From 2011 to 2015 I had the pleasure of working as a consultant in Katie Rust’s first grade classroom. Katie’s wonderful co-teacher was Andy Mastin. We focused on how to move their instruction from a more traditional teaching approach to one which emphasizes inquiry, play and exploration. We had a blast! Katie and Andy just grabbed any suggestions that I shared, made it their own and ran with it. Now Katie is a second/third grade teacher and she’s writing her own wonderful blog. I’m really eager and pleased to share her latest blog entry with you.
Posted on July 30, 2020 by Katie Rust Brown
Students learn from experts on pizza, commuting and pet care.
As word of the coronavirus’ spread from one nation to another began to circulate in the news, our 2019-2020 school year was in its glory days. Many teachers, myself included, often note that it can take months for a classroom to fully develop into the type of community that we envision for our students. Routines take time to learn and, by the time the holiday break arrives, the classroom resembles the ‘well oiled machine’ often cited as the ideal.
In February, as we began to anticipate school closures, our class was chugging along in the middle of a study on trains (pun intended). We learned about the communities of New York state, focusing particularly on how different types of communities rely on one another and connect to one another. Rural, suburban and urban communities may differ, but they all need one another to work as an interdependent system. We used the train system as our main topic to weave in these bigger concepts of connectivity and interdependence. Then, as we’d been fearing, our school closed. The train, metaphorically, stopped.
The school I work in, Compass Charter School, understood the urgency of caring for children’s basic needs first. We were offered flexibility in our curriculum, and our grade shifted our study to a focus on resilient communities, which allowed us to utilize some of our previous work plans, but also engage students in learning about current events in real-time. During the following months, our class focused on strengthening and maintaining emotional bonds with families and students, while continuing to encourage curiosity about the world around us.
The question, of course, is how to interact with the world when the world has shut down.
This post focuses on experts. For our purposes, an expert is anyone who knows a lot about a topic. Sometimes experts know about a topic because it’s something they’ve studied in school. More often, though, an expert knows a lot about a topic because it’s part of their everyday life, either at home or at work. A mechanic is an expert at cars. A chef is an expert at food. But experts have grander banks of knowledge than you may even realize. Birders know a lot about birds, but they also may know about local parks, how to keep bugs away while birding, what boots to wear while hiking and how to pack snacks on the go! Experts may gain knowledge of their topic through their own personal research and education, but most knowledge that our students want to learn is likely to be information that’s been learned through experience.
During our quarantine here in New York, from March through June, our school community utilized the knowledge of experts on multiple occasions, on the small scale level of students calling an expert for information, to larger, full-school interviews with experts. Both for in-school learning as well as remote learning, utilizing an expert is a way to maintain social interaction with others, practice listening and speaking skills, and to encourage learners to explore a topic of personal interest with someone with common interests.
Why experts? The unique value of experiences with experts lies in their personal connection to the material that they share. Experts who share about their daily jobs, their family life or their own cultures have particular investment in the information that they’re sharing. This investment often leads to an emotionally engaging lesson built on the passion of the expert for their topic. Although reading books and watching videos can provide new information to students, experts offer their own unique perspective on a topic and can provide detailed facts in response to student questions. Utilizing expert knowledge also provides validation and appreciation of experts in fields that are often overlooked. Gas station attendants, pet store workers, train conductors and protestors are important parts of our society that deserve to feel recognized for their contributions.
How do I find an expert? The wonderful thing about experts is that they’re everywhere. They’re everyone. Everyone is an expert at something. The challenge is finding an expert at the specific topic that you are researching. As an example, if your class is learning about ponds, you can ask yourself who you may know that has any experience with ponds. Think broadly. Do you know anyone whose job involves ponds? Do any family members have stories they’ve told about ponds (real or tall tales)? Do you know any friends who have visited ponds? Have you yourself ever been to or seen a pond? Are there ponds close by (and if there are, can you call the local ranger’s office or find someone who frequents the pond to answer questions for your students?) Are there pet stores nearby that may have experts on pond animals? It’s likely that whatever topic you’re studying, you know someone who has expert knowledge on that topic and can broaden your student’s knowledge.
