Secretary King and senior officials got on the bus and went back to school this week during #OpportunityTour, which visited exemplary PK-12 schools and institutions of higher education and celebrated local ideas and initiatives across several southern states, including Alabama. This week’s edition of Voice from the Classroom brings us perspective from the 2008 Alabama Teacher of the Year, Dr. Pamela Harman.
After teaching for more than 20 years, I can say that everything about a new school year is exciting (except maybe having to wear shoes).
When I was a new teacher, the beginning of the school year intimidated me. I was nervous about both my content knowledge and my pedagogy. So my goals for the year focused on improving my practice and strengthening my teaching skills. I worked to deepen my science content knowledge, and I developed a repertoire of instructional skills and habits of mind necessary to promote my students’ success and capacity for life-long learning. It was difficult for me to push students’ learning because I was still honing the skills I needed to teach and evaluate it.
Acrylic paint, sidewalk chalk, and calligraphy pens are staples of my English class. These items, along with reciting poetry and acting out scenes from plays allow my students to communicate through a variety of mediums, and to integrate their creative capabilities into their everyday learning.
In 2001, I walked into my 6th grade classroom ready to share my love of reading and writing. However, I soon discovered that my students were in need of much more than an enthusiastic teacher with an English degree. I needed to engage them and make them want to learn.
Stacey Dallas Johnston incorporates the arts in her English classes. (Photo courtesy of the author)
My students that year struggled with the basics of reading and writing. Many had already decided that they hated school, and could already be labeled as chronic absentees. Instead of teaching Shakespeare, I was struggling to keep students engaged. I too struggled that year. It took a few months, but ThePhantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster was the gateway into exploring the arts. We broke the story into parts and acted it out, we made 3D models and we wrote poems as the main character. It was a start.
Substantial conversations about teaching and schools cannot happen without the voices of teachers and principals. It seems obvious. Yet in too many places, educational policies are being written without our input, panels at education conferences are held without any teacher-speakers, and teacher expertise is routinely called into question.
As a kindergarten teacher, I have seen that attending a high-quality pre-K program makes a significant difference in children’s kindergarten success—and later success as well. This is why I am passionate that access to high-quality pre-K should not be a luxury afforded to some, but an invaluable resource offered to all.
From my experience, there are three major advantages students gain from high quality pre-K program:
They have key social skills.
In kindergarten, children constantly work in groups, whether in small teacher-led instructional groups, at activity learning “centers” or at math and phonics stations. In reading and writing workshop and most other activities, they work with partners or in small groups. This requires kids to negotiate disagreements, understand the social conventions of conversations, and balance their needs with others’. In pre-K, children have had lots of experiences like this.
Principal Manko and students are all smiles! (Photo courtesy Joseph Manko)
Principals like me in schools around the country face a daunting challenge. While the national conversation focuses on test scores, school performance, and academic growth, one key question that has been absent is — how do we move kids academically, when they don’t show up to school?
Chronic absenteeism – missing over twenty or more days of school in a typical 180-day year – is rampant across the country and particularly so in high poverty schools where obstacles like inadequate housing, transportation, unforgiving work schedules, and improper health care make regular attendance difficult. In my hometown of Baltimore, Maryland, some schools have chronic rates of close to 30%. That means that one third of the students are missing over 10% of the school year – begging the question of how meaningful academic growth is even possible.
Educators Ashley Millerd (left) and Julia Ryan (right).
When our students sit down for state-required assessments, we don’t worry about whether we prepared them. After all, we helped create the tests ourselves.
Our district is one of a small cohort piloting New Hampshire’s Performance Assessment Competency Education assessment system, a first-in-the-nation accountability strategy that replaces some standardized testing with locally managed assessments. As part of this program, we work together with our colleagues across the state to develop, implement, and evaluate performance assessments that measure a student’s mastery of concepts and skills and better connect to what our students are learning.
Much like America’s teachers, the U.S. Department of Education sometimes gets a bad rap.
