As seen in the Sept. / Oct. Issue
Principal Maria Vera-Drucker of PS 376, Felisa Rincon de Gautier School of Technology in Brooklyn, NY, transformed her school’s curriculum from that of a fairly traditional school into a cutting-edge, STEM-centered curriculum.
It’s now recognized as a Showcase School, which means it’s a learning facility for other educators in the area who wish to similarly improve their schools. In this exclusive interview, Ms. Vera-Drucker provides some insight to what it takes to become a Showcase School.
Can you tell us about the shift to STEM-based curriculum at your school?
Well, it was about four years ago. I walked into the building, and I noticed technology was under-developed where it was being used. Thedre was PowerPoint and Jeopardy, but it wasn't clearly connected to the content. So, I put together an Instructional Technology Committee, which consisted of classroom teachers and a supervisor. Every Friday morning, we would teach them how to teach adults.
So, it sounds like you first had to focus on getting the teachers on board.
I have seasoned teachers who have been working 17, 18, 20 years in the school system. Not having technology skills was a problem. I wanted to go in slow, because I didn't want to discourage them. So at first it was like, If you're willing to do this pertinent training, you can come in and learn this application. So it was presented as something fun for the teachers.
How about Project-Based Learning?
Project-based learning – I think that is the way to go. It requires designing a lesson plan backwards, and it allows teachers to be creative. But at the same time, you cannot teach about whales, for example, if you do not know their behavior, habitat, diet, etc or have the academic record to support the learning.
So, even though this is something that was not taught to teachers in college, and they probably can't care less about the whales, they have to be able to answer kids’ questions. These are things that the teachers have to learn. And they have fun. I tell my teachers, I am saving you from Alzheimer's because your brain cells are just multiplying daily!
But the other thing is I don't have a high disciplinary problem because my students are engaged. I don't really have to spend time disciplining kids. I maybe have one or two incidents a week versus having ten or fifteen.
What kind of tech do you use?
At our school, we use GarageBand, we use Pixie, we use iMovie, we use clay animation, we have a 3-D printer, we do podcasting, the list goes on. Of course Keynote, PowerPoint, Excel to track their data, and we build robots and we do coding, too.
We have an environmental design lab and one of the A+ STEM Labs, it’s amazing. All the teaching tools and technology gets combined - they do such a fantastic job. They’re highly effective with teachers. Every classroom has 10 to 15 laptops. These are things that schools are just starting to do, but we've been doing this for four years. There's so much we do here. I'm just so impressed with my staff. They really have taken it to a whole different level.
It seems like a lot more work initially for teachers to coordinate with other teachers etc. How are you able to make that work at your school?
At our school, we have double planning. And we make sure we provide time for the teachers to meet on a daily basis. And we emphasize the collaboration – you cannot work in isolation.
From your perspective, is it essential that admin is on board with this or could teachers get it started at the school?
Admin needs to be able to have the knowledge and the skills, because if they don't, then how are they supposed to support the teachers?
What advice would you give to a school that's trying to function more like yours?
I think you have to take risks. You have to know your craft. Once you know your craft, you can take the risk. And you have to understand our society and have the skills to make our world a better place. At the end of the day, you want to impact our society so we can all benefit. There's a lot of poverty and crime, but if we prepare our children with the skills to communicate, we will make some great lawyers. We will make some great politicians. We will make some great salesman. We will make great teachers, and engineers, and scientists. So I think we need to take risks, we need to know our craft, and we need to understand our world and what our world needs.