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A fun classroom, by design

‘She can just walk into the room and you will want to do a million cartwheels,’ says a student

There’s just something about certain teachers that draws students to them in droves and keeps them checking in years, even decades later. Here, we highlight some of these rockstars of the classroom.

Kentwood —  Fifth-grade teacher Amanda Barbour likes to get her Discovery Elementary students thinking, building upon ideas and bringing them to life and tweaking and modifying as they go. She sees their imaginations spark innovation.

“It’s like a game of chess,” said student Aiyana Borden about completing projects in Barbour’s class. “If this doesn’t work, will this work?”

The students are learning about innovation through long-term projects. They are researching products of interest to them  treadmills, smoke detectors and fire trucks, for example  and coming up with ways to improve them. 

They find inspiration in Barbour herself.

“She’s already an innovator by making class fun,” said student Y-Tien Le.

Barbour, a teacher in Kentwood Public Schools for 16 years and eight in PEAKS, a program for academically talented students. She now oversees the elementary PEAKS program.

“She’s really positive and if you’re ever feeling sad she can just walk into the room and you will want to do a million cartwheels,” said Aiyana.

Amanda Barbour

Hands-on and Thinking

While project-based learning spans the curriculum in her class, Barbour loves to get her 19 students involved in STEM projects using design thinking, a process that has the end user always in mind. She said she loves to see them engage in the process of bringing something from idea to final product and to witness everything they learn along the way. 

“I love teaching the engineering standard of design thinking. I feel like you can incorporate so much within design thinking and it’s so relevant to the real world right now,” she said. “Going through a global pandemic, what did everyone need to do? They needed to be innovative.

“Healthcare, education, everything has gone through an innovative period. Design thinking aspects all play a part into that. It was a true, real-life connection.”

Barbour has been recognized for her teaching. She is a state finalist for the 2020 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, the Michigan Department of Education announced last month. Two Kentwood administrators, Evan Hordyk, executive director for secondary education and Michael Pickard, executive director of elementary instruction, nominated Barbour for the award.

To apply for the award, Barbour submitted a recording of herself teaching a lesson on design thinking. Last school year, students participated in a competition on how to make Discovery Elementary more green. They designed bamboo lunch trays, a plastic recycling bin that doubles as a basketball hoop, and a food smasher for composting. Barbour completed training on design thinking through Kent ISD and is now a mentor with the Design Thinking Academy.

“When I’m teaching science through STEM education, the excitement is amplified. Literally, when I say we are doing design thinking there are cheers in my classroom. They are excited because they know they get to be hands-on. It’s a tangible thing.”

The presidential awards program is administered by the National Science Foundation on behalf of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. The selections are usually made in June but, due to the pandemic, the process was pushed back until now. There will ultimately be two winners from each state.

“I’ve grown so much just being at Discovery with a whole group of talented teachers, and I am just inspired by the kids. They are curious and they want to learn. I love, love my job.”

— Discovery Elementary fifth-grade teacher Amanda Barbour

“Amanda embraces professional development in ways that enhance her students’ achievements… She incorporates the different learning styles, the different flexible groupings as well as the differences of her students and meets them where they are at within her classroom,” Pickard said. “Amanda networks with colleagues, plans with teammates and delivers high-level and rigorous instruction to her kids.”

For the long-term project, students choose a topic and work to improve it. The project involves research, writing letters to business people in the industry their topic is related to, and finding mentors in those fields. Barbour said she loves to see her students go in-depth with their learning and realize the possibilities in innovation over weeks or months. Eventually, they will create models of their product using a 3D printer.

“I want them to be interested in the topic. I want them to maintain their interest for that length of time and be invested in it,” she said. “They try to pick something they are interested in or makes them curious.”

Kyle Rutherford, for one, is interested in his project on fire trucks.

“My grandfather was a fireman and I just always thought it was cool how they could get to a fire really, really fast, and I wanted to learn more about it,” he said. “I think you could make the tires different to make it go faster, especially if it’s icy. You can make the tires different so the ice doesn’t affect them.”

Getting the wheels turning in students’ heads is an incredible part of teaching, Barbour said.

“When I say I truly love what I am doing, I do. I put in a lot of extra time but it’s for the kids. I have been mentored by gifted leaders. I have an amazing team. I’ve grown so much just being at Discovery with a whole group of talented teachers, and I am just inspired by the kids. They are curious and they want to learn,” Barbour said. I love, love my job.”

Barbour, a graduate of East Kentwood High School, earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Western Michigan University. She is also a trainer with the Flippen Group, which created Capturing Kids Hearts, and is a coach for the First Robotics LEGO League. Her team won the Most Innovative Design award last year.

Amanda Barbour is a state finalist for the 2020 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching

Projects, Tech Galore

In Barbour’s classroom, tech is ever present. (Before the pandemic), mBots and Spheros roamed the floor and Raspberry Pi products allowed for fun with coding.

But the need for green and nature isn’t lost. Students maintain a Tower Garden, which flourishes with arugula, gourmet lettuce, tomatoes and other veggies by the end of the school year. The vertical system grows plants sans soil with an aeroponics system, an advanced form of hydroponics. 

Her class also partners with community organizations to ensure they make the most connections with learning outside the classroom that they can (even if it’s through Zoom this year). They recently participated in a Virtual Zoo lab with John Ball Zoo, which included an exhibit design challenge while learning about animal adaptations and species.

“She definitely does inspire me. She is really kind and I just like having her around,” Kyle said. “She is always encouraging us if we think something is hard. She helps us in any way she can.”

“She always is really positive and encourages us and she tries to make things that could be really boring and connect them to our lives,” said student Mia Fisher. “She always talks about how we can improve stuff with our design challenges. She constantly challenges us to make it better and be succinct.”

Student Aubrey Warnshuis nominated Barbour for a WGVU Cool teacher award. Aubrey is working to design a smoke detector for those with hearing impairments or those who are sensitive to sound that would include a vibrating patch worn on the arm. 

Said Aubrey of Barbour: “She is innovative, she is kind, she is inspiring. She always cheers me up on gloomy days.”

Amanda Barbour talks with students about design thinking
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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio

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