My name is Jessica Hiltabidel and I work as a Manager of Teaching and Learning at Center for Inspired Teaching in Washington, DC. I help select, train, and support exceptional new teachers for successful and sustainable careers in the local public and public charter schools. I also visit the teachers who have graduated from our Inspired Teaching programs and who are infusing public school classrooms with rich, engaging and rigorous lessons, centered around real world study topics. The following is a snapshot of a recent teacher I visited who exemplifies the Inspired Teaching approach:
Many see the role of a teacher as an all-knowing information provider whose students are empty vessels that need filling. At Inspired Teaching, however, we believe that the role of the teacher is to instigate thought and to facilitate the students’ ability to ask their own questions, seek their own answers, and become the experts themselves.
Recently, I was able to see a wonderful example of “Student as Expert” in the classroom of one of our 2013 Inspired Teaching Fellows. Ms. Richardson is a kindergarten teacher at a local elementary school and is working with her students to complete an expedition, or a project-based instructional unit, on birds.
I joined the class as morning meeting ended and was surprised by the strategy Ms. Richardson used to transition to the next lesson. Instead of calling student names, groups, or using traditional music, she played a clip of birds tweeting. Immediately, hands shot into the air as students were able to identify the unique sounds of the bird their group was studying. Here were five- and six-year-olds exuberantly recognizing and explaining how the robin has a short high-pitched “meep” while the sparrow has a more buzzy sound.
From there, students broke up into groups to practice their observation skills by making a more detailed second draft drawing of their assigned bird. I sat with the Starling Group who told me all about the different colors a starling can have. They showed me how the feathers had hints of green and purple. We talked about their blue eggs, yellow beaks, and long legs. The highlight was when the students showed me the birds they had in the room as class pets!
If you ask Ms. Richardson, she’ll tell you she’s not an avid birder; however, through the study of birds, she has been able to foster her kindergarten students’ interest and enhance their abilities to compare and contrast, use descriptive and advanced language, categorize, and research.
I’m proud to celebrate the classrooms of Inspired Teaching Fellows like Ms. Richardson, and I am proud to celebrate Inspired Teaching's role in building "nest of learning" for students throughout our local public school system.
Rhonda is an Assistant Principal at Anacostia High School in the District of Columbia. Just before this, Rhonda was a middle school social studies teacher in DC and she received intensive, year-long teacher training from Center for Inspired Teaching. In the following commentary, Rhonda shares details about how our training helped her create an engaging classroom.
I see classrooms and the classroom learning environment differently because of Center for Inspired Teaching.
I used to think that good teaching involved a teacher standing in front of the class and lecturing on and on, while students quietly take notes at their desks.
Now I see that good teaching involves creating a classroom where students are doing as much of the talking and thinking and problem solving as the teacher. Good teaching involves creating a classroom environment where students are tackling questions and problems that are relevant to their daily lives.Good teaching involves helping students learn to think for themselves.
I learned to create this kind of classroom when I started receiving training through Center for Inspired Teaching. The training involved one-on-one coaching and accompanying teaching units.
I learned to hook students' interest with big, bold questions. For example, when I taught a unit created by Center for Inspired Teaching called “The Cocoa Journey: from Bean to Bar” I asked students a series of fun questions: “Who loves chocolate? Where does chocolate in the chocolate bar come from?” Then, I would share with students that we are going on a learning journey to trace the production process of a chocolate bar—from the moment that the cocoa bean is picked in a field to the point at which the chocolate bar is sold at the grocery store.
As a result, I saw my students’ engagement go way up. I had students asking more questions, doing more research, and making more claims that were actually backed by texts and primary sources.
In fact, I noticed that when I taught this way, my general education students started outperforming my honors’ students.My general education students just dove into the research and started asking bigger and bigger questions that pushed them to research further and deeper, and pushed me to expand my teaching into more sophisticated areas. For example, my students were so invested in learning about the production process as part of the cocoa bean teaching unit that we started studying the three-sector theory in economics, and students started using this theory to understand other big questions about production and global markets.
This school year, I am in the classroom in a different way. I am now an assistant prinicipal and I now coaching my teachers in much the same way that Center for Inspired Teaching staff once coached me. I tell my teachers that it is important to have strong structure and routines in the classroom and it is also important to hand over more of the work of understanding and problem solving to students when they are ready for it. I tell my teachers that if they do all the talking and spoonfeed everything to their class, they rob students of the opportunity to make their own way to an answer, and the confidence that comes with that accomplishment. When students' confidence grows, they want to take charge of their own learning, and that builds their confidence even further.
In spring 2014, Inspired Teaching helped local history come alive for hundreds of teenagers in the Washington, DC public and public charter schools.
Inspired Teaching staff with expertise in the local history of Washington, DC wrote a teaching unit, called "Dream City Revisited" centered around the effort in the 1960s, 70s and 80s by local Washingtonians to claim key democratic freedoms and responsibilities including the right to vote for mayor and school board officials. Washington, DC residents enjoy fewer democratic rights than citizens from all other states within the U.S. The movement by local Washingtonians for greater democratic expression within the District of Columbia is called the Home Rule movement.
Inspired Teaching staff then recruited teachers at six schools within DCPS or the public charter school system to teach the “Dream City Revisited unit” in their classrooms. As a result, several hundred young Washingtonians explored, in classroom discussions and position paper essays, big and critical questions related to the recent civic history of their home city-- questions such as: What does it mean for young Washingtonians to “inherit” the history and legacy of the Home Rule movement in DC?; What role did former Mayor Marion Barry play in the DC Home Rule movement?; In what ways does the Home Rule movement continue today?; and What are the unique rights and responsibilities of young Washingtonians with regards to the Home Rule movement?
At Inspired Teaching’s culminating event for this project, “Dream City Revisited”, we held a Town Hall at DC’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, which was attended by over 100 people, including dozens of students from DC public and public charter schools. We created an opportunity for these young Washingtonians to talk directly to the authors of the book Dream City (Harry Jaffe and Tom Sherwood). Additionally, the event attracted coverage in The Washington Post: