My Kids, Your Kids, Our Kids / / Teaching with a Global Perspective

I’ve never been out of the country before. Well, if you want to get technical about it, I’ve been to Mexico on a cruise, but I never have had the opportunity to be immersed into another culture entirely. That is, until now. Through an opportunity with STEM Revolution, I was able to travel to the United Arab Emirates and be a part of the STrEaM training initiative with the Ministry of Education of the United Arab Emirates. Joni Smith (@ScienceTeach83) and I, along with many others, made the 15+ hour journey to the UAE to spread the gospel of STrEaM Integration and best practices. However, what we quickly realized after a few short hours of working with Emirati teachers was that we would learn as much from each other than they would from me.

Lesson #1: Understanding Culture is the Gateway to Respect

As much as I read about the Emirati culture, nothing could prepare me for the lessons I would learn from the Emirati teachers first-hand. So many of them were eager to learn not only about the theory that supports STrEaM education, but also the best practices of it and how to infuse it into their school cultures.

Much of what we prepared to train teachers with was rooted in research that supported STrEaM, but was missing a link to Emirati culture directly. This reminded me of how we sometimes introduce content to our students without them having a direct link to how that content was relevant to them in some way. So we tweaked (as all awesome teachers do) to better engage our teachers with something they were very familiar with – Camel Races.

Now, I must admit, I had no idea what camel races were. I also had no idea how dangerous camel races are (well, used to be) for the jockeys who were often children. We were explaining “Innovation” to teachers and were planning on using the example of the nurse call button to illustrate incremental and exponential innovation. What made teachers able to understand these concepts were not the explanation of the terms or the hospital call button image that we were originally going to show. Instead, it was an image of the robot jockeys that are now used on the back of racing camels.

We replaced the image of the hospital call button with the image of a racing camel with a robotic jockey. In my group, I posed the question, “Can someone explain this to me?,” and the room ignited! I sought to understand what I was looking at, and the teachers were speaking over themselves with excitement to share this little piece of their culture with me. You see, the children jockeys that they used to put on the back of camels during the races would often get injured, some very seriously. So to address this, a robotic jockey was built so that the camels could be remotely piloted, ensuring the safety of people.

This had a double effect: 1) Teachers instantly understood the concepts that we were conveying to them and 2) they felt that they were helping me grow to understand their culture more, which created a more trusting atmosphere that we all benefited from.

I believe this level of cultural responsiveness is invaluable for any classroom that sees a diverse population of students. As teachers, we can look to make small changes and shifts in our instruction to allow students to be voices of their own stories. Seek less to be the bridge for new concepts. Instead, allow students to make these connections on their own using knowledge that they understand from their own culture, and seek to understand and solidify these connections for learners.

Lesson #2: Children are the Global Common Denominator

It’s easy to sometimes get stuck in a teaching rut. We’ve all been there. Same issues, same challenges, same strategies that don’t seem to produce the results we look to see. We ask ourselves, “My students are learning the content, but are they actually learning anything?” Speaking with Emirati teachers, I quickly felt quite at home because they face so many of the same issues that we face with students in the United States. “How do I make students want to learn?” “What can I do to really motivate my students?” “Do your students try to take the easy way out?” These were all questions I received from Emirati teachers, and felt that speaking about our students felt like speaking a universal language.

We spoke about how important it is for our students to be able to work together, the importance of building opportunities for students to be leaders and creative thinkers, and their endless love for Fortnite. I realized that as teachers, we are already part of connected group of compatriots who see the same issues and share the same types of emotions when we see successes and failures in the classroom.

I made so many amazing teacher friends during my time in the UAE. Malek Zwein, a science facilitator, is one of these teachers. He’s already so innovative in what he wants to do with children in the Emirates. Many of the projects that he is either doing with children or plans to do with them are things that I do in my classroom with my students! I felt as if I had found my counterpart 7,000 miles away from home. I can’t wait to connect with him and work with him to take each others’ visions to the next level!

Teachers who can see that students are a common denominator not only in classrooms down the hall, but also classrooms across the globe have the ability to influence global change. Taking the time to understand the Emirati culture and connect with like-minded, passionate teachers helps teachers on both sides of the partnership build some really incredible opportunities for students in the future.

