This article was contributed by Matt Bernstein, a ninth grade Humanities and Social Studies teacher at Casco Bay High School in Portland and Maine’s 2023 Teach of the Year.
“The key to productive and equitable teaching is consistent patience and understanding, which creates a welcoming environment that encourages a growth mindset that carries on outside of the classroom.” I wish I could write that those wise words are mine, but they are, rather, the teaching philosophy statement of Sophia Chouinard, a junior at Casco Bay High School (CBHS) who spent the first week of January, along with 17 of her peers, learning about becoming a teacher in the Casco Teaches intensive.
The school I teach at, Casco Bay High School, is part of the EL Education national network. EL Education is a national nonprofit that partners with K-12 districts and schools across the country to offer resources and professional development in the work to create equitable schools of opportunity for all students. One EL practice is intensives. At Casco Bay High School, every January and April, we pause our classes to engage in intensives. Intensives, which happen at a number of different schools in the EL Education national network, are one week, elective courses that ask students to engage in in-depth study, all day, for five days. Intensives offer students an opportunity to learn deeply about a compelling and important topic that may not otherwise appear in the curriculum. Intensives are designed and co-run by teachers. Since students select their intensive, the courses are open to anyone in 9th through 12th grade and offer a unique opportunity for students to work across grade levels. Intensives, as you might guess from the name, are intense for both teachers and students, but through this intensity come some of the most impactful and joyous learning experiences of the entire school year.
This January, I had the great opportunity to co-lead, alongside our inspiring principal, Derek Pierce, a new intensive called Casco Teaches, which sought to introduce students to the world of teaching and to the concept of teaching as a future profession. We began our week asking students to reflect on the inspirational educators that have taught them and memorable lessons they have experienced throughout their education. Using these stories to guide us, the cohort began answering two of our guiding questions: What makes a great educator? And, what makes a great lesson? Students identified a host of qualities that impact them positively, ranging from educators that they can tell really care about their students and are passionate about their subject matter to the importance of making learning joyous and creative. Students then paired their personal reflections with a variety of texts – in article and video format – about core practices that support high quality teaching and learning and that create supportive and transformational school communities.
After a day of “Education 101”, our students took to the field, observing in local classrooms. In total, we had 18 students, in 10 different schools, volunteering, learning, and helping out across the district. Students were participating in classes with students from pre-K to high school. We were tremendously fortunate to have wonderful teachers who opened their classrooms to our students and gave their time to share wisdom about teaching.
After two days in the field, our students returned to CBHS ready to put their learning into action. We introduced students to lesson planning and reflected on all the ways that we, as educators, can support student engagement and learning. After this, it was time for students to dive in and start planning their own lessons. Each student wrote a lesson plan on a topic of their choice for a 50-85 minute block. Then, students selected a 20 minute chunk of their lesson to teach to their peers on our final day. The range of topics covered was astounding. One student led a lesson about kindness and empathy while another introduced the anatomy of hammerhead sharks. One lesson led us through an analysis of the poetry of Mary Oliver, another showed how to change a tire, and a third pushed us to discuss how we can reduce bias in education. The lessons not only showed how much the students had learned in a brief period of time, but also opened up a beautiful window into their personal passions and interests.
All in all, the Casco Teaches intensive was a tremendous experience and we were thrilled to learn that it made many students consider teaching in the future. Indeed, 75% of students in the intensive reported that the experience made them more interested in being an educator some day. Jo Ellis, a sophomore, captured this when she said, “The intensive definitely showed me how rewarding a job in education can be and made me really want to pursue that.” Students wrapped the week by sharing their teaching philosophy statements with the rest of the school community. Lucinda Viola, a junior, wrote, “The key to great teaching is creating a safe space for students to make mistakes, build relationships, and better themselves while feeling safe, seen and understood.” As can be seen, there is a lot we can learn about great teaching from our students and, after spending a week with the future generation of teaching, I am filled with hope.
View more about what the week of Casco Teaches looks like here.