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Featured Teacher Spotlight: Quinn Sears, G.W. Carver Collegiate Academy

At the last Data Day of the 2014-2015 school year, G.W. Carver Collegiate Academy English III instructor Quinn Sears received the distinction of Featured Teacher. Read on below to learn more about Quinn’s background, the Socratic Seminars she has pioneered in her classroom, and the diligent planning she does to keep all scholars engaged in her classroom.

How did you get into teaching?

When I was in elementary school, I was diagnosed with a learning disability. I really hated reading, but I always loved stories. I ended up being given an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and was placed in a small group pull-out for reading. I caught up in my reading level really quickly, but I required a lot of support at school from teachers and at home from my family. After experiencing this growth, my mom—who was also an educator—liked to say that I would eventually be a great teacher because of my personal experience as a struggling reader. I was resistant to this at first, but then I had an opportunity to apply to Teach For America when I was a senior in college. I realized I wanted to teach special education because of the experience I had when I was a kid. I wanted to provide the same accommodations, hope, and love of reading to kids who weren’t able to access those things earlier in life.

What has sustained you as a teacher for 4 years?

I think that the relationships I have been able to build with kids and with adults have been most important during my time as a teacher. One particular scholar, Lawrence, comes to mind. I taught him when he was in 7th grade, and I’m currently teaching him again as a 10th grader, which is an amazing experience. When I first started teaching him, our relationship wasn’t super strong. He was a nice kid who did what I asked most of the time, but he was reading below grade level and never really took on much leadership in the classroom. Since then, it’s been cool to see how he’s grown and changed with the support of his family and the support offered by his teachers. Today, he is really excelling; it’s particularly remarkable to see how he’s grown in his writing and how his perspective has been dramatically expanded. More than anything, its amazing to be able to bear witness to this change as his teacher. I don’t think I realized when I first started teaching how rewarding it would be to see scholars come back after you teach them, or see how much scholars could grow during a year.

What is your favorite unit to teach and why?

It’s hard to choose. I love teaching Macbeth because it spurs a ton of great discussion on topics like gender and power. However, I love teaching To Kill a Mockingbird for the text itself. To Kill a Mockingbird is like a manual for how to be a good human being. I read it as a kid and I liked it, but each time I read it again, I learn more about how to mentor people. Atticus Finch is the ultimate parent and the ultimate teacher. The book shifts your idea of who your heroes should be by changing what a hero looks like throughout text—whether it’s Atticus, Miss Maudie, Calpurnia, or Boo. It’s really important for kids to see how dynamic these characters can be.

Who was your favorite teacher when you were growing up and why?

One of my favorite teachers was Ms. Maffry. She was my Comparative Literature and International Relations teacher in high school. She had this way of being quietly terrifying. She would never get up from her desk; she would just sit there and wait for people to talk about the topic of the previous night’s reading; her high expectations were just implied by her demeanor. I think a lot about the curriculum in her class and how mind blowingly interconnected its themes were. It’s unbelievable to me even today. It truly puts my teaching experience into perspective. When people say I’m doing well, I think about Ms. Maffry and all of the bigger and better things my kids could be doing, and how much I want to get to that level, faster.

One thing that came out during your teacher feature was how much you invest in your planning. Katie Bubalo mentioned how you plan for your lowest and highest kids in class. Can you walk us through a recent lesson plan that demonstrates how you plan to address the needs of all students, and talk through how you made those decisions?

Right now we are reading 1984. I like to do that with test prep, because EOCs are a little bit 1984ish. I gave my highest performing scholar a copy of 1984 and told him to read it at his own pace. I gave him a Chromebook and had him write his responses to discussion questions and share them with me through Google. When he finished the book, I created a series of assignments that were thematically related to 1984 on StudySync. Meanwhile, in the class, I am working with kids on breaking down the actual text of 1984. Some scholars have the differentiated text, which is a Penguin Reader version of the book. I also have some kids working on Read Naturally during some blocks. At any given time, we have three or four things going on in here, which is really exciting to see. English class just wouldn’t work at this level without differentiated planning and the use of technology.

A lot of folks mentioned the level of rigor in your room and how you are constantly thinking about what kids at Lusher and Franklin are doing and how our kids can do the same level of work. How are you able to go from that question to your planning to push the rigor?

The Socratic Seminars I’ve introduced to my class are a direct product of thinking about the rigor gap. Before each seminar, I give kids a list of questions. To prepare, they have to work through either one or multiple texts to develop answers to the discussion questions and back their answer up with proof. On Seminar Day, I assign a group of kids to be in the “inner circle,” and a group to be in the “outer circle.” For the “inner circle,” I’ll pick a combination of kids to start, including some who I know will need to be pushed. Leading up to the Seminar, I think about kids who will not want to participate, and kids who will over participate. I’ll have individual conversations with kids about that, so that they are prepared to tackle the topic without feeling intellectually intimidated. Once we are doing the seminar, the “inner circle” scholars are graded by a partner in the “outer circle” based on the amount and quality of their participation. I’ll walk around the class while the discussion is happening, and I’ll “tap-in” kids so that they switch roles between inner and outer circles. The whole point is for them to synthesize their thoughts on complex issues.

One thing that Lisa Shea mentioned in some of the film that didn’t make the final video is that you’ve grown tremendously in Socratic Seminars. The very first time you did them, I imagine they didn’t go perfectly at all. What do you tell yourself in the moment when you are trying something new and something hard so that you don’t give up if it doesn’t go well? What action steps do you take?

When something seems scary to me, it usually means I should try it and adapt it in my own class. When something is not going well in the moment, I’ll sometimes give whole group feedback to my class. I’ll also jot down what I notice on my clipboard for the next class and add the note to my directions or feedback on the activity. Today, I was finding that the break-it-down questions I had for the article we were reading were not that helpful, so I made notes on my classwork copy. If something isn’t going well, I focus on trying to turn things around as quickly as possible, either real-time or for the next period. Also, when things don’t go well, I’ve learn not to personalize it. I don’t spend a bunch of time kicking myself. I focus instead on how to fix it right now, and then later on the deeper level fix.

What’s something you did differently this year than other years to impact your class?

This year, I barely ever used worksheets. I got that from Lisa Shea, my coach. Worksheets lower the rigor and the organizational skills for kids. Also, I put a lot of time and energy into actually physically setting up my classroom this summer and maintaining my systems throughout the year. I spent more time this year thinking about how my classroom should look and feel. I want my room to be clean, organized, and functional for every type of activity without a ton of set-up each day. I wanted there to be a place for everything that was easy to find and visual. I think that it’s really important in general for teachers to present themselves to their students as being as organized as they want their students to be. It’s super important for our kids if they haven’t gotten that skill before, since they will be in college in a very short period time.

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