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The Innovators: A visit with three educators who are pushing classroom boundaries

Kathryn Kao

May 29, 2019

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Teachers are constantly upping their game.

Whether it's through hands-on activities or digital tools, educators are re-shaping the way classroom lessons are delivered to 21st-century students.

"We live in exciting times," said Theodore Kopcha, an associate professor in the Department of Career and Information Studies. "New technologies are saturating schools, and each new idea brings the potential to learn and do something in a way that hasn't been done before."

College of Education alumni are no different, developing innovative teaching strategies to increase classroom engagement. Here, learn how three K-12 teachers turned their personal passions into active learning experiences for their students.

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Jenna Mobley

Food for thought

From the obesity epidemic to climate change, Jenna Mobley (B.S.Ed. '08) is passionate about engaging students in creative, hands-on activities that inspire curiosity, problem-solving, and communication.

"As teachers, we walk into our classrooms every day with intentions far beyond just meeting the academic standards," says Mobley, who has been creating wellness programs for K-5 students at Springdale Park Elementary School in Atlanta since 2009. "I'm passionate about helping teachers fill that gap and make connections between the academic standards and problem solving in the real world."

When Mobley first started teaching, she created a different theme each week—for example, the Super Bowl or a trip to the beach—to help students learn concepts in math and science. But not every student cared about these topics, and they would lose interest in the lesson.

Then, Mobley found something all of her students could feel excited about: food. By helping students grow and cook their own food, Mobley noticed they became more engaged with other subjects. For example, to understand when they needed to plant their radish seeds, students had to learn to read and understand line graphs showing the daily temperature. Soil compositions were no longer facts to memorize but information to consider when preparing the proper soil mixture for their plants.

"Students race out to read the rain gauge every time we visit the garden, and it matters if they read it accurately because it determines whether or not our plants need more water," says Mobley, who also serves as director of education for Community Farmers Markets, a nonprofit organization that supports community-based, sustainable farmers markets. "They watch the garden ecosystem with curiosity day after day and week after week."

In 2015, Mobley received the Presidential Innovation Award for Environment Educators from the White House for her dedication to creating and increasing educational resources related to social justice, food access, and environment education.

Her passion for collaborating with other teachers and strengthening global food systems and educational models has taken her around the world with Terra Madre, a project developed by Slow Foods that protects and supports small-scale producers. Mobley has also participated in other global initiatives, such as United Planet in Tanzania, the Kula Project in Rwanda, and Cuentos Para Cambios in Nicaragua.

"I wholeheartedly believe that teachers have the hardest, but also the most important job in our society today," says Mobley. "Teachers not only prepare students to meet the academic standards in a given school year, but they empower students to make positive changes throughout our world for the rest of their lives."

Kazuya Takahashi

Building up students block by block

Kazuya Takahashi (M.Ed. '07) uses Lego-based instruction at Kogakuin University Junior and Senior High School in Tokyo, Japan, to inspire creativity, communication, and critical thinking skills in students who struggle to express themselves in class.

"Many modern school systems force students to express themselves in only one way—language," says Takahashi, who is vice principal of the high school. "However, students are not always good at using language, especially if they are on the autism spectrum. If we replace language with Lego bricks, students will get more freedom to express and articulate their thoughts in various ways."

While pursuing his master's degree in instructional technology at the College of Education, Takahashi developed a scientific foundation for his classroom instruction that maintains a sense of fun and play.

By building structures with Lego blocks, students can explore core STEM concepts that directly link to real-world experiences and observations. Takahashi says investigating problems and forming solutions helps his students gain the skills required for college-level work.

"By using information and communication technologies, I can reduce the amount of time spent on teaching and instruction and spend the rest of class focused on project-based learning," he says. "I think teachers are becoming more like life-coaches as technology develops, and their skills are focused on finding and cultivating students' talents and strengths."

Takahashi strives to reshape Japan's educational system by discussing topics, such as health and other social issues, in class. To challenge career-focused mindsets and educate students about business and service, Takahashi also created a program that lets them travel and volunteer in different countries.

In 2016, Takahashi was a top-10 finalist and the first person from Japan to ever be nominated for the prestigious Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize for his innovative work in the classroom. More recently, he is conducting research in the Netherlands on how eye contact affects performance in the classroom.

"I don't think technology will erode educational jobs, but it will redefine the concept of schools and teachers," says Takahashi, who hopes to establish his own school one day and bring even more awareness to the quality of Japanese education. "What I am trying to do is tear down the barriers between schools and society and make everyone interested in education because education is everyone's business."

David Yancey

Making music history

Two years ago, David Yancey (B.S.Ed '09) went viral.

In 2017, after filming a rap that he wrote and performed in class called "Mad and Losing," the eighth-grade social studies teacher became an instant hit online, generating more than 6 million views and 44,000 shares on Facebook.

After four years teaching in Greene County, Georgia, Yancey began incorporating rap music into his lesson plans after a colleague jokingly changed a lyric from Iggy Azalea's song "Fancy" ("I'm so fancy") to "I'm Coach Yancey." Curious about the song and eager for a change of pace in the classroom, Yancey asked his students whether or not they were familiar with it.

"That was sort of the first epiphany," says Yancey, who is now pursuing an educational specialist degree in middle grades education through the College of Education. "When I asked the kids if they've heard this song before and they were like, 'Of course, it's everywhere,' I was like, 'OK, let's turn this into something.'"

That day, Yancey stayed in his classroom until 8 p.m. writing the lyrics to "I'm Coach Yancey," which would become the first of over 30 songs inspired by Georgia history for his students to sing in class and take home later to study. The goal of writing these songs, says Yancey, is to spark engagement and interest in his students, before transitioning into instruction.

"I'm Coach Yancey," which taught students about the first European explorers to settle in Georgia, was followed by such hits as "Mad and Losing" (inspired by Migos' "Bad and Boujee") and "Hello from Cherokee" (inspired by Adele's "Hello"). Yancey's songs span the social studies curriculum, ranging from Ulysses S. Grant and the Civil War to the Removal Act of 1830.

Since his video went viral, Yancey, who teaches at Edwards Middle School in Rockdale County, has shared his passion for creative lesson planning at VidCon 2017 in Anaheim, California, as a member of the "Edutubing" panel, and at two conferences hosted by the Association for Middle Level Education.

Yancey puts in the extra effort of writing and updating his songs to build rapport and trust among his students. After struggling through his first couple of years teaching, he discovered the best way to create a safe learning environment was to listen to his students as a mentor rather than a classroom enforcer.

This also might mean performing a rap or dancing in his graduation robe to help explain Georgia's court system.

"It's not in my contract to spend extra time taking a Migos song and transforming it into something that's about the Civil War," says Yancey. "But I just know, in teaching, you have to do some things you don't expect. You have to do things to reach people that's beyond the textbook."