Godwin — “So what happens to the baby oysters when acid hits the water?” asked chemistry teacher Grace Boersma as she moved from her desk to a student table, and then to another student table, in her chemistry class.
As the class considered the answer, Boersma paused to ask a student about how his day is going. It’s a routine students say they appreciate.
“She pays attention to our work and us,” said 10th-grader Brenna Tran. “I like how she comes over to our table and she checks in on how we are doing.”
The dance continued throughout the class time as Boersma guided students through the lesson, answered questions and checked in with them, all with a touch of humor.
“Wait, did the groundhog see his shadow?” Boersma asked. “That means six more weeks of winter. That is my favorite season but also with the extended winter, there are more chances for a snow day.”
There was dead silence in the classroom as the students looked at Boersma.
“I think she is sometimes funny,” said Brena, who prefers summer.
Building a Partnership Between Students and Teacher
Recently named the high school science teacher of the year by the Michigan Science Teacher Association, Boersma says teaching is not about being all-knowing but rather guiding students to finding the answers.
“That is what I’m really passionate about is getting students to think through situations, ask questions and figure out where we need to go next,” she said.
While chemistry is Boersma’s favorite, she will be the first to tell you it is not the easiest subject for high school students. It was why she searched for a curriculum that would be hands-on along with creating a partnership between the teacher and the students where they are learning together.
‘I’m bringing really high-level thinking to students that a lot of people don’t think they can do it. They can do it. We need to give them opportunities to do it.’— Grace Boersma
It was a challenge to find a chemistry curriculum that followed Next Generation Science Standards, was free and easily accessible. She found one at inquiryHub (iHUB), a science and math research partnership between Denver Public Schools and the University of Colorado Boulder, which had developed such a curriculum for biology. When she learned iHUB had developed a similar one for chemistry, Boersma said, “I begged (Kent ISD Science Education Consultant) Wendy (Vogel), ‘Please let me into this pilot when they start it.’
“I’m more of a facilitator in the classroom,” she said of using the iHub chemistry curriculum. “Obviously, I know the science and I know where students need to go and I can use that knowledge to question them and to point where they need to go, but they are the ones understanding what’s going on.”
Boersma is not only one of the first teachers to utilize the iHUB chemistry curriculum, she is now a chemistry facilitator for iHub chemistry and the Kent ISD.
In fact, in her eight-year teaching career, Boersma has accumulated several honors such as the Kalamazoo Air Zoo Science Innovation Hall of Fame Educator Excellence Award and a Teacher of Promise by The Network of Educators.
Not bad for a person who originally did not have an interest in becoming a teacher.
The Funny Thing That Happened at Hope College
“In preschool, we had to go up and say what we wanted to be when we grew up, and I practiced that I wanted to be a teacher, and I got up there and I freaked out,” Boersma said with a laugh. “I said, ‘I want to be a butterfly.’”
That was the extent of Boersma’s interest in teaching. By high school, Boersma had found a passion for chemistry and decided to pursue it and sociology when she went to Hope College.
“It wasn’t until my junior year that I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I think I want to teach,’” Boersma said. “I wanted to do this because I was a teacher’s assistant for a lot of different chemistry labs.
“And then I was like, ‘Well, crap, I only have one year left. I can’t get an education degree, what do I do?’”
Boersma’s mom heard an ad for the Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowship that, if accepted, would pay for a master’s degree in education. In return, the applicant was required to teach in a high-needs urban or rural secondary school for one year. Through the program, Boersma completed her master’s at University of Michigan and did her student teaching in Detroit all in one year.
“I tell my students, I would never recommend getting a master’s in a year,” she said. “It was a really tough thing. But I realized, I really like teaching in an urban district. I like being where the kids are.”
There’s This School District Called Godwin
Knowing Boersma was interested in returning to West Michigan, a U-M instructor recommended Godwin Heights Public Schools.
So she applied, reaching out to Curriculum and Instruction Director Michelle Krynicki to say she would “be excited to interview and see what Godwin is all about.” The next day, Godwin reached out and Boersma drove up, did a sample lesson and an interview.
“I remember a hands-on chemistry lesson demonstration that pushed students to think and furthermore, explain their thoughts,” Krynicki said. “She had studied a lot and was clearly ready to effect change in our urban system.
“Grace brought forward amazing fortitude to reach all students despite any barriers. Since that time her confidence and leadership continue to drive success in many areas within our Godwin Family.”
A couple of days later, Boersma got a job offer from Godwin and did not think twice about accepting.
“I did not apply anywhere else,” she said. “I didn’t interview anywhere else. I was like, ‘I think this is where I want to be’ and I have never looked back on it.
“I have never thought about going anywhere else. This is where I think I can make a big difference because I’m bringing really high-level thinking to students that a lot of people don’t think they can do it. They can do it. We need to give them opportunities to do it.”
So Why Godwin?
“It’s the kids,” Boersma said. “It is literally the students every time. The interactions I have with them are just so real and so fun and I can push students to like, think and talk about science.”
Sophomore Morgan McDaniel said she believes students are more engaged because Boersma allows them to be independent, while creating a calm environment for them to be themselves.
“It feels very free and that is why I find it calming, and because of her good energy,” said Morgan, who admitted Boersma is one of her favorite teachers. “She is just really sweet. She is very understanding and is always there for you.”
Boersma, who is the lead coach for the high school’s multi-tiered systems of support team, appreciates that Godwin allows teachers to care for the full student, helping them overcome challenges so they can be successful in the classroom.
She is also grateful for the support from administrators to integrate curriculum such as iHub chemistry as well her new class, the science of foods.
“They really trust their teachers,” Boersma said. “They know that we are super knowledgeable in what we’re teaching in our content or pedagogy, and they let us run with it. It’s nice to know that what I care about is also what Godwin cares about, but that they also see me as a master in my content.”