on curriculum and teaching at exploration

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In the summer of 2006, Barb Trainor joined Exploration as the organization’s first full-time year-round Director of Curriculum and Instruction. Barb has been a perfect match for Explo. She is a master teacher who believes in hands-on learning. She’s fun and funny, resourceful, and excited about her work with young teachers.

Barb has taught teacher workshops and been a staff development instructor at the Christa McAuliffe Technology Conference, New England College, and the State University of New York at Stony Brook. She earned her B.S. in Biology at Cornell University and her Master of Arts in Education, concentrating in mathematics, at New England College.

We recently sat down with Barb and asked her a few questions.


You’ve been with Exploration for almost two years now. Is it what you expected?

Explo is a very unique organization in its views on teaching and learning. When you think about it, quality learning is directly dependent upon quality teaching. That’s obvious, right? Of course, students need to actively interact with curriculum in order to make the experience meaningful and memorable. They need to wrestle with the disequilibrium that can come with learning new concepts, making connections between previously learned knowledge and new knowledge. They need to take ownership of the new knowledge, integrate it, and apply it in new situations. It’s a teacher’s responsibility to light the “spark” and nurture it by providing opportunities for students to question, sort through plausible options, and work with new concepts in meaningful ways to facilitate learning.

Exploration is uniquely poised to make this an integral part of everything we do. As a summer academic enrichment program, we have the opportunity to offer unusual topics — often multi-disciplinary topics like forensic science or Norse mythology and puppet theater or rock music as revolution — and deliver these topics in active, non-traditional ways. For instance, this summer we’re offering a course on restaurant management at the Intermediate Program where students will actually create and operate a French bistro on campus. I mean, where else are you going to do this?

"It is refreshing to find a place where curricula is created by teachers – not handed to them – and teachers are guided in the development of curriculum through mindful and thought-provoking feedback from experienced educators."
And these types of experiences are a priority here at Explo. Since we are not a performance-based program, we are free from the [standardized-testing] constraints that year-round schools must face and so can focus our instruction of both students and teachers in a unique way. We train our teachers on best practice teaching techniques – both in the classroom and through curriculum development – that help light the spark of discovery and exploration in our students and keep the fires burning. The joy of learning – and the discovery of the joy of learning – is a big part of what we are trying to accomplish here.

You know, I have to add, in terms of teacher development, it’s refreshing to find a place where curricula are created by teachers—not handed to them—and teachers are guided in the development of curriculum through mindful and thought-provoking feedback from experienced advisors. You know, once on-campus, our Explo teachers are formally observed more times in a 6-week period than many teachers are in a full year. I’m very excited about the potential for mentoring here. It is phenomenal! Where else can young teachers get this?

What do you see as your mission as the Director of Curriculum and Instruction?

Well, it’s multi-faceted. It’s: one, making sure that we are engaging students as active learners; two, developing innovative curriculum; and three, incorporating best-practice teaching strategies inside – and outside – the classroom. And, in my view, each of these facets is interdependent. Our dedication to student learning through creative, activity-based, meaningful, and applicable curriculum always takes precedence. That is what we are here for. To this end, though, we must train our teachers in curriculum design and teaching pedagogy. If our teachers are properly prepared, we know we’ll deliver on our mission to students.

By design, Explo hires high-energy, passionate teachers who are involved in all aspects of student life. They are teachers in the classroom, residential advisors in the dorm, and coaches in extra-curricular activities. Our mantra at Exploration is that every moment of the day is a teaching moment. It goes back to that idea of helping students discover the joy of learning. As Director of Curriculum and Instruction, it is my goal to take these passionate, often novice teachers, and mentor them in teaching strategies and curriculum design using what we know to be best practices in the field to inspire them to inspire our students. It is unusual for new teachers to have the benefit of this type of active mentoring. It is really exciting. We have the potential to really affect positive change in the teaching profession over time by infusing it with young, creative, passionate teachers who have benefited from the mentorship of master teachers and an environment of nurturing and support.

Those are lofty goals. What, practically, is Explo doing to make them a reality? That is, how do you see Explo achieving these goals?

Currently, we are forming numerous professional partnerships with outside institutions to bring learning opportunities to staff, including potential opportunities to earn college credit for their work with us. For instance, the Massachusetts Board of Education has recognized Explo as a Professional Development Provider for licensed teachers seeking recertification. We continue to seek partnerships to bring unique opportunities to our students – opportunities that aren’t available elsewhere. Last summer, for instance, we worked with staff from the MIT Media Lab to bring cutting-edge robotics technology to the Intermediate Program. There is tremendous power to affect change in partnerships like these. The potential we have reaches far beyond Explo and what I expected when I first began here. We have an opportunity to affect real change in how students learn and how teachers teach! This is very powerful!

