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Re-igniting the Spark for Teachers and Students

I was first hired as a high school English teacher to replace someone who had quit in the middle of the day after a student had clapped his chalk erasers and rained dust all over the classroom. I was assigned five different classes to prep (with no overlapping curriculum), plus the responsibility of running an afterschool club. Some of my classes had so many students I could barely fit every desk in the room. In the meantime, I was taking classes on weekends and over the summer to get my masters in education. My work was cut out for me

I didn’t want the chalk thing to happen to me either.

When Idealism Meets Reality

As overwhelmed as I was, like most teachers, I began my teaching career with a spark: an idealistic desire to build a classroom dynamic that somehow met every need of every student. And, like most teachers, the needs of my students went beyond just academics. One of my students was there the night her close friend was killed in a car accident. Others complained of hearing gunshots at night. More still shared stories of violence in their community. Most of them faced other challenging situations at home. 

Every teacher knows that certain look students often give in the beginning of the school year, that vulnerable hope that you will be a positive presence in their difficult lives. Every teacher knows the reward when you can be that positive presence. 

And every teacher knows the frustration when you cannot. 

The summer after my first year teaching, I had an assignment in my masters program to create a unit plan using backwards design. I chose to design a unit on Their Eyes Were Watching God, a novel I was planning to teach. I integrated essential questions, a documentary about the Harlem Renaissance, critical reviews of the novel, poems by Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes, formative assessments like exit tickets and cold calling, social learning activities like Think/Pair/Shares, RAFT and other graphic organizers, differentiation, and many other instructional elements. 

The unit culminated in an essay in which students would answer the essential questions and perform the unit objectives which they had been learning and practicing throughout the unit. My professor was impressed with how I was able to “weave the metacognitive strands and essential learnings of the unit throughout each lesson.” If I could design every unit like this, I knew I could create a dynamic that propels every student into the upper stratospheres of skill and knowledge—at the very least I could avoid having chalk propelled all over my classroom.     

I had set a standard in my mind about what I wanted well-designed curriculum to look like. But throughout my eight years teaching, I rarely reached that standard.

The Weight Of Multiple Roles

For starters, teachers are asked to do many different jobs. They need to be managers, administrators, editors, content writers, designers, coaches, and counselors, and that is in addition to being in front of students actually teaching. Unsurprisingly, the requirements of these multiple roles compromises their ability to create the kind of learning experiences many want to provide for their students. For example, for every unit I designed and delivered successfully, there were two that were only half-baked because I had to prioritize nine other tasks. In short, there wasn’t enough time in the day to do all that was needed to create the classroom dynamic I wanted. 

As a result, my spark faded and my idealism waned.

A New Direction

I thought I could reignite my idealism if I focused on designing curriculum, where I could be “weaving metacognitive strands” on a full-time basis. Eventually I found a job in EdTech and since then, I’ve been lucky enough to contribute to several great EdTech products in meaningful ways. 

However, my best opportunity came when a former co-worker reached out to me about a role at Propello. They were a team of former teachers, and they were designing content with teachers in mind. I learned more about the Propello mission and jumped at the offer when I was given the opportunity to join their crew.

Why Propello?

Teachers should be the ones in the pilot’s seat, but they can’t fly the plane if they’re also having to build the factory and all the parts. 

With all the jobs they have to do, the last thing they need is a clanky curriculum. 

So at Propello, we are hard at work building the pieces to a robust curriculum engine to help teachers and students fly. We are developing essential questions to spark curiosity and high-quality content to fuel the learning journey. We are adding classroom activities and lessons that teachers can plug into their units as they see fit. And we are adding components like built-in professional development that will make classrooms hum and purr. 

As for me, I am back to weaving metacognitive strands, and my idealism is re-ignited. With a powerful curriculum engine like Propello at their fingertips, I truly believe that learning can be re-sparked for both teachers and students.