"Jennifer Morrison is known for using her classroom as a living laboratory for best practices and for sharing research-based knowledge with her colleagues," said ASCD executive director Gene R. Carter. "She is the embodiment of what we envisioned when the Outstanding Young Educator Award was implemented." Included: Descriptions of how Jennifer Morrison's links learning with life.
Jennifer Morrison, this year's Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development's (ASCD) Outstanding Young Educator of the Year, is an eighth grade language arts teacher and department chair at Piedmont Open IB Middle School in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Piedmont is an inner-city magnet program serving approximately 700 students, half of whom qualify for the federal free and reduced lunch program. The curriculum focuses on hands-on, integrated learning, while following the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme.
Morrison trained as a high school English teacher at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, South Carolina, and after student teaching, earned her master's degree in education at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, on a Fulbright grant.
She also trains teachers and writes curriculum for the North Carolina Teacher Academy and specializes in meeting the needs of English-language-learners in mainstream middle and high school classrooms. At the same time, she acts as a teacher consultant with the Writing Project at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte. Her mobile unit -- Mobile 4 -- sits at the back of the school next to the teacher parking lot.
EW: What was your reaction to being named ASCD's Outstanding Young Educator?
Jennifer Morrison: I think recognition of good teachers, especially good young teachers, is important because of all the negative press in the general media. There is a developing image in the United States that public schools are failing. This, coupled with a teacher shortage and the quick-fix mentality of the day, is relegating teachers to the level of paraprofessionals at best. Our voice is weakening. The public needs to be shown that good teachers and good schools exist, that they work and have strong beliefs based on research and experience. I think answers rest more in schools and classrooms that work than in scripted lessons or top-down mandates and legislation. I would like the public and political leaders to see that and pay attention.
Education World: Why did you want to teach at Piedmont?
Morrison: Tom Spivey, my principal, was actually my second interview -- I was putting off accepting a position to interview with him -- and he asked all the right questions, especially questions like how I might integrate the arts into my curriculum. I didn't know anything about open education philosophy, but as soon as I read the school's literature -- the emphasis on diversity, student choice, and the development of creativity and a lifelong passion for learning -- I knew Piedmont was exactly where I needed to be. My first offer was a beautiful facility with all the latest and greatest technology, but that principal was only interested in test scores. At Piedmont, when it rains we keep our fingers crossed -- the facility is one of the oldest school buildings in our district. People teach in closets, but we love it and we love our work. It was fate that I ended up there.
EW: I understand you recently took some eighth graders to the Outer Banks. Can you tell me about the purpose of the trip?
Morrison: In open education, we emphasize real-life learning and connections. The Outer Banks trip is a four-day, three-night excursion to New Bern, Roanoke, and Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. Our students study North Carolina history and geography in accord with the eighth grade social studies curriculum, review math skills and science concepts with paper airplanes (it's a Wright brothers centennial year), and develop personal narratives in a travel journal they create on the trip.
The journals are academic and personal gold -- none of my students let me keep their journals as examples for the next group coming up. It's about creating a connection between personal and academic learning -- brain research says that this is vital for learning to occur. Earlier in the year, we take our students to Cherokee, North Carolina, as part of an interdisciplinary unit designed around Native American literature. During the entire trip, students are gathering evidence for a "court case" we develop when we return, based on whether it is right to use stereotypes to promote tourism and economic industry.
EW: How is teaching in an open International Baccalaureate school different from working in a conventional middle school?
Morrison: Well, I've never taught in a conventional middle school. I was trained as a high school teacher. I like the interdisciplinary team concept in middle school -- we're organized and meet as a grade-level team every day -- rather than the department focus of high school teaching. In middle school, I think it's about pedagogy, whereas in high school content reigns supreme, and I am fascinated by the act of teaching.
Literature and subject area just supply context. Piedmont really is a different kind of middle school. Our open education philosophy focuses us on the whole, individual child. It's not a curriculum. It's an instructional style, an atmosphere. Several years ago, we developed a set of indicator areas in which we felt every Piedmont graduate should have grown before leaving our school. One of them is "Pursuit of Personal Interest." Because of this, we tend to resist the "one size fits all" approach offered by curriculum-specific magnets and bolstered by the emphasis on testing. We recently began adding on the International Baccalaureate program and this has produced some interesting discussion about our school's identity and future direction. I think IB offers another avenue through which students can experience the world and develop their talents.
EW: What is the most rewarding part of your job? The most difficult?
Morrison: Teaching is the most rewarding part of my job. It's tiring and I often find myself with too much to do -- too many papers, too many people's needs, too many forms to complete, too many meetings -- but I always look forward to the classroom, to seeing what students will realize and produce.
The most difficult part is being a small cog in a system bent on classroom and curriculum control because of high-stakes testing. Over the past seven years, my district has mandated quarterly and mini-testing leading up to the state test at the end of the year, homogeneously-leveled classes according to test scores, double-blocked reading and math classes for students who do not pass the state tests, detailed lesson plans aligned to tested reading skills, and a strict pacing guide designed to cover all skills on the state test.
At the same time, time and budget money allocated to in-house professional development has been cut almost to nothing. Our test scores are rising, but I worry about the long-term effects: narrowing of the curriculum, loss of innovation, effects on students' lifelong learning and interest in reading, equity, master teacher retention, and the development of future teacher leadership.
EW: What makes a good day for you?
Morrison: Learning something new.
EW: Why do you like working with middle-school level students?
Morrison: Middle school students are energetic and reachable. They stand on the cusp of adolescence and are still very malleable. It's a challenge for me as a teacher to design work and activities that will meet the needs of this level learner.
EW: What was your reaction to being named ASCD's Outstanding Young Educator?
Morrison: I think recognition of good teachers, especially good young teachers, is important because of all the negative press in the general media. There is a developing image in the United States that public schools are failing. This coupled with a teacher shortage and the quick-fix mentality of the day, is relegating teachers to the level of paraprofessionals at best. Our voice is weakening. The public needs to be shown that good teachers and good schools exist, that they work and have strong beliefs based on research and experience. I think answers rest more in schools and classrooms that work than in scripted lessons or top-down mandates and legislation. I would like the public and political leaders to see that and listen.
EW: Who inspired you to be an educator?
Morrison: I did not grow up wanting to be an educator. I fell into it because I didn't know what to do with my undergraduate English degree. I could have done almost anything -- I have a strong interest in the sciences and visual arts and was successful in both -- but I didn't discover passion until I moved into education. The coursework wasn't difficult, but the act of teaching -- I don't think there's anything harder or more fulfilling. I find it blends everything I know, am, and am striving to be.
EW: What are your goals as an educator?
Morrison: I never thought I would be in the classroom this long. After earning my master's degree, I thought I would teach for two or three years, then go back for my Ph.D. I am very interested in curriculum design, policy, and teacher professional development. But the classroom is intoxicating. It's where theory hits the road, so I find myself not wanting to leave. These days, I'm struggling with how I might do both -- stay in the classroom and start my Ph.D. work. My goal is to always stay close to the classroom. At the same time, I want to participate and become a bigger voice in the debate and controversy whirling through education. In his book, Testing is not Teaching, Donald Graves asks where the dissenting voices are. I'm here! But I'm kind of busy this weekend because I have to get my lesson plans done and grade umpteen papers!
This e-interview with Jennifer Morrison is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.
Article by Ellen R. Delisio
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