Community

From Advocating to Letting Your Nerd Flag Fly, Educators Are Grateful For Lessons From Students

By Jenny Abamu     Nov 21, 2017

From Advocating to Letting Your Nerd Flag Fly, Educators Are Grateful For Lessons From Students

When all the stuffing, sauces, hams, turkeys, and pies are out of the oven, there is often a moment of peace during the holiday season where families sit around the dinner table and remember what they are grateful for. This year, we gathered with a community of educators during EdSurge’s Tech Leader Circle at the MakerDepot in Totowa, New Jersey to pause and have a similar moment of reflection.

For this EdSurge OnAir holiday special, we cut through the noise of the 3D printers to ask educators, “What is the one lesson their students taught them, that they are most grateful for?” From advocating for those in need to letting your nerd flag fly, it is no surprise that the lessons shared from these tech leaders will stay with them for many years to come.

The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. Listen to a complete version of the interviews below, or on your favorite podcast app (like iTunes or Stitcher).

To start off our special on the lessons teachers are thankful for, I tell a story of my own.

I was in the middle of teaching a class when I saw it. A relatively thick English book on the corner of this young Turkish girl’s desk. But I waited until the end of the lesson to ask her about it.

“What are you reading?” I asked.

“The Diary of Anne Frank” she replied.

I will never forget the goosebumps that came all over me when she said it. I looked at her intensely.

“Why did you pick up this book?” I hesitated.

“Because of your lesson,” she replied casually. “I wanted to learn more about her.”

I still get a bit flustered and emotional when I think about it. I taught English for three years overseas, in Istanbul, Turkey. That place, for a history nerd like myself, is truly one of the most mindblowing cities in the world. But when I first started teaching there, it was hard. I will never forget the fear and terror in some of the students’ eyes when they first saw me, pointing and running because I was the first black person many of them had ever seen in person or interacted with. Yes, it stung a little.

When I realized many of my students knew a lot about Ataturk but nothing about other famous figures like Nelson Mandela or Anne Frank, something inside me would not settle for just teaching these kids a language. I began to slip little anecdotes about these figures into my lessons. Who says the passage we read about in a grammar lesson can’t be from Martin Luther King, Jr.?

But the problem was, I never knew if any of it mattered to them, until I saw Elif reading The Diary of Anne Frank.

Which brings me to the lesson my students taught me that I am most grateful for. The power of education and exposure. Seeing her read that book changed me. I was thrust into teaching overseas after other professions I desired didn’t quite pan out, and was lost in the work. Seeing Elif reading that book to learn more about Anne Frank in a society where people made anti-semitic comments in public on a regular basis meant my work mattered.

Educators from the New Jersey EdSurge Tech Leader Circle. Photo Credit: Marisa Kaplan

This week I talked with other educators who shared their powerful stories: Elaine Mendez (an instructional coach from Belleville Public Schools) and AJ Bianco (a 7th and 8th grade Social Studies teacher from Harrington Park School)—who learned to make mistakes and show off their nerdy sides.

Elaine Mendez: My first year teaching, I spelled a word wrong. A kid pointed it out. That's the day that I learned it's okay to make mistakes in front of the children and use it as teachable moments.

AJ Bianco: The one thing a student taught me was to be myself. Don't put up a front. Don't try to be somebody else. One of the things that the student appreciated about me was the fact that I let my nerd flag fly. I let out my comic book personality and my love of superheroes. It doesn't look like that's the kind of person I am, but when this student found out how much I love Superman and the Justice League, we connected. We bonded. For the three years, he was in school with me, he came to me for everything and helped me create a whole bunch of different clubs and classes. So I'm grateful for him for allowing me to be myself.

It was not only educators who shared what they learned from students at the Maker Depot in New Jersey. Both principals and one member of our EdSurge research team also had stories at the event. Marisa Kaplan (a research project manager from EdSurge and former special education teacher), Jennifer Wirt (a principal from Glen Rock Middle School), Erica Ripston (a 3rd grade teacher from Memorial Elementary School), and Daniel Borghoff (a middle school MakerSpace and STEM Design Teacher from Hackensack Middle School, learned how to get out of the way, and not judge themselves so harshly.

