Fashion Designer Turned Teacher Has a Model for Creating 'Better Lessons'

Fifteen years ago, James “Jamie” Ewing designed pinstripe suits and pullovers in the heart of New York’s fashion industry. Today, he explains equations and experiments at Mount View Elementary in the Highline School District, just south of Seattle. However, as a member of the National Education Association’s (NEA) Master Teacher Program, Ewing’s online Common Core State Standards (CCSS)-aligned lessons are making more of a splash than any fashion fad ever could.

“I am honored to be part of the NEA’s Master Teacher Program,” explains Ewing, who teaches fifth grade math and science. “The initiative gives teachers the tools to improve their craft, meet Common Core standards, and, most importantly, find ways to make sure our students get the tools they need to be successful in the classroom and in life.”

NEA’s Master Teacher Program is one of several recently launched NEA initiatives to provide concrete solutions for our nation’s public school students. Earlier this year, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel announced the establishment of a $60 million fund to invest in state and local initiatives to improve student success and strengthen the teaching profession. Over a span of ten years, the Great Public Schools Fund will support innovative projects and ideas proposed by educations, including peer assistance and review programs, Common Core implementation, teacher mentoring, school safety, and technology.

Teacher Jamie Ewing Works with a student. Photo: Highland Schools

Ewing, a National Board Certified Teacher, is just one of 90 NEA-represented teachers from across the country selected to participate in the Master Teacher Program, launched last year. NEA’s partnership with BetterLesson—an education/technology organization known for providing teacher-created resources to the online education community—is designed to ensure that NEA-represented teachers have lessons that align with CCSS.

Importantly, the lessons shared by NEA’s Master Teachers will offer more than the standard “tricks and tips” found elsewhere. The comprehensive lessons, offered through an open platform, set themselves apart from other online lessons by offering a narrative explaining the “how” and “why” of a lesson; using video to show the lesson from start to finish; offering reflections from the Master Teacher; and providing student examples. Each lesson also includes a list of resources.

The need for such a program is clear. According to the “Education School Teachers” report, prior to the introduction of CCSS, 62 percent of the nation’s teachers indicated that they felt unprepared for daily work in the classroom. In response, the NEA tapped into the creativity, passion, and expertise of America’s teachers. As President Van Roekel says, “The best ideas for the classroom come from classroom teachers, and our new site allows educators to share their lessons to help ensure all students have the skills they need to succeed.”

The educators selected to virtually share their lessons are as diverse as the students and subjects they teach. Their classrooms are located in America’s bedroom communities and in its inner cities; some are teachers of the “gifted and talented,” while others work with children who struggle academically; some of the selected educators call Title I schools home base, while others work in affluent neighborhoods. Yet, despite their differences, all are committed to sharing with their fellow teachers tools to help them take control of their classrooms. The math and English language arts lessons, which will top 16,000 by the end of the school year, can be found at BetterLesson.com.

While some see standardized tests as a valuable and necessary tool to assess students, others feel that the increasing focus on standardization can rob teachers of creativity and weaken control of their classroom. Not so, says Ewing. “I’m excited about Common Core and the NEA’s approach to helping teachers align their lessons accordingly,” explains Ewing, who has delved deeply into the philosophy and goals of CCSS. Ewing believes that the standards and the Master Teacher lessons will actually help teachers regain power and control of their classrooms. “Common Core is setting the standards, but, in my opinion, it allows teachers a lot of flexibility as to how to approach those standards.”

Ewing further defends the CCSS through an analogy, drawing from his past career. “Designers all work with fabric, but come at it from different directions. A basic seamstress uses a strict pattern; an expert designer uses several tools, including the mind and hands, to work with the fabric to create something unique and beautiful. I really feel like the CCSS is our fabric; It is what we do with the standards that make it beautiful and unique.”

Creativity and innovation come with a price, but also with a reward. As every teacher knows, work in the classroom is only part of the job. Planning lessons and grading homework adds to an already long day. For NEA’s Master Teachers, the days become even longer. But for Ewing, it’s well worth it.

“I’m at my desk at 7 a.m. and hit the ground running. After school, I volunteer to teach technology skills to interested students. Preparing lessons to go online is a time challenge, but I think having a schedule and sticking to it is really important,” says Ewing. “Participating in the Master Teacher Program has helped me become a better teacher. It’s a great program that I think has the potential for transforming our country’s educational system by encouraging teachers to collaborate to improve instruction.”

When Ewing’s one-year term as an NEA Master Teacher draws to a close and he can set aside his video camera and keep his reflections on his lessons to himself, he will no doubt ponder lessons that could have been tweaked or points that could have been made. However, there is no doubt that Ewing’s best creations are yet to come.

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