News from Synergy School
Making and tinkering come naturally to middle school science teacher Kristi Coale. Her grandmother was a seamstress and a pattern maker, and her mother taught Kristi to sew. Her father, an aerospace engineer, was very handy, and insisted that Kristi learn how to fix things too. When she got her first car, a ‘74 Honda Civic, in high school, her father made her take the engine apart and put it back together again. “My dad wasn’t going to send a girl out into the world not knowing anything about cars,” she says. “When I met my husband, I knew a lot more about cars than he did.” Kristi cooks, bakes, brews beer, and makes pickles. Recently, she and her two sons built an omni-wheel robot that plays soccer.
In the two years since Kristi started at Synergy, her hands-on approach to life has shaped the middle school science curriculum. Her robotics and tinkering classes are popular electives. She recently purchased a 3D cutter (or mill) for the science classroom that students will be able to use to etch circuit boards and carve other 3D shapes. Her classes include a large dose of traditional science too, of course, from rat dissection to participation in the annual science fair.
Before becoming a teacher, Kristi worked at Wired, the Center for Investigative Reporting, and public radio station KALW, among other news organizations. Much of her journalism had a scientific spin: she reported on subjects like genetic engineering, stem cell research, and environmental problems at the Chevron plant in Richmond, for example. She loved being a journalist, and was developing a daily show at KALW when her mother became gravely ill. After her mother’s death, something changed. “I realized I didn’t have that fire in the belly for what I was doing,” she recalls. “When I woke up in the morning I just didn’t want to go to work. I’d never felt that way before.”
It took her a while to get her bearings after her mother’s death. She knew she wanted to do something different but she didn’t know what. “As a journalist you are always detached, writing about other people doing things. I realized I wanted to be more involved,” she said. She spent some time volunteering at one of her sons’ schools and really enjoyed it. “I’d also mentored younger journalists at KALW and I realized that I really liked working with young people,” she recalls.
So she went back to school to get a teaching certificate. After student teaching at Visitation Valley Middle School, she got her first teaching job at Oceana High School in Pacifica. At Oceana, where she taught for three years, she started a robotics club. She loved her students at Oceana, many of whom she still sees. When she heard about the job as Synergy’s science teacher, she decided to apply. “I always thought I wanted to teach high school, but one of my teachers told me that working in middle school made him a better teacher. I think that’s because in middle school you have to push kids more. They are going through puberty, and so much is happening at once. I think it’s a time when kids either get turned on or they tune out. I wanted to be there to help them tune in.”
Teaching middle school also appealed to her, she says, because by high school, “Kids are focused on grades and see learning as to an end, versus just being curious about the world. I really like to see kids try things and make mistakes – I tell kids that being wrong is part of the learning process.”
Before she started at Synergy, Kristi attended the Exploratorium’s Teacher Institute for middle and high school math and science teachers, and still attends regular professional development workshops there.
Asked to describe her goals as a teacher, Kristi said, “I love to see kids get excited about learning. My goal is to help kids find something about the natural world that makes them excited. Some kids get excited about engineering and building; for some kids it’s dissection, for some kids it’s the earthquake project we did. I want every kid to find at least one thing they’re excited about.”
by Connie Matthiessen, May 2015
Don’t miss “Makers in the Mission,” an article about Kristi’s elective tinkering class…
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