Be Transparent and Communicative

By Ali Alowonle

Award: Finalist for Minnesota’s 2017 Teacher of the Year award, nominated for Clark County’s New Teacher of the Year award

My homeroom is 4th- and 5th-graders: 21 gifted students, a mix of boys and girls. It’s nice because the 5th-graders are really the mentors, and next year the 4th-graders get to take on that role. It’s a really great chance for them to grow in leadership. Looping also lets us hit the ground running. I know half my students already at the start of the year. They know the rules and they can help teach the new kids. We get a lot more instructional time that way.

It’s a lot of project-based learning in here. For instance, for chemistry we’ll work on teaching them the properties of atoms and bonds and we’ll go through the whole chemistry unit, but then it’s peppered throughout with different labs they can do. At the end of a unit, they do an individual project where they can ask themselves, “What do I want to do with this?” They can do some experimenting at home, or in the classroom. The only criteria I have is to incorporate something from the unit and then go deep with it.

With intense students like mine, connecting to the family is super important. I send periodic emails to individual parents to let them know how things are going. I always try to touch on the positives, which is something they’re not always used to. I’ve had responses from parents saying: “I’m really surprised by your email. I thought this was going to be another email about how my child was sent home today.”

I also send everyone a very detailed weekly newsletter about what it looks like to be a child in this room for a week. I write down what we’ve been doing each day, in each subject, each project. Especially because a lot of students struggle with executive functioning, planning, and meeting deadlines. I lay it out for the parents: Here’s what you might want to be asking the child. Here’s something you can do at home to extend the learning going on the classroom.

Tips on Awards: Once you are nominated, some awards require you to submit a portfolio. My best advice is to write about what is truly in your heart. Be honest about your philosophy, pedagogy, and teaching. Also try to provide specific examples and anecdotal stories.

To balance duties that come with awards, first take care of your students’ needs and then carve time out of your personal life to deal with any obligations from awards. This way, you are staying true to what really matters—the kids!

(Next page: Tips from 2 other award-winning teachers)


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