Teaching Profession Opinion

Union Program Boosts Classroom Innovation

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — March 23, 2017 4 min read
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Want more innovative teaching? I know the secret sauce. Find teachers who already innovate, get out of their way, give them a little money, and invite them to share the results with other teachers. That’s what I witnessed last week at a gathering of the Institute for Teaching. The IFT is a non-profit offshoot of the California Teachers Association, and since 2014 it has put nearly $1-million into assisting teachers with instructional projects of their devising.

Here’s a glimpse at two of them from the perspective of students who experienced the programs.

Wyatt Webb had never talked before a group of adults before. He’s a student at Gardenhill Elementary School and a member of the Spade Brigade organized by teacher Lori Clock.

Words don’t come easily to Wyatt. But bugs fascinate him, and he became the garden project’s go-to guy in identifying insects and sorting out which ones help the garden and which ones hurt. Wyatt’s not much for capital punishment for bugs, but he allowed that some of them have been caught and banished to places far away.

When asked what was his favorite thing about the garden, he provided a dramatic pause that a professional actor would admire and then said, “everything.” End of answer.

Another questioner asked, “What got you interested?” Wyatt again paused and then silently pointed toward Clock, his teacher.

Clock started the Spade Brigade as an intervention for socially and emotionally at-risk students, who comprise half the brigade. The other half are potential student leaders.

An Oasis and Butterfly Zone

The students have turned a barren 2,700 square-foot zone into a verdant oasis that attracts both human admirers and butterflies. The involved students make decisions, solve problems, and learn delayed gratification. “The thing about plants is that you don’t get it now,” Clock said. “And if you don’t care for them, you don’t get it at all.”

In education budget terms, the grant Clock received from the IFT was tiny, just $5,000. None of the grants is larger than $20,000. But CTA members from around the state voluntarily add $20 to their annual dues to support the grants and other activities that the IFT calls strength-based teacher driven change. They build on what teachers are passionate about.

Consider the story of teachers Dan and Dennis Gibbs, who created the Imperial Valley Discovery Zone that brings sophisticated STEM lessons to elementary students in one of the state’s poorest counties. They transform high school students into lab-coat wearing Master Explainers, who build scientific apparatus in a high school maker space and present lessons to second graders.

Kyle Lindbergh was a Master Explainer. Now, he’s studying mechanical engineering at UC Merced. In the maker space at Imperial High School, Lindbergh created a demonstration of hydraulic power out of PVC pipe. It transforms ordinary household water pressure into sufficient force to lift 600 pounds.

A modification of his creation was at work last week at the Imperial County Fair. (Picture at left.)

“We’ve got a maker space at college,” he said, “but many of the things students are doing there, I’ve already done them in high school.”

(There’s much more to say about the Imperial Valley Discovery Zone, and ‘On California’ will devote a separate article to the Gibbs’ project next week.)

Other teachers, sometimes with their students, presented their projects along with tips to other teachers about how to be successful in gaining an IFT grant. Participants learned about Bill Shively from Willows, who takes intermediate school students on canoe trips, Nicole Robinson from Fontana, who started a dance collaborative, Shanan Spears from Clarksburg, who started a flower shop, and Beth Micari from Exeter, who pioneers ornamental horticulture at Kaweah High School.

Meanwhile, Camie Walker from Garden Grove creates hands-on science with fifth graders, and Bridgette Kennedy and Phil Sanchez from Palm Springs inserted archery into adventure classes to give students who are not the tallest or fastest a way to build self-confidence and success. And Rosa Rivera Furumoto introduces science and art to low-income Latina/o students in Los Angeles as a way of studying climate change.

Is This Real Unionism?

Is this stuff real unionism? For more than a quarter-century, I’ve advocated joining bread-and-butter unionism, political action, and organizing teaching as a profession. With organizations such as the IFT and the California Labor Management Initiative there’s a better chance that unions will initiate changes rather than block them.

I see points of light. David B Cohen, [interviewed here] a Palo Alto High School teacher who spent a year looking at exemplary colleagues in classrooms throughout California sees them, too. Cohen, who wrote Capturing the Spark, is an active CTA member and was a featured guest at the IFT event. In his book, he ticks off a long list of large and small ways that education might be improved: from school designs to arts in the community, and peer review of teachers. Then he makes the point that all these activities have been carried out by teacher unions in California.

The CTA could do even more of this; building teacher leadership is good for teachers and kids alike. It buffs up the union’s image, and broadens its political power. And, oh yes, CTA members like this work.

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