Our world is changing so quickly, so much so that it can be overwhelming, even as an adult. But what’s it like being responsible for the youngest learners and preparing them for a world that will probably look nothing like the one we live and work in today. Today’s Modern Educator caught up with Dr. Margo Isabel, Head of Lower School at Wakefield School in The Plains, Virginia, to learn how she and her faculty are educating the next-generation to thrive in this world by building culture of lifelong learning.
Today’s Modern Educator (TME): Margo, thank you for taking time out of your busy day to talk with us! Can you share with us how you became and educator?
Dr. Margo Isabel (MI): Interestingly, I didn’t begin my career with the intention of becoming an educator rather I worked in the fields of international relations and international business. I was working for an exporting agency that received funding from USAID in Ecuador and getting increasingly frustrated by how much red tape there was to get through to deliver on programs that would make such a difference in the lives of children and adults. I wanted to make more of a direct impact in the communities where I was working and education seemed like the best place to start.
So, my career as an educator began when I started work as an English as a Second Language teacher for adults in Quito, Ecuador. From there I worked my way back to early childhood education, but decided that in order to make the biggest difference I needed to be a change agent where I could mentor educators and help them create a community of lifelong learners.
Following my return to the United States I worked at Flint Hill School in Oakton, Virginia where I developed and implemented a ‘Spanish as a Second Language’ program for the lower school. Then four years ago I came to Wakefield School where, with the support of Head of School, David Colon, I’ve been able to focus on building a lower school community that’s built around student-centered learning and wherever possible infusing global perspectives into the curriculum.
TME: What are your priorities for early learners?
MI: The single biggest priority for me is to foster a joy of learning so that students fall in love with the process and are set up for success over their lifetimes. For a long time education has been so structured and regimented that it killed curiosity for students and without curiosity there isn’t much joy in learning. Part of bringing back joy and curiosity is also making sure that teachers have that mindset and are comfortable incorporating unstructured learning into their classrooms. So, we’ve invested in professional development for our lower school faculty to really make it part of our culture.
TME: What does fostering a love of learning and building a community of lifelong learners look like in practice?
MI: At Wakefield we’ve had the opportunity to develop several programs to meet these ends. One of our best teaching tools is our Outdoor Classroom. This program started off as a small garden where the Junior Kindergarten and Kindergarten classes could plant vegetables and follow their lifecycle through to the compost bin. But our Junior Kindergarten and Kindergarten teachers, Mrs. Updike and Mrs. Redabaugh were really passionate about the importance of outdoor education and have championed the cause to expand the program. As well as using our entire campus for a variety of outdoor learning experiences, we now have a dedicated outdoor classroom where all lowers school students spend time learning both in nature and about nature.
One other program that we’re proud of is our math enrichment program. Math specialist, Cyndi Williams, wanted to ensure that in addition to dedicated math classes, that foundational concepts were integrated into students’ every day experiences. From time and distance projects where students work out how long it takes to get to school using various modes of transportation to fractions in cooking, this has been an innovative way to reinforce core math concepts throughout the day.
TME: The students you’re educating today are true digital natives, how do you find the balance between technology and traditional learning tools?
MI: Wakefield’s teachers have many tools, including smart boards, iPads, and Chromebooks, at their disposal and technology is just one of them. In terms of integration into lessons, Wakefield’s lower school faculty is encouraged to explore how a tech tool might be advantageous in explaining or reinforcing key learning concepts. For example in 1st through 3rd grades students use their iPads for research and also for tracking their reading progress.
However, there are still some fundamental skills that are vital to student success. The most important of these skills is handwriting. Study after study has shown that the process of writing helps us better process, learn, and retain knowledge.
To this end, we’ve recently undergone a process of evaluating our Junior Kindergarten through Fifth Grade handwriting program to build consistency in the way that pencil grip, letter formation, and other fundamentals are taught so that every teacher in the Lower School is reinforcing the same skills and practices.
It’s vitally important to find the right balance between edtech and traditional teaching methods and tools. And while I wish it was an easy formula, the right balance is often unique to each teacher and each lesson. What I’ve also learned over the last few years at Wakefield School, is that sometimes it is important to take the lead from the students in order to best meet their needs.