Tony Pirruccello-McClellan “finds science in anything”

Some of the most exciting and personal academic work at Moses Brown has emerged from the faculty cohort plan, a professional development and evaluation program. In a year of transformational study, a cohort of veteran teachers sets goals, serves as resources for one another’s evaluations and shares professional development plans at year’s end. At the heart of the program are cohort projects, each teacher’s big idea for personal research to be shared in the classroom. The benefit to students is clear: teachers continuously deepen their expertise, refine their curriculum, and bring the latest research back to the classroom to improve the learning experience.

Tony Pirruccello-McClellan on the Yellowstone National Park environmental service TRIP

Tony Pirruccello-McClellan on the Yellowstone National Park environmental service TRIP

Resilience is a hot topic in education. At Moses Brown School, teachers and parents recognize that recovery from setbacks is a critical skill for students to master now, before they confront bigger challenges in college and in adult life. STEM and arts curricula embrace an iterative process of attempts, failures and new approaches, scaffolding student perseverance and grit. Even teachers hit bumps in the road: middle school science teacher Tony Pirruccello-McClellan had to chart a new course when his faculty cohort project met an unexpected dead end.

He’d planned to mentor San Miguel School’s new science teacher, a recent college graduate, sharing curricula and trade secrets from his own 29 years of teaching and even bringing their students together for collaborative study. “After some fits and starts, though, it was clear that the new teacher simply couldn’t engage with all I’d planned,” Tony reflected. As a volunteer in an underserved school, he was simply stretched too thin.

Tony grappled with how to redirect his cohort project, and decided to double down on his own curriculum. “I really enjoy the curricular development aspect of teaching,” he says. “Discovering new ways to model, demonstrate or test an idea is one of the best parts of the job. We can find science in anything. We just have to look.” Recent new curricula include the Yellowstone Wolf Project, which connects to students’ study of Never Cry Wolf in English class and feeds into the Yellowstone summer environmental service trip; and the Rube Goldberg Project, where students build outlandish machines to demonstrate laws of physics. “The Rube Goldberg seed was planted in January, and by April the new unit was ready to go,” Tony says. “It took creativity, communication, collaboration and planning – and a leap of faith. As a professional development experience it was invaluable.”

Tony has also pursued curriculum development through conferences and travel. At the National Science Teachers’ Association conference in Chicago, he gathered ideas from workshops on 3D printing and iPad use in classrooms. A highlight was New England Ocean Science Education Collaborative’s Ocean Literacy Summit in Woods Hole in the fall. “It took me back to my college experience, a SEA semester at Woods Hole aboard the Westward,” Tony recalls. He looks forward to NEOSEC’s June conference in Newport. “There may be a way for our middle school to work with the Oliver Hazard Perry, a 200’ tall ship, and later to connect the resources of MB’s new Maritime Education Center with our science curriculum.”

Tony’s faculty cohort project has followed multiple paths, rather than the one he’d planned – with immediate benefits to his middle school colleagues and students. “When I started teaching 29 years ago, I chose the middle grades as a stepping stone to the high school,” he laughs. “After a few years of teaching students grades 5-12, I discovered that I was a middle school teacher.  I’m totally comfortable with the notion: whenever I’m with kids of this age, I’m in the right place.”

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