What excites you about your job?

Everything! As a professional educator, I’m always excited by the opportunity of developing potential wherever I find it. I’ve made a lifelong commitment to education and see my position as one that can affect both the teaching profession and, therefore, student learning. It affords me a chance to bring resources and people together with a common purpose of creating quality learning experiences for children. I know good teaching and am now in a position to guide teacher preparation and, therefore, instruction.

"The beauty of Explo is that we take creative, enthusiastic young people and train them, from the beginning. Sending these inspired teachers out into the teaching profession to inspire their students and create a climate of change in schools is exciting to think about. We can be the catalyst for this change. Now that's exciting!"
The beauty of Explo is that we take creative, enthusiastic young people and train them, from the beginning, in what constitutes best practices in curriculum design and teaching. They have no “baggage” to unlearn or obsolete ideologies they’re holding tight to. Sending these inspired teachers out into the teaching profession to inspire their students and create a climate of change in schools is exciting to think about. We can be the catalyst for this change. Now that’s exciting!

Going back to the question about your mission as Director of Curriculum, how do you see teacher training fitting in?

I see my job as an opportunity to refine teacher preparation, helping new teaching candidates to see themselves as reflective teachers and be excited by the prospect of entering the profession and pursuing more formal training. It's exciting to take these fresh minds and help them create exciting curriculum for our students through systemic design. Designing teacher training curriculum that meets the needs of our teachers while representing best practices in education; mentoring that ensures our staff of high quality support and guidance; incorporating professional standards that are transferable to teaching and leadership positions beyond Explo; helping to move each staff member along a continuum of professional development – these goals are at the heart of the mission of the Curriculum Department. And when these things are in place, it naturally follows that our students reap the benefits as well.

And what benefits are those?

Thoughtful curriculum design creates multiple opportunities for students to go beyond just listening to a teacher and into actually interacting with concepts and applying them. Each year we train our teachers to deliver curriculum that excites students to learn, connects to what they have learned previously and provide a foundation for what is to come. Here is something that Explo can give back to the community. If we are able to excite a student about learning, my hope is they will return to their academic year school with that spark and bring a new enthusiasm for learning to all aspects of their lives and develop a desire to be a lifelong learner. Think of the potential impact . . . there’s no greater gift!

What concerns you about the state of teaching today?

I worry about creative teachers being handed “canned” curriculum to be delivered to students. I worry that the idea that teachers should be encouraged and mentored in the creation of active curriculum for their students will go the way of the dinosaurs. As the field of education becomes more regimented, I worry that we’ll cease to see students as individual learners and more like widgets who all have the same previous experiences, educational needs, and future goals. When you take the creative piece away from bright, passionate, dedicated teachers and ask them to deliver instead of teach, it places unnecessary obstacles in the way of teaching and learning. Removing curriculum design from the hands of the teachers who truly know their students and replacing it with a “one-size-fits-all” approach drives teachers away from the profession and turns students off to learning. It’s frustrating to know that, if given the opportunity, knowledgeable teachers could create a more meaningful curriculum that teaches, engages, and inspires students.

"If we are able to excite a student about learning, my hope is they will return to their academic year school with that spark and bring a new enthusiasm for learning to all aspects of their lives and develop a desire to be a lifelong learner. Think of the potential impact . . . there's no greater gift!"
I worry about students losing the connection to application of theory and instruction becoming more of a stand-and-deliver format rather than what is commonly found in student-centered, activity-based classrooms. As a result, we risk raising a generation of theorists without knowledge of practical application. Once again, we need to look at educating the whole child and stimulating interest through activity-based learning opportunities. What better way to begin to turn the tides than to train teachers to create curriculum that engages students in meaningful ways and inspires them to learn more? Explo is doing just that! It’s very powerful and holds such potential for the field of education.

What are you most proud of in your time at Explo?

I think the thing I am most proud of is simply being part of the organization that is Exploration. It’s exciting to come to work and be surrounded by inspiring and inspired professionals in a continuing endeavor to train teachers to design exciting curricula and passionately teach children. I am proud of what our mentors do in their work with our teachers both pre-season and throughout our summer programs. Our curriculum design process uses concepts and procedures currently taught at graduate education schools and used by professionals. We have been recognized as a Professional Development Provider by the State of Massachusetts for licensed teachers to earn professional development points towards recertification. We are now in partnership with educational institutions to offer graduate credit to our mentors working with our teachers on designing curriculum. This is big!