Lesson #3: Make Teaching an Adventure!

Before leaving the United States, I set up a FlipGrid for my students to follow along as I worked in and explored the United Arab Emirates. I wasn’t sure how engaged they would be with the concept. Part of my felt like they would find it silly, and part of me felt goofy for walking around recording videos of me showing them things and sharing my thoughts with them.

Then, the questions started coming in. Students had questions about the things that they were seeing in the videos and even generated unprompted questions about topics like geography, climate, and culture. Soon, I started creating responses that we’re tailored to these questions that students were asking. I put myself into the shoes of my students. What an incredible feeling to have someone around the world take time to answer a question that I might have about a place I had never been before.

Many of them came in everyday asking my co-teacher whether I had posted a new video or a response to one of their questions. It’s this organic level of curiosity and question-forming that I want this year of being State Teacher of the Year to offer to my students. I want them to feel plugged in to this adventure, and encourage them to elevate their voices, questions, and opinions on the things I am able to see and do.

Teachers don’t have to travel half way around the world to make learning an adventure. Try and take small steps to engage students in unique ways. Like many students, my students don’t often have the opportunities to travel and experience a great deal first-hand. Take every advantage to model learning where it happens naturally – in the world around us!

An Unforgettable Adventure

I want to give a few shout-outs.

  • First, to STEM Revolution and the UAE Ministry of Education for establishing an amazing vision for STrEaM Integration and allowing me to be a small part of it.
  • Secondly, to the amazing Emirati teachers who are grappling with STrEaM Integration head-on and planning some incredible learning experiences for their students. I can’t wait to see what you all accomplish this year!
  • Lastly, to my students, my co-teacher, and my school family who supported my adventure from afar and who allow me to make an impact at home and around the world!

Who knows where the next adventure will take me, but I’m already excited for the challenge!

Wear Your Own Shoes / / The 2018 Cecil J. Picard Educator Excellence Gala & the 2019 Louisiana State Teacher of the Year

Let me go on the record by saying that one of my favorite (now former favorite) phrases to say deals with the concept of “filling another person’s shoes.” Said with the best of intentions, this phrase is used so commonly in the English language to describe when one assumes the responsibilities of someone else. Sometimes, these shoes are average shoes (sneakers, if you will). Sometimes, though, the shoes are “big” and are seen as challenging to “fill” (maybe a shoe that is a different size or style than one is used to wearing). I never gave much thought to this phrase until my mindset on this concept was challenged by 2018 Louisiana State Teacher of the Year Kimberly Eckert.

Her message on this topic resonates deeply with me. No one has to share shoes. Everyone gets to keep their own shoes. Instead, begin walking your own path, making your own decisions and setting your own pace and stride.

The Honorees

The finalists and semi-finalists for 2019 Louisiana State Teacher of the Year are some of the most incredible educators that I have had the pleasure of meeting. Each teacher selected has a powerful story to share and amazing insight into ways to positively impact their schools and their communities.

For me, I was just honored to be in the same room as these educators! Near the end of the night, as we all began to listen intently as the division winners were about to be announced, a great sense of calm excitement rushed over me. It stemmed from the realization that no matter how the evening ended, I was about to embark on something incredible. I was about to be granted the opportunity to work with amazing educators who I would be able to glean so much knowledge, expertise, and passion from. No matter what, my life was about to change for the better, and I was going to become a better teacher for it.

The Announcement

What happened next could only be described as a “whirlwind!” The division winners were announced, then the final award for the evening. Next thing I know, I’m in a car that is more expensive than anything I have ever sat in, shaking hands and receiving hugs from hundreds of people congratulating me for being announced as the 2019 Louisiana Teacher of the Year! A huge shout-out to Dream Teachers and the Louisiana Department of Education for making all of us feel like rock starts that evening.

I experienced emotions I never knew I had! I was most proud to share that moment with my family. They’re the real MVPs in this story. They love and support and tolerate more than they ever should so I can be the best teacher I can to my students.

Next Steps

It’s been about three weeks since the big announcement, and the message that I keep going back to is that message that deals with shoes. Kelly Stomps, Joni Reed, Kimberly Eckert, and the others I’ve had the opportunity to meet have each traveled unique paths as Louisiana State Teachers of the Year. They have each left such a special impression on public education in the state.

“Filling their shoes” isn’t possible. State Teachers of the Year continue walking their own path long after their year in the spotlight is over. Thanks to Kimberly’s message, I realize now that as the 2019 Louisiana State Teacher of the Year, it’s my responsibility to use my own shoes to forge a path toward a new body of work and inspire others with my own message. There’s so much work to be done to elevate our students and the professional in general. I’m proud to add my size 13’s to the fleet of heels and fashionable yet comfortable flats worn by my incredible predecessors.

Hometown Shout-Out!

A huge shout-out to Bossier Schools and the entire Shreveport/Bossier community. I’m so proud to be representing a place that’s so supportive of its teachers. Elm Grove Middle School has been my home for eight years, and I can’t wait to share this year with them!

Welcome Back! / / Back to School Message 2018-2019

It’s that time of year, teachers! I am Spencer Kiper, STEM enrichment educator at Elm Grove Middle School in Bossier Parish, and I am your 2019 Louisiana State Teacher of the Year. Back to School aisles at local stores are full of teachers like us, getting ready to stock their classrooms with supplies that will be used to take their students on some amazing adventures. Principals are getting in-service agendas prepared to ensure that teachers and staff are prepared to tackle the challenges that they will face this year in order to make a positive impact in the lives of their students.

This August, let’s begin the year with focusing on the power of a single day. What can you be to your students and your school community in a single day? To your students, you are able to be a teacher, a parent, a coach, and a role model. To your school, you are able to be a faculty member, a data analyst, an educational leader, and a content expert. I am incredibly humbled and constantly awe-struck by the ability that teachers have to become whatever role that their students and schools need them to be. We’re going to begin the year not only setting high expectations and goals for our students, but also ourselves. Let’s support and challenge each other to use the power of each and every single day to elevate the efforts we make to turn learning into an adventure for all of us!

As you finish putting the finishing touches on your classroom to make it the perfect learning environment for your students, don’t forget that our teachers and content experts have been working feverishly this summer to provide you with some pretty fantastic instructional resources to start the school year off on the best foot possible. The Educator Resource Guide is like a one-stop-shop that offers links and information to teachers of all levels. Some fantastic new assessment resources for both Science and Social Studies have also been added, and I can barely contain my excitement for the new Louisiana STEM Initiative that is sure to make an incredible impact in the lives of our students taking advantage of the many Jump Start opportunities. Be sure to plug in to your local Content Leaders to gain additional knowledge, skills, and support.

Being in the Room Where It Happens / / EVERFI #FiTeacherLeaders Ambassador Summit

In the Beginning

Seven years ago seems like just weeks ago to me. When I think of it from a classroom standpoint though, I’m almost shocked at all of the experiences I’ve been fortunate (and even unfortunate at times) to have seen during my near decade-long adventure in the classroom.

In seven years, I’ve seen technologies go from innovative to dull. Companies that specialize in educational solutions start up, then disappear. Attitudes shift from “that will never work” to “I still can’t believe that that was such a game changer!”

For seven years, I’ve changed so much as a person and as a teacher. My strategies and tools have changed drastically over the years. Rarely does anything stay relevant in education to last even five years, much less nearly a decade. EVERFI was a software that I used my first year teaching because, like many, I saw the need for my students to spend valuable academic time building skills in both the academic and life skill arenas.

At the time, it was a digital platform for students to learn and engage in financial literacy concepts. What I didn’t realize at the time is that EVERFI would become the company that I would compare all other educational companies to from there on out. Why? Because as the weeks turned into months and the school years started to chase by, EVERFI continued to serve as a beacon for instruction in critical skill areas like financial literacy, digital literacy, STEM career awareness, and even social/emotional learning. It gave solutions to teachers in all of these areas and more while maintaining their promise to always be free to every teacher and to every classroom.

Teacher Ambassador Summit

In July of 2018, EVERFI brought together eight (out of the twelve) educators from across the country to serve as ambassadors for their first ever Teacher Ambassador Summit at the company’s headquarters in Washington D.C. After meeting many of the staff that serve in the brain of the EVERFI network, there’s no question why the company stays on the cutting edge of both quality and development. We shared our experiences, philosophies, triumphs, and challenges from our classrooms and they listened intently to our stories. The idea that the stories of my adventure with my students would somehow shape future experiences for hundreds of thousands of other children brought a great sense of pride and accomplishment to me as well as others in our group.

