2020 A+ Educator: Julia Miller, People for People Charter School
Meet A+ Educator Julia Miller, Kindergarten and First Grade Teacher, People for People Charter School
Her Nominator Says:
“Julia has exemplified exactly what it means to be a teacher. Within these past two years, she has traveled to Finland to study play, and then returned to her school to build a completely new play space from scratch for her kids. She helps them to learn through play thanks to ball pits, stages, sensory walls and more.”
~ Antonia DePace
Get To Know Julia
What made you want to be an educator? When did you decide that was your path?
When I was in college, I applied for the opportunity to assistant teach in a first grade classroom in Santa Anita, Honduras. This trip changed my entire life trajectory, because I was then introduced into the world of international teaching, and helping young students succeed. Additionally, through my many years of camp counseling, I had a budding passion for working with kids and leading them on a path to success.
What is your teaching philosophy?
Play! I discovered that in Finland, early childhood education is emphasized by learning through play. My kindergarten students are 5-6 years old and had no recess or playground. I took it upon myself to incorporate art, music, and play into the classroom by way of the curriculum. I created ways to provide my students with a kinesthetic outlet that would help them with social skills, all while still keeping emphasis on the high priority needs of a test-based school. Before I implemented this play-based practice, my students were constantly fighting and letting out pent-up frustration in dangerous ways within the walls of our classroom. After I initiated and facilitated ways for them to engage in “play,” their social skills increased greatly, and their focus on academics grew.
How do you make your classroom environment feel welcoming and dynamic?
During my first few years as a traditional kinder and first grade teacher, I would ensure my classroom was welcoming and inviting by picking a fun adventure theme and creating art and décor for the room that accented the theme! I would stay until the security guards would ask me to kindly, “go home,” because I was so persistent on making my room match my love for art and creativity for my students. I would drape fabric from the ceiling, make a cozy corner, paint murals on butcher paper and hang student work all around the room. I even extended the art décor and theme by trickling it all into the halls to show the importance of giving students that special space that is homemade and innovative.
What would you love for the parents of your students to know?
I love to tell my parents that it is okay for their child to be antsy and excited to move. It is imperative that students continue to spark their own curiosity, so giving students the chance to explore their interests is a great way to get them invested in their learning and more willing to share that with peers. Play helps students positively interact with one another, so I also encourage parents to allow students to socially enhance their child’s social skills through playing with their peers.
How do you encourage reluctant learners?
In the play space, students learn through structured play activities where I give them opportunities to play within four zones (social-emotional, narrative, sensory, and active). While whole group participation is absolutely encouraged, I do think of activities and lessons that are inclusive to all students by understanding their styles of learning. I also modify and accommodate all my lessons by scaffolding cooperative learning groups to ensure all of my students are reaching their own success. Because many early childhood students do not get enough play/movement time, I do emphasize the need for movement, dance, and ways to actively play with their classmates. The reluctant learners become more apparent during free play. I often find ways to help lift their playful learning without necessarily interrupting the play. I will find activities that they like so that they can find a partner that shares in their likes and interests; or I will come up with a game that focuses on problem solving and inclusivity to encourage critical thinking and teamwork! For those that need help self-regulating with peers, giving them the tools of their own, like personal calm-down methods in their least restrictive environment (the playspace,) helps them focus on their emotions, and regroup so that they can go back to being with their peers.
How do you resolve problems in the classroom, if a student is disruptive, for example, or if two students aren’t getting along?
One of my favorite parts of teaching is problem-solving a peer or individual issue within our environment. I love to give students tools to help self-regulate, influence student agency, and have them work together to solve their disagreement. I teach them that through conflict, there is always a resolution. Solving the problem is the first step to less tattling and more working out issues and the students have invested in this notion! I
How can you tell when your material is connecting with your students? How do you measure progress?
When I was a kindergarten and first grade teacher, I saw progress tangibly through data and growth. With this Just Play program, noticing progress looks a little different. Many of my students come from backgrounds and communities that do not have play, so I essentially needed to start from the basics. Additionally, some students do not go to preschool so they are not privy to social skills activities — until they come to the playspace. The students at my school who have not been given play resources are not exposed to many social skills opportunities and play materials that help them interact and develop. Through qualitative data observations, teacher surveys, and kid interviews, I have collected evidence that our play environment, sensory hallways, and playful learning opportunities have enhanced PFP’s student outcomes by way of focus and behavioral problem solving. I know the material and the lessons I facilitate in the play space have a positive effect on all K-2 students with their mood, the way that they react to others, and their overall social-emotional development.
Has teaching changed since you started?
My first class had 31 kindergarten students, half never having had prior school experience, in a room with no windows. This time around, I feel like I have grown through experience and through trial and error– but watching my original students grow and get older, and now want to help in the playspace with the younger friends, is truly a satisfying feeling. I do think that the conventional methods of teaching have shifted in ways that are considered to be more progressive (ie: social-emotional learning practices and trauma informed teaching methods) which I find to be the core significance of teaching students that come from a myriad of different backgrounds. Authoritarian teaching is long gone, and I am happily impressed by the ways in which teachers are more nurturing and cater to students’ emotional needs. You never know what a student is going through, and we, as teachers need to be ‘okay’ with wearing many hats: protector, role model, innovator, play leader, and caring knowledge facilitator.
How do you prepare for the first day of school?
Thinking back on my conventional classroom teaching days (pre-playspace), I prepared for the first day of school with lots of late nights in my classroom, prepping and preparing every last thought and bringing it to fruition. However, this past summer, I had the impossible (yet possible!) task of re-creating that storage room into a playroom in only six weeks! I stayed all day and night making sensory boards, and painting murals in the halls and creating the floor decals with the art teacher at our school to prepare for our students to have a play-conducive hallway that matches their playspace.
What has been most rewarding about teaching?
I am overall immensely proud of my craft, my program, and I take home the reward each day of knowing that through my experiences and innovation, I am able to create an existing environment that allows all students to flourish physically, socially, emotionally, and even cognitively through my most passionate method: play.