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Great American Teach-Off Finalist Christopher Pennington Makes a Case for His Classroom Great American Teach-Off Finalist Christopher Pennington Makes a Case for His Classroom

Great American Teach-Off Finalist Christopher Pennington Makes a Case for His Classroom

by Christopher Pennington
April 21, 2013
 
Some of you are old enough to remember taking wood shop class, or home economics, or even auto shop. Some of you have no idea what I'm talking about. That's because vocational ed classes like these have been on the outs for decades. The last dozen years have been particularity harsh to these types of classes. In an environment where rigid standards and bubble sheets rule the day, hands-on skills like fixing a bicycle or baking a loaf of bread can take on an almost abstract and puzzling countenance. How can we allow our students to waste time making things?
 
I am a learning disabilities teacher at Edison High School in Minneapolis. My high school used to have all sorts of hands-on curriculum available to our students. We used  to have a four bay auto shop. We used to have an amazing wood shop. We had a culinary arts program. We had a green house. Sadly, not one of these programs exist today. Today, we have lots and lots of computer labs and clicking on a mouse is about as hands-on as we get.
 
Things really changed for me about a year ago when my principal gave our program permission to take over one of the abandoned bays of the auto shop and create our own wood shop. We relied on the donations of our friends and family. We bought what we could not scrounge. Our students learned how to measure and how to saw. We learned how to sand, paint and stain. We built bat houses. We even sold them! I saw a level of intrinsic motivation in my students I had never seen before. They were hooked. I was hooked! We had to build more of these kinds of learning experiences.

One year later, we have expanded the program to include a cooking class, a green house and a bicycle repair shop. The students are engaged in their learning and we are just scratching the surface of what kinds of curriculum are possible. How can we provide for our community? How can our community inform our classes? What about partnerships with local businesses? It's a very exciting time for us!  

The biggest growing pain we are experiencing is in the area of funding, of course. We have a $200 annual budget. We spend that almost immediately and the rest is shouldered by the teachers themselves. As our programs have grown, our costs have swelled, and it is becoming ridiculous to think we can continue to pay for it all our of our pockets.

I was pleased as punch when I learned that I had been nominated as an innovative teacher for GOOD and University of Phoenix's Great American Teach-Off. I was a ball of nerves five weeks later, when I found myself in the final round, inches away from a $10,000 classroom grant. My whole school was voting for me. Television and radio stations wanted interviews. Facebook was buzzing with energy. It was the closest to being a rock star I've ever been.
 
Then I lost. 
 
It was a total bummer, as you can imagine. What I didn't expect was the outpouring of love that comes from such a high-profile public defeat. After announcing the the disappointing results on Facebook, my inbox filled with well wishes, plots and plans to hatch to secure money for my students. There was a rising chorus of "Let's crowdfund it!" and within a few hours, an Indiegogo site had been built and launched.
 
This is totally surreal and very exciting to me. I have never crowdfunded anything before, but I love the idea of inviting any kind soul to help me make my classroom better for my students. Maybe there's a future in this. If you think so, support us here.
 
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