Recently I read about the Graham school district’s national accolades for its innovative programs. As an alum and a retiree from the teaching staff, I am not at all surprised.
Before the sparkly new high school arose from farmland along Route 36 and long before the word “innovative” became part of my vocabulary, I spent my formative years at Concord, one of the schools that would eventually consolidate to form the new district.
Back then, everything at school was new to me. Mrs. Rushaw encouraged me by adding my construction-paper snowball to our third-grade snow fort for children who could subtract two-place numbers from two-place numbers. My progressive fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Paananen, capitalized on Russia’s Sputnik launch by insisting we learn all about the solar system, requiring a report about a planet, and assigning a project. My ten-page paper, copied over with my new Sheaffer ink cartridge pen, covered Saturn in depth; the spacesuit I hand stitched for my doll included a fashionable cape to cover her oxygen tank!
The next year, the teacher stretched our global awareness by relating experiences with her short-term guest from India. Mrs. Reeves then transformed our sixth-grade classroom into a mini-United Nations as we wore kimonos and saris and reported on the foods and customs of our chosen foreign countries.
Meanwhile, forward-looking citizens at Concord, St. Paris, Westville, and Terre Haute convinced officials that consolidation would provide “better facilities and broader curriculum” for their children. The Graham district was born and aptly named after 4-H founder A.B. Graham, an innovative educator in his own right.
When I entered the high school in 1963, I found everything to be modern and exciting. As a newly-tapped student librarian, I watched shelving and furniture for the expanded library being unpacked. (Years later, I witnessed the opening of an even more updated library!)
Sometimes forward progress unexpectedly zigs when it should zag. Student Council plans to sponsor an exchange student at GHS my senior year fascinated me until their cancellation by levy failures, and I was disappointed not to be allowed to take French 1 my last year there. But the seeds of foreign experience had been planted and eventually grew into almost forty years of German language
instruction and a quarter century of exchange – both now being rekindled at Graham!
Armed with a freshly-minted degree and ideas of my own, I joined the GHS faculty. Those were exciting times: we sat in the teachers’ lounge after school, innovating to our hearts’ content. We called one brash brainstorm E.F.F.E., short for Experiment in Free-Form Education. After months of planning, we shut down regular classes for a day of adventures in learning: teachers and community members shared hobbies like fishing and woodworking; I taught some “fun stuff” in German; Margaret Faulkner had teenage boys baking pies right there in her home economics classroom. What a day! Such great lessons! Such collaboration!
To my mind, however, some of the best innovations were those that happened in the individual classrooms of teachers daily searching for the next best way to reach and teach students. I have previously written about the elementary-secondary pen pal project developed by Jane Sidders so that her creative writing students had a real audience for their work. I also wrote about the students of Peggy Bowers, who adapted children’s stories for the stage and then performed them.
Even more examples of great ideas and new thinking abounded. History teacher Jack Wood prepared simulated archaeological digs for his classes and sent students out on academic scavenger hunts that replaced traditional semester exams. Sheila Prill, advisor to Students Making a Difference, organized a yearly Christmas project in which clubs and classes made the holidays brighter for community families facing tough times. And we could always count on the FFA to deliver tasty meals to our desks during parent-teacher conferences.
In addition, chemistry teacher Ron McCunn taught the first Advanced Placement course at GHS and urged the rest of us to join him. Assistant principal Mike DeMassimo rallied upperclassmen to orient each incoming class through the Freshman Focus program. Teachers of satellite programs from the Ohio Hi-Point Career Center added new dimension to Graham’s educational offerings, while Graham Digital/A.B.Graham Academy staff members coordinated online education and supported homeschooling curriculum. Indeed, scores of teachers and programs in all Graham schools have, over the years, amply demonstrated the various meanings of innovation: “new” and “changing” and “progressive” and “cutting edge.”
One clear realization I have about innovation in schools is that it happens because teachers want to find more effective ways of helping their students grow and learn. Whether it was the successful English mini-course program developed
by language arts teachers in the 1990’s, or Marcia Ward’s sojourns with her students to swim with manatees or spend time behind the scenes at the Mayo Clinic, or spontaneous reactions to any of dozens of teachable moments that arise every day – teachers naturally strive for the latest and the best.
I also understand that every new idea, every change, every cutting edge concept rests on the new ideas, changes, cutting edge concepts of the past – and their predecessors.
So bravo to Graham and its teachers for continuing the proud legacy of providing the best education possible as they stack the newest forward thinking upon the forward thinking that preceded it, all to benefit kids – past, present, and future!
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.