Cathy Williams, the District 7 representative on the Muscogee County School Board, noted Muscogee Educational Excellence Foundation director Marquette McKnight beamed with pride “like a mama” during Monday night’s meeting. Here’s why:
Seven of the nine MCSD teachers who attended a professional development program called Project Zero at Harvard University this summer – thanks to a total of $56,000 in donations through MEEF – spoke to the board to express their gratitude for the experience and report on how they are sharing the learning with their faculty, so MEEF’s investment in them yields compounded dividends to the school system.
- Yolanda Arnold of East Columbus Magnet Academy
- Nicole Baugh of Double Churches Elementary School
- John Cobis of Northside High School
- Eric Crouch of Double Churches Elementary School
- Carmen Estes of Fox Elementary School
- Stefan Lawrence of Carver High School
- Akear Mewborn of Kendrick High School
- Afton Pownall of Britt David Magnet Academy
- Andrea Toole of Blanchard Elementary School.
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Arnold and Cobis couldn’t attend the meeting, McKnight said. The other seven Harvard Fellows took turns at the microphone and delivered inspiring testimony about the power of this program.
Baugh, a third-grade teacher at Double Churches, said she has read countless books to be better at her profession, but taking a class from the person who wrote one of those books is “like being in there with a rock star.”
Even better, Baugh added, was learning from her fellow fellows from MCSD. “We rocked together,” she said. “… Even now, we’re still doing it, we’re still getting together, and we’re still talking about it.”
Lawrence, a 10th-grade literature teacher at Carver High School and the 2016 MCSD Teacher of the Year, said the best moment at Harvard for him came while walking across the square with renowned professor Howard Gardner.
“That conversation probably lasted two, three minutes real time,” Lawrence said, “but it felt like forever. … Howard Gardner is probably on the Mount Rushmore of education. He’s the founder of the multiple intelligences theory, that people express their genius in different ways: kinesthetically, auditorily, visually.”
But what he talked about with Gardner, Lawrence said, was the “spirituality involved in education.”
By that he means thinking about teaching as a “spiritual conviction,” Lawrence said. So if educators would guide their words and actions “as if their soul was at stake for these kids, we would be able to accomplish so much more,” Lawrence said.
Mewborn, an English teacher at Kendrick High School, said her Harvard experience helped make her subject relevant for her students.
As a result, Mewborn said, “I’m happy to report to you that my children are doing so much better. They’re loving learning, and they’re loving life at this moment.”
Estes, a kindergarten teacher at Fox Elementary School, said her most significant takeaway came from author Ron Richard, who “talked about the cultural factors that influence the culture in the classroom,” she said.
For example, Estes said, Richard encouraged the teachers to better connect with their students by asking, “What makes you say that? It’s kind of a window into their thinking, to understand where they’re coming from.”
Richard also cautioned the teachers about the pronouns they use in the classroom, Estes said. “Instead of using ‘I’ and ‘you,’ start talking about ‘we’ and ‘our,’ and that way you’re really building that sense of community,” she said.
He told the teachers to apologize to their students when appropriate. “Let them know that we all make mistakes,” Estes said.
Another suggestion from Richard, she recalled: “Don’t be afraid to say, ‘Wow.’ Let them surprise you. Show them that you’re in awe of what they’ve done.”
And perhaps the most important piece of Richard’s advice, Estes said, is the impact of listening to students, summarized by the acronym WAIT: Why Am I Talking?
Toole, a fifth-grade teacher at Blanchard Elementary School, used a spoon and a dustpan – “I was going to bring a shovel,” she said with a laugh – to demonstrate a lasting lesson about critical thinking she learned at Harvard.
“My kids were thinking, but I was using a spoon,” Toole said. “And my kids can’t think deep if I don’t ask them deep questions.”
Then she referred to Proverbs 27:17 as she concluded, “When iron sharpens iron, we sharpen each other. And that’s what this group of people has done.”
Pownall, the music teacher at Britt David Magnet Academy, found renewed appreciation for reflection while at Harvard. Instead of rushing to finish a lesson when the bell rings, Pownall said, she now plans a moment of reflection at the end of class, asking her students, “What did you take from today’s lesson?”
Such a question produces two benefits, Pownall said: “It allows students to digest what they’ve learned and also, as a teacher, it helps me see what they didn’t get or what really stood out to them in that lesson, and it may not have been what I planned for it to be.”
Crouch, a fifth-grade teacher at Double Churches Elementary School and one of 35 U.S. educators who received $25,000 in 2016 as a Milken Educator Award winner, called the Harvard Fellows “a pillar of strength for our district. These are some of the best advocates for children you’re going to find anywhere in the country.”
Crouch said his time at Harvard taught him to ask himself, “Why not?” That prompts him to ask another question: “How can we challenge our children to think that way as well?”
All of which motivates him and his students, Crouch said, to “push forward and learn through failure.”
This was the seventh group of MCSD teachers that MEEF has sent to Harvard, totaling 54 educators, McKnight said. Williams called the program “phenomenal” and said, “We are blessed to live in a generous community.”
MEEF, which also conducts MCSD’s Teacher of the Year program, allows the 10 Teacher of the Year semifinalists from each of the past 10 years to apply for the Harvard Fellows program, McKnight explained.
“The last couple of years, we’ve taken all that applied,” McKnight said. “As long as we can raise the money for it, we’ll take all that apply.”
It costs approximately $6,500 to pay for the expenses of each Harvard Fellow, she said.
Board chairwoman Pat Hugley Green of District 1 thanked MEEF for providing this “opportunity for light to shine on those individual teachers.” This public-private partnership is “one of the things that make our city great and our school district great,” Green said.
Superintendent David Lewis said Harvard officials “were so complimentary of our teachers. They spoke so highly of them for the way they engaged in the classroom discussions and with one another. That means an awful lot. So we can be proud as a community for the way they serve as ambassadors for this community and this profession.”
Lewis said the Harvard Fellows personify MCSD’s mission statement: “to inspire and equip all students to achieve unlimited potential.”