We keep writing about engaging students and updating classroom practices, but really nothing beats advice from successful, award-winning educators. Marisa Vickery is the Facilitator of Learning & Innovation (FLI) at Walnut Springs Elementary School in Dripping Springs, TX, where she runs the Center for Learning & Innovation (CL&I). Earlier this year, she was awarded the Texas Computer Education Association High Impact Teacher of the Year Award—certainly an impressive accomplishment.
Marisa’s mother was a teacher, which was a likely influence on her growing up. “My mom always told me, ‘don't be a teacher, it's so much work, you don't get paid enough...’ and what did I do?” she joked. “It's what I love and, sometimes I wish I wasn't so passionate about—that I could do something else—but this is where my heart truly is.”
Vickery started teaching computer design in the 90s at a middle school in San Diego County, where she instructed students in graphic design. “Back then our program was incredibly cutting edge,” she said. “The fact that we had the Apple computers—a brand new Macintosh— some of them had color monitors, and could print in color—it was phenomenal.” She began teaching with relatively advanced technology before it was widely available in schools across the country.
Creating a Center for Innovation
After moving to Texas with her husband, Vickery began teaching elementary students from pre-kindergarten to first grade. It wasn’t until Texas education budgets decreased several years ago that most of the librarians in her school’s district were let go, leaving one sole librarian position to run the library for all of the elementary students. Once the district was able to recuperate from the budget cuts, the superintendent wanted to fill the position with educators who could modernize the library and its services. Marisa decided to take a break from the classroom and began working as a facilitator in the CL&I.
“We do provide traditional library services,” said Marisa, “but mixed in the mess are many other opportunities. When students come in for their weekly library visit to check out books, we have additional activities available, even if we only have the 3D printer running or magnetic blocks out for tinkering. Sometimes we'll have activities available that are STEAM challenge activities. We also always have a variety of writing prompts so the students can write their opinions on a dry-erase table. Sometimes we'll have a maker activity from as simple as creating a bookmark to having iPads available so they can work on their hour of code for Computer Science Week.”
Vickery and the other educators at her school are driven to inspire students to imagine, design, and create. She really does facilitate learning and innovation not only in the students, but also in the teachers and parents. Marisa really debated leaving her traditional classroom five years ago because she loved it and she had no idea what this new center would become or how well it would be received by her staff and the community.
“I realized moving into here, that I was able to incorporate my love of literature, language arts and children's books, and be able to bring the incredible world of technology, devices, maker spaces, a production studio, 3D printing, and drones to our students and teachers.”
Equipped with a mindset for change, she was able to create an entirely new educational space that was unlike anything the school had ever seen.
Building A Community Of Support
“I would love to say that I did this all by myself,” said Vickery, “but it has been 100% collaboration through working with my colleagues, asking for help and learning from those around me; and I appreciate that so much. I'm very fortunate to have an incredible community of support.”
Vickery has surrounded herself with the right people to make the CL&I a continued success. She says that she’s had to get over the fact that teachers are traditionally expected to be “all-knowing,” and she asks for help from anywhere she can get it. She involves other teachers, parents, and grandparents in many of her activities, and she learns new things right alongside her students in a trial-and-error fashion. This is how the students learn problem-solving, teamwork, and many other valuable skills that can be difficult to acquire in a traditional classroom.
Marisa’s advice: “involve dads!” Mothers have traditionally been the parents more involved in school activities and volunteering. However, she has found that many dads are comfortable helping in the CL&I, as opposed to other classroom activities, because of the hands-on work and the relevance to their specialized skills. Students (and teachers) can ask for help with soldering, welding, electrical work, and other skills that many dads and grandfathers have been able to provide.
This support community is what makes everything so successful. Being there for the students and teachers, and working together, is what it’s all about. “We try to not only inspire the students but make school interesting and fun. We hope to not only spark student interest and passion, but model and be support for the teachers in hopes that they will want to continue these programs, with the comfort of knowing we have resources available for them.”
How can other educators begin to create their own centers for learning and innovation? Marisa’s advice is to start small. A small start has a lot of potential to grow.
“My suggestion is to begin with a little makerspace area. For those that are not ready to jump into integrating technology and 3D printing, just add a few basic tools. Or, if you are comfortable with simple crafts, start with a tub of scissors, tape and colored paper. Designate a small space to let students be creative and introduce simple tools or trying using glue without it being required for a class project.”
Starting off with some craft supplies and a small space can lead to teachers and parents providing additional resources, which can lead to tools, computers, and anything else the students can use to create. With a small start, you can build a community of support and watch everything grow as the students become interested.
“Change and rethinking traditional learning doesn't mean that if you've been a successful teacher for many years that you were doing it wrong,” said Vickery. “You are meeting the needs of your students. Reimagine teaching as a facilitator; work alongside your students. Embrace thinking, iteration, gaining feedback and working together because I truly, truly believe that those are the skills that our children are going to need to be successful in the future.”
Take Marisa Vickery’s advice if you want to create something new at your school or in your classroom. Developing a mindset for change is no easy task. Check out some of our online resources for inspiration and helpful tips, like this free ebook on getting parents involved.