Meet The Teachers: Rachel Bernkopf

Meet The Teachers: Rachel Bernkopf

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Every now and again I mention on Marginalia how diverse and unique my classmates are. Columbia’s teaching program seems to attract a really interesting blend of people. One of the strongest points of the cohort system is the focus on group work. Teachers in the field, especially in middle school, often work together to plan curriculum. The group work has really helped me hone my strengths while learning how to be comfortable with my weaknesses. One person you’ve probably noticed in many of my blog photos is Rachel Bernkopf. Rachel and I have completed many amazing projects and field observations together over the course of the last year and a half. I thought it might be interesting to have her share some of her journey, along with her opinions of the program. Enjoy!

What led you to teaching?

My interest in teaching began around age 12.  I had an amazing sixth grade teacher at Elm Place Middle School in Highland Park, Illinois named Suzanne Greenwald who taught the gifted humanities class.  She is unbelievably skilled at opening children’s minds to the possibilities of the universe through a project-based curriculum integrated with the arts, community building, social justice, and creative thinking.  You walk out of her class feeling ready to change the world.  She also coached Future Problem Solving after school, a program which asks kids from around the world to analyze a hypothetical scenario and explain their best solution through persuasive writing and a skit that they perform.  Later on at age 18, when I had the opportunity to fill in for Mrs. Greenwald as the coach of my little sister’s Future Problem Solving team, I knew I was hooked on teaching.  To this day, I still want to be just like Mrs. Greenwald.

While at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, I became interested in anthropology and sociology.  I wanted to be an activist.  The essential questions driving my inquiry were, “Why is there inequality?” and “What can we do about it?”  I became angry about the state of the world, and the capitalist bourgeoisie became the target of my rage.  But this attitude quickly took its toll on me.  I searched for a way to channel my passion for social justice into something positive.  In the end, I came full circle in answering my own questions.  Why is there inequality? Because the quality of education is often determined by race, class, and gender.  What can we do about it? We can make sure all children get a quality education by becoming teachers in inner-city schools.  Teachers are activists in every sense of the word.

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After graduation, I accepted a position with an AmeriCorps program called Project YES! (Youth, Education, and Service).  I tutored middle school students in North Lawndale on Chicago’s west side, one of the city’s toughest neighborhoods.  When people used to ask me what Lawndale was like, I would reply, “It looks like a war zone.  It looks like a bomb dropped.”  I became disillusioned.  My new questions were, “How can we possibly help people facing violence, drugs, extreme poverty, and crippling despair?  What can education possibly do for these kids?”

Feeling powerless in my fight against inequality, I then took some time off from teaching.  But I couldn’t stay away for long.  I spent the next two years in the after school program at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, where my co-teacher and I developed our own bilingual, multicultural, arts-integrated curriculum.  My faith in education began to strengthen again, and I decided to apply to graduate school and get my teaching certification.  During my first year of grad school, I even returned to the west side as a teaching assistant at a school in West Humboldt Park.

My dream of teaching in the ‘hood is still alive and kickin’!

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What attracted you to Columbia’s program?

The next generation is going to have some difficult problems to tackle—climate change, overpopulation, resource depletion, and nuclear proliferation, just to name a few.  We need people who can solve problems by thinking creatively.  We need movers and shakers.

The beauty of studying education at an arts school is that creativity is all around you.  You can’t help but be inspired by all the cool stuff everyone is doing.  This is the spirit we need in education.  We need teachers who are excited about changing the world for the better.

Tell me about a lesson plan you created that you are particularly proud of.

For our Methods of Teaching Science class, I created a lesson plan about plants and the environment centering on a field trip to the Garfield Park Conservatory.  Each student will become an expert on a plant species and create an arts-integrated display to share their knowledge with the school and community.  This lesson plan is even more special to me now that I live in the Garfield Park neighborhood and am starting to be involved in the community gardens here.  Somehow, I always bring it back to the west side.  You can just call me Ms. Full Circle.

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Is there a particular professor in the program that has inspired you?

Alison Whittington is awesome.  Our cohort even nicknamed her Awesome Alison.  She doesn’t just talk about teaching—she fully immerses you in the experience.  One night in class, she posed a scenario where we imagined that aliens from outer space had taken over the world.  They would allow us to keep only three out of the ten freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.  How can you not get fired up when evil aliens threaten to take away your guns?  Everyone got involved in the debate.  Emotions took over—we laughed, yelled over each other, and finally came to a consensus that brought the class together as a community.

Social studies is where my passions—social justice, creativity, and teaching—naturally align.  Through social studies, you can get kids excited about solving real-world problems.  Alison taught me how to make that happen.

Tell me about your student teaching placement! 

This spring, I will be student teaching at Daniel Boone, a fine and performing arts magnet school in Rogers Park.  I am working with Cheryl Janusz, a second grade teacher.  Our classroom is like the United Nations—we have students whose families come from places around the world such as India, Mexico, and countries in the Middle East and Africa.  It is such a unique opportunity to bring a variety of cultures, religions, and perspectives together.  We learn through hands-on activities, games, and incorporating visual arts and drama.  What a perfect place for me to try out my multicultural, creative, inquiry-based approach to teaching!

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