One of the colleagues I admire most in this profession is Peter Smagorinsky at the University of Georgia. In 2012 he started a series of feature posts about “Great Georgia Teachers” and he periodically writes about a great teacher, describing their practice and what makes them great. Here’s one his latest in the series.
For two important reasons I’ve decided to mirror his efforts in Arkansas: 1) I see and work with so many great teachers and other than those fortunate students in their classroom, it’s important to me that teachers, school leaders, parents, and the public gets to see and experience a little bit that I do; 2) In a world-gone-crazy education narrative that features a dystopian view of teachers, we all need to be reminded of the awesomeness all around the state of Arkansas. None of the teachers I’ll feature have asked for this attention and if I have to be honest, I’ll predict that most of them are uncomfortable with the attention. Teachers are human, humble beings who want to give back to their communities and ultimately shape the future of our country. I don’t too often hear those stories though.
Heather Thompson is a sophomore English teacher at Bentonville High School and she happens to be part of the ARTeacher Fellowship program, an initiative of the Center for Children & Youth at the University of Arkansas, the Walton Arts Center, and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. As a fellow in the program, she attends eight days of arts integration workshops and collaboration with other teachers around the state. Arts integration, the concept of simultaneously furthering an art form and curriculum content by having students create art and understanding, anchors the fellowship program.
Colleague Hung Pham and I visited Heather’s classroom on Wednesday, January 21st, just two weeks following a professional development session with Rosalind Flynn, a John F. Kennedy Center presenter and well-known author on Readers Theatre, specifically Curriculum-Based Readers Theatre, a strategy that teaches content through the art form of dramatic reading performance. Here’s a link to her book that I highly recommend.
Upon entering Heather’s classroom and saying the Pledge of Allegiance and observing a state mandated minute of silence, she played a song and within six seconds students had moved all of their desks and chairs to the outside of the room and assembled in a circle. Facing one another, these sophomores silently began a series of movements referred to as the Actor’s Toolbox.
Ms. Thompson’s method of getting class started with pizzaz, purpose, and poise made me lean over to Mr. Pham and tell him that the Awesome Arkansas Teacher blog was underway. Students were calm, focused, and totally going along with the arts focused lesson for the day.
Following the guidance modeled by Dr. Flynn, Heather practiced gestures and sound effects as a way of getting students ready for their Readers Theatre experience. The class participated fully and I observed smiles and enthusiasm for the activity. While it might seem like fun and games, warming up is important to all artists and athletes. I’ll probably never forget the half hour of calisthenics we did in an improvisation class I took in college, nor will I forget giving and receiving hand massages to different strangers each class.
For the students first experience with Readers Theatre, Heather had created a script from Chapter 4: “New Day in Birmingham” from a collection of writing by and about Dr. Martin Luther King called Why We Can’t Wait. Students had read the chapter prior to class.
Working through the short script, students volunteered for roles and every student had multiple speaking parts along with directions to provide gestures and sound effects throughout. Students chose these artful touches which brought more life to the reading. Students then practiced performing the script several times with Ms. Thompson providing feedback throughout and following each practice.
I smiled when she began shuffling the paper in her hands and exclaimed, “Here is what I should not be hearing.” Her expectations for improvement in each reading of the script was furthered by the opportunity to video the final performance.
In what I view as an expert move, she had the students sit on their scripts and started a conversation about the content they were reading. Her prompt, “Tell me about Dr. King’s plan/process in Birmingham,” launched a discussion in which students discussed several aspects of the chapter, gaining context and understanding for their reading and performance through constructive learning talk. Students demonstrated signs of genuine engagement throughout the entire class period and following the discussion, she asked the students for feedback on the activity of the day. “This was cool.”
Following the lesson I asked Heather what advice she might give a teacher new to Readers Theatre.
“I would say to not bite off more than you can chew. I want my students to eventually create their own scripts, but I felt that was too much to take on at one time. I shared my lesson with my colleagues who did not attend the ARTeacher Readers Theatre training, and they have had great success using the materials I provided. I would definitely incorporate the gestures and sound effects tests as a preliminary activity before delving into an actual script; they break the ice and prepare students to perform. I would also move them from their desks.”
Heather shared materials with me that she also shared with her colleagues, including the original script she created for her students’ first experience with the format. Email me if you are interested in copies. I asked her how and why she wanted to incorporate these strategies so soon after learning them herself.
“Last year my students struggled to comprehend Dr. King’s writing. Coming into this year I planned to incorporate every alternative learning strategy I could find to help them understand what they read. At the beginning of the unit I made a promise to students that if they would read the text, I would ensure they understood the text. I was waiting optimistically for the Readers Theatre training because I had high hopes it would be another strategy to incorporate, and it was exactly what I needed when I needed it!”
Beyond the obvious reward of seeing the ARTeacher Fellowship put into practice, Heather’s teaching was inspirational to observer and student alike. After finishing a Master’s degree in English, Heather began teaching in the Orlando, Florida school district before joining her older brother Josh, a world history teacher, at Bentonville High. This is her seventh year in the profession and she has two Master’s degrees, one in English from the University of Central Florida and one in TESOL from Arkansas Tech University.
Her 50 word philosophy of teaching:
“I am committed to creating a classroom with a solid procedural foundation which promotes (not inhibits) highly engaging instruction. I believe learning occurs when students are provided an environment in which rapport through laughter and content via thought-provoking lessons are part of the daily experience.”
I’m reminded of the character Joe Clark’s words from the movie Lean on Me, “Discipline is not the enemy of enthusiasm.” It is the structure, modeling, encouragement, and personality that she provides that inspires creativity and engagement from her students. She’s an awesome teachers of Arkansas.
The occasional Awesome Teacher of Arkansas feature provides insights to the workings of exemplary Arkansas teachers that I have personally seen teach. Other teachers, principals, parents, or college faculty members who witness awesome teaching are invited to contribute.