Professor in Social Entrepreneurship, Shannon Blady, has spent the fall semester introducing first year students to socially innovative initiatives currently shaping the landscape of education in New Orleans. The course provides opportunities to explore many avenues of work with K-12 students and to meet with local education experts and social entrepreneurs. Here Prof. Blady reflects on the experience.
For this TIDES course, we read Lucianne Carmichael’s McDonogh 15: Becoming A School. Lucianne, former principal of McDonogh 15 in the heart of the French Quarter, was charged with creating a lighthouse school in 1970, a place that was encouraged to think outside the box to meet the needs of local children. The book explores how she met her challenges, many of which are similar if not identical to our current problems in education: students who live in poverty, students who have experienced trauma, project funding, teacher retention. The ideas of Lucianne and her teachers originated out of empathy and innovation: morning meeting so everyone can share and be a part of a larger ‘family’, early dismissal on Thursdays for teacher professional development, a school garden to teach students about sustainability. These practices were passed on to other local schools. I was a child in one of these schools in a different section of the city, with teachers whom I adored, who taught the whole child, who encouraged creativity and honored culture and diversity.
Some of those same teachers were still there when I returned to work as a first-grade teacher, but the school had changed. There were definitely echoes of yesteryear, but a noticeable shift had occurred. My favorite teacher of all time, the one whom I still conjure today when I strive to be a kick-ass educator, had become my colleague and instantly my mentor. She explained to me then that she no longer had the autonomy to lead the kinds of activities that we did when I was a kid, that she felt “like a puppet on a string”. Teachers with passion and talent shouldn’t feel that way. Innovation is not a new concept. It’s just a concept that needs to be revisited and revived. As a changemaker, I ask, “How might we stop de-professionalizing our profession?”
For this TIDES course, we set out to explore ways in which local educators employ innovative strategies to meet the needs of New Orleans kids and the demands of teaching in our current climate. Our first excursion was a visit to Sylvanie Williams College Prep in Central City where Big Class has a Writing Room for kids. Big Class is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to cultivate and support the voices of New Orleans’ writers ages 6-18 through creative collaborations with schools and communities. Because of large class sizes, teachers can’t always reach the individual needs of their student writers. Big Class saw a need for local students and created after school and in-school support. When Ashley Teamer, the In-School Program Manager of Big Class, explained to this TIDES class that fostering a positive relationship with writing is so important because the act of writing can be a catalyst for social change and a way to preserve the voices of our NOLA community, it gave me goosebumps!
The class also visited The Learning Laboratory whose mission is to go beyond “teaching to the test”. Here, kids join in after-school or summer clubs to explore mathematics through authentic learning experiences, including real-life problems, hands-on activities and integration of the latest technology. Founder, President, and Executive Director Tinashe Blanchet emphasized to us that math is about the process, the problem solving, not getting the right answer all the time. She didn’t see these divergent strategies fostered in local schools, so she created her own solution.
The class recently visited Lusher Charter, an Ashoka Changemaker School. We learned more about design thinking in education, Social and Emotional Learning practices, and arts integration. TIDES students and I were quite impressed by a Kindergarten classroom in which the students practiced mindfulness. We also observed a first grade class in the midst of prototyping for their design thinking project on habitats.
The changemakers in education will be those who empathize with the needs of the students and their communities and who will employ innovative means to ensure that students learn to think creatively and critically and to work collaboratively. A handful of the students in this class plan to work toward their teaching certification through Tulane’s Teacher Preparation and Certification Program. All of them, however, are changemakers who care about the future of education. I’m looking forward to being a part of their journey at Tulane.