Marisa Kaplan: I spent 11 years in classrooms in New York City as a special-education teacher, an ELA teacher and an instructional coach. One of my early teaching jobs was as a special-education teacher in a first-grade inclusion class, and some of our students had motor impairments, used wheelchairs and walkers. Our classroom was designed well to support the needs of all of our students, and so was the rest of our school, but the outside world wasn't. That made things like play dates and field trips really tricky for some of our students. I remember one of my first graders was having a birthday party at a bowling alley, and he was inviting everybody in the class. His mom came in one morning a little bit teary-eyed and said that her son had asked her to make sure that the bowling alley was wheelchair accessible so that his best friend could come and bowl with him.

She told him that she was sure that it was, but that she'd call anyway to double-check. When she did, she found out that it actually wasn't accessible. Her son was devastated. They spent a lot of time talking about it, and they worked together to make a bunch of calls and eventually found a bowling alley that was accessible to all of his friends. They changed the location of the party. I remember her thanking me, like somehow I had taught her child to care about his best friend, but I told her that he was the real teacher in that moment. He was a real role model and we should all aim to be a little bit more like him when we grow up.

It might seem like a small action, but in that moment, a six-year-old taught us all a lot of lessons. He made a bunch of adults realize the need for universal design. He prompted his family to consider a set of needs they hadn't before, and he demanded equity for his friend. For me, the lesson I'm most grateful for is that he taught me that age doesn't matter when it comes to making a change, that young people can make a big change that really matters, too. I tried to keep that as a mantra every year moving forward in my classrooms, and it's a lesson that I'll always be grateful for.

Jen Wirt: When I was an administrator, I had a student who had gotten in trouble for something. He had been in trouble a lot of times for a lot of different things. So I told him I would make a deal with him. He was a very good artist, and I told him if he brought me a picture he drew, that we would waive some of his detentions. Kind of an art-for-time situation. He's not the type of kid that'd follow through on anything, but the next day, he brought me a picture that he had drawn and said, "Here, I want to follow up." The fact that he was willing to do that was impressive and showed me that you can work with kids in different ways.

Erica Ripstin: When I was first teaching, I met a little boy who was a little insecure. When we were at a presentation, and he told me that he wanted to change himself and be better so that he could be more physically active. I could tell that he felt bad about himself, but I loved him exactly for who he was. He was kind to the other kids. He let them go first in line. He would share his snack. It didn't really matter to me or to the other kids what he looked like. That's when I knew that I wanted to teach my students how to treat each other and how important it is to be kind and caring and to see somebody else's perspective. He taught me that, and I think it was really amazing.

Dan Borghoff: I'm most grateful for my students telling me to get out of the way. When I first started out teaching technology, I would teach them the standard way of teaching, in steps. My students would get really bored really fast and not be into it.

Then, one day, I said, "All right, you know what? I don't know if you're really getting this." Then they told me, "We are. We just are getting it faster than you're giving it to us." So I told them, "All right, you teach me now. You tell me what you know."

They knew 10 times more than what I was teaching them, so I just sat back and said, "All right. I'm going to give you an end goal. You reach it." Then they replied, "Yeah, no problem. We already did that. How about we give you an end goal?"

Then they gave me an end goal, saying, "All right, we want to learn this really cool stuff. We want to learn how to do this. If you could just help us get there, that would be great."

Lead, follow, or get out of the way is really what it turned out to be. They were in charge. Now, when I teach, I've learned this from them. On the first day of school, I tell them straight out, "I'm not here to teach you. I'm here to facilitate your learning and making sure that you don't cut anything off. That's it. I'm giving you an end goal and the tools to get there, and it's your responsibility to get there on your own. If you need help, I'm here, but other than that, you're on your own.”

Community

From Advocating to Letting Your Nerd Flag Fly, Educators Are Grateful For Lessons From Students

By Jenny Abamu     Nov 21, 2017

From Advocating to Letting Your Nerd Flag Fly, Educators Are Grateful For Lessons From Students

When all the stuffing, sauces, hams, turkeys, and pies are out of the oven, there is often a moment of peace during the holiday season where families sit around the dinner table and remember what they are grateful for. This year, we gathered with a community of educators during EdSurge’s Tech Leader Circle at the MakerDepot in Totowa, New Jersey to pause and have a similar moment of reflection.

For this EdSurge OnAir holiday special, we cut through the noise of the 3D printers to ask educators, “What is the one lesson their students taught them, that they are most grateful for?” From advocating for those in need to letting your nerd flag fly, it is no surprise that the lessons shared from these tech leaders will stay with them for many years to come.

The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. Listen to a complete version of the interviews below, or on your favorite podcast app (like iTunes or Stitcher).

To start off our special on the lessons teachers are thankful for, I tell a story of my own.

I was in the middle of teaching a class when I saw it. A relatively thick English book on the corner of this young Turkish girl’s desk. But I waited until the end of the lesson to ask her about it.

“What are you reading?” I asked.

“The Diary of Anne Frank” she replied.

I will never forget the goosebumps that came all over me when she said it. I looked at her intensely.

“Why did you pick up this book?” I hesitated.

“Because of your lesson,” she replied casually. “I wanted to learn more about her.”

I still get a bit flustered and emotional when I think about it. I taught English for three years overseas, in Istanbul, Turkey. That place, for a history nerd like myself, is truly one of the most mindblowing cities in the world. But when I first started teaching there, it was hard. I will never forget the fear and terror in some of the students’ eyes when they first saw me, pointing and running because I was the first black person many of them had ever seen in person or interacted with. Yes, it stung a little.

When I realized many of my students knew a lot about Ataturk but nothing about other famous figures like Nelson Mandela or Anne Frank, something inside me would not settle for just teaching these kids a language. I began to slip little anecdotes about these figures into my lessons. Who says the passage we read about in a grammar lesson can’t be from Martin Luther King, Jr.?

But the problem was, I never knew if any of it mattered to them, until I saw Elif reading The Diary of Anne Frank.

Which brings me to the lesson my students taught me that I am most grateful for. The power of education and exposure. Seeing her read that book changed me. I was thrust into teaching overseas after other professions I desired didn’t quite pan out, and was lost in the work. Seeing Elif reading that book to learn more about Anne Frank in a society where people made anti-semitic comments in public on a regular basis meant my work mattered.

Educators from the New Jersey EdSurge Tech Leader Circle. Photo Credit: Marisa Kaplan

This week I talked with other educators who shared their powerful stories: Elaine Mendez (an instructional coach from Belleville Public Schools) and AJ Bianco (a 7th and 8th grade Social Studies teacher from Harrington Park School)—who learned to make mistakes and show off their nerdy sides.

Elaine Mendez: My first year teaching, I spelled a word wrong. A kid pointed it out. That's the day that I learned it's okay to make mistakes in front of the children and use it as teachable moments.

AJ Bianco: The one thing a student taught me was to be myself. Don't put up a front. Don't try to be somebody else. One of the things that the student appreciated about me was the fact that I let my nerd flag fly. I let out my comic book personality and my love of superheroes. It doesn't look like that's the kind of person I am, but when this student found out how much I love Superman and the Justice League, we connected. We bonded. For the three years, he was in school with me, he came to me for everything and helped me create a whole bunch of different clubs and classes. So I'm grateful for him for allowing me to be myself.

It was not only educators who shared what they learned from students at the Maker Depot in New Jersey. Both principals and one member of our EdSurge research team also had stories at the event. Marisa Kaplan (a research project manager from EdSurge and former special education teacher), Jennifer Wirt (a principal from Glen Rock Middle School), Erica Ripston (a 3rd grade teacher from Memorial Elementary School), and Daniel Borghoff (a middle school MakerSpace and STEM Design Teacher from Hackensack Middle School, learned how to get out of the way, and not judge themselves so harshly.

Marisa Kaplan: I spent 11 years in classrooms in New York City as a special-education teacher, an ELA teacher and an instructional coach. One of my early teaching jobs was as a special-education teacher in a first-grade inclusion class, and some of our students had motor impairments, used wheelchairs and walkers. Our classroom was designed well to support the needs of all of our students, and so was the rest of our school, but the outside world wasn't. That made things like play dates and field trips really tricky for some of our students. I remember one of my first graders was having a birthday party at a bowling alley, and he was inviting everybody in the class. His mom came in one morning a little bit teary-eyed and said that her son had asked her to make sure that the bowling alley was wheelchair accessible so that his best friend could come and bowl with him.

She told him that she was sure that it was, but that she'd call anyway to double-check. When she did, she found out that it actually wasn't accessible. Her son was devastated. They spent a lot of time talking about it, and they worked together to make a bunch of calls and eventually found a bowling alley that was accessible to all of his friends. They changed the location of the party. I remember her thanking me, like somehow I had taught her child to care about his best friend, but I told her that he was the real teacher in that moment. He was a real role model and we should all aim to be a little bit more like him when we grow up.

It might seem like a small action, but in that moment, a six-year-old taught us all a lot of lessons. He made a bunch of adults realize the need for universal design. He prompted his family to consider a set of needs they hadn't before, and he demanded equity for his friend. For me, the lesson I'm most grateful for is that he taught me that age doesn't matter when it comes to making a change, that young people can make a big change that really matters, too. I tried to keep that as a mantra every year moving forward in my classrooms, and it's a lesson that I'll always be grateful for.

Jen Wirt: When I was an administrator, I had a student who had gotten in trouble for something. He had been in trouble a lot of times for a lot of different things. So I told him I would make a deal with him. He was a very good artist, and I told him if he brought me a picture he drew, that we would waive some of his detentions. Kind of an art-for-time situation. He's not the type of kid that'd follow through on anything, but the next day, he brought me a picture that he had drawn and said, "Here, I want to follow up." The fact that he was willing to do that was impressive and showed me that you can work with kids in different ways.

Erica Ripstin: When I was first teaching, I met a little boy who was a little insecure. When we were at a presentation, and he told me that he wanted to change himself and be better so that he could be more physically active. I could tell that he felt bad about himself, but I loved him exactly for who he was. He was kind to the other kids. He let them go first in line. He would share his snack. It didn't really matter to me or to the other kids what he looked like. That's when I knew that I wanted to teach my students how to treat each other and how important it is to be kind and caring and to see somebody else's perspective. He taught me that, and I think it was really amazing.

Dan Borghoff: I'm most grateful for my students telling me to get out of the way. When I first started out teaching technology, I would teach them the standard way of teaching, in steps. My students would get really bored really fast and not be into it.

Then, one day, I said, "All right, you know what? I don't know if you're really getting this." Then they told me, "We are. We just are getting it faster than you're giving it to us." So I told them, "All right, you teach me now. You tell me what you know."

They knew 10 times more than what I was teaching them, so I just sat back and said, "All right. I'm going to give you an end goal. You reach it." Then they replied, "Yeah, no problem. We already did that. How about we give you an end goal?"

Then they gave me an end goal, saying, "All right, we want to learn this really cool stuff. We want to learn how to do this. If you could just help us get there, that would be great."

Lead, follow, or get out of the way is really what it turned out to be. They were in charge. Now, when I teach, I've learned this from them. On the first day of school, I tell them straight out, "I'm not here to teach you. I'm here to facilitate your learning and making sure that you don't cut anything off. That's it. I'm giving you an end goal and the tools to get there, and it's your responsibility to get there on your own. If you need help, I'm here, but other than that, you're on your own.”

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