Are you an Amazing Race fan? We’re pulling for these teachers in CBS’ 33rd season, airing on Wednesday nights. Akbar Cook Sr. is the principal of Newark West Side High School, where his wife, Sheri, teaches. Since they started the school’s “Lights On” program to provide a safe place for students from 6 am to 11 pm, no students have been lost to gun violence.
Sheri and Akbar are not the only teachers to undergo a race around continents. Several Fund for Teachers Fellow teams, including Carmen Garcia and Joyce Ballard (Houston) invited their students to design a fellowship based on what they wanted to learn and the teachers opened envelopes with instructions at each stop. We share their reflection on the experience below…
“Letting go of the need to be in control helped us to learn from our students, to be open to their interests, and to explore the power of spontaneity.”
“The concept of stepping back and letting our students take control was difficult for us. The big questions we had for ourselves were, “Could we trust our students to guide us, to control not only their learning but our own? Could we release the reins and let our students guide us through the streets of Europe?” With every envelope we opened, we were putting our trust and learning in their hands. We knew that not having control over our itinerary would help in our growth, but maneuvering through five foreign countries, each with their own language, currency, public transportation systems contributed to our learning experience as well. We were able to take a step back and realize that sometimes the best laid plans are the ones that are not planned at all.
We spent 24 days trekking through Europe completing the various tasks they planned for us. Our primary goal was to “release the reins” of teaching and allow our students to take control. Our journey began eight months before we even stepped on the plane to Europe. We initially wanted to open up the lines of communication between the grade-levels through the study of literature. If we could get our “newbies” talking with our “veterans” we could promote positive relationships which would extend outside of our classrooms. With these meetings being so successful, the idea of taking it a step further encouraged us to step outside of our comfort zone and give students more voice. The FFT fellowship allowed our students to take the role of teacher and send us on adventures to eight cities in five European countries. Upon arrival in each new city we opened an envelope filled with tasks we were to complete while there. These tasks ranged from:
- Educational: Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey, the Louvre in Paris, the Coliseum in Rome; to
- Somber: Tower of London, Dachau Concentration Camp, the Anne Frank house; to
- Outright silly: conquering a fear of heights on the London Eye, finding a set of twins wearing red pants in Paris, playing with the monkeys at the London Zoo.
With the completion of each task, we felt a stronger connection to each of our students.
While on the fellowship, we found constant inspiration which helped us to create lessons for the upcoming school year. With a plethora of ideas and materials, continued having monthly meetings with our classes and continued giving them choice and input in their learning. The idea of opening our classrooms to each other inspired other teachers in various subjects to open their doors to cross-grade level meetings. In addition to our in-school plans, we were honored to be accepted to present at the National Council of Teachers of English in Orlando, Florida. This conference provided us with the opportunity to share what we learned through with colleagues from across the country.
We saw the benefit of our fellowship the day we announced to our students they would be our tour guides. Their interests and ideas would be the focus of the trip, and they were ready for this challenge. In planning our itinerary, they were empowered to study other cultures and cities and honed in on their leadership skills. Students who planned the trip were excited about our “reunion” to hear firsthand details about our experiences, as well as to see how successful we were in following through with the ‘lesson plans’ they wrote. This whole experience encouraged us to continue to open up the lines of communication across the grade levels and to promote the idea that no grade is an island.”