INTERVIEW by DANIELLE OLIVER | PHOTOGRAPHY courtesy of TODD, MICHELLE & BROOKE
The health of the American school system is undeniably waning. Public school districts across the country suffer from overpopulated classrooms, outdated teaching methods, and a lack of access to resources. This month, three teachers have set out on a journey (in the most literal sense) to observe, report, and put into use the most effective, progressive teaching methods being used around they country. It’s this type of initiative that is going to be necessary to change the face of American education, and educators around the globe should tune in to the Odyssey Initiative to hear what these three have to share.
How did the three of you meet, and how did you first start discussing the idea for The Odyssey Initiative?
Todd: Michelle and I taught in the same classroom for three years at a progressive public school in Brooklyn, NY. During that time, we created a consortium for progressive educators across New York City to share best practices from our classroom. Brooke joined the school a year ago and we quickly found that our core beliefs and philosophies about education aligned. Her wealth of knowledge and experience in teaching the lower elementary grades brought a new dynamic to our team.
Congratulations on your September 6th launch! From what I understand, the mission of The Odyssey Initiative is to travel to all fifty states to meet teachers and observe classrooms in order to gather vital information about how best to improve American education. And then, at the very end of it, you’ll be creating a brand new school in Brooklyn. Can you give me some details about what your Odyssey will entail, as well as how you plan to present your information interactively online?
Todd: We have surveyed educational experts (professors, consultants, writers, and practitioners), asking them what great schools we should visit and for what particular reasons. In addition to using our own philosophical beliefs, we have looked at observation protocols to help us think through which details we are looking for.
During our visits, we sit down with school leaders for in-depth conversations about the history and structure of the school. We observe two lessons and interview the teachers to discuss details about the lesson, including how it was planned, how it fit into the scope and sequence of the school year, and how the teacher taught it.
After our school visits, we discuss the instructional practices and school practices that stood out to each of us and debrief on what we might want to put in action in our new school in Brooklyn. We then make a video to capture the culture and practices that we think stand out. Our daily blogs, pictures, and videos from each school will be displayed on our website in a timeline format. If you click on a state, the content from that state will dynamically appear and you can then scroll up and down to see more of our Odyssey in chronological order.
We are also interviewing different leaders in the industry, including superintendents, academics, authors, and journalists. Those interviews will be posted on our website.
It sounds fantastic, almost too good to be true. How is this project being funded, including the future school in Brooklyn?
Todd: In December, we received an angel investment of $25,000 from a childhood friend. This summer, we completed a successful Kickstarter campaign that raised over $82,000 from 462 backers from around the world. We received a range of pledges — $5 from educators, all the way up to $10,000 from a corporate lawyer. This money will fund our research through November. For us to make it from there to anywhere else, we need access to a broader base of funders.
Funding for the school will come from a few different sources. If our application is approved, we will receive a start-up grant and will require additional funding to pay for the team’s planning year. When the school opens, our expenses will be covered by state funding based on the per-pupil expenditure for New York City. We want to prove that success can be achieved on a New York City public school budget.
Was there a turning point for each of you — a personal event — that made you want to embark on this journey — where you saw the necessity for the type of action the three of you are taking now?
Todd: I feel like we are well versed in what is wrong with education and think the country is ready to learn more about what is already working in the host of successful schools and classrooms across America.
Brooke: I think teachers are always looking to strengthen their craft, and that teachers deserve greater acknowledgement for their work. Our project is going to help me become a better educator as well as shine a light on exemplary teaching that is already happening across the country.
Michelle: The media’s portrayal of teachers and our education system over the past few years has painted an inaccurate picture of the majority of educators in America. I felt it was imperative for the public to have a place to find out the thoughtful planning, teaching, and reflection that teachers across our country do on a daily basis to better serve their students in a range of different school environments.
What do you believe, specifically, will influence positive change in education and educators in this country?
Todd: It is our hope that we will be able to influence positive change in education by positioning ourselves as messengers who are sharing examples of successful practices in schools across the country. We are dedicating our year not only to our own professional development, but also to create a free resource for teachers around the world to use. We know that many schools do not have the budget for outside professional development, and the information on our site can be used within schools for no fee.
As we begin to think about the structures in our own school, we are keeping in mind that we want to model the practices we believe will lead to positive change in education and the teaching profession. We believe in dedicating resources to professional development and creating a community of learning with our school staff. We also feel that teachers need to move away from rote memorization. It needs to stop being okay to teach this way, and focus more on exploration, problem solving, and authentic learning. Our vision is that staff and students will be creative people who have the ability to innovate.
