03/29/2010
Teacher Tribute
For Joanna Bottaro “learning” is about problem solving

Helping students find common ground

Joanna Bottaro has been teaching for 18 years. Yet she freely admits there is a lot she doesn’t know. “That’s what I love about Need in Deed,” she says. “You really never know from year to year what you’re going to learn.

Although NID’s “My Voice” process privileges student voice, Ms. Bottaro stepped in as guide and teacher when her class was stuck. They were leaning toward the topic of “homelessness” for their year-long service-learning project but an underlying current of cliquishness caused Joanna to re-think the project’s direction.

She consulted with a NID program staff member and a colleague in our Teacher Network and, as Joanna describes it, “in a moment of epiphany the word ‘exclusivity’ emerged.”

“I immediately knew this was the answer,” she says. “I had a similar brainstorming session in the classroom and watched as the students went through the same process I had just experienced. Working in groups they looked up the word “exclusivity” and explored its full meaning. We brainstormed all the different ways people can be excluded. By the end of the day I could feel the class was hooked.”

Part of the experiential aspect of the project for students is being divided into “recess groups” each week based on things they identify as areas of common interest. The groups change periodically as Joanna asks students to identify new areas of interest. For example, after a recent trip to the National Liberty Museum she asked them to choose which exhibit they liked the best: one focused on “art,” “history” or “heroes.” Subsequently, Joanna placed them in groups based on their interests. Students are required to play and eat lunch with the others in their group and resist the temptation to spend time with just their friends.

“I admit the plan didn’t always go smoothly,” she says. I still hear grumblings periodically. But slowly, over time, I’ve watched new friendships being formed.”

“They are going to go to high school one day,” she reflects, “and be in groups. Maybe they will think back on their experience in 5th grade. I hope so.”