Can you imagine the world in which you wouldn’t know how to name a little bug which made your leg its new home or the world in which you wouldn’t know how to use this or that device? Having general knowledge makes our reality not only richer, but also increases our self-awareness and our awareness of other people’s needs, as well as the needs of animals and the environment where we now reside. Learning plays an important role in the human life, and the weight of responsibility for our kids’ and then young people’s education has been put on the teachers’ shoulders to a great extent. Working in education isn’t easy, however if one devotes enough energy and heart, it can bring invaluable results and real satisfaction not only to teachers, but also to their students.
In many Polish schools the education system is rather old-fashioned, inefficient, based mainly on gaining theoretical knowledge, and unfortunately, not the practical one. That’s why, I’ve always been fascinated by schools which introduce pedagogical innovations, where students are not only passive receivers, but also active participants of learning and teaching process. In this way I’ve come across a wonderful teacher – Kimberlie Harris, who does what she loves and she does it really well. She’s gained popularity and recognition for projects related to conservation of endangered animal species, in which she has skillfully engaged her students. I hope that this conversation will show you how a good school can use students’ potential and how such projects could be implemented in our own school backyard.
Passion Piece: Could you tell my readers a little about yourself?
Kimberlie: Hi, I’m Dr. Kimberlie Harris and I’m the Language Arts gifted teacher for 3 elementary schools. I’ve taught for 14 years. I’m also the founder of PHraseD, LLC, a professional writing and editing service.
Passion Piece: You were born in Jamaica. Why did you decide to move to America?
Kimberlie: I love my home country of Jamaica, but came to the United States on an undergraduate scholarship.
Passion Piece: How did you start your teaching career? Was it a vocation you always wanted to follow?
Kimberlie: I actually tried to run from teaching. My family has a long history of involvement in education and I had promised myself not to become a teacher. I worked in marketing and promotions, prior to teaching, but felt something was missing. Then, I completed an alternative teaching certification program to gain teaching certification. Now, looking back, I can tell it is where I’m meant to be, because I get to instill the love of reading and writing in children and it brings me so much joy!
Passion Piece: What makes a good teacher? What’s the most important for you?
Kimberlie: A good teacher loves learning and sharing knowledge with others. Additionally, a good teacher should love their children or students. Every child I’ve ever taught is my child. I see them that way and treat them as such. I love each of them and want to do everything in my power to give them the best learning and school experience possible. They’re a part of my family.
Passion Piece: You’ve become quite famous because of the project you’ve undertaken. Could you describe it in short?
Kimberlie: I’m currently the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Conservation Teacher of the year. I gained that honor by applying for a grant to work on a conservation issue in the state of Georgia. My students and I researched endangered animals in Georgia and then decided to try to do something to help one of the animals we researched. We chose the Indiana Bat because it is critically endangered due to a condition called white nose syndrome, which affects hibernating bats and is caused by a fungus. We used the funds from the grant to build a bat habitat on the campus of our gifted center. Our habitat includes two bat houses (one suited for normal bat colonies and the other for nursing bats) and over 10 native plants that attract the types of insects bats like to eat like gnats, flies, bees and others.
Passion Piece: Were your students willing to participate in such a task? Did they choose the endangered species on their own?
Kimberlie: Yes, they were the most excited I’ve ever seen them about anything. Children love to learn by doing and this project is a testament to that idea. I initially selected the 15 endangered animals in Georgia that we studied from a report that is released statewide. After that each student picked one of the 15 animals to study and become an expert on. Then, as a group, we chose the one animal we thought we could actually assist.
Passion Piece: What did their work on this project look like?
