Education innovators make their mark
How four grant-winning 'social entrepreneurs' have made fresh ideas practical and improved the lives of teachers and teens.
The nonprofit Ashoka organization has been awarding grants to "social entrepreneurs" around the world for 20 years. It expanded to North America in 2000.Skip to next paragraph
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About one-third of the 1,200 Ashoka fellows in 44 countries focus on education or "innovative learning," says Paul Herman, director of the United States and Canada candidate team.
Ashoka's goal is to position these educators as leaders. In choosing projects to support, Mr. Herman says, "we not only look at the number of people affected, but the mind-shift [the project has fostered in a community]."
The fellows in the US receive an average of $55,000 a year for three years, plus pro bono legal, public relations, and consulting services.
Four of these innovators are introduced below, along with the story of how their programs have begun to transform everything from classroom teaching to inner-city students' confidence about the future.
In a chilly hardwood-floored studio here in Washington, a group of 18 adults stand in a circle, in socks or bare feet, and warm up by acting out their emotions from their day at school.
"Whatever you did today that really stressed you out, show how it makes you feel," says Aleta Margolis, offering an example with a theatrically angry face and animalistic sounds that become drowned out by roars and growls from the circle.
Ms. Margolis then instructs everyone to gather up all those feelings, throw them in the center of the circle, and stomp them out. Participants pretend to hoist up various sized jumbles of emotion and heave them into the center. A moment later, all 36 feet are stomping around inside the circle as though trying to squish grapes.
For the next three hours, Margolis, founder of the Center for Artistry in Teaching, leads this group of public school teachers in exercises, games, and discussions that focus on reinventing the way they teach.
"The standard model is the teacher delivering information to kids, and kids trying to memorize and regurgitate it to please the teacher," Margolis says. "We believe that children are innately curious, and we want to change the model to get kids to ask questions on their own."
Margolis holds intensive two-week workshops every summer and monthly three-hour workshops during the year. She trains teachers to take risks in the classroom, whether it's teaching children about equilateral triangles by having them sew triangular-shaped pillows, or inspiring them to call pilots at Andrews Air Force Base to learn how planes fly.
The best teachers are creative problem solvers, analytical thinkers, and strong communicators, Margolis says. And the best compliment, she says, is a student telling her teacher, "You didn't teach us anything. We figured it out for ourselves."
During her years of teaching in public schools, Margolis grew frustrated with the complacency of some of her colleagues. So she created her nonprofit organization in 1995 with the hope of reshaping the role of teachers.
Margolis measures change by looking at the time teachers spend disciplining children or lecturing to them. Her research shows that before teachers participate in her workshop, 40 percent of their time is spent disciplining, and afterward it falls to 20 percent.
Her studies also show that the questions teachers ask students shift from basics such as "Did you do your homework?" to more thought-provoking probes such as "Why do you think the author ended the book that way?"