to an integrated curriculum, a curriculum built on exploration, project based learning, and solving real world problems derived from students own schools and communities. I have a fabulous guest with me at GBP studios to break down elementary STEAM certification. Our teacher feature is Jessica Frazer, a fourth grade teacher at West Jackson Elementary School in Hoschton, Northeast Georgia. West Jackson E is one of six elementary schools within the Jackson County School District. Please put your hands together for Jessica Frazer. Hi, Jessica.

Jessica Frazer: Hi.

Ashley Mengwasser: I'm happy to see your smiling face today. Are you excited to discuss all the things about STEAM certification?

Jessica Frazer: So excited.

Ashley Mengwasser: I'm glad. We want to hear about your experience in a STEAM certified school, yes, but how about we warm up a little first? It's your sixth year as a full-time teacher, is that right?

Jessica Frazer: It is.

Ashley Mengwasser: Which begs the question, what career pathway were you on before this?

Jessica Frazer: Teaching was not my first profession. I actually did a lot of temp work the first time I was in college and worked my way into accounting and accounts payable, human resources, and payroll. I just didn't feel like the side of my humanitarian heart was being engaged. I actually worked as a vet tech for a while and played with puppies and kittens all day and was very happy doing that until I met husband and found my calling as a wife and a mother. I stayed at home to raise my daughter. We went to school together. I put her in kindergarten and I went back to school to become an educator. We graduated fifth grade together. I student taught in fifth grade, the same year she was in fifth grade. Then she went to middle school and I went in full time to a classroom.

Ashley Mengwasser: That's incredible. Your husband Newton, you gave him a shout out, he's here in the ENG booth today. Let's wave at Newton. Proud supporter. Out of all of those, what's your favorite of those careers?

Jessica Frazer: I would have to say teaching. The rewards of teaching are pretty much the payout. There's just saying that you're not in it for the income, you're in it for the outcome. Every day in the classroom really is a special day and a rewarding experience.

Ashley Mengwasser: I felt like teaching was the implied answer, but... I needed to hear you state it. Thanks for that. Talk about your school culture at West Jackson Elementary.

Jessica Frazer: We are a huge family at West Jackson. We're growing exponentially on our side of the county, but we still have very much a small time community feel. We all support each other and enrich each other. It's very much a family feel.

Ashley Mengwasser: What is unique about your school? Is there anything special?

Jessica Frazer: We have farm animals. We have three goats, Mocha, Carmel and Dudley, who's probably three times the size of the other two. He's a little bit of a bully.

Ashley Mengwasser: He didn't get the coffee theme name, no Hazelnut or Vanilla?

Jessica Frazer: We had a Mocaccino or something, but life cycle.

Ashley Mengwasser: Okay. Well back to Dudley's pugnacious personality. I want to hear more.

Jessica Frazer: Yeah, we have the three goats. We also have several chickens and they lay eggs. There's always fresh eggs at West Jackson. We have several gardens. We have a reading garden that has a koi pond. It's very relaxing. We have a greenhouse with an aquaponics system. That's definitely something that's unique about our school. People are usually surprised to see that we have animals.

Ashley Mengwasser: Very unique. I'm so intrigued by Dudley. How does he interact with Mocha and Caramel?

Jessica Frazer: He's a bully.

Ashley Mengwasser: Why?

Jessica Frazer: I think because he's so big and he's just your typical dude.

Ashley Mengwasser: Throwing his weight around.

Jessica Frazer: He's very much a bully. That's one of the things that one of the fourth grade classes is working on for their year long PBL is, how to feed the two girls without Dudley taking all the food. He very much is a bully to the two girls that are smaller.

Ashley Mengwasser: I'm going to advocate for Dudley because he's not here to represent himself. Maybe they got his goat, see what I did there. Did you like that Jessica? Yeah, she frowned. She legitimately frowned when I said that. Well, shifting back to humans now. You teach self-contained advanced content. Tell me about your high achieving students.

Jessica Frazer: They are fantastic. They keep me on my toes. People think that teaching gifted learners is a walk in the park, but it's not. I like to say that they'll go into zombie mode and eat your face off if you give them the opportunity because their minds just operate at such a high capacity. They really are very inquisitive and very fun to work with.

Ashley Mengwasser: Sounds like a high honor to work with them.

Jessica Frazer: Very curious too. Very mischievous if you give them the time.

Ashley Mengwasser: I like that. Mischievous young brains. Let's move into the subject of our conversation today so it won't be missed, it's STEAM. What does STEAM mean to you and to West Jackson elementary?

Jessica Frazer: STEAM is really just taking the framework of design thing and integrating your instruction. You want to start with an authentic problem, something that's a real world phenomenon or science based, and then you integrate in technology, engineering, arts, and math.

Ashley Mengwasser: All the things. I know you said when we first spoke, that a shift in mindset and practice are required to become STEAM certified. How did going through the actual STEAM certification process, change your teaching practices?

