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The Frontier of Learning is a Teacher’s Imagination

By Sean Ryan, President, McGraw Hill School — July 24, 2023 4 min read
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We learn best from that which we directly experience. The salient details apprehended in natural time usually reinforce useful mental models of our world and occasionally invalidate elements of the established model. From person to person, the model appears to be remarkably consistent, despite the intense media coverage of our differences. This consistency allows us to extend the model without direct experience when someone we trust has a novel experience or a new idea and shares it with us.

It might be the singular collective advantage of our species. Individuals learn the hard way about such things as seat belts, bear spray, and parachutes, while we all, if we listen and pay attention, have the chance to learn without risk and without pain. Then there is the matter of imagination and creativity – the act of modeling something that does not yet exist, but should, and making it a reality. The best educators inspire both – understanding how the world is and envisioning how the world could be.

Caucasian female in yellow cardigan holds a chicken in hands

Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting such an educator, Melissa Tracy of Odyssey Charter School in Wilmington, Delaware. Ms. Tracy has taken a small, unassuming elective and transformed it into an innovative Food Studies CTE Pathway, an agriscience program that engages students and helps them connect with their community in new ways. At Odyssey, a dual-language Greek school, Melissa and her students raise goats and chickens, grow vegetables, which they donate to a local food bank, and have now expanded into hydroponic production. Built on an old DuPont site and funded with grant money, there’s nothing to suggest that the emergence of this program was inevitable. Far from it. This is truly an extension of Melissa’s imagination tuned to the interests of her students in ways that are far from obvious.

Green-leaf plants growing in yellow containers that are hung on metal wire fence outside of a brick wall building

The divide between academic disciplines obscures the true, interconnected nature of things. It’s a convenient structure that becomes less so as we contemplate complex solutions to society’s biggest challenges. The Future of Food naturally lends itself to a cross-curricular approach, one that could only be developed by a polymath. Growing up in California, going to college in Louisiana, teaching in India and Poland gave Melissa a rich and diverse background that clearly informs her unique teacher-as-entrepreneur approach. And her students are better for it. Her innovative curriculum has elements of not only farming and plant science, but also business and culinary arts. The cooperative group activities of the students are points of departure for countless, diverse learning moments all carefully orchestrated by the steady hand of the master teacher.

Growing up in Wisconsin, we occasionally took field trips from urban Milwaukee to the countryside. While always enjoyable, such visits were never central to the learning experience. They were something extra, disconnected from our studies. I think now when I watch Clarkson’s Farm that those visits were a wasted opportunity to learn how an important part of our world operates. Not that every school subject must have a direct connection to real-world student experiences, but those that do can turn a class into a permanent memory and influence during a young student’s formative years. My aunt was a chemistry teacher in Milwaukee Public Schools when I was in school. Though I may not remember much of what was in the textbook, though we still love textbooks at McGraw Hill, I certainly remember our labs – perhaps because of their multi-sensory aspect or perhaps because of the collaboration and teamwork. Setting out to accomplish a shared task felt less like school and much more like a puzzle that we were trying to solve together.

In this way, Melissa is the puzzle master, except the pieces and the solutions are co-created by her and her students. And the act of solving creates texture, aroma, and taste as much as it does numbers and words and ideas of the typical curriculum. I think if my aunt, long since retired, happened upon the Odyssey School and its agriscience program, she would recognize the opportunity for experimentation and collaboration. She might even add a bit of formal chemistry to the equation. Certainly, she’d recognize in Melissa a peer who, rather than avoid, would get her hands and those of her students a bit dirty. What a pristine way to learn!


Melissa Tracy was the K-12 recipient of our inaugural McGraw Hill Pathfinder Award, selected from a national pool of applicants for her innovative approaches to teaching and learning.


Sean Ryan headshot

Sean Ryan is president of McGraw Hill’s School group, which is responsible for providing PreK-12 educators and learners with programs, tools, and services supported by differentiated pedagogical instruction and purposeful technology. He was named to his position in April 2020 after serving as CEO of Wall Family Enterprise and before that as SVP and General Manager of Fuel Education, where he was responsible for strategy, marketing, sales, implementation, support and product development for the business. Prior to these roles, Sean was SVP of Sales, Service & Platform at McGraw Hill, leading the School group’s sales, implementation and training organization. His long career in education includes high profile roles at Campus Management, Scantron Corporation and The Princeton Review of Japan. Sean is also a former military intelligence officer, having served in a variety of capacities in the U.S. and abroad and rising to the rank of captain.

Sean graduated with a Master of Science degree in Management from the Stanford Graduate School of Business, a Master of Arts in International Relations from the University of Arizona and a bachelor’s degree in Soviet Studies from the United States Air Force Academy.

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