iExploreScience is all about those NGSS-aligned resources that you’ve been told to use but no one has provided. It’s where you can find instructional materials, lesson plans, and professional development that is actually based on the Next Generation Science Standards — from the DCIs to the PEs to the SEPs. iExploreScience resources will engage your students and challenge them to become 21st century science learners, fostering their ability to think critically and develop their own understandings. If you are looking for top-notch products designed specifically to meet the NGSS, you’re in the right place.
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My Story: Nicole VanTassel from IExploreScience
When you create a website, you’re supposed to make an “About Me” page. I have always struggled with what to write in things like that – little blurb biographies you have to do for your school websites, applications, program award pamphlets, so on and so forth. It can kind of be hard to figure out a balance between being “professional” and “personal.” Do I tell you I’m really into pretty pens and decorating my planner? If I mention the awards I’ve received, does it sound like I’m bragging? If I don’t mention the awards I’ve received, have I lost out on an opportunity to prove I know what I’m talking about? I may be overthinking this, but I find those kind of blurbs difficult.
Since I’ve gotta write it though, I’m going to fall back on being “real” — and just tell you a bit about my story. I am a science teacher, curriculum developer, instructional resource maker, STEM program educator, wife, and mother to two little monsters. I am not always all of those things at one time, but those are the many hats I’ve worn.
I have worked in education in various roles for the last 11 years – everything from summer camp counselor and preschool teacher (while I was in grad school) to full-time teaching positions in English/Language Arts, Social Studies, Integrated Science, Earth/Space and Environmental Science classrooms. (Confession: I never know which of those subjects requires capitalization, and I also think it looks weird when just one isn’t capitalized, so I just capitalized them all!) I didn’t start my undergrad degree planning to teach, but through a series of fortunate events, I kind of fell into it, and I have loved teaching ever since. Don’t get me wrong – my first year in I very nearly quit the profession entirely (that first year is a nightmare!) – but I made it through, and education (particularly science education) is absolutely my passion. Under that broad umbrella, middle schoolers are definitely my favorite.
I started my career teaching in an urban school district in North Carolina, moved back home to Pennsylvania where I worked in a private school, and then switched back over to an urban school district in my hometown. While that first teaching job nearly broke me, without a doubt it forced me to develop the classroom management skills that made my positions in Pennsylvania so enjoyable (and allowed me to handle all the hands-on activity that comes with a science classroom), and I came to LOVE working with my “challenging” kids. I wouldn’t have left my “city kids” for any suburban district in the area.
But I did leave. Before you start getting all judgy and thinking, “What does she know if she isn’t even teaching now?!”, please let me explain. Before meeting my husband, I sometimes wondered if I even wanted to have children. I loved working, I loved being devoted to my career, and I had so many dreams to advance it. While I knew I could definitely still do all of those things with children, I wasn’t sure I wanted to have to split my attention. Whether it’s hormones or love or maturity or whatever, I eventually realized I did want children, but I knew I would still work. I am a career-oriented individual – I am highly motivated, incredibly driven, and I want to be the best at everything I put my effort into.
I moved to a ninth grade science position the fall that my daughter was born. In the months before her birth – like literally the few months of school prior to her arrival in November – I brought all of my passion to the job and created an awesome classroom, wrote the curriculum for the year for my Earth and space science class (based on the awful list of objectives and textbook chapters my district handed over), and spent nearly every day at work from before 7AM to nearly 6PM. I also spent early mornings to late afternoons at Panera on the weekend, developing engaging lesson plans and instructional materials, grading materials and providing feedback, and completing whatever additional tasks needed done for my classroom — parent emails, district and state mandates, data tracking, classroom management programs, so on and so forth. I don’t say any of this to complain – I loved it! I enjoyed what I was doing, and I didn’t mind putting in so many hours.
But it was also something I had to do, if I wanted to do a good job in the classroom. The “curriculum” I had been given was literally a list of Next Generation Science Standards, followed by a list of student learning objectives. The “pacing guide” that was meant to structure the course was a table that included the week of the school year, the topic, and the textbook chapter I was supposed to cover. While maybe if you had a good textbook you could get by with something like that, my textbooks were last printed in the late 90s. They were awful. They were also way above my students’ reading level and totally NOT aligned to the NGSS. So as much as I loved all of the curriculum writing I was doing, it also wasn’t entirely an option if I wanted to give my students access to, you know, a quality science education.