It’s my hope that EVERFI continues to bring teachers into their home as well as continues to elevate teachers and the mission of putting the needs of our students first. I cannot wait to see what the future holds for EVERFI and their future Teacher Ambassadors!

Capital City Adventures

Washington D.C. is one of my favorite places. It never ceases to amaze me how much history and opportunity is at every street corner. After finishing up an incredible two days with EVERFI, I decided to treat myself to a few days touring the capital with an open mind and no agenda.

I was able to meet up with some awesome Space Camp friends, which is always a wonderful bonus when traveling to places around the United States. Scooters have become quite popular around the city, and before I knew it, I was sipping around the city, taking in all of the sites and soaking in all of the atmosphere and culture.

Lisa, a newly discovered cousin, was generous enough to serve as an unofficial tour guide to the city for me. She shared story after story that captivated me the entire evening. Suffice it to say that I am leaving Washington D.C. with a new appreciation for history.

Seeing Hamilton: An American Music in Chicago was incredible. Seeing it in Washington D.C. took it to a whole new lever for me! Thanks, Trevor, for connecting me to that opportunity!

My takeaways from the EVERFI Teacher Ambassador Summit and Washington D.C: always be ready to share your passion with others, you’re never too old to forge new relationships with others, and never throw away your shot!

Advanced Space Academy for Educators / / An Incredible Tribe of Teachers

Very few places hold a place in my heart like Huntsville, Alabama. It never fails – when I cross the hill on I-565 and see the very top of the Saturn V, my heart flutters! Incredible history, diverse people, and a culture that makes it a unique experience for any kind of person. One of these experiences combines everything Huntsville has to offer into one unforgettable opportunity: the Space Academy for Educators at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center!

Each summer, hundreds of educators from around the world descend upon the U.S. Space & Rocket Center for some out-of-this-world professional development. For the first time in 4 years, I haven’t been with them all summer while they train like astronauts, engage in engineering design challenges, and build leadership skills and relationships that turn many educators into dynamic, powerhouse STEM and space enthusiasts. But this summer, we got to do something a little different: the Advanced Space Academy for Educators!

These teachers are incredible. I was inspired by the body of work and expertise that each of them had developed since their time going through their initial Space Camp experience. Each person learned how to challenge everyone else on the team to pull from their experiences to not only challenge themselves in the present, but to also think ahead and set some pretty amazing goals for one another!

We got great feedback on some of the new lessons and programming that we tried out with this amazing group of educators. The neatest thing that I got to witness throughout the week was the multitude of the ideas that they were throwing around. Being surrounded by passionate educators from your “tribe” has a way of inspiring one to take risks and push to the next level as a teacher. That’s what I saw these amazing teachers do, and it was incredible to witness.

My takeaways from the Advanced Space Academy for Educators experience: teachers are professionals at making dreams come true, disappointment can suddenly turn into amazing opportunity if you keep a positive outlook, and always, always, always, take a second to put yourself into the shoes and mindset of a child.

And Now, We Wait. / / #LASTOY Final Interviews

First off, allow me to congratulate the other eight finalists for the 2019 Louisiana Teacher of the Year program. Spending time with all of the other finalists and the staff from Dream Teachers and Louisiana Department of Education was refreshing and inspiring. The stories and expertise that each finalist brings to the table is so invaluable to our students in our state. It’s my hope that we can work together somehow in the near future and figure out how we can leave a positive mark on the state.

While in Baton Rouge, we had a good amount of fellowship time prior to our big interviews. The Old State Capitol is such a cultural gem for us in Louisiana. Did you know that it’s haunted? Check it out if you ever get the chance to see it!

Joni Lacey and Kimberly Eckert made the process of interviewing so much easier emotionally! The insights that they shared with us allowed my nerves to calm, and built a sense of confidence in me that was definitely reassuring. I think we were all really nervous, and the inevitable imposter syndrome had done more than just appear, it had moved it with the intention to stay for the long haul.

