Teaching at AoPS Academy
June 5, 2019
Several years ago, after more than a quarter of a century, I retired from teaching school. When I announced my retirement to my friends, family, and colleagues, everyone asked what I was going to do next.
“I’m going to travel and enjoy myself,” I said.
And I have taken numerous trips. But back then, I couldn’t have dreamed that I’ve gotten some of the most pleasure from going back to the classroom and teaching language arts part-time at AoPS Academy.
AoPS Academy Carmel Valley has been a perfect fit for me. The first time I walked into the San Diego – Carmel Valley Academy, I immediately sensed the positive, upbeat atmosphere. There were happy parents in the waiting area and excited children in the classrooms. I could tell right away that I’d not only be able to use all the experiences and strategies I’d acquired during my teaching career—I’d enjoy it, too. I was excited to guide this new group of students as they blended their school education during the week with the enrichment program that we offer at AoPS Academy.
What It’s Like Teaching at AoPS Academy
The program at AoPS Academy is organized by key concepts. My students and I tackle activities that get them to process important ideas at a high level. They end up asking higher-level, deep questions, which helps them move from factual to conceptual thinking. My fellow instructors and I have high expectations of our students—and we expect each other to teach at high levels.
As a teacher, I enjoy collaborating with my colleagues at Art of Problem Solving. Our students learn quickly, so we need to follow a fairly brisk instructional pace to keep them interested and motivated. I have been so impressed with the high caliber of the teaching I’ve seen at AoPS Academy. Each of my fellow teachers brings a rich array of experiences into our classrooms, where we’re able to build a supportive learning environment.
One thing I love about the Language Arts program is the way our students get to learn collaboratively. Research suggests that collaborative learning, where students work together to improve their understanding of a subject, can help students achieve more, retain the material better, and develop greater intrinsic motivation. And AoPS Academy instructors have the expertise necessary to make collaborative learning happen. My students are so excited about our lessons each week. I’m always impressed at how well and respectfully they work with each other.
I’m also amazed at my student’s ability to make connections between topics. During a poetry unit in my second grade class, one student raised her hand.
“Why is October the tenth month?” she asked.
“Yeah, oct- means eight,” her classmate jumped in. “Like an octopus, which has eight legs. So shouldn’t October be the eighth month?”
I admit that I had to think for a moment before I could respond! They were absolutely right—October is Latin for “eighth month.” That’s because the Roman calendar was shorter than the one we use.
“Back then,” I told them, “A year was ten months long, and October was the eighth one.”
I enjoy getting to share my knowledge with my students, and I love the active way they approach their education.
What I Like Most about the Curriculum
The lessons that AoPS’s curriculum writers design are complex. It’s clear that we have high expectations of our students. At the same time, it’s a real pleasure to see our students exceeding those expectations.
The first time I opened the poetry book that I used with my second grade class, I felt a little uneasy. Weren’t the concepts too complex? But it was clear that the curriculum writers had thought about that carefully. Our lesson let me activate my students’ prior knowledge and provided useful comprehension strategies for them to try out. As a result, they didn’t just understand the poems we were reading—they liked them!
What I Love about Working with Students
AoPS Academy students are thirsty for knowledge. During our poetry unit, my second graders surprised me by asking to learn how to write haiku. When my fourth grade students and I reviewed how to write paragraphs in an essay, their questions were all about how to cite information. We weren’t talking about research that week—they just really wanted to know.
I love how my students are always reaching for the next level. They don’t just wait to be shown new skills—they go after them. At the same time, of course, they’re still kids, which makes the classroom a fun place. For example, I had my work cut out for me in my second-grade class when I had to convince two boys not to write every single one of their poems about Minecraft.
By the end of the poetry unit, the students were so proud of what they’d written that they wanted to present their work to an audience. So we invited their parents to class. On the day of the presentations, my students took charge with confidence. Each student welcomed their parents to the classroom, recited their poem, and introduced the next student. I brought in cookies to share, and told them to serve their guests first before they took a cookie for themselves. (However, most of them only remembered the take a cookie for yourself part.)
As much as I enjoy seeing them learn, they also enjoy teaching me things. For example, we’ve been reading the book Rosie Revere, Engineer, in second grade. The book is about a young inventor named Rosie and her adventures as she builds her own airplane. We’ve been talking about other kinds of engineering, too, and my students were keen to discuss coding. I was surprised to see how much my second graders knew about coding—and how patient they have been about sharing their knowledge of computers with me. One student even brought in a book about coding and asked me if I’d like to read it so I could learn more!
Outside of the classroom, AoPS Academy invites students to challenge themselves with a yearly writing contest. Students who choose to can submit a short story they’ve written. At the end of the academic year, the students who wrote the top stories get to read them out loud at a special awards ceremony. This contest is just another way that we get to challenge students to keep using their creativity.
What I’ve Enjoyed about Working with My Colleagues
AoPS Academy stands out for its effective leadership. The Campus Director and Assistant Directors are always available and happy to answer questions from staff, parents, and students alike. Each teacher agrees that our students are our priority, and we make decisions based on what’s best for the student. We all work together to help students reach their highest potential.
It has given me such joy to work with students who truly enjoy coming to AoPS Academy and look forward to their lessons each week. They enter our building with smiles on their faces, absorbed in conversation with their classroom. It’s obvious that they feel welcome and know that we care about them. Rather than pressuring them to perform, we challenge and support them as they reach for their best. I’m so glad I get to be part of this warm, engaging community.