“People talk about career and college readiness…I think civic readiness is a third ‘C’ that’s essential and sometimes overlooked.” – Anna E. Baldwin, USA

The power of encouragement – especially when it comes to education – cannot be overstated. Sometimes, as in the case of Anna E. Baldwin, a little encouragement can influence the course of a life. “My parents didn’t go to college, so I had little direction from them,” says Baldwin. “When I was growing up I spent a lot of time with my grandmother. She grew up on a little dirt farm in Alabama and she worked hard doing secretarial work as a single mother through the post-World War II period. She always talked to me about the importance of education: ‘Put it before marriage and kids, put it before a job. Make sure you get your degree before you get distracted by any of that.’ I did.”

Baldwin took her grandmother’s advice about education to heart, and earned not only a master’s in English, but also a doctorate in education. Today, Baldwin teaches English and history at Arlee High School in Montana, where she has a reputation among students for being tough, caring, and passionate about learning. As Montana’s 2014 Teacher of the Year, Baldwin now encourages her students to aim high by challenging them, and believing in them. She says the cornerstones of her teaching are, “high expectations and cultural responsiveness.”

Arlee High School is located on the Flathead Indian Reservation, and Baldwin works hard to connect her students (70 percent of whom are Native American) with their “many cultures: traditional, teenage, or cowboy culture, for example.” She readily develops assignments that incorporate technology, collaboration and her students’ Native American culture to ensure they are not only developing 21st century skills, but also understanding and honoring their heritage – and importantly, not reinforcing negative stereotypes. Her work earned Baldwin the 2012 Excellence in Culturally Responsive Teaching Award: Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

It’s my pleasure to share today’s Daily Edventure with Anna Baldwin. Enjoy! 

What drew you to the field of education? Why is it important to you? 

I think education creates good citizens and strong, healthy communities. With our participatory form of government, it’s crucial that people are highly literate and that they possess critical thinking skills. I’m talking about civic education, but all the building blocks that we provide in K-12 schools help develop these skills for students in their adult lives. People talk about career and college readiness…I think civic readiness is a third “C” that’s essential and sometimes overlooked.  

How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work? 

I am a prolific assigner of digital products in my classes. For example, my English novel studies often end with a project that incorporates audio narration, video or still images, and often music. For example, after students read Perma Red by local Salish author Debra Magpie Earling, I took them on a field trip around town to photograph images that pertained to the novel. They also selected descriptions and quotes from the novel that they found interesting and beautiful, and recorded themselves reading these. They assembled this into a slideshow and added music they had chosen. Here’s their video (don’t miss the description they wrote collaboratively) and here’s another video where I explain how we made it.  

In a similar project, last year my multicultural class read The Round House by Chippewa author Louise Erdrich. As a group, they created a book trailer. They chose lines from the book to help develop the plot without giving away events, drew the images, scanned the photos, recorded the narration, and also recorded the drumming and flute music themselves. Then they assembled it into a video  

I’ve asked students to create videos and podcasts highlighting the importance of early childhood education, which they shared with Montana Governor Bullock, and others interpreting poems. (Be sure to read this great story about the day Baldwin’s students got to eat lunch at the Governor’s house). Students in my history class have made impressive history videos that represent the multiple perspectives of an event, for example the Battle of the Little Bighorn. I’ve asked them to create individual projects and group projects. Every digital project we make goes public either on YouTube, or on my school webpage. 

Please describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education.  What has changed as a result of your work? 

I’m not sure I’d call this innovation, but I’ve been featured in several videos and written curricula to demonstrate effective pedagogy, especially related to Indian content, which has a special place in Montana’s education system. I believe this work has positively affected teachers across the state. 

In your opinion, how has the use of apps, cellphones, and mobile devices changed education? And your work? 

Digital technology, including apps and cell phones and the like, are already an ingrained part of our society and as such should be embraced and implemented meaningfully by educators. They are tools, just as the typewriter and overhead projector were once useful tools. What constitutes effective teaching has not changed, but good teachers can use these tools to enhance what we already do.  

