The Blyth-Templeton Academy approach to education is unique: lots of experiential learning, an emphasis on student learning for its own sake, a personalized classroom environment. We know that our students and families appreciate the BTA method, but what about the teachers that make it all possible?
In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, we asked David Sekora, a Computer Science and Mathematics teacher, to share some stories from his years teaching at Blyth-Templeton Academy DC.
Mr. Sekora has been teaching at BTA for the last four years and is also currently completing a Ph.D. in Computer Science at the University of Maryland.
Keep reading to learn more about Mr. Sekora, about experiential and project-based learning in the classroom, and how students and teachers work together to master difficult subjects and concepts.
How do experiential learning and place-based learning get incorporated in your classroom?
I teach math and computer science. For me, experiential learning looks a little bit different in these areas.
Math can be done anywhere in the world, and by anyone - all you need is a pencil, a piece of paper, and plenty of time. The latter of these is the most important thing BTA brings to the table - with over two hours every day of the term devoted to thinking about math, and no rigid curriculum requirements restricting us, we’re able to dive much deeper into the material than would otherwise be possible.
A traditional school rarely affords students the opportunity to do “real” mathematics the way mathematicians and scientists do. I think a lot of this has to do with the time and curriculum restrictions, but it also has to do with levels of passion and expertise. At BTA, I’ve noticed that teachers are often experts on their subjects, with many of them holding (or in my case, working on) advanced degrees.
Computer science is similar, in that it’s the same everywhere at the core - all you need is a computer and you’re good to go. I focus the class around writing code, allowing the students to learn and express themselves through the creation of programs. Again, the larger class blocks are essential - writing code is very difficult if you keep getting interrupted in the middle, especially when you are first starting out.
What is the biggest difference between teaching at BTA and teaching in other environments?
It’s hard to say what the biggest difference between BTA and other schools is - it’s a completely different world.
The quarter system, the part-time format for most teachers, the total freedom in curriculum development, the small class sizes, the strong sense of unity and camaraderie for the faculty and staff, I could go on - each of these elements contribute to make BTA what it is.
If I had to pick just one thing, it would be the freedom - it allows me to teach to my strengths and personalize the course to my students, instead of trying to force-fit rigid standards designed for the lowest common denominator.
How did you discover BTA and how has adjunct teaching there fit into your life?
I discovered BTA when they sent an email to my graduate department, searching for a computer science teacher. I usually ignore these emails, but for some reason or another this one caught my eye, and now this is my fourth school year! Adjunct teaching fits into my life perfectly - I’ve always been able to work out my university schedule so that I have either the morning or the afternoon block completely open, and it gives me a great excuse to venture out into D.C. proper from College Park.
How do you choose where to take your students?
I have a few mainstays (I always do a triangulation activity at the Washington Monument in pre-calculus, for example), but I especially like when the students propose a trip on their own. It doesn’t always happen, and it isn’t always feasible, but when my students come up with and justify a trip, it drives student engagement and makes the trips more meaningful.
Can you give concrete examples of how your students learn experientially?
Here are some concrete examples of experiential learning from my classes:
- Pre-Calculus: I give students a tough problem in pre-calculus: they must derive a particular trigonometric formula. The catch? I don’t tell them the formula in advance, but I do tell them that the class won’t proceed until they figure it out. Sometimes this takes 20 minutes, sometimes it takes 2 days. Perfect example of something you can't do as a teacher with 30 students and strict assessment deadlines.
- Computer Science: Pretty much everything they do in computer science, minus maybe two days (history reports) is experiential. Every piece of code we write in class is something interactive that the students can (and are encouraged to) play with and modify. The final project is planned, executed, presented, and (partially) evaluated by students - I’m just there as a guide.
- Final Projects: In computer science, one culminating activity has students exploring a simulated file system I created for them, in which they have to apply critical thinking and course concepts in a semi-practical (but safe) environment.
What have you loved most about teaching at BTA?
I love many things about BTA, but I think my favorite might be the community, especially with other teachers and administrators. Something about the BTA environment seems to attract wonderful colleagues and that brings out the best in me as well.
Do you have any experiences or stories you can relate that are “quintessential BTA?”
My interview with Lee for the job: it was flex period so at the end she had me go to one of the study rooms and help kids with their math homework to demonstrate my ability to mesh with the community and engage with students.
Class trip to NASA and UMD: I leveraged some connections at the Goddard research facility, and took my whole class on a day trip to Greenbelt and College Park; I don’t think this would have been possible at most schools (too many students, no freedom to cut a day of content), and in most places (DC transit was critical). I also got to take my students to my lab, and show them my research; most high school teachers don’t have labs or do research.
Taking apart a student’s computer: a student happened to have an old, “beyond repair” laptop that they were going to junk, so instead we extended our “Parts of a Computer” unit by a couple days and went to town. Everybody involved learned a lot; some mistakes were made, but that’s part of the learning process, and we all had fun.
Treating students as people and letting them have a say in the direction of the course: many times now, I’ve drastically changed something about the course (either right away for that course, or for future iterations of the course) based on student feedback. Adding topics, cutting topics, going on impromptu trips, scrapping activities that were not engaging, revising grading rubrics/weightings, cutting final exams entirely, dropping all other parts of the course because students were so excited about their final project they just wanted to devote all of the remaining class time to working on it.
We hope you have enjoyed this glimpse inside the Blyth-Templeton Academy experience! Our excellent teachers, like Mr. Sekora, create an education environment that is rigorous and engaging, encouraging students to commit themselves to learning and excellence.
Want to learn more about Blyth-Templeton? Schedule a visit today and experience our school environment for yourself!