Matthew McDowell teaches AP Government and Politics, AP U.S. History, and world history in the Upper School, coaches Middle School cross country, and serves as faculty moderator for Morgan Park Academy’s Model UN and Diversity Council.
Mr. McDowell holds a B.A. from Saint Xavier University and an M.S.Ed. degree from DePaul University.
What is the most important life lesson you want students to learn in your class?
That failure is part of life and a learning experience, not a crutch or low point on which to cling. Failure teaches us how to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, learn, and move forward. You may not ever be the smartest, the fastest, the most talented or most popular. But if you are kind and you try to always do your best, you will go far in life.
Three years ago, during my first year at Morgan Park Academy, I had to improvise part of a lesson after I was left without one of the handouts I planned to use.
I tried a slightly different way to get my seventh-grade English students to engage with the classic Robert Frost poem “The Road Less Traveled.”
I had them take out a piece of notebook paper and draw their understanding of the poem. Think about what the poem represents. What do you think it means? What images are most prominent? What colors come into your mind when you read it?
The students loved this approach. Some of them drew compelling images from their interpretations of the poem. When asked to explain their images and how they connected to the poem, they had clear, analytical answers that showed their understanding and a higher level reading of the poem.
This success got me thinking: How can I do more of this in my classroom?
Derek Smith teaches English and Social Studies classes in the Upper School and is our Director of Service Learning. He is teaching American literature and consumer economics this school year, his sixth at Morgan Park Academy.
Mr. Smith holds a B.A. from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a Master’s degree from Framingham State University.
What do you like best about teaching at Morgan Park Academy?
I enjoy how much autonomy and flexibility we are afforded as educators. I’ve created courses from scratch about Middle Eastern literature and about graphic novels, for example, and we’re reintroducing a speech class next spring. The encouragement to create new classes and to make use of our strengths enables and pushes us to continually grow as educators.
I also love our small community and the connection I have with students, including the opportunity to make connections outside of the classroom. As teachers here, we do not lose touch with our students once they graduate and move on to college and adult life.
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?
Recently, 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:
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.