By Jesse Graytock
NEA Foundation Grants Manager
The NEA Foundation
“Are you a secret agent?”
That’s how I was greeted as I entered Stefanie Root’s 6th grade classroom at Dixon-Smith Middle School in Fredericksburg, Virginia. It was an understandable response from a 12 year old. Joined by my colleague Carrie McCloud and our trusty videographer Nick Greiner, we had entered the orderly classroom and had made our presence known in a way that would never be mistaken for discreet. Cameras were mounted. Shots were angled and blocked. I was wearing a suit, the standard sartorial choice for people of authority, and holding a microphone wire (note to self: lose the tie and jacket next time you’re interacting with students). The strange adults were certainly making their presence known, but here’s the thing: the students barely batted a lash.
Ms. Root’s is an interesting classroom, recipient of an NEA Foundation grant. Split into thirds, there are stations for independent work (where students work on iPads to solve Kahn Academy math problem sets), friend-to-friend problem solving (in which students pair off and assist each with assigned problems), and teacher-led problem solving. Students rotate through the stations each class, resulting in a uniquely varied learning experience.
We were on hand that day to shoot footage of this wonderful project that was funded through an NEA Foundation Student Achievement Grant (don’t worry, you’ll be able to watch the complete video of this amazing educator and her students in action on our website in the very near future), and I could not have been more impressed by how natural and smooth the whole classroom functioned. Students quietly immersed themselves in their Kahn Academy work. Friends patiently and articulately helped other friends with word problems. Ms. Root answered questions and provided the perfect amount of guidance to allow her students to arrive at the correct answers on their own. Students were so focused on their work that they stopped noticing the strangers. It was an impeccably crafted machine, and it was a thing of beauty.
Although many of the staff members at the NEA Foundation are former classroom teachers, we now all spend a good bit of our time in an office environment. We’re all doing things that we love, obviously, but it’s always a thrill to step away from the desk and see how our grantees, partners, fellows, awardees, and friends in the field are finding creative ways to reshape their profession thru innovations in teaching. That’s why we do what we do. But any time we have a chance to sit down and watch educators like Ms. Root put it all into practice, it’s truly a magical thing.
And being mistaken for a secret agent is pretty cool, too.