Onscreen, the children are singing, dancing, smiling, laughing. They high-five one another while reciting the “whole-brain rules” in Janet Burke’s third grade class:
Raise your hand for permission to speak.
Raise your hand for permission to leave your seat.
Make smart choices.
Keep your dear teacher happy.
Follow directions quickly.
Cooperation and collaboration are always at the forefront in Burke’s class at Serena Hills School, one of five buildings in Flossmoor School District 161.
During one exercise, shown on a video presented at this week’s school board meeting, students are seated with crossed legs as they learn to pass a blow-up globe to each other without using their hands. For a science activity they sing a song about the water cycle. Or they sit together while completing projects on digital tablets.
They are engaged, happy, excited about school. Learning is definitely going on.
Burke, a finalist for a prestigious Golden Apple teaching award, was honored Monday by District 161 officials and community members. The video, which was put together by Burke’s instructional coach, gave audience members a look at classroom teaching that is far removed from the rote desk work that many remember from their own school days.
Most of the video footage was shot by Burke – she is heard but hardly ever seen. You know she’s there, though, giving instructions and encouraging her students. She occasionally refers to them as “Burke-anators” and you can tell that they are delighted to be part of that select group.
Burke, who has been teaching since 1979, says it’s important for today’s students learn how to work together.
“It’s all about teamwork and team building,” she says. “We are preparing them for jobs that don’t even exist today. We don’t know what they will be doing but we know that they will have to know how to collaborate and cooperate.”
Students work in cooperative learning groups of four, Burke says. “They have to learn together. Unless they learn to trust each other, they can’t work together.”
Burke says an important part of her job is creating an atmosphere in which students can work together. That’s where her whole-brain rules come in; students have to know that there are rules in a learning environment. She said it takes several weeks at the beginning of the school year for students to grasp the rules and how her classroom works.
Once that happens, she said, students are hungry to learn. Recently, they were introduced to “the genius hour,” in which they get to pick topics for research.
“They would pick questions on the most amazing ideas,” she said. “And they are responsible for finding out the answers and making a presentation, either with a discussion in front of the class, or a PowerPoint, or posters or on iPads. They are so excited by doing this.” The third graders, she said, are pursuing topics as diverse as tornadoes, online “mob” games and how World of Warcraft works.
Burke came to Serena Hills relatively late in her teaching career. After graduating from Southern Illinois University, she worked for nine years in the Sauk Village schools. She married, then left teaching for a while to raise her family. When Burke decided to go back to teaching she could not find a job in the public schools so she taught for several years in Catholic schools, first at St. Benedict in Blue Island and then at St. Lawrence O’Toole in Matteson. She has been in District 161 for 10 years.
“I had a very good experience in the Catholic schools,” she says. “But I have learned so much in District 161. Staff development in these schools has given me so much. The training I have had here has been wonderful. It has transformed my classroom. I know now that students, not teachers, have to be at the center of the classroom. We direct them so they can learn and do their research.”
Burke is one of 30 Golden Apple finalists from around the Chicago area who was chosen from 600 nominees. Two Golden Apple evaluators came to Serena Hills this week; they observed Burke in the classroom and met with administrators, fellow teachers, parents and students. If Burke is chosen as one of 10 Golden Apple winners, she will get a semester off next spring during which she can pursue education studies, tuition-free, at Northwestern University.
In the meantime, she will continue in her Serena Hills classroom. It is a place where, Burke says, she is extremely happy.
“I absolutely love doing this,” she says. “I wake up every morning excited about what I will be doing that day.”