I have a dream of recreating my classroom into a student workspace with large round tables, moveable chairs, desk lamps, and power strips. Students could collaborate, watch a demonstration in the front of the room when needed, or work individually as needed. This physical format certainly does not require mobile devices, but it would facilitate their use. Rather than the traditional model of front-facing isolated single users (students), the fluid configurations of student groups would lend themselves to collaboration, problem-solving, and cooperative use of mobile devices. When I wrote a grant (unsuccessful) for this new furniture and appliances, I tied their use to engaging activities, part of the active pedagogy which is a hallmark of my classroom.   

In your view, what is the most exciting innovation happening in education today? 

Collaboration. The many ways students can collaborate, from wikispaces to googledocs to digital projects that can be managed by multiple users…this is what is exciting to me. For example, I have implemented blogs in my dual enrollment composition class, and am asking students to comment on each other’s blogs. We’ve also shared those blogs with parents and pre-service teachers from my English methods courses. In the past I’ve asked students to create projects together on wikispaces, and as I described above, much of the work students accomplish in my literature classes is collaborative in nature. It is tricky, of course, to incorporate cooperative learning and still assess students’ learning and growth accurately. I use rubrics, conferences, observations, and self-evaluations to help me assess what kids are learning and where gaps exist so that I can address their needs.   

Is there a 21 century skill (critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, or creativity and innovation) that you are most passionate about? Why? 

See above! Actually if I had to select a skill that’s most important, I’d say critical thinking and problem solving – because, go back to my first response about civic education. When kids can’t think independently, they run the risk of being unable to function effectively in society. And there are many kids who need help learning to think critically: that is, considering multiple perspectives, identifying and solving problems, working together to devise solutions. Education must regularly provide opportunities and support for doing these things. 

If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why? 

I’d give secondary students a laptop with basic software and Internet access. This is the most powerful single piece of equipment students can have – they can access a world of information, books, software for executing statistical functions, type papers, create projects, and communicate with just about anyone. 

What is your region doing well currently to support education? 

In Montana, we have a forward-thinking state superintendent who has made sure teacher evaluations are not tied to student test scores, has implemented the Graduation Matters Montana initiative and has seen increased graduation rates (now at 84.6%), and has prioritized the education of Native American students in turnaround schools. We are also a local-control state, which allows districts to make their own curricular decisions, and this is important when communities are so distinct from one another culturally and politically. Finally, we do not have charter schools in Montana. While I am not ideologically opposed to charter schools, they do not make sense in a rural state where schools are far apart and adding more of them is illogical.   

Our state is also working toward providing more dual enrollment opportunities for all students. The Governor’s office recently announced a two-year initiative to compensate dual enrollment teachers with credit vouchers which they can use themselves or give to someone else. I teach the only dual-enrollment course in our high school, and it is a great advantage to students. Any way that we can meet the needs of our college-bound students and give them a taste of college rigor will benefit them.  

In my district, we have had excellent professional development to support teachers in addressing the Common Core standards. I feel prepared both to implement the standards and, as an instructional coach, assist my colleagues in addressing them effectively. I’ve worked with students to help them understand the standards and written guest columns for local papers discussing their advantages for students in our state.   

Our district has also been a leader in the state for incorporating Indian education into our curriculum. We have Salish language and Indian Studies classes for all K-6 students and American Indian history is offered from grades 8-12. Our teachers have created lessons and units published by the state’s Office of Public Instruction. Partly we do this because we are located on the Flathead Indian Reservation and 70 percent of our students identify themselves as Native American; partly we do this because we wish to meet our state’s mandate of teaching all students about Montana’s first people; and partly we do this because it allows us to incorporate multiple perspectives and enriched cultural content in our classrooms.   

How must education change in your country to ensure that students are equipped to thrive in the 21st century? 

Overall our education systems need to change dramatically. It’s cliché, but here’s what must go: the rows of students in fixed desks facing forward; the listening to a teacher and doing solitary work; the reliance on textbooks; the regimented credit and grade system; the no-advancement teacher/administrator model. If I could wave my wand, I’d create a new system that incorporated student choice, seminars, mastery rather than earned credits, problem-solving as an underpinning of the curriculum, regular classroom discussions, and movement. I’d make sure teachers had opportunities to move into roles where they can mentor, coach, and learn from other teachers.   

