The students in Sixth Grade Science Teacher Erik Divan’s classroom are energized by his passion for science, which he brings into every aspect of the learning experience. In just his third year of teaching, Erik is deeply invested in each students' learning, going beyond in-class instruction, by focusing his efforts on more in-depth, cross-disciplinary planning. Learn more about Erik’s approach to teaching sixth-grade science by reading his full interview below:
How did you discover your passion for teaching?
I went through most of my undergrad (as a geology major) thinking that I was going to go into the fossil fuel industry. In my senior year, The University of Houston flew me out to look at their PhD program in basin analysis for the Caribbean—and I hated it.
I moved to Hawaii for a year after I graduated, and I ended up becoming a substitute teacher for a nearby high school. I wasn't crazy about it until they accidentally put me in a chemistry class. I had been teaching subjects I didn't know well, but I knew science, especially at a high school level.
It was a junior year class, and they were doing stoichiometry—which is balancing equations— and none of them knew how. It was supposed to be a review, but [the students] said they actually never learned it. So I got to teach for the first time, and it was such a transformative experience for me that I kept coming back to the school. I applied to Teachers College, Columbia University here in New York to be closer to my family, and I guess the rest is history!
What drew you to the Allen-Stevenson community?
I was drawn to this community because I saw people actively trying to improve their practice; a real community of learners and communicators. It's just the start of the year, and I already see the action and I’ve gotten involved. I'm planning on working with some peers on cross-disciplinary units.
A-S gives teachers the opportunity to develop themselves professionally, work together and collaborate on projects that don't fit the mold of a Regents exam. I think it's a huge opportunity for students and teachers, and what really attracted me to this school.
The liberal arts focus also appealed to me. I have a liberal arts degree myself, so I'm a big believer in that type of education. I think the core of it is cross-disciplinary education, where you can blur the lines between subjects and question what is history, what is science, and what is art.
And the facilities are incredible! We have amazing labs.
What excites you most about teaching 6th Grade?
I love this question! Sixth Grade is my zone. Sixth graders are that perfect balance to me of being big enough to have big conversations (and approach some pretty advanced topics in my class), but also young enough to still have that passion and fire that fuels me.
I observed some of the boys’ geologic era presentations and was struck by how excited they were to share the information they had learned. What was your impression of their work?
It was the boys’ first project, and they knocked it out of the park! We set the expectations, and many of them exceeded them, as represented in the rubric. I believe the average for that project was about a 95. [I saw] Incredible work from these boys and in a pretty short amount of time -- just two and half days. They're brilliant.
Your classroom is full of energy and enthusiasm. How do you create this type of engagement and excitement in the various topics that you teach in your class?
Thank you for the compliment! It takes practice. It's not something you just walk in knowing how to do it. Responsive Classroom training has really informed me quite a bit, and I would love to continue working on that. What I really learned about responsive classrooms was consistency and routinization. When my kids walk in they know what they have to do: What to do when they walk in, and what to do when they sit down. I have a song playing in the background, and when the song is over, they know that it's time for class to begin.
We have amazing labs here, so there's a lot of space for us to use. [For instance] we will model the geologic timescale, which is a tool that geologists use to represent all of Earth's years with a 50-foot rope. That is a really tough concept for kids to get. Scale proportionality is also difficult. So using visual aids and hands-on projects helps them. The engagement comes from both the routinization and [learning through] the physicality of science. I think if you're able to incorporate those elements, that's when kids are truly learning.
And another big part is they have to see that you care about it.
Are there any units or projects coming up that you are looking forward to teaching this group?
We're going to take a look at different ways that we get our power—renewable and non-renewable—and think of solutions.
I think, in particular, the boys are going to be excited to focus on nuclear energy. And while we will be spending some time on chemistry, it's more of an environmental science unit. We're going to be looking at the pros and cons of nuclear energy more broadly. We have some great content that we will share—both pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear.
It is going to be a debate—and they love to debate—so they’re going to eat it up. We’ll have a lot of conversations about equity and power in communities. There's a lot of conversation to be had about where the national grid thinks that they can put power lines and which communities are more at risk than others at having their backyards changed.
These are all really important conversations for our boys to be having in the context of a science class. And I'm excited to get into it with them.
What are some of your passions outside of the classroom?
I'm a lifelong athlete. I went to Bates College and got in through rowing. I rowed crew, and a single scull (rowing boat designed for a single person), so I had my own boat, and I would go to races and took it very seriously.
Fitness is a really big part of my life. I've been able to keep it such a big part of my life because I still race. I do it with my dad, who is a very talented rower himself.
When I am not at school I spend my time as a professional seaweed harvester. So over the summer, I can be found up north in Jonesport, Maine, and I will harvest about five tons of seaweed every day. I'll get about 20 to 25 tons of seaweed into a truck by hand in a good week.
Do you bring these interests into the classroom?
Absolutely. [Seaweed harvesting] ties nicely into the nitrogen cycle. The seaweed that we harvest is called Ascophyllum nodosum (though most people call it rockweed), and it's one of the only commercially harvested brown algae. It’s used as a major crop fertilizer. What I would like to do is actually bring the company that I work for to A-S and get their materials into our greenhouse, which I think would be very cool for some labs.