The Future of Technology is Here - An Interview with Teacher Julie Garcia, Apple Distinguished Educator
Julie Garcia is a mathematics teacher at Innovation Middle School in San Diego Unified School District. She is National Board Certified in early adolescent mathematics and an Apple Distinguished Educator. Julie is transforming public education, one student at a time. Constantly challenging her students to strive for greatness, Teacher Garcia exhibits a sense of confidence and passion in her teaching that encourages her students to be more responsible for their own learning.
The IFT is particularly impressed with Garcia’s never ending desire to find new ways to use technology in her classroom so that students are no longer consumers and instead producers and creators of their own education. As a member of the IFT Region 4 Think Tank, Julie is a lightening rod for professional excellence and teacher collaboration. Her interview below provides a brief glimpse into the thinking of this extraordinary educator and a practical example of teacher driven change at work.
At the end of this interview you will have an opportunity to offer your comments.
IFT - Why did you decide to enter the teaching profession? Thinking about your experiences, was there a particular event or person that encouraged you to go into teaching?
JG - My love for education has always revolved around mathematics. As a young middle school student I was continually inspired by several math teachers. I often think about these teachers, their energy and enthusiasm. Later in college, as a gymnastics coach I gained a real appreciation for working with young adults. Here too, I found so much energy and enthusiasm exhibited by these athletes. In some respects, it should have been natural for me to go into teaching. Both my parents taught me the value and joy of learning and the importance of education. My mother was a teacher for over 40 years. Her commitment and loyalty to the teaching profession and students never wavered. But I wasn’t persuaded that I wanted to teach. Watching my mother I also knew how difficult and demanding teaching could be and I simply wasn’t sure it was for me.
At some point during my college years, what I wanted to do, my own purpose and meaning, became clear to me. As I grew into adulthood, I became reacquainted with my mother’s dedication to teaching. I realized that my mother’s calling was not simply out of a sense of responsibility and commitment to her work. Rather, her devotion to teaching was much more of love story; the compassion she felt for her students and the joy she received from them. This is what I wanted for myself. I would combine my love of math with the great satisfaction I felt when working with young people. I would follow in my mothers footsteps and decided to go into the teaching profession.
IFT - Thinking about the time when you first became a teacher, what was your most positive surprise? Is there a moment that really stands out; a moment when you really knew you made the right career choice?
JG - What surprised me the most about teaching is how hard it is. You have to place your heart and soul into every lesson and if you do, you get results. With that said, teaching is not work in the traditional sense. Teaching is hard work because it so powerful and because it requires your full attention. As a teacher you have unbelievable influence over every student in your classroom. In so many way, you can create a wonderful, joyful experience for each student. However, it’s not easy and not everyone can do it. I am happy to say that I am just as exited and pleased at being a teacher today as the first day I started. I tell this to my colleagues and I am hopeful that my enthusiasm will rub off on them. When I started teaching I was working in so-called low social economic areas where there were and still are challenges in so may ways; these challenges provided opportunities for me to make a difference in my students’ lives. I did this by working to provide an engaging and demanding curriculum - where hard work pays off - and students can see the positive results of their efforts.
IFT - Without being modest, what is about you that makes you a great teacher? Describe your strengths. How do they influence your teaching? What about past positive experiences in your life? Are there specific positive experiences that contributed to your greatness as a teacher?
JG - I provide every student the opportunity to succeed. I do this not by lowering my standards but by holding every student to high expectations. I believe in my students and they know I will not settle for anything less than their best. What makes me a great teacher is a simple idea: I love my students - they are my family and I will do what ever it takes. I don’t judge my students but I do make it hard for them to fail. For my students, it’s easier to do the work then it is to battle me. My students know that I am consistent; I treat all students the same, there is no favoritism.
Another one of my positive points (which I believe makes me a great teacher) is that my students know I work hard for them and just as important, my students know I expect them to work hard for me. While I like math, at times it was a challenge for me. Through trial and error and experimentation, I developed multiple strategies and approaches to solving math problems. The how and the why were just as important as finding the right answer; while there may be one right solution to every math problem there are multiple ways to approach and solve any particular math challenge.
Finally, as I consider my competitive days as a gymnast I believe that success is more likely when combined with high standards. Student competition and high standards can be a highly motivating force. Combined with a sensitivity and appreciation for students, a competitive classroom with high standards is a formula for success. As I voice these comments I realize this is what my mother taught me.
IFT - When thinking about the teaching and learning process, what have you found to be rewarding? Is there a challenge you have overcome that you feel most proud? How has this accomplishment positively influenced you as a teacher?
JG - What’s most rewarding is watching students learn and finding joy in being in school. Many of my students tell me that my class is their favorite which is highly unusual for a math class. Most gratifying is when my students come back to visit me from high school and college. Students have told me that they view me as a friend, a person that truly cares about them, and has provided them a safe environment to grow both academically and socially. I have tremendous satisfaction when past students tell me they felt comfortable talking with me, that they realized learning was (and is) so much more than just memorizing facts and figures, and that they found a sense of meaning in their lives by working hard to accomplish the standards set in my classroom. Considering such great comments, I continually try to show students how math applies to their life and how the concepts they learn have relevance for them as adults.