Jessica Frazer: It was really uncomfortable at first. It was my second year as a teacher and everything that I learned in teacher school, did not apply. You really do have to think backwards and think about the outcomes. You really have to think beyond the classroom and given some authenticity. It really has challenged me to think about the why of everything that I teach. Why do the students need to learn this? Why is it important for them in the real world outside of my classroom walls?

Ashley Mengwasser: I bet that makes your lessons all the more powerful for them?

Jessica Frazer: Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: Because it's rooted and grounded in the here and now. Well that's how STEAM certification has changed you as an educator. How has STEAM impacted the ways that students learn at your school?

Jessica Frazer: It's been really fun to watch a way that they can take interconnected concepts, and really articulate learning in a different way. They can see different types of sciences that are connected. They can talk about math and science and they can talk about how art is helping them learn. It's not just an isolated, "This is what I learned in history today," but this is how all of these things in the real world work together. Just the way that they can talk and articulate through the integration and the cross-cutting concepts.

Ashley Mengwasser: Talk about a project based or problem based learning, whichever definition teachers like, PBL or an interdisciplinary project that stands out to you. We love a story. Give us some anecdotes here.

Jessica Frazer: We solved a problem in my classroom last year. I'm on the side of the building where this sun comes in on the afternoon. If you put curtains up, it completely blocks the view of the beautiful trees. It just feels like a cave. The kids, when we were learning about the effects of light, decided to help me solve this problem. We ended up with some really beautiful stain glass installations. We were able to fix the problem of the light coming, but also have something aesthetically pleasing.

Ashley Mengwasser: Stained glass.

Jessica Frazer: Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: Did one student notice this problem, or all of them were commenting on that?

Jessica Frazer: They were all kind of commenting, but definitely the student that was blinded, that was the-

Ashley Mengwasser: Blinded by light.

Jessica Frazer: ... Blinded by the Light ended up being the name of our project. We partnered with the Art Institute in Atlanta. The High Museum is one of our community partners. We were able to talk to them and do a virtual field trip and talk to them about how light damaged their art, but also how they used light in their museum. They just kind of started from there, and getting ideas about how to solve the problem in our classroom as well.

Ashley Mengwasser: That seems like such an art based solution, which I love. Which is the A in STEAM.

Jessica Frazer: Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: Stained glass, is that something you had to learn how to do?

Jessica Frazer: It's something that I had a lot of background in.

Ashley Mengwasser: I didn't think that I'd be able to use that in a traditional classroom. It's been really rewarding to get to use that. Yeah, I had an undergrad in art, but never really a place to use it. It's coming out in the classroom now and it's really fun.
You have so many skills and industries to bring to bear. Do they ever call you when the goats need a hand with your vet tech experience?

Jessica Frazer: They don't, but the fourth graders at our school are the creature caretakers. They're charged with the responsibility of taking care of all the creatures at our school, Dudley the goat, and my class takes care of a frog bog.

Ashley Mengwasser: What's a frog bog?

Jessica Frazer: I actually built a farm over the summer, well, more than over the summer, it took about a year. Over the summer, one of my first grade colleagues came to me and said, "You posted this picture of this grading ditch at your new farm. It's full of tadpoles. Can I come get some?" I said, "Sure," and she took that. She took the tadpoles because first grade studies the life cycle. She wrote a mini grant and she got funding to make a frog bog at our school.

Ashley Mengwasser: Whoa.

Jessica Frazer: I took a bunch of them and I put them in a tank in our classroom and we gear all of our science towards the creatures. One of the units that we do in fourth grade is ecosystems, eat or be eaten. All of the science that we do in my classroom, are thinking about the frogs and the toads and the tadpoles and possible predators if we put them outside or what we need to watch out for with the frog bog outside, and what they need to eat, how can sustain them as well. As we work through each unit of science, we're just constantly bouncing back towards that year long PBL and that umbrella of, "How do we take care of our creatures?" Right now, we're studying the earth, the sun, and the moon. We're trying to decide if the seasons would affect our frogs and our tadpoles and our toads outside and if that's something that we need to protect them from. As we move through each unit, we would just continue to bounce back to that.

Ashley Mengwasser: What is the design process, and how do students use it? Give us the definition and kind of take us through all the components.

Jessica Frazer: It's really just a way to frame problem solving. You start with asking a question. That's where you bring in your real world problem or your problem that you need to solve. Then you investigate, that's when you do your research, your investigative research, to try to figure out what you need to know to solve the problem. Then you imagine possible solutions and then you start creating a prototype or a strategy to solve the problem. The final step is to test and reflect, to see if your problem worked or see if you still need to work out more of the problem.

Ashley Mengwasser: Just because I'm curious, what sort of timeline is associated with the complete design process? Is it something you do all in one day, you do over time?

Jessica Frazer: It really just depends on the problem. You can use it in just a 15 minute block to solve a math word problem, or you can use it to guide your project based learning throughout the year.

Ashley Mengwasser: Can design process be applied to everything?

Jessica Frazer: Absolutely everything. I've used it in writing composition. I use it when I do math word problems. It absolutely can frame anything you're trying to teach.