We also believe education would change for the better if schools were funded more equally across our nation. If children living in underserved communities received the same opportunities, funding, resources, and high-quality teaching staff that children living in affluent communities often receive, we would move towards a more equitable education system.
In its quest to inspire and educate students, The Odyssey Project takes lessons from the best teachers across the country
You mention in your video that each school around the country is unique in its community values and environment. If I were to ask you now, at the beginning of your journey, what types of values you think your future Brooklyn school will work to instill in students, what would you say?
Todd: We want our future graduates be good people. We want our kids to take responsibility and pride in their school, local, and world community and have a strong sense of social justice. We also want them to exercise critical thinking flexibly and be able to come up with multiple ways of reaching a solution to a problem or issue. We hope to help them see that confusion, being challenged, and making mistakes are all part of the learning process, and that not knowing the answer to a question is okay. We want them to be problem solvers who can continue working on something even if they are unsure of what they will discover.
The Odyssey Initiative seems to be following the lead of universities across the country (and now the world) that are offering online classes or databases of knowledge, free to everyone. How do you think the relationship the younger generation has with information is going to affect teaching strategies?
Todd: We use information from the web for a variety of things in our daily lives and realize that children and teenagers are learning to use new technologies from a younger age. We can predict that this will continue to increase over time.
Advances in technology allow us to bring others into classrooms across the country. With photos, our blog posts, and video footage of classroom instruction, we can work to break down the walls that often isolate teachers.
We believe that integrating technology into teaching practices should be used purposefully rather than being thrown into a lesson in efforts to use more of it. We also believe that teachers must receive professional development regarding how to best incorporate technology into the classroom in order to best support and engage their students.
Can you please each describe a teacher who had a significant impact on your life, and how they were able to do so?
Todd: My sophomore history teacher, Cosimo Favalaro, was the first person who successfully taught me to look at history through a non-Western lens.
Brooke: Mary Ann Thompson, my AP English teacher, didn’t focus on the surface-level things that many teachers focus on. We didn’t have assigned seats; we sat in a circle and talked deeply about books. She had high expectations for all of her students and challenged us to think deeply about what we read. Even though I’ve always been an avid reader, I see my time in her class as my awakening to being a strong and critical reader.
Michelle: Naming just one is incredibly difficult. Mr. John Shankweiler, my high school choral and acting teacher, was a mentor and support to me throughout high school. In our advanced studio theater class, he trusted us fully, and facilitated our production of the plays and musicals of our choosing while giving us the space to work independently. He let us fail and learn from our own mistakes rather than step in and save us when we hadn’t put enough time into our productions. He sacrificed his own afternoons and nights after school to be there for rehearsals and performances, and helped his students to see that our success in singing a song or putting on a musical hinged on working together.
And similarly, can you detail an effective, innovative teaching strategy you’ve witnessed — perhaps something that incorporates new technology?
Todd: There are a number of things we have seen so far. What has stood out the most for me has been Innovations Public Charter School‘s use of the 11 Dimensions of Depth and Complexity across the grades to not only discuss the process of investigation and analysis of social studies content, but also to give students of all ages a common vocabulary when making something abstract more concrete.
What subjects do you each teach? And what grade, typically?
Todd: Brooke taught kindergarten for nine years and then taught one year of first grade. Michelle taught third through fifth grade for the past five years. I’ve taught third and fifth grade for the past four years.
I speak for the whole Daily BR!NK team when I say that we wish you the best of luck on your journey. What are you each the most nervous or anxious about in the months to come?
Todd: Securing the funding to see this research project through to the end is our biggest concern. Also, we are nervous about completing all of the tasks that are needed to reach this project’s full potential. We want to ensure that our website is a tool that educators find helpful. We know that we will need to adapt along the way in order to make that happen.
How can our readers contribute to your success, and how can you contribute to theirs?
Todd: Ways your readers can contribute to our success: donate what they can, recommend a school that they think we should visit, introduce us to possible corporate partners like airlines, hotels, and car rental companies. We have also been inspired by the number of people who have volunteered to help us. People can host an informational event when we are in their area for us to share our findings. We are also open to new ideas. If you think you have a way to help us, shoot us an email.
Our advice for people who want to do what we are doing is: do not do this if you are not a teacher. The goals of our project would be altered if we had no education background. Be prepared to sacrifice traveling comfortably. In order to make this Odyssey work, we are staying at friends’ homes, paying for affordable hotels outside of the city we are visiting, and waking up early to promptly arrive at schools. This means that our writing often gets done on planes, on weekends, or late at night.
Think through your daily schedule from wake up to lights-out. There will be a lot of work to do, and you will want to budget time to complete all tasks. Be prepared for setbacks. They are bound to happen, but don’t let a setback slow you down.