Teacher to Community

by | 02.4.16

Amanda Zullo is a national board-certified high school chemistry teacher in Saranac Lake, NY.

How do people respond when they learn you are an educator? Talking with others about my career, I inevitably get a response that varies from “It was my favorite class” and “I loved…” to the horror stories of “Ugh…that was the worst” and “That was the class that drew me out of science.” One of my teaching goals is to draw connection between the lives of students and the concepts we are learning about so their answers are the former, not the latter. In class these items are discussed on a daily basis with ideas I’ve gained from my PLNs. However, the minutia of the concepts overcasts the connections.

Former student and falconer Connor. Says a student of the presentation, “Being a falconer seems like a lot of work but also pretty fun!”

I knew I made a step in the right direction when I spoke with Jeff, a lab technician at our local hospital. Jeff agreed to come into my classroom to speak. He highlighted the relevance of the concepts and labs for careers in the medical field. Students were enamored with his presentation, asking more than a dozen questions at the end. They demonstrated a true connection between concepts and application. Their take on the relevance I was conveying skyrocketed.

I then brought in Dick Partch from Clarkson University. He showed pictures of his students doing work improving Xerox copiers and utilizing gold ions to treat cancer. Again, students asked many questions that demonstrated connection of the content we had learned to the presentation. Our class discussions grew as students brought in research they found seeking understanding on items more complex than what was in the curriculum.

For the past six years I’ve aimed to bring in at least three community individuals each year. Many years I have more individuals (I’m up to nine right now) wanting to speak with students than I have time to allot. The students have reaped the benefits by demonstrating an increase in conceptual learning and abstract connections of concepts as well as expressing more motivation following these presentations.

How do you go about bringing in a community member to talk with your students?

I’m still impressed with one of our students, Julia, taking the risk to contact a family friend, Dr. Saba Gheni, former president of Tikrit University in Iraq, currently a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Missouri. Dr. Gheni spoke with our classes using Skype. Julia D. and another student, Caitrin B., both said, “It was a powerful experience that was different than any other education we’ve received.”

1. First, learn about your community. What are its unique characteristics that will impact students? Contact community members to discuss the opportunity. Establish what is feasible.

2. Once you have an individual who will work with your classes, talk to your supervisor with a well-developed plan. Be sure you can answer the questions of: who you hope will be coming in, when you want them to talk (period to period or an assembly; ask what would be best if you aren’t sure) and why it is important for your students. You may be surprised that, when presented clearly in this way, your supervisor is not only supportive, but also can be quite helpful.

3. What if you’re stuck? Start with parents/kids…simply ask them. I used these forms at the start of the year to learn about the students and parents within my class. I base who I ask to speak to my classes off of information on these forms. I have also found several great presenters that parents recommended.

4. Last but not least, ask fellow colleagues or community members you are comfortable with for individuals. They may surprise you with who they know.

Our Spanish class learning to cook traditional Spanish cuisine using food from a local farm this past fall. Student Alexis S. said, “It was the best thing I’ve ever done in school.”

Community members working with our students has grown into a culture within our school. English teachers bring in local newspaper and magazine writers; our social studies department invites in government officials and notable individuals (this year it was Dr. Saba Gheni, an Iraqi woman who was the president of Tikrit University, but had to flee the city in June 2014 as it fell to ISIS); the math department has brought in representatives from the local bank; our Spanish classes used local food and cooked recipes from Ecuador; and our biology teacher brought a former student who has his falconry license. In an assembly before Thanksgiving, we had Brett McLeod (a local professor) come and speak to the students about homesteading through our Farm to School Initiative. Last May we asked more than 12 local employers to hold round tables about their work that juniors attended.

Dr. Partch from Clarkson University speaking to students. One said, “It is pretty cool that in college-level chemistry classes, you can work with gold, getting it to attract to cancer cells.”

After the community members visit, send a thank-you note. You can compile information of what your students learned and even have students write individual thank-you notes. Your community has a strong connection to the school. In many cases community members are a powerful, untapped resource. They have experience in the field that connects to content, they may be people your students know and they enjoying sharing their expertise—especially knowing the benefits to your students.

Connect with Amanda on Twitter @chemteach201.

About the Author

Amanda Zullo
Amanda Zullo

Amanda Zullo is a national board-certified high school chemistry teacher in Saranac Lake, NY. Connect with Amanda on Twitter at @chemteach201.

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