Sakhalin Finnie: Inspirational Project-Centered Teaching
Credit: Peter Hoey
Sakhalin Finnie is proud of her ninth-grade science students at the Harbor Teacher Preparation Academy, in Wilmington, California, and who could blame her? Last year, the group won first place in the local district for the Integrated Coordinated Science (ICS) competition. Finnie's students are no doubt proud of her, too: In 2007, Finnie received the $25,000 Milken Family Foundation National Educator Award for her exemplary teaching work. You could ask her about the honor, but you may not get anywhere. True to form, Finnie is much more interested in talking about her students.
The first-place prize in the district's ICS Earth Science Challenge, Finnie explains, was the result of a classroom project: "We have ten weeks of earth science, and at the end of those ten weeks the students do a project that covers the whole ten weeks, during which we study earthquakes, volcanoes, and plate tectonics."
Finnie's students designed an emergency plan for the home, and an emergency kit. They also created a newspaper, complete with illustrations, that "tells someone who doesn't know anything about earth science all about earthquakes, volcanoes, and plate tectonics how they're all related, and why we have earthquakes." In addition, the students videotaped a five-minute earthquake-safety commercial in the form of a rap song, and victory was theirs.
Clearly, Finnie has a knack for inspiration. How does she do it? "It's a project-centered, student-centered class," she says. "We do as many lab and hands-on activities as possible. They must interact with their lab project, but they also have to talk to each other, and they first have to write what they think. It's called 'think-care-share.' Students learn it is much more fun to study science if you can do the lab."
Finnie should know. She was a hands-on chemical engineer before she switched careers in 1999 to become a teacher. She's been tutoring since junior high school. "I taught people how to build computers, how to run computers, how to use the software, and I also have tutored kids in math and science," she says. "It was a natural transition for me to switch to teaching." She admits the change wasn't as easy as she thought it would be, but the challenge has apparently agreed with her. She's improved her students' academic performance, and helped one group raise its reading scores by 10 percent.
"In the Los Angeles Unified School District, most students coming into ninth grade do not read at grade level," Finnie says. "This year, the kids are pretty good, but I've had kids that read at third- and fourth-grade level." To assess her students with low comprehension levels, Finnie has her own approach. "We take one page with three paragraphs, and I have them underline the vocabulary words, tell me what the meaning is," she says. "They write it out, then they discuss each paragraph and draw a picture that represents what it means. They don't have to have drawing skills; I draw stick figures. If they can give me a picture of the words, then I know they understand.
"I also have them talk to each other more than they talk to me, because talking to me can be intimidating," Finnie explains. "Asking each other for help works better and makes life a lot easier. Talking to them, and letting them talk to each other, works well in raising their reading-comprehension test scores. Ultimately, my goal is for them to be able to learn and teach themselves on their own. I want them to be independent learners."
Edutopia is not the first to acknowledge Finnie's hard work. In addition to the Milken award, which credited her with inspiring "dozens of talented young people to enter the teaching profession," the National Aeronautics and Space Administration chose her to participate in its Minority University Math, Science, and Technology Award for Teacher Education Program (MASTAP). Somehow, she also finds time to lead the school's Future Teacher Club and act as its representative for United Teachers Los Angeles.
And what does Finnie tell her students about the rewards and challenges of teaching? "I tell them you must be able to laugh," she says. "The best thing about teaching is when, at the start of the year, someone walks in and they hate science, or they can't read the book, and at the end of the year, you see their eyes light up and they say, 'Ms. Finnie, I got it, I got it!'"
"I also tell them that teaching is worth it to me for the successes that I have, and the fun," she continues. "I really have fun at my job. I tell them I didn't always have fun in engineering. I liked it, but I didn't always have fun with it. I tell them that teaching turned out to be harder than I thought. It's definitely not an easy job, but it's worth it."
How do you use the Web or other technology in your work?
The students have to use the Internet for each project. We have laptops at our school; every kid logs on. I have three computers in my room. I use a projector that's hooked up to my laptop, and I go on the Web sites and show them the difference between a legitimate science Web site and one that isn't; what I'm looking for, and what they need to look for.
Which resources have inspired you and informed your work?
I used the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Web site in earth science a lot. Also, I use my own college chemical journal. I like the Wall Street Journal and USA Today for newspapers. I recommend the National Science Foundation's Web site, and the Discovery Zone for biology and earthquakes, and the Northern California Geological Society Web site.
Who are your role models?
My mentor for the NASA program was Jean Adenika-Morrow. She taught me so much about the politics of a school and how to keep the kids the main priority, and how to make sure your students learn the best they can. She also taught me a lot about principals, because she used to be a principal. And that helped me better deal with my administration. And then she taught me about district-level politics and how it affects the schools, and about dealing with parents.
Mrs. Wheeler -- she used to be a biology teacher at Banning High School -- helped me get organized and be consistent. And another teacher at Banning, Mr. Law. He helped me learn how to enjoy my job and smile no matter what's going on. Those three people really, really helped me be a good science teacher.
What advice would you give those who consider you a role model?
That we're not perfect, and please get help. When something goes wrong in your classroom, the first thing you should say is, "What did I do wrong?" Don't initially blame it on the kids. The kids have a responsibility, but first look at yourself and how you're running the class. And then, if you've done everything you're supposed to do and the kids are just breaking the rules, go find an older teacher who gets along with kids and has their respect, and ask that person to come help you. For some kids, if you're unorganized, that's a weakness for them.
And you have to be realistic about who's coming into your room. If the kids do not come in with their math, English, or reading skills at grade level, there's only so much you can do. Understand that if a child is coming in far below basic, you're not going to be able to move them to proficiency in science.
What fundamental beliefs have guided your work?
I believe everybody can learn; you just have to figure out what they need. My parents taught me that whatever you do, do your best at it. So, if I was going to teach, I wanted to learn everything I could about what it takes to be the best teacher. To do that, I had to be humble enough to know I don't know everything.
I came in with two engineering degrees, but no matter how intelligent you are, standing in front of those children, if they do not understand you, then it doesn't matter. The kids didn't care about how many degrees I had. It's not about how intelligent you are; it's about how well you relate to those kids and how much background work you put into it.
What's your mantra in the face of adversity?
Never give up. Never give up. Be realistic, and never give up. Laugh. Find a kid that can make you laugh, because there's always one. And, choose the day. Every day, you can't be your best.
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