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Colorado Springs teacher accepts role as U.S. Department of Education fellow

September 25, 2017 Updated: September 26, 2017 at 4:29 pm
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Fifth-grade teacher Elmer Harris teaches his class about the bones in their bodies Monday, Sept. 25, 2017, at Christa McAuliffe Elementary School in Colorado Springs. Harris has been selected as a national fellow to the U.S. Department of Education and among his roles will be helping with recruiting and retaining male teaahers of color. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

What do Mr. Harris' students at Christa McAuliffe Elementary School in Colorado Springs School District 11 like about their teacher?

"He makes going to school fun," says 10-year-old Priseis Friend.

"He lets us sit down in a bunch of different places," says Jiovani Collis. "It helps us learn because we don't have to stay in one chair."

Air Force veteran Elmer Harris runs his fifth-grade classroom under a new methodology called Next Generation Learning Challenges, a nontraditional, personalized approach that allows students to use different ways to drive their progress and be in charge of their own learning.

On Wednesday, he'll be talking to the nation's highest education official in Washington, D.C., about why the setup works and, in this age of teacher shortages, how it might help motivate others to become teachers.

"I enjoy this teaching style," he said. "It makes kids more engaged and active and keeps me on my toes."

Harris has earned the opportunity to tell U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos what's happening in the trenches at his elementary school of 550 students near Peterson Air Force Base after being named a 2017-2018 fellow.

The purpose of the program: "To hear from local teachers," Harris said.

He's one of just seven in the nation chosen for the U.S. Department of Education's fellowship program for this school year, out of 500 applicants.

Usually, there are 2,000 teachers vying for a spot, Harris said, but applicants decreased this year, likely  because of the change in administration in Washington, D.C. Some public school teachers decry DeVos' proclivity for school vouchers for parents and promotion of charter schools and private education.

Fifth-grade teacher Elmer Harris helps Tristan Propes identify the bones in his head while the class learned about the human skeleton Monday, Sept. 25, 2017, at Christa McAuliffe Elementary School in Colorado Springs. Harris has been selected as a national fellow to the U.S. Department of Education and among his roles will be helping with recruiting and retaining male teaahers of color. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)  

Harris, 51, identifies himself as a "staunch supporter of the union, public school and special education," and said he realizes he may not agree with everything DeVos promotes. But it's important to him to impart the teacher experience on a national platform.

"The majority of kids are still in public education, and I want to share my students' and families' voices," he said.

And in the back of his mind is this: There's always the possibility that his input could help shape a new and improved direction.

One of the first things Harris wants to know is why DeVos stopped at few traditional public schools during her "Rethink Schools" tour to Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri and Indiana this month. She primarily visited charter and other nontraditional schools.

"Teachers and citizens are concerned about her support for public education," he said.

Having DeVos get behind public education could help boost the image of the teaching profession and encourage people to support education on the homefront, Harris said.

Another of his goals is to help generate more black and Latino male teachers. He's doing his part; his 25 students are divided into teams such as Yale, Harvard and the historically black Spelman College. Pennants from a host of colleges hang from the ceiling in his classroom, along with posters with quotes by Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and one that says "You - Ready to Change the World?"

"It's to get them in the mindset of college," Harris said.

As a fellow, Harris is paid for the part-time work. His duties include representing the teacher perspective to Education Department policymakers, reviewing applications for such honors as the National Blue Ribbon Schools Award, and being involved with a leadership program, Teach to Lead.

Harris retired from the Air Force in 2006, after 22 years of working logistics and recruiting.

He started as a preschool classroom aide and became a teacher through the Troops to Teachers program, which assists military veterans in becoming teachers.

He also is a part-time instructor in the teacher preparation program at the University of Colorado's Denver campus, where he received his doctoral degree.

Harris bought couches, cushions, standing workstations and other equipment for his classroom to enable students to work on projects in groups.

They have their choice of using paper, electronic devices, a video, a model or other creative means of fulfilling assignments. They can eat snacks if they feel hungry, stand up if they need to stretch and pay attention because they want to.

Fifth-graders Tristan Propes, left, and Jiovani Collis stand while Dayna Marquez, and Keanu Leonguerrero, right, sit on the floor while the students learn about the human skeleton in Elmer Harris' class Monday, Sept. 25, 2017, at Christa McAuliffe Elementary School in Colorado Springs. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)  

It's that notion that one size doesn't fit all, and a little freedom goes a long way in helping kids make the right choices and behave as expected.

"It's comfortable," Priseis declared Monday, sweeping her eyes over her classmates identifying bones of the body. "I like how Mr. Harris made the classroom look like it was your home."

Principal Carla Auld said Harris goes "above and beyond" to ensure his students are getting the most out of their education.

"Mr. Harris is absolutely passionate about his work, and we're proud of him being able to take ideas from here and bring ideas back," Auld said. "He's been a good risk taker and believes in our kids."

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