Where do you see Exploration’s curriculum and teaching heading in the next five or ten years?

We continue to seek partnerships to work with teachers in public and private schools to teach in ways that reach students at a different level and give new teachers a solid foundation in teaching so they are turned on by teaching and stay in the profession. There is so much potential! As we continue to be recognized for the work we do, we’ll be able to have a greater impact on teaching beyond our Programs. It is my hope that we will be able to reach out and work with more teachers throughout the school year.

Our students will continue to experience quality content delivered by enthusiastic teachers who are guided in their instruction. Thinking about the interdependent nature of teacher preparation and student learning, it follows that better prepared teachers will design better curriculum and positively affect learning in the classroom. It’s a win-win situation all around!

What greater effect do you think Explo can have on education? That is, how do you see Explo interacting and affecting the rest of the educational world?

Explo should become part of a model program for teacher preparation, providing teachers with high-quality, theoretical instruction grounded in best practices with quality field experience under the supervision and guidance of quality, experienced mentors. The Explo experience under this model can bring highly talented candidates to the teaching profession who expect and seek out quality mentoring and stay in teaching. Wouldn't it be wonderful for more school administrators to seek out former Explo teachers because they know the kind of training they've had? Better still for them to send us their new teachers to work at our Programs as professional development? We can play an important role in training, maintaining, and inspiring teachers.

What are the challenges of working with young teachers?

Young teachers bring an enthusiasm for their content and a passion for teaching that is a wonderfully contagious concoction. Being learners themselves, they are openly passionate about teaching and learning; eager to learn the basics and hone their skills. They bring a refreshing creativity to lesson planning and a new eye for exciting activities and ways to involve students in learning. What I’ve found is that our new teachers often come up with too many great ideas to fit into a three-week course—and it’s our job as mentors to help them reign in their focus, harvest the best ideas, and work on creating active coursework and curriculum that targets the developmental range of our students.

"Wouldn't it be wonderful for more school administrators to seek out former Explo teachers because they know the kind of training they've had? Better still for them to send us their new teachers to work at our Programs as professional development. We can play an important role in training, maintaining, and inspiring teachers."
Take the principles behind physics. You can teach physics to students in high school, middle school, and elementary school, but what you teach about the concepts and how you teach the concepts is going to vary dramatically for the different age groups. A lot of our teachers are adapting coursework they have been exposed to in college or graduate work. But what might work for theoretically-minded college students often needs to be reconfigured for our younger students. Our curriculum advisory system makes sure not only that our teachers are properly gearing course work to the appropriate age level, but also that the courses and activities we offer fit the Explo mold. For instance, a teacher who plans on “talking about” propulsion in a course on medieval battle contraptions is going to be redirected toward a more active approach—like having students actually fire catapults and trebuchets. Students who are investigating torque and arc by experimenting with the effects of different settings on a real catapult are going to take away a lot more from the experience than they would from a lecture! And when they are challenged to figure out, based on their experiments, how to accurately set up the catapult to hit targets 125, 180, and 250 feet away, they’re really stepping up and applying what they’ve learned and reinforcing the concepts and the whole excitement of discovery . . . not to mention having a lot of fun doing it, too!

On the one hand, for someone who has been to Explo and seen an Explo course in action, this all seems like a no-brainer, but the thing is, unfortunately, not everyone has had exposure to the kind of inspirational, active, and engaging learning that goes on here. Students who discover concepts, play with them, and define them using their own words are more likely to take ownership of their learning, are more likely to get excited about the process of learning and have the learning stick . . . So I guess the point I’m trying to make is that our Curriculum Department is constantly working with our teachers – new and old – to make sure not only that our curriculum reflects this fact, but also that our teachers possess the teaching tools and skills necessary to help bring our students to that place of self-discovery.

And I have to say, working with our teachers to plan and teach our courses — it’s wonderful to share in their trials and successes, coaching them toward becoming a teacher whose goal it is to successfully engage each student each moment of the day. Turning a young teacher on to teaching and guiding their instruction in best practices is one of the most rewarding parts of my job. Observing their work with students, sharing in their experiences, and guiding their development as teachers is very rewarding. More rewarding, still, is envisioning the potential impact these young teachers can have on the next generation of learners.