This post continues our conversation with Keri Pilgrim Ricker, Oregon's 2019 Teacher of the Year. You can find the previous installment here.
Tell me more about how you make your class accessible and interesting for all learning styles.
In science education, and advanced science circles, your legitimacy is somewhat dependent on how articulate and concise you are. To be a valuable professor or researcher, you’re using this very complex, intimidating language. As a teacher, I had to learn to not to create a barrier by speaking that way.
Sometimes we teach students content and vocabulary first. We presume that you must know the big words before you can explain the concept. In my teaching, I have moved toward the idea of inquiry cycles: using more of a constructivist approach. Students look at phenomena, make observations, and use inferences based on prior knowledge to explain phenomena in their own language. After that, we can add the vocabulary in.
This has been a huge shift for me, and I recognize it’s not going to necessarily resonate for everyone. But for me, and for my student population, using an inquiry-first method, and a vocabulary-last method, has enabled all of my students to fully participate. Prior to that, students who had faster processing skills, and students who had prior access to language and literacy and science curriculum, were engaging with the content quickly. They were the ones who would raise their hands.
When talking to some of my students who represented populations who remained silent, they said, “I’m tired of putting myself at risk and offering up a response, and then watching someone else get acknowledged for saying the same thing, but in a different way.”
I really needed to take a second look at instruction and think about ways that I could not just hook student engagement, but really get full buy-in and full communication from all voices.
Kids come in with their own funds of knowledge: these ideas and things that they’ve already observed. We can use those to create a framework for discussion of whatever we’re looking at. And then we can come up with a common language.
What are your thoughts on the overarching goals of teaching?
We have students who are students, but they’re also athletes, and they’re also caregivers in their families, and they’re also working part-time jobs or full-time jobs. They may be raising a family. They may be dealing with a terminally ill family member. We have to use an empathetic lens to know where a student is at, how ready they are to learn, and what we need to do to get them there. And if you can’t get them there, what do you need to do to get them to a safe place?
On another level, you have students who are grappling with incredible questions about self, and about how the world works. As educators, we host students for a majority of their waking hours. It’s unethical to not provide the space to process that.
I think the best educators find a way to allow students to bring issues from the real world into their classrooms and to bring some part of themselves into the way that they express themselves in their work. You see teachers who incorporate things like art, poetry, narratives or performances as a way for students to show not only what they have learned and what they know, but also to share who they are.
What advice do you have for new teachers, or for people considering teaching as a career?
Whenever possible, look for opportunities to get involved in teacher leadership. That might mean sitting on site council or curriculum council, or professional development outside of your building. You may not feel like you have a whole lot to offer when you’re first starting out, but you will meet some of the most inspiring and amazing instructors in your region, and they can be great mentors. These leadership groups also give great behind-the-scenes perspective on how school systems work and operate.
The last thing… and this is the biggest ask… is that you need to take care of yourself. Find something that is regular, that is fun for you, that’s a break from teaching, and that requires your attendance. Something that takes you away from the classroom, and grading, and thinking about teaching, so that you can completely recharge yourself.
There is nothing better than walking into a classroom of kids, or walking in to attack curriculum design, when you’re fresh and recharged and energized and ready to do the work.
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