You know the drill. So many times, the stories of frustrated teachers or bad apples get bigger play on social media and in the news than the stories of the millions of American teachers who, like my friends and colleagues, change lives every day. Meanwhile, federal policymakers get blamed for not being omnipotent, as many think they should be, or for not talking to real teachers. However, since the start of this school year, my Teaching Ambassador Fellow colleagues and I have spoken with literally thousands of teachers around the country and brought back to ED what we’ve heard.
“Teachers have made a huge difference in my life. Among my key priorities this year is lifting up our nation’s teachers and the education profession. The Teaching Ambassador Fellowship and Teach to Lead are great steps in this direction. I am eager to work with the Fellows to do even more to support educators as they work to expand educational equity and excellence each day.” – Secretary (and high school social studies teacher) John King on the Teaching Ambassador Fellowship website.
The U.S. Department of Education’s Teaching Ambassador Fellows (TAF) are expected to learn about federal education policy, reach out to teachers and schools and reflect with Department of Education staff what they hear. As a Washington-based TAF, on leave from my school for the year, I have had the unique honor of bringing the voices of teachers I meet across the country directly into discussions at the Department of Education. One way we have done this recently is through monthly meetings we call Tea with Teachers.
Secretary King engages with teachers during a Tea with Teachers session in February. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)
During Tea with Teachers, educators from across the United States are invited to come share their unique experiences with Secretary King and other staff members on key topics like teacher retention, challenges faced by Native American youth, meeting the needs of students who are refugees, creating safe learning spaces free from discrimination, and the unique problems faced by students who are undocumented.
ED has held several listening sessions about the ESSA this year. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)
Since President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) into law, I have seen Department of Education staff have to work quickly through minute details to figure out how to help make this new law work best for 50 million students in 100,000 schools around the country. It has been gratifying however, to also see these staff members pause to take the time it requires to go directly to hear from those who will implement the law. In doing so, our leaders turned to the Department’s resident educators – Teaching and Principal Ambassador and Leadership for Educational Equity Fellows – to organize listening sessions and school visits for them with nearly 1,000 teachers, principals, superintendents and administrators, parents, and community representatives from all manner of rural, suburban and urban settings in 16 states thus far and more sessions still to come.
Students gather around a tree as part of the school’s nature-based curriculum
Environmental education is an integral part of everyday life at Redtail Ridge Elementary School in Minnesota’s Prior Lake-Savage area school district. On any given day you could find: math students using trees to study circumference, students using their senses to reinforce a lesson on adjectives, kindergartners sorting man-made verses natural objects, writing nature poetry, and investigating positive and negative numbers by recording the daily temperature. Embedding environmental education into our daily routine is a reflection of the community that fills the building, viewing the outdoors as an extension of our classroom, and a constant effort to replace existing lessons with an environmental focus.
From a supportive administrator, to our diligent custodial staff, willing classroom teachers, and tireless support staff, we are all working towards our philosophy of using the environment to educate children. The willingness to help each other and draw on each other’s strengths is what makes us unique. At any time you might see a fifth grade classroom taking a kindergarten class snowshoeing and then the next day going again with a group of second graders.
Pictured (Left to right): Melody Kwan , LMIT InvenTeam advisor and Spanish Teacher at Baruch College Campus High School; Stephen Mwringa; Amro Halwah; Si Ya (Wendy) Ni and Dr. Elisabeth Jaffe.
Opportunity is perhaps the greatest possibility of the American promise. For two New York City high school students who came to America less than ten years ago knowing very little English, opportunity led them to the White House Science Fair where they presented their subway vacuum cleaner project to President Obama with their classmate Si Ya “Wendy” Ni, a first generation college student.
One of the students, Amro Halwah, immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 13. He started school in the U.S. as an 8th grader and is currently a senior at Baruch College Campus High School. When he was young, he hated learning because he viewed it as only memorizing facts that he promptly forgot after taking a test.
While in school in New York, however, he started down a different path. He participated in several hands-on projects that unleashed his creativity and gave him the opportunity to engage in independent learning. When he got the chance to join the L-MIT Baruch InvenTeam this year, his desire to learn and contribute to the invention of last year’s seniors really excited him.