First State Military Academy
Professional athletes can’t afford to sit around during the offseason. They’re working out, getting quicker and reflecting on the good and the bad of the previous season. A teacher’s life is no different.
After the final bell, teachers roll up their sleeves and prepare for a summer of self-improvement.
“A good teacher never stops thinking about education,” said Jennifer Ferris, a second-year teacher at First State Military Academy, a charter high school in Clayton. “I chose a career in education because I’m a lifelong learner. If I didn’t keep taking courses and learning, I’d feel like I was missing out on something for myself and for my students.”
Earlier this month, Ferris took Advanced Placement (AP) training at Middlesex County College in New Jersey to help better prepare to teach AP U.S. history. She also teaches world history and a choral music class.
The highlight of her summer as far as professional development, though, was presenting a program on “Arts Integration in Social Studies” at the New Tech Network Annual Conference in Orlando, Florida in July.
“The main idea was how teachers can use visual arts, music and creative writing to teach academic concepts so students are simultaneously learning,” said Ferris. “A number of studies show higher test scores for students who are taught using these methods.”
For example, while students are learning the facts about a historical event they also are taught to draw a mural reflecting that event, learning the elements of color, shape and texture. A student is asked to explain the choices he or she made in the mural and how the colors, shapes and textures relate to the event.
“I’ve been doing research in arts integration for the past six years as an undergrad and graduate student, and I’m hoping to bring it here to First State Military Academy,” she said.
After submitting a proposal for her presentation and receiving the news that her idea had been approved for the conference, she began working on how to fit all the concepts she wanted to explain into an hour-and-15-minute presentation – a project she spent many hours on in June after classes at First State Military Academy had ended for the summer break.
“I think it was very well received,” said Ferris. “One teacher from Australia approached me about collaborating, and I saw other teachers tweeting about it” – on the social media site Twitter – “so that was exciting.”
Ferris said all the work during “vacation” is just part of trying to be a better teacher.
“I’m a lot more prepared, confident and excited to apply what I learned this summer,” she said.
First State Military Academy teacher Paul Collier also attended the New Tech Network Annual Conference to help prepare for the new school year teaching 11th grade U.S. history and ninth grade integrated English and social studies.
Collier is in his second year at the academy and his 15th year as a teacher.
He said the collaboration with the New Tech Network is one of the strengths of First State Military Academy. The main concept of the network’s curriculum plan is to engage students with project-based learning to help them become problem-solvers. Teachers design complex, authentic challenges that engage students, require them to demonstrate mastery of knowledge, and foster written and oral communication skills, according to the network’s website.
The annual conference helps teachers integrate the New Tech Network ideas into their classroom lessons.
“The most important concept was the launch of the new version of the ‘Echo’ system that we use,” said Collier.
The Echo system is an online center where teachers, students and parents can see course outlines, schedules, assignments, projects, resources and students’ grades. According to the New Tech Network website, “Echo allows schools to more easily exchange best practices, collaborate in real time, connect and share projects, and develop cross-school projects for students.”
Collier said, “The system is easier to use now. It looks more like Facebook. It’s how we set up our projects and our assignments, and it’s all online, 24/7, so students and parents have access to it.”
He also attended workshops at the national conference on computer science, classroom management and developing community partners.
“My favorite was how to develop community partners with your school,” he said. “Part of our curriculum is that what we teach has to have real-world applications. We want to have experts who come in and explain how what we’re teaching is used in their job.”
Collier said the chief executive officer of Delmarva Power visited the school during a lesson on solar energy and evaluated the students’ ideas for the best way to store solar energy.
For a literature course when the class was reading “To Kill a Mockingbird,” actors from the University of Delaware’s Repertory Theatre visited to perform a scene from the book. After the students finished the book, they attended the Repertory Theatre’s performance of “To Kill a Mockingbird” at the university.
“That really was interesting to the students and made the book come alive,” said Collier. “When they saw the actors on stage they were saying, ‘Hey, I know that person.’”
‘Twelve months of work in nine months’
Angela David, a teacher at Capital School District’s South Dover Elementary School, said no one really understands how teachers spend their summers.
“The way I explain to people is that we do 12 months of work in nine months,” David said. “So we have a lot that we do in a short amount of time.”
In the other three months, when the kids are enjoying a break, some teachers are serving as instructors in summer school classes, while others take professional development courses to enhance their skills or work directly with the Delaware Department of Education.
David decided to take the professional development route. For one week she joined other Capital teachers in a course on how to effectively use computer tablets in the classroom. Making class fun and interactive was a key lesson. For example, they brought endangered species to life in digital form.
David agrees everyone needs some downtime. But she made a personal decision to increase her experience.
“It depends on the teacher,” she said. “This is the fifth training that I’ve attended this summer. As a new teacher I have a lot to learn.”
Benefits of networking
Chantalle Ashford, a chorus and English teacher at Indian River High School, was one of 31 educators in a Department of Education fellowship program from June 20 to Aug. 4. It offered educators from teachers to college students a peek behind the policy-making curtain.
“It helped me see where the policies that affect my everyday practice or affect my students come from,” Ashford said. “What are the mindsets that set them up? It gave me an interesting and hands-on lens that helped me understand how policies are formed.”
Ashford was studying diversity within education in Delaware. She interacted with state officials and other teachers to find ways to improve teacher recruitment. She came up with policy ideas she hopes will lead to increased diversity, a topic she takes seriously.
“If students are taught by teachers who look like them there is a lot of data that shows that it positively impacts those students. But currently in this state 86 percent of our teachers are white,” she said. “They are being taught by people who definitely love their students, who care about their students, but those students might not easily connect with those teachers.”
Networking with other teachers was an unexpected benefit.
“It helped me to create links with teachers across the state,” she said. “Sometimes as teachers we get stuck in our bubbles.”
Ashford, who has been teaching for three years, believes a teacher’s concern for students can’t be measured by how a teacher spends summer vacation. Simply spending the summer resting is important, Ashford said.
“I think that’s important because they need to rest, to recharge and be 100 percent for the kids,” she said. “In order for me to recharge I like to take leadership opportunities, do professional development and I really like to push myself over the summer so I can be even better for my students.”
She’s also taken some time to recharge her own battery by going to the beach and taking a trip to New Mexico.
Learning ‘Next Generation’ standards
Delaware’s school districts are preparing teachers for the Next Generation Science Standards, which use a philosophy of hands-on education.
In the Milford School District, some educators spent their summer working with the Delaware Nature Society and Abbott’s Mill Nature Center. Bridget Amory, director of elementary education, said educators helped develop a nature-based curriculum.
“One of the opportunities that we’ve been looking at is how can we expand [scientific] instruction beyond the classroom,” she said. “We wanted to include field experiences so students can see the benefits in their own community.”
Despite the multitude of roads teachers take during summer vacation, they all say it comes back to preparing for the next year and the next group of students.
“I think teachers are always thinking about their kids and always working, even if it doesn’t look like we are,” Ashford said.