KIPP STEP Part 1 – Teacher Reflections
This is a guest post from John Greenwell, a teacher at KIPP Adelante in San Diego, CA. John has been teaching for 10 years and this was his first summer participating in the KIPP STEP Summer Program at Deerfield Academy as an instructor.
Not knowing what to expect in the weeks that lay ahead of me, I frantically unpacked my suitcase. I had just spent a few weeks traveling around the Middle East and only had hours to prepare myself, both mentally and physically, for my stay in rural Western Massachusetts. I imagined it was a similar feeling to what many KIPP students were feeling around the country at about the same time as they too prepared for the KIPP STEP (Success Through Enrichment Program) Summer Program at Deerfield Academy.
As I repacked my suitcase with teaching materials and clothes better suited to the East Coast than the Middle East, I thought about my upcoming Biology classes. How would I team teach with a veteran staff member from Deerfield Academy? What resources would I need to bring in order to be ready? Cramming my suitcase full until the seams nearly split, I headed to the airport for another red-eye, cross-country flight.
Arriving on the East Coast energized, I looked forward to working with an amazing staff and incredible students. Only a few hours later, our staff assembled at Deerfield Academy over a pizza dinner. Instantly, I felt connected to the KIPP and Deerfield staff as they too shared a passion for teaching and a desire to grow professionally. My co-teacher, Heidi Valk, and I chatted about our syllabus and what activities we would use in the classroom. Not bound by any state standards or curriculum, we were free to create a class that would offer unique learning activities for our students. Possessing a kind heart and a wealth of knowledge, I knew I would get along well with Heidi as she shared her resources with me. The other KIPP teachers and I knew we would fine tune our craft to better prepare our own KIPP students for the rigor of a top boarding school.
The students arrived and classes began immediately. I was struck by how all the KIPP STEP students were open to this learning experience, despite the fact that they would be away from home for three weeks. Eager to participate in class, the majority of these students embraced the schedule and the norms of Deerfield Academy immediately.
As a teacher, I was forced to find the balance between making sure the information was accessible and letting the students reach more to delve deeper into the material. This was my biggest challenge: It’s hard to see a student who is not used to failure falter for the first time. Nevertheless, as one of the biology instructors, I made sure students were getting a deeper understanding of genetics and ecology.
Heidi and I implemented lessons that were engaging and challenging. Varying our teaching styles each day, we would make sure students were exposed to the type of classes they should expect from a top high school. Some days students took lecture notes and showed active reading on an article. Other days, students posed questions to a local farmer about the genetics of her sheep. Whether they were collecting data by the river for a research project, taking a DNA sample, or peering through a microscope for the first time, the students developed a greater understanding of the biosphere. I was so impressed at how much knowledge our KIPPsters had accrued.
The field lessons and community building opportunities were a huge part of developing relationships with the students. We laughed as we missed all the pins during candlepin bowling. We enjoyed the view of Deerfield Academy and the surrounding valley together after a sweaty hike up a mountain. We cheered on every competitor during the Dorm Olympics. It was this part of the KIPP STEP teacher experience that was the most rewarding for me. To see a student struggle in the classroom, but then excel at the end of class is awesome. However, the relationships built outside the classroom make that struggle more meaningful.
As the program ended, I knew I would want to be a part of the KIPP STEP program in the future. The more than fifty students as well as the small team of dedicated teachers inspired me to work harder and enjoy my time teaching. I felt the true power of “team and family” as KIPPsters wiped tears from their eyes on the last day as they said their goodbyes to a person that was a stranger three weeks earlier. The KIPP STEP program is not a summer camp. It isn’t really summer school either. It is much more. It is three amazing weeks working with some of the most creative, talented, and inspiring students and teachers from across the country in order to better prepare students for a rigorous high school experience.
If you are a KIPP teacher and interested in being a part of KIPP STEP staff, contact Coral Taylor at the KIPP Foundation for more information
Part 2 of this blog series will be posted on 8/18 with reflections from a KIPP STEP student from TEAM Academy in Newark, NJ.