However, I also knew I couldn’t keep that up after my daughter’s birth. I would have to scale back my ambition (to be the best at everything) and find a bit more balance. So at that point, I had no intention at all of ever leaving the classroom.
My daughter arrived three weeks before her expected due date, which threw a small wrench into my lesson plans. I wasn’t able to finish the plate tectonics unit we had begun, and my district-mandated SLO project was thrown off. But overall, I wasn’t terribly worried. I enjoyed my six weeks off with her, and then returned to work two days before Christmas break. (Well timed, right?) While I dreaded the thought of going back before the day arrived, once I was there – it was great to see my students and friends again. It was also great to only work two days – get myself situated and eased back into the work routine – and then have another two weeks off with my baby!
I knew I needed to get my butt moving as well, so I made arrangements for childcare with my mom for the week after Christmas and planned to focus on getting prepared for the next few weeks. I would enjoy the Christmas holidays with family — our first one with our new baby — and then focus on school afterward.
All of my plans changed the night of December 26. After our final Christmas celebration — the one where my mom and dad, sister, aunt and uncle, husband, and new baby all exchange our gifts for each other — my sister went out with friends. We went home to bed, and I spent the night up every three hours like usual. Around 2 AM, she called my dad to pick her up from the bar. She never made it home. A drunk driver ran a red light and smashed into my dad’s car, killing my 24-year old sister and severely injuring my dad. I spent the week after Christmas dragging my husband and daughter back and forth from the hospital, dealing with my parents’ grief, my dad’s medical issues, police reports, insurance claims, and all the stupid stuff like cancelling cell phone accounts and iTunes radio.
The night before I was supposed to return to work for good – the day after New Years – I freaked out and called in sick. I was given an additional four days of bereavement (a favor really, because technically those days should have overlapped the holiday break), and then I did return to my classroom for the remainder of the year.
And it was actually ok. I enjoyed finishing out the year with my students at the time, and I was excited to plan for the following year. But then summer rolled around and I got a taste of what it would be like to spend my days with my little one. And as the summer went on and she got older (and more fun), the more I wasn’t as thrilled about going back.
I tried hard to get back into the spirit, and I had moments of excitement followed by moments of “Ugh, I just want to be home with my baby!” Around my daughter’s first birthday, I found out I was pregnant with my second child, and this wishy-washy feeling came and went all throughout the year. When my son was born that following summer, I knew I couldn’t go back. At least not right away. I wanted to experience what it was like to take my daughter to preschool, spend our days at the zoo, and just be around. I didn’t want to be stressed out when I was at home because I had so much to do for school, and I didn’t want to be miserable at school because I couldn’t live up to my personal expectations (because I was too busy with things at home). I couldn’t give both 130%, and I didn’t want to live my life stressed out about it.
But I do love teaching. And honestly, one of my favorite parts of being a teacher was developing the curriculum and instructional resources. That’s probably why I spent so much time working outside the work day… but anyway, I realized that while I might not be able to do everything I wanted to (be an amazing teacher who has an amazing classroom, makes amazing connections with home and school and community, and facilitates amazing learning experiences for my amazing students) — while I might not be able to do all of those things and balance being an amazing mom, I could maybe do just some of them.
In February of 2018, I accepted a part-time position with a local university providing STEM programs and workshops to school, teacher, and community groups. When I’m not keeping my teaching skills on point at work (or doing my best to be an amazing mommy at home), I’m doing the thing I love best: creating curriculum and resources.
So that’s why I created this site — iExploreScience allows me to do some of the parts of teaching I love – and am good at – while still living the life I want, the life that allows me to be here a little more for my little ones. I’ve learned how short life can be, and I want to be truly present for it.
And it also allows me to make life a little easier for others, so that they can be more present for their friends and families, have time for their own interests, and frankly, their life! I know teaching is hard, and there just isn’t enough time to get everything done. So if units and lessons and standards are not something you love to dive into, why should you have to?
I just think we should all do more of what we love when we can, and this is a little of what I love: