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An Independent Learning Environment

Kara Alden

“My class is run by the scholars—the students,” said Kara Alden, McKay School alumna, class of 2015. “I constantly ask myself, ‘Can I have a scholar teach or say this?’ I spend maybe 10 to 15 percent of my time in direct instruction and the remainder as a facilitator for the scholars teaching scholars.”

Alden believes in creating an independent learning environment for her fourth-grade students in which they can feel a sense of ownership for their education. She also tries to prepare them for future challenges. Her students present strategies, tutor each other, and create math rules and conjectures. Alden acknowledged that it has taken a lot of hard work, but at the end of the school year they have become independent, well-spoken, and confident.

Alden has taught first and fourth grades at Success Academy Crown Heights in Brooklyn, New York. Success Academy is a charter school that draws many of its students from low-income families. Faculty and staff are dedicated to helping their students overcome the achievement gap that has historically kept many such students from attending college. Alden feels that she has become part of that purpose and loves working in a school where she feels she makes a huge difference.

“My degree in elementary education with an art education minor gave me a look at what high-level education looks like. Through my program I volunteered, observed, student-taught, and interned with at least 10 different schools and saw many master educators. I grew a vision for what I needed to master to become a powerful teacher. In my opinion, one of the most important aspects of excellence is never-ending study, reflection, and change,” Alden reported.

From her experiences in the McKay School and her internship in Washington, DC, she also learned the importance of flexibility and creativity. “I think one of the keys to happiness is change. You will be able to learn more and be a more interesting person if you allow new ideas into your life, your views to be challenged, and your mind to be changed!”

Placing a greater focus on the complexity of the individual and finding ways to diversify and teach to individual needs is something that Alden appreciates. “I love that there is a greater focus on the arts in the classroom. My kids get to dance and make art and music every week,” she said.

Alden loves children; she jokes that her best friends are all 10 years old. And she loves learning. “You can’t be a teacher without first being a learner,” she said.

For the 2016–17 school year, Alden received the Excellence in Education: Teacher Growth Award at Success Academy. She was recognized for keeping her curriculum effective and challenging as she moved from teaching first to fourth grade.

“I was truly honored by this award,” said Alden. “I do feel like I have made significant growth as a teacher. Teaching can be such a thankless profession; sometimes we don’t get acknowledged and recognized by the other adults we work with. It felt deeply fulfilling to be recognized at the adult level for all the hard work I have poured into my scholars’ education.”

Despite the long hours and relentless work, Alden concluded that her current class is full of truly amazing and talented kids. In her own words, “I have the best job in the world.”