Teacher of the Year finalist Kara Ball shows how young students can change the world

Kara Ball
Kara Ball
Photo credit: Happy 8 Photography

People say my students are “the future.” In their minds, these elementary schoolers are going to do phenomenal things when they get to high school and college. What I want everyone to know is that they’re capable of doing phenomenal things right now.

The best example is our shark project. In our coastal community, there have been several shark bite incidents over the past few years. The kids were afraid to go in the water. How do you overcome fear? With knowledge.

My second-graders do research on sharks and how we impact them and their environment. Then they dissect sharks—with the help of military volunteers from our base community who wield the scalpels—and collect data about any injuries they find, what’s in the shark’s stomach, and whether the shark was pregnant. The volunteers are always surprised by how capable our students are of handling such a complex project.

Another great example is our invention convention. We ask students to think of a problem that they, their family, or community faces that they could create a solution for. The kids do the research, create a prototype, and explain to the panel what problem their invention solves and why it’s unique. They also come up with a project cost and budget. I want my students to walk away from their science, engineering, technology, and math (STEM) education with the ability to communicate their thinking and the knowledge that they can bring about change.

STEM education has been part of my life since I was diagnosed with dyslexia around third grade. School was challenging because I had trouble connecting the concepts I learned with why they were important. My dad—who is also dyslexic and has a degree in biology—used science and engineering activities to help me see the importance of what I was learning. We built model rockets to show why the concept of force in motion matters. I do many of the same hands-on, project-based learning activities with my students now to help them see how they can apply what they learn in real life.

Walden gave me the skills to help my students become learners and leaders and helped me become a teacher leader. In my previous job with Montgomery County (Maryland) Public Schools, I shared tiered instruction techniques I learned to help my fellow teachers implement Common Core math standards for students of all skill levels and learning styles. My curriculum design and assessment courses provided me with the background I needed for my current position as STEM coordinator.

STEM not only prepares students for a rapidly changing job market, but it also gives them the chance to struggle. Struggle may sound like a negative, but it is actually a very important experience. It teaches them to persevere through challenges on their path to success. They learn to be resilient, adaptable, and resourceful—incredibly beneficial skills in STEM or any other field they’ll encounter throughout their school years and in their careers. I can’t predict the future, so I need to give my students the skills they’ll need to create that future—the ability to collaborate, be creative, and think critically.

— As told to Susan Walker

Kara Ball ’11, an MS in Education (MSEd) graduate, was one of four 2018 National Teacher of the Year finalists. She has been teaching for 10 years and currently teaches fourth and fifth grade at DeLalio Elementary School, a Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) elementary school. DoDEA plans, directs, coordinates, and manages preK through 12th-grade education programs for school-aged children of Department of Defense personnel who would otherwise not have access to a high-quality public education. Ball also serves as STEM coordinator for all Camp LeJeune district schools in Jacksonville, North Carolina.

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