Learning Curve: Kids over curriculum

When you hear that a local teacher has won the “Oscar” of education prizes, you expect a scene stealer who delivers “King Lear” in purple robes and tap dances through sentence diagrams.

Instead, the performers in the north Fulton classroom of newly crowned $25,000 Milken Educator Award winner Greg Ott are his seventh-graders. In a visit last week to two of his morning classes at Northwestern Middle School in Milton, Ott prodded, prompted and provoked. But the students held center stage.

Here are Ott’s reflections on education.

The secret to effective teaching: “The ‘secret’ is nothing more than engaging and focusing a quality that most middle-school students already possess. Seventh-graders are social creatures. They need to talk. If you give them something to talk about that is remotely thought- provoking and connected to an instructional objective, they will engage in discourse that will clarify their own understanding.

“What they don’t necessarily bring to class are the social skills needed to productively interact with each other. Those have to be taught. I have used the Kagan Cooperative Learning model for years for just that purpose.”

What makes a good teacher: “Passion, persistence, creativity, empathy and a genuine commitment to making the subject matter engaging and challenging, yet accessible to every kid who walks through the door. A good teacher will care more about the kid than the curriculum. A good teacher is always looking for a better way to teach something they’ve taught a hundred times. A good teacher will show their kids the way rather than telling them what they need to do.

“A good middle-school teacher doesn’t forget that in spite of every annoying thing that a kid can do to drive them crazy, they are just children and they need to know that you care about them even when you are exasperated.

“And a good teacher will give every kid a fresh start and a smile every day they walk in the room regardless of what may have happened the day before.”

The role of testing: “Testing needs to be used to measure the effectiveness of instruction. The problem is that it has evolved into a tool that has become the goal rather than simply a tool. Schools are evaluated based on test scores, so that has become the focus. Critical and creative thinking have taken a back seat to the acquisition of facts.

“My worry is that we may become a society that can only solve its problems if the answers are included as one of four given choices. Testing is both useful and necessary, but it has taken on an importance that goes way beyond its useful purpose.”

His own school career: “I was a rascal in middle school. When I went into teaching, my mother said it was my penance for the trouble I gave my teachers. My teachers either loved me or despised me. If I liked them, we got along famously; but if I didn’t, I was a deceptively destructive force.

“In seventh grade I had my mother completely snowed for some time about my language arts teacher. She thought my teacher was the problem until the assistant principal phoned home one afternoon after paddling me along with two of my friends. We had finally gotten caught pulling one of our numerous ‘good-natured’ pranks. My life changed that day after my mother marched me back to the school and personally apologized for my behavior and for not doing more in the past to fix it.

“She assured my teacher that she wouldn’t experience that kind of disrespect in the future, and that if she ever needed to relieve herself of my presence that she need only send me to the media center. Mom let her know that she had signed up to volunteer there daily.”

If he could redesign middle schools: “I’d organize grade levels into two-teacher academic teams. A math and science teacher would be paired with a language arts and social studies teacher. They would share 50 kids and a flexible block of time each day with those kids. In other words, the kids on a single team would spend half of the academic day with one teacher, and then move across the hall to spend the other half with the other team member.

“This would enable the teachers to teach math within the context of the science curriculum and language arts within the context of the social studies curriculum. In life, we don’t use the skills we learn in isolation, yet that is exactly how we tend to teach those skills. The smaller teams would enable the teachers to establish a stronger relationship with the family of each student and with the students themselves contributing to a true learning community.

“And they all lived happily ever after ...”