Ashley Mengwasser: Can you think of an example for another subject area?

Jessica Frazer: I mean, you can really even apply it to when you're studying history. You go in with, "How has life changed for Native Americans," and you just start investigating and looking back at history. You really can guide any kind of learning.

Ashley Mengwasser: That's incredible. How does PBL impact collaborative teacher planning?

Jessica Frazer: It definitely serves as a framework when I come together with my team and we're working on a new unit or a PBL, or just daily steam with integrated lessons. We start with that ask and then move into, "What do we want our kids to imagine? Where do we want to take their thinking," and then giving them some guided options to research and investigate. You really just use that as framework too.

Ashley Mengwasser: Do teachers like collaborating about this type of approach?

Jessica Frazer: Yes. Collaboration, I think it's a blessing and a curse. There's a ton of collaboration in teaching because you want to norm to a certain extent.

Ashley Mengwasser: Right.

Jessica Frazer: It can be a really good thing and it can be a lot of work too.

Ashley Mengwasser: Yeah. But the outcome is wonderful for the students. How are your content areas integrated at West Jackson?

Jessica Frazer: It really just on the teacher style and the classroom. When we collaborate as a grade level, we go into it with the mindset of, "Well, this is the outcome. This is what we want all our students to understand," but then you have creative freedom in how you deliver it. I integrate a lot more visual arts just because I have a background.

Ashley Mengwasser: That background, hello stained glass.

Jessica Frazer: I'm comfortable with it. Some of my colleagues will integrate more movement. They like to do dramatic.

Ashley Mengwasser: Physical movement.

Jessica Frazer: They like drama and different things like that. I've worked with a music teacher to try to build that background too, because it's completely not in my tool belt. It really just depends on what a classroom you go into, as far as what you see.

Ashley Mengwasser: That's fresh STEAM happening in every class. I like it. Everybody can bring their own content expertise to bear. What advice would you give to a school that is interested in STEAM certification?

Jessica Frazer: Be very open-minded and very flexible and be ready to build the ship as you sail it, because you can't let go of any of these huge components and molding these young minds. You absolutely have to revamp everything you're doing.

Ashley Mengwasser: One of the things you told me is, "It's okay not to know where it's going."

Jessica Frazer: Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: Can you tell me about an experience for you where you actually felt that way?

Jessica Frazer: Last year with our Blinded by the Light project, one of the kids got the idea with a test and reflect phase, "Well, how do we know if it's actually working? It's not blinding us anymore, but how much light is getting in?" we were able to partner with the STEAM coach and he brought in an iPhone app that could measure, and I don't have the right word for it, but it's a way to measure light. It starts with an L, but I can't remember what it was.

Ashley Mengwasser: Lumens.

Jessica Frazer: There you go. There was an app that could measure the lumens and it was in decimals. Out of that, just kind of spraying all these really great math conversations of comparing decimals and adding and subtracting decimals and ordering decimals, trying to figure out if our project worked.

Ashley Mengwasser: It sounds like design process is peppered with these little aha moments that you have as the teacher going through and making connections. I think that probably makes the learning more exciting.

Jessica Frazer: It does.

Ashley Mengwasser: For you and for them.

Jessica Frazer: Yeah.

Ashley Mengwasser: Take us out with some STEAM teaching tips or instructional strategies that teachers can use right away.

Jessica Frazer: If I had to say try any one thing, I would say, try framing your lessons using the design process.

Ashley Mengwasser: Starting that way?

Jessica Frazer: Starting that way, asking a question, and trying to get your kids to problem solve. It makes them think deeper about the content and you get all these really good aha moments along the way too, because it's very much open ended.

Ashley Mengwasser: Anything else you want to add about your STEAM teaching tips or instructional strategies, Jessica, or even just words of advice and comfort for folks who are looking to get STEAM certified?

Jessica Frazer: It's a long process, but it's absolutely worth it. It's uncomfortable at first, but the more that you change your practice, the more you're going to see your students thrive from it, in it. There really is a lot of benefit in it.

Ashley Mengwasser: You said it all starts with beginning every lesson with a phenomenon that's real.

Jessica Frazer: Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: Something that occurs to me, I know you're teaching these high achieving students, these high achieving fourth graders, is the design process and PBL and STEAM. Do you have to have a high achieving student base to implement these?

Jessica Frazer: You don't. One of the things that I think is really amazing, is that when you offer that authenticity and you ask those questions that are connected to the real world, you'll see students that don't traditionally thrive in an academic setting, really start to blossom. It really is an access point for all students and that's why we love STEAM so much.

Ashley Mengwasser: They're excited and they're making connections too.

Jessica Frazer: Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: That propels their learning forward.

Jessica Frazer: Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: Beautiful stuff. That's our conversation. Thanks for your value intel, Jessica.

Jessica Frazer: You're welcome. Thank you.

Ashley Mengwasser: This is Classroom Conversations and your host signing off. We'll return next week with a fresh episode to carry you through these next seven days without us. Let this truth wash over you like warm condensation. You're a great teacher. Bye-bye.