Alicia Townsend builds connections, sparks thinking for students transitioning to adulthood | CraigDailyPress.com

Alicia Townsend builds connections, sparks thinking for students transitioning to adulthood

Alicia Townsend named 2016 Best of Moffat County Middle School Teacher

Michael Neary

— Alicia Townsend recalls the fear she had, as a new teacher, of standing in front of a group of students. It's a fear that may have made her a better teacher.

"I had done all the education classes, but I thought to stand up in front of a class of kids would be terrifying," she said. "And so when I have kids in my class who are terrified to speak publicly, (I) just have to let it happen slowly, but (I) have to make them do it."

Townsend, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at Craig Middle School, was named Best Middle School Teacher in 2016 for Moffat County.

As Townsend reflected on her teaching, she contemplated the way her approach to students has changed throughout the years. She started teaching at Craig Middle School in the 1992-1993 school year.

"Today I see relationships with kids as probably the most important thing," she said, and then she recalled what she described as a tendency of new teachers to tell students what they ought to do if they want to avoid failing.

"A lot of times people think by using threats like that, it's going to make kids do better," she said. "And it doesn't."

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Townsend noted the importance of helping students to think hard — and for themselves.

"You have to do simulations where they have to think," she said, and she described a unit called "Perfect Society."

For this exercise she assigns the students to create the best society they can, to share the results and, ultimately, to rate each other's societies. Townsend said she makes one, too.

"I come up with the worst society that I could possibly think of," she said. "Everybody's robotic."

Townsend said her society eliminates the right of people to believe what they want, as well the need to learn or to think. But their physical needs are met.

"They have to rate each other's societies, and they always give me a zero or a minus 10," she said.

The exercise, she explained, allows them to see the power — and value — of thinking. She said the students have, at times, created model societies that ban gay people or Muslims from membership.

"I have to let that discussion continue," she said. "I can't say, 'You can't hold that opinion,' because then they're never going to be able to have a discussion like that without being defensive."

But that's where the society she creates can help students to think. Townsend said her sample society — as an example of the most oppressive she can conjure up — does not allow for any religion.

"So then they say (to me), 'You should be able to believe what you want to,'" she explained.

It's a realization that may spark students to re-examine their own thinking.

Townsend has also taken on active roles in projects that seep outside of classroom boundaries, such as National History Day, for which students created projects exploring historical topics as part of a larger competition.

"When they get it done, they're proud of their work, and it gives them confidence in other areas," she said. "When they go up to the high school, they have not only had a performance challenge, but they've done the research and they can back up their research."

Townsend acknowledged that middle school posed unique challenges for children who find themselves in a kind of transition.

"They're trying to separate themselves, they're trying to grow up," she said. "But they're right at that in-between stage where they're still in a lot of ways a little kid and in a lot of ways reaching for adulthood."

Townsend said, too, that she's always open to growing and changing as a teacher — in the area of technology, for instance, where her tech-savvy students might be a few steps ahead of her.

"The kids will show me … and they'll laugh at me, and make fun of me," she said. "But they have to be able to see that I'm going to fail sometimes, too."

And excitement, Townsend said, is always a key part of teaching.

"You have to be excited, or they're not going to be," she said. "And then you just become that Charlie Brown teacher."

Contact Michael Neary at 970-875-1794 or mneary@CraigDailyPress.com or follow him on Twitter @CDP_Education.