In my state in particular, funding is always a problem. Our state legislators are majority conservative, often from ranches and farms or businesses, and with very little understanding of public schools. They vote down funding requests for special projects such as statewide professional development for Common Core implementation, for example, and vote for school vouchers and charter schools without considering or comprehending the implications.   

Another challenge we face is the ability of classroom teachers to teach dual enrollment classes. Universities have certain minimum requirements of their instructors, and if we lack the specific coursework, no college credit can be given. For example, even though I have a master’s in English teaching and a doctorate in education, and I’ve taught English methods classes at the University of Montana as well as high school English for 15 years, and I’m the 2014 Montana Teacher of the Year, I’m not allowed to teach dual enrollment speech classes because I lack a degree in communication. To remedy this I have to earn this degree, which is offered – like most undergraduate degrees – during the day, during the week, when I’m working. If dual enrollment is to work well, we have to find solutions to these very real logistical obstacles.  

What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education? 

The students I serve in my district come from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds. However, we are a Title I district with a large proportion receiving free/reduced lunch. Many kids come to school without a strong vocabulary or reading skills, which means that their academic language foundation is shaky. In high school this means they struggle to read texts, conduct research and assemble papers, and even follow directions sometimes. To address this specific challenge, teachers have to develop and refine skills in helping students set and reach attainable goals. If a student can’t read a text, the teacher’s job is to support that student in reading (through defining reading strategies like paraphrasing text and deciphering tough vocabulary) and to help find more accessible texts. Intentional, sometimes strategic, teaching interventions can assist students in improving their academic language over time.   

How can teachers or school leaders facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work? 

There are many books on comprehension strategies and very helpful videos (see The Teaching Channel for some) that can guide teachers in helping students strengthen their academic language. For district-wide professional development, we hired a consultant whose specialty is active pedagogy (some call it constructivism). For seven years, we had a voluntary after-school cadre; the consultant ran the classes (during which we read and discussed the above-mentioned books); then she observed our classrooms and gave us feedback and ideas. It was the kind of professional development the experts write about: embedded, long-term, and personal. It transformed my teaching and helped me reach students in ways I’d known I wanted to reach them, but didn’t have the tools.   

How have you incorporated mobile devices and apps into your classroom and have you seen any improvements? 

Our school has not yet crossed into allowing or providing mobile devices for all students. Next year, the high school students will be issued tablets and I look forward to designing collaborative assignments using those. In the past when struggling readers/writers have used iPads, I purchased an annotation app that allowed me to provide vocal feedback to those students to explain problems I saw in their papers. They said it was immensely helpful. Smart phones are always quicker than our school’s computers for retrieving information such as facts, definitions, and word pronunciations.  

Anna E. Baldwin
English teacher/instructional coach 

Arlee High School 
Arlee, Montana, USA

  • Birthplace: Richmond, Virginia 
  • Current residence: Arlee, Montana 
  • Education:  Doctor of Education, University of Montana (2012); Master of English Teaching, University of Montana (1999); Bachelor of Arts, English Literature, Georgetown University (1994) 
  • Website I check every day: “The Answer Sheet,” a Washington Post blog by Valerie Strauss 
  • Person who inspires me most: Mahatma Gandhi 
  • Favorite childhood memory: Weeks on the Outer Banks of North Carolina
  • Next travel destination (work or pleasure): DC, work 
  • When was the last time you laughed? Why This morning, because my 10-year-old son says the funniest things. 
  • Favorite book The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. Close seconds: Life of Pi by Yann Martel and The Round House by Louise Erdrich. 
  • Favorite music: I can’t answer that! 
  • What is the best advice you have ever received? Always do what you know is right. Of course I received this advice after I had done something wrong. 
  • Your favorite quote or motto:  Be the change you wish to see in the world. 
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