I practiced my speech so many times the night before, I began to stress myself out. My speech was filled with statistics and platform-based verbiage, but what I neglected to maintain focus on was the main reason why I even made it to the finalist level to begin with – my students.

My students are the heart of what I do.

Our journey together tells a story that embodies everything I would ever want to say and do as Louisiana State Teacher of the Year. Being an expert on their academic and emotional needs is something I can speak truthfully to and from the heart. Everything after that just adds detail to the adventure that I get to live with my kids. I decided to fold the paper that my speech was printed on, turn my bedside light off, and get some rest knowing that my love for what I do and my students would somehow guide my words the following morning.

Despite the outcome, I am so happy that I got to share this adventure with my students and as well as our story with the interview panel. I’d like to take the opportunity to thank each panelist for their time to listen and their interest in my work and the work of the other finalists. Each of you made us feel like rock stars!

My takeaways from the interview process are these: don’t let stress eat away at amazing life experiences, never waste an opportunity to show someone your passion, and when in doubt, lead with passion and you’ll never be disappointed in yourself.

Innovations of the Past / / New Orleans, Louisiana with #EGMSTEM

If time travel were possible, I think one of the first things I would do would be to visit all of my former teachers who planned field trips for my classmates and I and give them a giant hug. Field trips are stressful for any teacher. The months and months of planning that go into making trips valuable opportunities for students is unpaid and oftentimes overlooked. For me, though, they offer me the best bonus I could ever ask for as a teacher – the opportunity to see my students applying what they have been taught in settings that make learning fun and organic!

“If you haven’t experienced an escape room with your students, you haven’t lived!”

This year, our annual EGMSTEM trip was down to New Orleans, Louisiana. For us in the northern part of the state, it can be easy to feel disconnected or unplugged to the cultural heart of our state. Louisiana has a long-standing history of being the home (both temporary and lifelong) of some of our history’s most innovative and eclectic figures. Knowing about our state’s history and how these figures worked to sharp both culture and industry in our state is something I wanted my students to live, breathe, and experience this year.

Clue Carrè

If you haven’t experienced an escape room with your kids, you haven’t lived! Many of my students have experienced and loved the BreakoutEDU version, so I thought it would be neat to challenge them to a professional one. There are times when we as teachers take a step back and wonder if what we are doing in our classrooms is making a difference. During that hour that I was locked in a room with my 8th graders (many of whom I have taught for three years in a row), I was blown away by them. Their ability to think critically, work and communicate together, use their executive skills to manage their time and personnel, and emotionally support one another to ensure success was something I felt was…well, it made the months and months of planning the trip worth it in that one moment.

The National World War II Museum

I stress anytime we go to a major museum. Hopefully, that’s a natural feeling to have as a teacher. Priceless antiques. Expensive exhibits. Large crowds. 50+ EGMSTEM kids. No biggie, right?

The National World War II Museum, which was known as the D-Day Museum and was much smaller when I was child, is something I wish all students had access to for some pretty big reasons. Heading in to the museum, my students were tasked with a few basics – be respectful, take moments to absorb and live what you are seeing, and above all, if you see an elderly veteran volunteer, speak with them and allow them a few moments to connect with you.

Proud teacher moments can be few and far between. I was fortunate to experience many of them during our trip to New Orleans. Instead of walking by the volunteers and heading straight to the interactive exhibits, the EGMSTEM kids actively sought out the docents and engaged with them organically. Many of my students came back with stories, pictures, and even mementos from the docents they spoke with. My hope is that these moments will linger with them and leave a lasting impression.

Advice to Other Passionate Educators

Field trips aren’t for the faint of heart. They can be time consuming, a hard sell to many administrators, and expensive for schools and families. However, it’s my firm belief that it’s an obligation we have to our kids to offer them opportunities to experience culture and learning side by side with us in the places where history, science, and progress happens. If you’re a teacher and feel like you’d like to take on the challenge of planning an experience like this one for you and your students, I’d love to share any advice that I can to help enrich your classroom and your students. Reach out!

Thanks

A huge, public thanks to all of the chaperones that helped me wrangle this amazing group of students! It was thanks to all of you that our kids were able to experience such an amazing trip. If you’d like to see more from our Innovations of the Past STEM trip to New Orleans, click here!