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Spotlight on: Ric Campbell

Ric Campbell is the Co-Founder of the South Bronx Early College Academy Charter School. He is also Special Advisor to the President on Teacher Education, Bard College and Founding Director, Bard College Master of Arts in Teaching Program, from 2003-2014.

Ric received his B.S. and M.S. at SUNY Cortland, and studied for a Ph.D. at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He taught high school and elementary school in Chatham, Cortland, Dryden and New York City. He also taught and supervised workshops for at-risk New York City adolescents through Bank Street College and Liberty Partnership Program.

ric-campbell-rsfHow did you get interested in STEM?
I have been a teacher for most of my adult life. When I first studied to become an elementary school teacher, I split my studies between the teacher education program and the sciences, earth science in particular. Science had been a big part of my upbringing. My father was a scientist, and frequently took me to his research laboratory when I was a child, and my mother was a chemistry professor.

My interest in education began later and has continued to grow. The curiosity that we associate with science is integral to the work of teaching in so many ways. Teachers must grapple with questions of cognition, especially how the individual learner develops knowledge and understanding. And inside these questions are more questions, having to do with individual learner differences and the ways a culture of learning emerges. The STEM subjects represent a unique opportunity for designing classroom experiences because they have to do with deep and interesting problems.

What is the one big change that gets you excited about the future?
The challenge of shifting the ways we look at schools and classrooms as learning environments keeps me energized. The enthusiasm of fellow teachers who share this sense of curiosity and who work daily to answer important questions about the nature of learning are the necessary counterpart to sustaining this energy.

What are you reading?
I read as regularly as I can and this includes a lot of the educational research as well as philosophers and researchers like Tomasello, Pinker, Dennett, Chalmers, Wolpert who have developed theories about how thinking happens and what defines science as a way of looking at the world. But I have recently discovered the pleasure of reading mysteries and have read the entire Easy Rawlins detective series by Walter Mosley – entertaining books that offer their own unique insights about society and learning and culture.

Tell us a bit about the work you are doing at RCSD.
The work at Chancellor Livingston is a shared enterprise that is primarily about mathematics learning. We are focused on moving from a conventional model of mathematics instruction in which students learn math as a set of procedures in a rote manner to a model in which students are engaged with problems that prompt conversations. Students learn procedures along the way, but more importantly, they develop the reasoning and self-direction to continue learning. Writing is part of that process, and helps students be aware of the strategies they are using to learn.

At the same time, we are trying to cultivate a professional community that learns as we hope students will learn. Teachers are now beginning to visit each other’s classrooms to observe, to share what works and to redesign what could be working better.

Was there a critical moment, when you knew teachers were getting excited about the new approach?
Based on feedback and observation, I would say that there have been many moments when something clicked. In our full-day workshops, we focused on our own math learning – trying to solve problems or play math games that encouraged us to think about patterns and strategies. As we reflected on these experiences, we realized similar experiences could be designed for elementary classrooms.

Just recently, as we began the work of observing each other’s classrooms, one teacher told me that the very presence of a peer in the classroom heightened her awareness of her own teaching in constructive ways. The presence of a peer is like bringing a mirror into the room.

What do you wish people knew about teaching STEM?
I wish people knew how the majority of teachers that I have known are incredibly accomplished, committed, and self-aware. This last quality can be both a source of humility and self-doubt as well as the real basis for significant change. Teachers will be the movers of change in public schools and are more than able to redesign the classroom as a culture and environment for learning.

The second thing we must know is that learning as we want it to be, learning as represented by standards like the 8 Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice, looks a whole lot different from what most of us experienced as kids in classrooms. I think if everyone read those 8 foundational standards they would begin to know what to look for in classrooms. We need to look at what kids are doing and realize that in the background are very thoughtful teachers who create these opportunities for practice and actively respond to the individual needs of all their students.

What is your big project for this coming year?
I am now devoting my time and energy to opening a charter school in the South Bronx that will engage students in the forms of learning I have been describing here. It will also serve as a site for training future teachers.