Next up in our series of Educator Snapshots, we have Tracy Derrell, one of our ELA course designers.
Hello Tracy, thanks for taking the time to let us and our readers get to know you! Well, let’s get started with our first question. What work have you done with the Saylor Foundation?
I have been writing the ELA curriculum for the eighth grade.
I have a six-year-old daughter who attends kindergarten. Since it’s only a half-day, I get to enjoy having the afternoons with her. We have a great local library, which we visit regularly, and go to the park now that the weather’s nicer. Despite leaving the classroom, I still have a passion for teaching and learning, and reading and writing, and I’m always thinking about ways to keep my feet in the education field while being present for my daughter and able to participate in her education.
Great! It’s nice to hear that reading still touches the hearts and minds of many. So, what brought you to the world of open/online education?
I came across the posting for the Saylor Foundation position and was really intrigued by it. My primary work experience is as a classroom teacher, which I did for sixteen years. Until last June, I taught English at a middle school in New York City, but I left in part because I wanted to try my hand at merging my expertise as a teacher with my love of writing. I’d only taught in the traditional classroom. But it’s pretty clear that online education is only going to grow in popularity, so I was really excited to have the chance to write the ELA curriculum for the Saylor Foundation. I liked that I had a new way to apply what I’d learned as a classroom teacher. But I also saw it as a great opportunity for me to learn about a growing option for teaching and learning.
We’re glad that you have taken advantage of this opportunity! Since you’ve joined the online learning side of education, how has your work with the Saylor Foundation interacted with your other work?
I learned a great deal about curriculum design during the process of working on the Saylor curriculum. Though I’d done some curriculum writing during my years as a teacher, it was usually done as part of a team, and we were limited to the materials we had on hand. Before I did this work, I had no idea there were so many sources of high-quality, free educational materials on the Internet. I also learned a great deal about the Common Core State Standards in English, and how to align educational content with the standards.
Yes! Those open resources can definitely be helpful. Our resources blog posts have helped to spread the word about these useful tools, and once you start looking for them…they seem to be everywhere. Considering your significant educational background, what experiences have you brought to your work with Saylor?
The years I spent as a classroom teacher definitely informed the work I did for the Saylor Foundation. During the years I taught, I noticed certain trends in what the students enjoyed reading and writing about, which skills and strategies they generally acquired easily, and which ones often needed more in-depth work. These experiences were really useful when I worked on the ELA curriculum.
Well, we’re thrilled to be able to benefit from the expertise of a sixteen-year teaching veteran. What advice would you give to other teachers just exploring the world of open education?
Be open-minded about it. In a society like ours where computers are doing more and more tasks that used to be done by people, it’s not hard to imagine classroom teachers being replaced by robots! I often think of the story “The Fun They Had” by Issac Asimov, which was about a couple of kids who are educated entirely at home by “electronic teachers.” It always generated really interesting conversations among my students about homeschooling and public schools. And while nothing will ever replicate the value a teacher can bring to the learning experience, I also feel that online and open education will provide teachers and students with lots of great options for improving teaching and learning.
What do you truly enjoy about your work?
I love that English as a school subject has evolved beyond short stories, plays and poetry. Even though those are important to study, I think that an English teacher can introduce virtually any topic and make it relevant through reading and writing. When I worked on the Saylor curriculum, I was thrilled to be able to create a unit on art history. I also brought in readings about slavery and World War II. Though these are both studied at length in social studies, I thought that using literature could introduce a new way of looking at these periods. When I was a classroom teacher, I used to do a unit on career literacy and entrepreneurship that my students really enjoyed. They read about people doing different careers, and use their writing skills to create business plans. While it wasn’t a “traditional” English unit, I still found it was a great way to help my students develop their skills, and their natural interest in the topic really motivated them. I have a lot of interests, and I enjoyed thinking of ways to incorporate them into the classroom and into my Saylor Foundation work.
Aside from robot teachers, any thoughts on the future of K-12 education and/or less-formal learning?
It’s great that there are additional options for people who want to further their education but can’t attend a traditional college for whatever reason. I think K-12 education is rapidly evolving to integrate new technology, and that’s a great thing.
Clearly, we here at Saylor agree! Harnessing technology is practically a given these days. What school/other advice would you have for our young student readers?
I think it’s important for student readers to read widely and not get too fixated on one genre. When I was a kid I read an awful lot of mysteries, and anything by Stephen King. But I don’t think we had a lot of options in the mid-80s. There were non-fiction books and biographies, but they were really dry and I only visited that section of the library when I had to. But today’s kids are really lucky because children’s literature has come a long way in the last several years! There is a lot of terrific non-fiction out there now for kids, covering a huge variety of subjects. So while I know it’s really easy (and fun!) to get caught up in one or two genres, it’s also important to branch out because it helps you build a strong base of general knowledge.
And finally, what advice would you have for students who have graduated beyond K-12, or are themselves now parents of students?
I think high school graduates need to know the value of having a plan for their future. I also think that parents and teachers sometimes oversell the value of four-year colleges and don’t always recognize the value and importance of learning trades and considering ALL educational possibilities. We’re always hearing about the high cost of education and how it’s just going to get costlier. But I know plenty of people who chose to pursue other options — technical colleges and trade schools — and have landed good jobs with good salaries and aren’t saddled with large amounts of student loan debt. I’m not saying that students should not consider four year colleges, but I feel they should look at the big picture and realize that they have lots of options.
Thanks Tracy, for what you do and for your wisdom. We missed National Teacher Day, but every day is a good one to thank a teacher!