Category Archives: Social Studies

What We’re Doing Right – Reflections from the AMLE Conference by our Director of Global Learners Program

How do you know if your child has received a good education? How do you determine its value?  I wrestle with these thoughts nearly every night. With the pace that the world is changing, the number of unknowns for our children, the interconnectedness of the world today, and the fact that the jobs in biggest demand today did not even exist 15 years ago, I often wonder if schools are doing what is truly best for our children.  Is their education (my new favorite word) life-worthy?

ambergRecently, I attended the AMLE Conference in Columbus, Ohio and had the privilege of hearing from and meeting and speaking with two big names in education: Dr. Yong Zhao and Dr. Nancy Doda. I walked out of the conference inspired to meet new colleagues to discuss the current trends and ideas in middle-level teaching, though apprehensive that my instincts would be confirmed. Sadly, they were and I discovered that the AMLE community as a whole is troubled by what is happening to children in the educational system in our country.

However, I was lucky to be reminded of how fortunate I am to be a member of an independent school. Concerns over standards, the Common Core, No Child Left Behind were all main points of discontent in every session of my conference but thankfully don’t affect me as a teacher or my students as they do in the public schools. In Ohio, I heard from school leaders and teachers whose schools test kids so frequently their kids hate school; schools that have had to take away the arts, advisory, and P.E. so they can focus on the core subjects; schools whose teachers’ jobs are tied to their students’ performances on these tests. I walked away more worried about the public school system and more thankful that I belong to an educational community that does so many things right by our children:

  1. At MPA our small class sizes make it impossible for a student not to be known. This is important at every age. And as Dr. Doda put it, “No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship.” Even the best teacher would have difficulty reaching and connecting with every child when you have 35-40 students (or more) in a class!
  2. Our school not only encourages but celebrates creative, divergent thinking. In public school, high stakes testing pushes towards convergent thinking: one right answer when we should be teaching our students (and our teachers) that there is not always one right answer. allows us as teachers to encourage divergent thinking skills and the creative thought necessary to create the jobs of tomorrow.
  3. In many places around our country, “the tyranny of testing” has replaced “the magic of middle school.” Thankfully, at MPA, we are not tied to tests. Zhao said, “There is nothing wrong with standards, but standards lead to standardization, which in turn leads to homogenization.” Think about it; why are schools focusing on sameness when homogenized jobs will be outsourced or done by machines? At MPA we pride ourselves on nourishing the independent thinkers, the question askers, and work tirelessly to help each student find their voice.
  4. As an educational institution, MPA is not a factory system or even a broken factory system model. We aren’t interested in “cranking out sausages”, as Dr. Zhao called the US system, that accidentally, occasionally cranks out a piece of bacon (A.K.A. Steve Jobs)! At MPA, we start with the celebrated belief that each child is different, strive to meet each child where they are, and help them grow from there.
  5. At MPA we focus on global awareness and service. Think of all the other parts of the child that are lost when we focus on only test scores: resilience, passion, empathy, friends, confidence, risk-taking, and so much more. Celebrating our interconnected world and instilling in our students the responsibility to help others not only helps students find other things they might be good at but, more importantly, it also shows them that there are things in life far more valuable, self-fulfilling and life-worthy than test scores.
  6. One of the most insightful notions that came out of my conference was the concern raised by many teachers that with loss of teacher autonomy in the classrooms and the increasing scripting of curriculum, they see democracy dying. They were largely concerned with the fallout from this, how it will impact their students, and, ultimately, our society. Thankfully, democracy is alive and well in the classrooms at MPA. Kids are given choices; we vote on issues; we have processes in place for students to introduce items, clubs, and issues they are passionate about. We provide numerous leadership opportunities for all students and encourage every student to find their voice. Students share their work, run assemblies, and celebrate their culture. If education’s most important job is to promote the welfare of students, then by teaching them the principles of democracy in the classroom shows them how powerful the individual is and how powerful they can be. What greater gift can we give them, ourselves, and society?

While I realize no place is perfect, I have to say that sometimes it takes a walk in my neighbor’s yard to remind me of what a beautiful home I have. Perspective really is everything. I came back from AMLE thinking, “We might not be perfect, but we’ve really got it good”.

By Colleen Amberg

Ms. Amberg teaches Middle School English and Social Studies. She is also the Director of Global Learners Program.

Meet Our Teachers: Peter DiLalla


Peter DiLalla is in his third year as a Middle School teacher at at Morgan Park Academy. He teaches fifth- and sixth-grade social studies and seventh- and eighth-grade physical education, and also has taught English and math. After school, he is head coach of our varsity tennis teams and our yearbook adviser.

A Cleveland native, he earned Master’s and undergraduate degrees at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana.


How do you inspire students to enjoy learning?

I always try to relate the material that I teach to students’ own lives. For example, we are currently working on creating a fake Twitter feed for George Washington. Giving students the opportunity to take information from history and rework it into something that makes sense to their generation is always a goal of mine. Whether it’s making a rap about history or thinking about which hashtags George Washington would use, this approach gets students excited about learning.

What do you enjoy most about teaching?

I most enjoy seeing students overcome their fears, whether it’s giving a speech in front of the class or performing for an assembly. Last semester, my spoken word class created original pieces and performed them at our United Nations Day assembly. I was really proud of my students not only for creating their pieces by themselves, but for having the courage to share their work with the entire school community.

What is the most important life lesson you want students to learn in your class?

I want them to learn that it’s important to take healthy risks and chances in life. I remember as a kid being terrified of messing up or doing something that would be embarrassing. As I got older, I learned the importance of putting myself out there and not being afraid of what others thought. You can learn so much about your strengths and weaknesses by overcoming the fear of failure. I try to instill this approach in my students by leading by example and fostering a classroom environment where students feel safe to try new things.

Teaching Empathy

Morgan Park Academy

One of the greatest lessons we have to learn from the study of history is the importance of empathy. But so often, students don’t understand this. They hear about events that seem totally irrelevant and can’t help but think: This was so long ago! They’re all dead now! How does this impact me?

So to keep history from feeling distant or dull, we take an empathetic approach at Morgan Park Academy.

Our history teachers ask students to try on another’s shoes and go for a walk, understand where they were coming from, analyze the events of the time and consider why these individuals did what they did, and look into all the consequences of these decisions.

In teaching this way, we take time to acknowledge to our students that people are complex; that decisions are not made in a vacuum; and that from this there is value both to understanding the past and in gaining insight to understanding ourselves and others.

To approach history as merely a series of dates and facts and places to be memorized is to do a serious disservice to the discipline itself, to the people of the past, and most important, to students who are desperately trying to make sense of the world in which they are growing up.

Continue reading