Inspiring PD: Interview with Linden’s Award-Winning Curriculum Leader Beth Alexander

Posted by Admin on September 19, 2019 at 2:08 PM

Beth Alexander (centre) with her peers at the Lowell Milken Centre Fellowship, Fort Scott, Kansas, June 2019.

Our Curriculum Leader and STEM teacher Beth Alexander, recipient of the prestigious 2017 Prime Minister's Award for Teaching Excellence and the 2019 Lowell Milken Centre Fellowship, designed our computer studies/design technology program and lab. In this interview, Beth Alexander discusses her professional development experience at the Lowell Milken Center (LMC) and the annual National Association of Girls Schools (NCGS) conference this summer.

A warm welcome awaited this year's fellows at the Lowell Milken Center

Linden: How was your fellowship at the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes?

Beth: I spent a week in Fort Scott, Kansas, working with fellow educators, Center staff, and the incredibly welcoming and kind people who live in the town. During the day, we spent time in the Center doing training and research, exploring project-based learning and brainstorming. We met with former fellows who shared research strategies, drafted plans for our own projects, and skyped with Lowell Milken in Santa Monica to help us set goals. Norm Conard and Megan Felt, who run the Center, shared their experiences particularly the incredible story of “Life in a Jar” and introduced us to countless new friends. We toured the beautiful town itself and got to know many of its residents. Some highlights included getting a key to the city from the Mayor, being interviewed on local radio, and singing “Home on the Range” (the Kansas state song) at a Kiwanis meeting. Fort Scott is a beautiful place, and I will be back for a visit!

Lowell Milken Center Staff

Linden: Why did you get selected as an LMC Fellow?

Beth: Each year, the Centre chooses 12 teachers as fellows: 11 from the United States, and one International entry which was me this year! All selected fellows have received national recognition for their work, but the Center deliberately doesn’t reveal how they choose people beyond that. My own work, centered on student voice, connection to issues of social justice, and project-based learning, aligns with the mission of the LMC, and I’m so grateful to have been included this year.

Some of the art pieces in the Center.

Linden: Who were the other educators you worked with at the Centre?

Beth: I got to work with the most incredible team of educators, and the highlight of the whole experience was the friendships I made while in Fort Scott. The week of my fellowship included half of the chosen teachers, all of them inspiring and incredibly accomplished. Jordan DeWilde, Illinois Art Teacher of the Year, believes in creating inclusive art education for every student. Mary Huffman is the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History National History Teacher of the Year, and uses her incredible imagination to bring history alive for her 5th-grade students. Valerie Baalerud, a Milken Award-winning educator from Alaska, works with the Department of Education to improve student engagement and safety. Ryan James, from Richmond, Virginia, helps his students understand their role in the political process, and is a leader in inclusive education for marginalized students. Silvia Miranda, also a Milken Award winner, has been a state ambassador to the New Mexico Teacher Leader Network and serves on the Secretary’s Teacher Advisory. One of the mandates of the fellowship is to increase networking among teachers doing project-based learning. I am looking forward to continuing to work with these incredible teachers.

Training on optimizing Google for historical research.

Linden: How did this fellowship change your practice and inspire your plans for this coming year?

Beth: One of the consequences of spending time working with incredible people is that you are motivated to think bigger, and to reach farther.  I look forward to strengthening connections with folks outside Linden’s school community to broaden our networks of people helping students make the world a better place. 

I am also inspired by the Center’s dedication to fostering student projects that uncover heroic people who changed the world but are not fully recognized. Irena Sendler is one example. Through almost unbelievable acts of courage, she led a team of people who rescued 2500 children from the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust. 

One of the art pieces in the Center, in honour of Claudette Colvin, a pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement.

This is why I am excited to lead an Unsung Heroes project with Linden students this year (keep your eyes peeled for a new club at Linden). My goal is to expose students to the Indigenous Resistance in Canada’s history. Students will learn the power of historical research and develop critical inquiry skills while uncovering the heroic qualities of courage, selflessness, and willingness to fight for what is right  qualities that we should all emulate.

This year's National Coalition of Girls Schools annual conference theme was “Dream, Dare, Do: Girls as Makers, Inventors, Engineers, and Entrepreneurs.”

Linden: What was this year’s NCGS conference theme?

Beth: After a wonderful week in Fort Scott, I travelled to Los Angeles for the National Coalition of Girls Schools annual conference. The conference theme this year was “Dream, Dare, Do: Girls as Makers, Inventors, Engineers, and Entrepreneurs.” 

"Math should be taught when students need to use it, not weeks or months before." Cheryl Farmer from the University of Texas at Austin on the use of science and math skills as integrated tools in Design Thinking.

Linden: What was your role there?

Beth: I presented a session entitled “Gigantic Technological Thinking in the Early Years,” in which I discussed innovative pedagogy for primary-school technology classes. At Linden, we help students amplify their voices by treating each girl as the centre of her own story, a person with the unique ability to understand and shape her own experience. We also ask her to use her powers to help others in the world. In technology classes, this plays out in interesting ways: we allow the girls to choose how and when to take risks while using tools (after safety training, naturally); we go well beyond the standard curriculum when it comes to scientific vocabulary and computational thinking (and are continually surprised by the size of our students’ potential); and we challenge the girls to think of ways we can use technology to solve problems in our social structures and the environment. It was a pleasure to talk about the work we do, and I had great conversations with teachers from all over the world.

The robotics team at Mayfield Senior School.

Linden: What are your main takeaways from the conference?

Beth: There were inspiring panel discussions from women in tech (such as Imagineers working on exhibits at Disney), entrepreneurs, and women shaping the future of television and film. I attended a series of informative workshops, including a session covering the latest research related to including transgender students in girls’ schools, an innovative engineering program connected to the University of Texas, and lectures on artificial intelligence and blockchain. It was especially great to meet and brainstorm with the leaders of Makerspaces in so many schools one of whom uses food science in her classroom (an idea I’ll be stealing.) The highlight of the conference for me was a visit to two schools: Alverno Heights, where they have an innovative student government program, and Mayfield Senior School, where I got to meet their incredible robotics team, led by Julie Townsend, a robotics engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at NASA. My notebook of ideas is full to bursting, and I’m excited to share what I’ve learned with colleagues at Linden in the fall.

About the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes

Lowell Milken, an American philanthropist, believes that teaching is the world’s most important profession. “Good teachers are to education what education is to all other professions the indispensable element, the sunlight and oxygen, the foundation on which everything else is built.” The Lowell Milken Family Foundation is dedicated to improving teaching across the globe, and encompasses a number of initiatives, including the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, and The Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes. Learn more...

About the National Association of Girls Schools (NCGS)

The National Coalition of Girls’ Schools is the leading advocate for girls’ schools, connecting and collaborating globally with individuals, schools, and organizations dedicated to educating and empowering girls. Learn more...