Making the Grade: Institute teaches teachers during summer break

While most students are off savoring the summer holidays, time in the classroom doesn’t end for many teachers. The free months give educators the chance to improve and refine their own skills and to take them back to school in the fall.

At the Howard School on Atlanta’s westside, the focus of the summer is on-going education for teachers of kindergarten through high school. For the last three years, the school has offered a range of programs, from how to increase vocabulary knowledge to understanding how students learn. All of the sessions are founded on Howard’s established track record of working with children with learning differences.

“At Howard, we look for teachers who are experts in applying brain research in the classroom – which is also the most effective teaching, whether kids have learning differences or not,” said Scott Hamilton, the incoming assistant head of school and the high school principal. “Our thought was to share that expertise with the broader community of mainstream schools.”

The Institute launched with 40 participants and has expanded to include on-site seminars throughout the school term and increased offerings during the summer. One of the main attractions for participants is the chance to learn about putting that brain research into action.

“This is not pie in the sky about what should be done; we’re sharing information that has been put through the research wringer,” said Hamilton. “We talk about memory and learning, and specific ways to tweak what goes on in the classroom to make the whole experience better. But it’s not just teachers listening to Power Points all day and taking notes. It’s tech-savvy, interactive and applied, so the concepts are relevant. Teachers bring in their lesson plans, and we work on changing them based on what we’re teaching about the brain. We brainstorm ideas, generate strategies and take a neurological approach to teaching so they can apply what they’ve learned to the actual lessons they offer.”

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Since the Institute started, Hamilton has found two issues that are annually the most critical. “The number one thing is the equating of reading as the be-all, end-all of intelligence and the primary way of imparting knowledge,” he said. “If someone is a struggling reader, that’s some kind of a black mark on them, as if they can’t be as good a thinker. So we look at the mechanical processes to get information into the brain. The other issue is to get teachers to break out of the subject silo. Some are so wedded to their curriculum when it’s really more about teaching the underlying skills for the 21st century marketplace –critical thinking, social collaboration, global awareness.”

Yvonne McVann, an English teacher at Decatur high school who has been in the classroom for 16 years, participated in the Institute in 2014 and left with practical information she applied to her own lessons.

“The course that talked about the relationship between memory and emotion and the science behind that was really helpful,” she said. “It got me to understand how students remember and learn, and how I could gear activities toward that. It also talked about executive functioning – issues with organization – and gave me strategies to help students with those issues.”

Topics for this summer’s Institute include why math is difficult, vocabulary acquisition and current research on the brain and learning. Most sessions run for two days and cost $250 to $350.

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