Tuesday, August 4, 2009

A Crew from Greer Elementary goes to Baltimore

For five years in the 90s, I was a fourth and fifth grade teacher in Baltimore City Public Schools.  It was my first job out of college and still remains the hardest thing I have ever done in my career.  I never had a class of under 35 students, never had enough books, was lucky to have enough desks, and taught in an elementary school of almost 1000 students.  In retrospect, the stress and difficulty of trying to reach that high number of students day in and day out was almost unimaginable.  But I did love it, and I was pretty good at it too.  A movie will never be made of my teaching days but I did care, and I wrote the grants for books, and tried to do my best for the class.  But still, despite all of that, it was never really right.  That many kids should never have been in a class together.  I still vividly remember those days like they were yesterday, I remember what my classroom looked like, smelled like, and I still have what I call Baltimore dreams of being back in my class.
To relieve the stress, I would often go on long walks with Jeannette.  One of our favorites was walking the Harbor walk from Fells Point to the Inner Harbor and back.  In those days, the Harbor walk was not all connected and instead of walking past high rise condo towers, you usually walked past vacant lots or decaying structures that had not yet been Inner Harborized.  One of the anchors of the walk was going past the Living Classrooms Foundation, right on the water at the foot of Lancaster street and Caroline I think.  I did not know much about, this was pre-internet, so I could not really look it up, but I always thought to myself as I walked past, that place looks really cool.  It was two well designed buildings, with a dock, with various boats attached.  From the little I knew, it was where active learning took place.  I knew I needed to do something different than what I was doing in my school, and that little highlight on the Harbor walk would always remind me of something different than a classroom of 35 plus kids that I was just trying to bring some sort of kindness and control to.  
Well, to make a long story short, my principal in Baltimore did one cool thing with me by letting me run the summer school for a couple of years.  I ran it like my own little Living Classrooms Foundation, with field trips, and interdisciplinary projects, and engaged learning environments.  It was never a total success, but it helped me start to see what I could do.
I came down to Charlottesville to officially learn to become a principal at UVA.  From there, I became an assistant principal then an elementary principal where I was doing a good job, but not following my dream of what the Living Classrooms Foundation represented to me.  What did it represent anyway?  Kids doing real things, kids outside of the classroom, kids interacting with their environment, kids making connections with adults from the real world.  
Why this boring, maudlin trip down memory lane?  Because I am starting to walk my leadership's knife's edge a little bit, and am working on Greer becoming an expeditionary learning school.  As part of that, we have created some summer learning experiences for some of our teachers and right now, seven of our amazing teachers and our wonderful assistant principal are in Baltimore getting ready for an experience with expeditionary learning and, you guessed it, the Living Classrooms Foundation.  Even though I am not there, the significance to me is incredible.  In fact, it really just hit me today how I cannot really believe that I am taking steps with staff to make this happen.  That twenty something teacher who walked past that classroom on the harbor every week and thought, there has got to be a better way, now is a late thirty something principal working with some kids who need this kind of learning just as much as kids in Baltimore did.  It is scary to put myself out there, and scary to be finally doing what I have always wanted to do.  This will be an interesting year to see how it all pans out, but I am just going to enjoy the moment right now about this experience happening for several of our staff members.



  1. Matt- I like your reflection and how you are drawing from both your teaching experience and leadership experience to challenge all students at your school to new heights!

    Well written!

  2. Hey, Matt,

    It's hard waiting to release that data.... but what an entry you get to write this year. I am so psyched that you will get the chance to put the living classroom mission into play this year- and prove when kids get more playing time and less sideline drill, they will engage, learn, and become the dream...

  3. Well there is no doubt Matt that what you envisioned for student learning and the craft of teaching 10+ years ago is about to be witnessed in the classrooms of Greer Elementary.

    Tomorrow morning, I will join 3 of our 8 teachers for a boat ride in hopes that we will learn the effects that urbanization has had on the Chesapeake Bay Watershed helping us to have a deeper understanding of the importance of a watershed on our environment so that we will be able to take a stand on the recent Chesapeake Bay Foundation vs. the EPA court case that was filed in January 2009.

    This trip is one step in a process that will enable us to effectively convey our thoughts and ideas through a persuasive essay or project.

    Real learning for a real and worthwhile purpose. Can it get any better than this?

    I have never sat through an all-day workshop with a group of teachers where the engagement level was at such a high level.

    Our teachers are excited, hopeful, and eager about returning in the fall because this work leaves them inspired to do more for the students of Greer. Even more wonderful... is seeing how excited they are with their own learning!

    After reading your most recent post, really wishing you were here with us.

  4. Matt -
    I am so excited to learn from Greer's journey in the next years... even if I will be somewhat watching from the sideline. Thanks for taking the challenge as an administrator and leading and giving your teachers a voice in where they go as a learning community. Your students are only one of the many stakeholders that will benefit! Good luck this year as you take off...