IFT - Is there a challenge you have overcome?
JG - I sometimes took things too seriously, too personally. I wanted my students to be so successful. I finally determined that success can be defined in multiple ways. For example, success for some students can be measured by a simple change in attitude or an increase in attendance, or even the extent to which their attention in class has increased. I realized that student progress was not necessarily where the student should be according to no child left behind or some other external standards. Rather, we need to focus on student growth in relative terms. That is, the progress the student has made during the time he or she has been in your class.
IFT - Thinking about school change and improvement, what possibilities excites you the most? Are there specific areas of interest that you would like to work on or explore? What structures, procedures, and practices of the public schools need to be maintained and continued?
JG - I am very excited about technology integration in the schools and I am looking forward to how teachers can use the common core standards to improve education, especially in math. With the use of iBooks, I provide my students relevant math exercises to solve practical problems. Here, students are able to learn basic skills, explore underlying mathematical themes and patterns, and take a more active role in their own learning. Technology also makes it easier for students to discuss math in various online forums and discussion groups. This is especially helpful for the shy, introverted student.
Using technology my students have the capacity to increase their understanding of math concepts and explore topics that interest them. Technology can serve as a means to differentiate the curriculum, let students work at their own pace and own level without feeling the pressure of asking a question in front of the entire class, being called on when they aren't prepared, or even being bored while waiting for others to keep up.
I believe when a student has the freedom to actively participate in the learning process they begin to take ownership and greater responsibility their own education. In my experience, students will be more confident and take risks when they are permitted to experiment, make choices, and have fewer academic boundaries placed on them. An example of this is when students learn by teaching them to teach each other.
A teaching and learning approach I am most proud of is how my math class has become a math lab rather than a lecture hall. I flip my classroom where I create videos of my lessons for my students to watch at home. While watching the videos at home, my students can fast forward through information they already know, rewind if they need to hear something again, and work through the lesson at their own pace. With the lesson taking place at home, I have time for students to participate in meaningful mathematics in the classroom geared toward their individual needs.
Students are also likely to be more motivated when the teaching and learning environment is just not the classroom. It is important for our students to know that everyone in the school community cares about them. Not just their teachers, but the secretaries, administrators, custodians, bus drivers, etc. I believe that the more we can maintain the neighborhood school, the more likely our students will view the school as an important part of their lives.
IFT - How is technology improving the teaching and learning process? In what ways have you successfully used technology in your classroom? From your experiences, how has technology enhanced student learning? Thinking about the future, what great changes do you see in education as a result of technology?
JG - Technology has allowed me to personalize my classroom according to the needs of my students. With technology I am able to work with students at their own pace. One size does not fit all and technology helps me to truly individualize the teaching and learning process. For example, when I give students a special application for the iPad they are able to work without any pressure in a comfortable, non threatening environment. Students are able to interact with the curriculum and learn by doing. Learning becomes much more meaningful for students when they create their own examples. Video lessons allow students to learn math topics in multiple ways. Students create an alternative teaching strategy through movies for and with other students. Students are able to publish their work so that all students have the capacity to interact and mentor each other. Using iMovie and GarageBand, students create screencasts that explain important math topics. Then other students watch the podcasts and answer questions. Working together, the whole lesson becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Students are able to show their proficiency through project-based learning that reflects real world activities and their actual experiences.
IFT - Thinking about your most successful students, what do you believe drives their success? If you could list five factors you believe are most important to a successful, well-rounded education, what would they be? What are you currently doing or planning to do to emphasize these factors in your classroom?
JG - Students are successful when they are motivated, enjoy learning, feel confident, and are supported. Success is more likely when students are given opportunities to learn in a safe environment where they feel valued. I provide a structured rigorous environment with high and clear expectations and meaningful activities. Our classrooms are also successful when the entire school community is supportive.
The five factors I believe most important to student success are: (1) Engaging and active involvement in the learning process, (2) Challenging students to do better, (3) Making problem-solving skills essential, (4) Emphasizing the importance of social skills and civility, and (5) Expanding basic skills to include the arts, music, and sports. As a teacher I am responsible for teaching not just math skills and proficiency. I am responsible for helping my students understand how math is related and connected to their lives. By focusing on these five factors I can create a teaching and learning environment where math is both meaningful and vital to my students.
IFT - Imagine that you slept for 10 years. You woke up and found that all of your dreams and hopes for public education have come true. What would the public schools look like? What would be different and great? What aspect of the teaching and learning process has changed for the better?
JG - Schools have no walls or bells. Schedules evolve around student learning. Students work at their own pace, with learning opportunities everywhere. Grades and grading are not regimented. Curriculum is not time bound or externally driven. Students work on various projects, with multiple age groups in the same class room. Teaching, learning outcomes, students support, and teacher assessments are aligned with the needs and interests of students. Some of the most important things I believe are essential and need to remain in our schools are problem-solving and critical thinking. Our schools should be challenging students by having them engage and explore various topics at their own level. Finally, our schools should emphasize social skills and civility so students know how to work together and have mutual respect for each other.