Brian Klaft started teaching in 1991 in Chicago Public Schools and has been teaching science at Indian Prairie Unit District 204's Granger Middle School in Aurora for 19 years, the past 11 in eighth grade.
Last year, he began serving as a curator with the National Science Teachers Association, helping teachers around the country locate appropriate resources for teaching science core ideas.
Q. In an age when middle schoolers can find just about any answer instantly with a Google search, how do you engage them in the inquiry process of science and convince them there's more to discover?
A. Technology has changed the landscape of our lives, but in some ways not much has changed from when I was in school in the '70s. To engage students, you need to have problems that students can relate to on a personal level.
I try to tie as much phenomena and classroom content to students' real life as possible. If a student can relate to class activity, they will be more engaged in the activity. I try to model "life is science; science is life" as much as I can.
Q. Why did you choose to focus on science, and what do you hope your students take away from your class, even if their own interests lean toward English or history or music?
A. My first science class memory was when I was in seventh grade in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. My teacher, Mr. Steffen, challenged us with a "Mystery Powders" activity. I had to figure things out by questioning everything.
That is what I want my students to take away from my classroom. Every student has the ability to "figure it out" in their way, their language, and at their pace. To do that, students must have a "question everything" mentality. I want to help build those two things in my students' personal philosophy. Those two processes will help students in every academic class and, eventually, in the workplace.
Q. How have science education standards changed, and how have those changes affected your approach in the classroom?
A. The Next Generation Science Standards, which were introduced in 2013, have opened the science classroom up considerably. In the past, science teachers taught content. The focus was on vocabulary and knowing facts about science. With NGSS, science teachers now facilitate students' discovery of the processes of science.
My classroom structure also has changed. It is no longer my classroom, but a learning space I share with my students. We address phenomena together. Each day is an exploration of a question, and the students co-own that process with me. NGSS has made the classroom a place of questioning and collaboration. I really feel this is how teaching is meant to be done.
Q. Scientists can claim a few celebrities in their ranks -- Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, the MythBusters come to mind. Who is your favorite scientist and why?
A. My favorite historical scientists is Dmitri Mendeleev, the scientist who designed the Periodic Table of Elements. The Periodic Table is flawless. It is amazing that in 1871 Mendeleev could develop something so perfect.
My favorite scientists today are the wonderful science teachers I work with in District 204, and the many teachers I collaborate with on Twitter and Facebook. This group may not be finding a cure for cancer, but they are motivating the future scientists who will find that cure.