Kimberlie: They far exceeded all my expectations! They had to complete extensive research on one of the 15 endangered animals in our state. After their research they had to create products to teach others about their endangered animals. They created Google Slide presentations, dioramas, videos, booklets, posters, songs, to name a few. They then wrote persuasive reports trying to generate support for saving their chosen animal. After the individual work, we narrowed our efforts down to the Indiana Bat. Once we selected the Indiana Bat, we all became Indiana Bat experts. We had to learn about creating a bat habitat by researching how to construct a bat house, including where the bat house should be placed to attract bats, what color to paint the house, the type of mounting equipment that was needed and the correct height of the poles. We spent several weeks researching. We also had to learn about the best plants to include in our habitat and had to become experts on those plants to ensure their survival, so that they could attract insects for our bats. Not only did they work to learn these things, but then they also had to do them. My students repaired planters and built the bat houses with power tools (with direct instruction and under supervision). They painted the houses, dug holes through unrelenting Georgia clay, they planted and tended to our plants and we’re constantly analyzing and reassessing data to see if our bat habitat needs modifications.
Passion Piece: What were the outcomes? Can such actions be introduced on a larger scale to protect more endangered animals not only in the USA, but also all over the world?
Kimberlie: So far, our habitat is complete, and we are currently in the waiting phase. We are hopeful it will be found by displaced bats. My students became empowered to learn and act on their own. They now understand that they truly can do anything they set out to do and I believe they now care more about conservation in our world. Yes, I would encourage others to create their own bat habitats or work on their own conservation projects. Many people have bats in their attics because the animals cannot find a more appropriate habitat. If you build a bat house, they will move into it and exit your home. Before building your bat house though, be careful to research the requirements for your area, such as what color to paint the habitat based on the climate etc.
Passion Piece: Does the state support such actions in schools? What are the requirements to get a proper grant?
Kimberlie: Yes, our state supports innovation in teaching. I am fortunate enough to teach at a STEM certified school so we teach for the most part through Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Our students are engaged in hands on, self generated projects that are meaningful to them and our community. To get a grant, you need to become acquainted with the organizations in your area that support educational initiatives. You also have to be willing to invest time and energy in the grant application, but I think the benefits make it worthwhile.
Passion Piece: What are the benefits of carrying out such projects? What do students gain by taking part in them?
Kimberlie: My students became expert researchers. They became the teachers in many facets of the project. They would remind me about things I had forgotten or ask probing questions to help solve problems. They gained educational experiences that can’t be “taught.” I’m a firm believer in learning by doing and I feel confident they’ll maintain the knowledge they acquired, whereas in many other cases, they forget the material that has been shared with them.
Passion Piece: What are you passionate about besides teaching?
Kimberlie: Outside of teaching, I love my family, cooking, exercise and writing. My passion for writing is the reason why, earlier this year, I started PHraseD, LLC. I love helping others who struggle with writing and have several freelance writing clients, but I’m also working to publish several of my creative writing projects as well.
Passion Piece: Where do you see yourself in the near future? Are you going to surprise us with some new ideas?
Kimberlie: I want to continue to love and teach my children. My life is improved by their presence and I’m honored to be their teacher. I do hope to be a published author soon and share my stories with children outside of my own classroom walls. As far as surprises, you can never tell with me. I like to constantly grow, so who knows what will be the next student led initiative my students persuade me to try.
Passion Piece: Which motto would you like to share with my readers?
Kimberlie: A personal motto I developed and challenge myself to live by is ‘make discomfort your new comfort zone.’ Always challenge yourself to be learning and growing in some way and to be uncomfortable in that process. I think that would be a great one for all your readers. Thank you so much for having me. Feel free to check in on us periodically to see if our habitat gains occupants!
Passion Piece: Thank you very much for this wonderful conversation and I look forward to hearing about all the news related to your project! I hope that Indiana bats will discover your amazing bat habitat soon.
School doesn’t need to be associated with boredom and long hours spent in the classroom on passive listening to the teacher. I wish it could be possible to introduce more interesting pedagogical innovations in the future, so that students could learn things which are truly important for them, in the way which would support their long-lasting knowledge and practical skills. What projects would you like to take part in?
See you around!
Photos by: Kimberlie Harris