If you can’t find a personal connection to a topic that you’re researching, I highly suggest contacting any known expert on the topic. Why not try? I’ve personally throw out flyers to friends, “looking for someone to talk about organizing protests,” I’ve emailed professional chefs, I’ve walked to the local junk yard and Target… all of which ended with offers from experts to meet with students. You would be warmed by the willingness of people to share their knowledge for the benefit of teaching children.
Preparing for an expert experience: Before meeting with or interviewing and expert, you may sometimes want to expose students to the topic at hand or the expert themselves. You can do this by writing or finding short articles about the expert’s topic. Depending on whether this experience is launching or extending student learning on a topic, you may also want to brainstorm a list of questions for your expert. These questions can either be shared ahead of time, answered in written format, or can be asked during a live experience together.
Expert experiences, in person and while learning remotely
Live Expert Interviews and Visits: When teaching in a classroom, experts may be asked to visit in person. You may also want to plan a trip to the expert’s place of work to experience their knowledge even deeper. But, a live interview with an expert is also possible remotely via any video platform. This can be done as a whole class, in small groups, or privately between a student and the expert. A “visit” to an expert, when the expert brings you into their world, is another option for a live experience. Experts may show you what they do at work, they may demonstrate a talent or hobby from home, or can take you on a tour of a location that may not be accessible for the class as a whole. These live experiences have the benefit of allowing questions on the fly that students brainstorm, but may also be more difficult to plan due to time restrictions of students, experts and teachers. These live experiences are not limited only to students. During remote work times, teachers and staff may also learn from experts via video call PD and interviews. This past spring, my staff and I attended professional development sessions with Paula Rogovin, author of The Research Workshop, and were able to learn from her expertise and ask questions about moving forward with the work in our school.
Staff members learn about research and inquiry from Paula Rogovin via an online video call during remote learning
Pre-Recorded Expert Interviews/Videos: If interviewing an expert live is not an option, or you would like to utilize experts with whom you don’t have personal contact or connections, you can utilize pre-recorded interviews or videos to encourage students to learn from those with knowledge of a particular topic. While learning remotely in April, our students were studying resilient communities and were learning about and analyzing the job of essential workers. We wanted students to broaden their view of the word ‘essential,’ and we reached out to a class parent, Heather, who was a veterinarian in our area. While it was difficult to find the right time to interview Heather live, she was gracious enough to film parts of her work day at her veterinarian office to share with our students. In this way, our class was able to learn from Heather and her work in a time that best suited both our expert and our students. You can view Heather’s video an example of this type of pre-reorded expert experience HERE. Additionally, utilizing interview videos or day-in-the-life videos of experts in a variety of fields, found on youtube or other video websites, can supplement student learning.
A class family assists in creating pre=recorded videos for student research
Experts as study resource When researching a topic of interest, students may be encouraged to contact an expert as a source of knowledge. You can list a brief summary of the expert’s experience, list their contact information and the preferred ways of communication (email, phone call) It is advisable to contact with experts first to let them know that students may be reaching out. I also suggest limiting the time that students may be contacting this individual, which helps students schedule their learning during work/school hours and offers the expert the flexibility of answering student questions in times that are helpful for them. Our school has a foundational belief in sustainable living. During our study on resilient communities, it became clear that many systems in New York City (and globally) were becoming strained as a result of the excess of people working from home. As an option, students were able to contact a friend of mine to ask about his job in engineering and how his job had been affected by the quarantine in NYC.
Experts can be found everywhere. They’re your family members, your friends, your teachers, your grocers, your firefighters and your nail technicians. Utilizing an expert promises a personalized and engaging lesson for children and validates the work of our everyday heroes who keep our society moving.