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Transforming Education: Tenth in a series

TRANSFORMING EDUCATION TODAY
(Tenth in a Series of Interviews with Education Leaders)
Featuring Hollee Freeman,

Education Reform Innovator

Note from Chuck Cascio: Given the difficult issues facing educators today in the USA, I have been running a series in which I contact established educators and request their insights, in their own words, on a number of vitally important education issues. Readers who would like to comment on the views expressed may email me at chuckwrites@yahoo.com. My Twitter handle is @ChuckCascio. Not all comments will be responded to by me and/or the individuals interviewed, but all will be read and, if appropriate, forwarded to others engaged in meaningful education reform. I am pleased to present as the tenth interview in this series the views of dynamic education reform innovator Hollee Freeman, whose profile follows:

     Hollee Freeman, PhD, is a career educator specializing in Science Technology Education and Mathematics (STEM), equity, and educational access. Hollee is the Executive Director of the MathScience Innovation Center in Richmond, VA, where she combines her love of STEM content with curriculum development and hands-on programming for students and adults. 

     Hollee owns and operates Freeman Educational & Business Consulting where she provides writing services for individuals and businesses. She also conducts creative writing classes, book studies, and more. Hollee has authored numerous professional book chapters and articles focused on educational reform, teaching, gender equity and STEM. Hollee is a self-published author of a children’s book entitled Muddy Ballerinas (available in English and Spanish). Her just-published books, Muddy Ballerinas and the Big Bowling Party and Beekeeping Besties--An Apiary Adventure, are available on Amazon and at https://holleefreeman.com

     A hobbyist photographer who specializes in nature-based images, Hollee has shared her photography in art shows and cafes including: The Nutty Buttery Café, ArtWorks, Rigby's Jig, and The Broad.  Hollee is also a beekeeper, cyclist, and voracious reader. She dances with Claves Unidos and volunteers on several the community boards of several organizations including ArtSpace, Bridge Park, The Richmond Public Library, and The Innerwork Center.

     You can learn more about Hollee by watching her TEDx talk (https://youtu.be/ZEi03HojVi8) and by visiting her website https://holleefreeman.com/.

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>>>Recalling your own life as a student, going back as far as you would like, what do you remember as the most positive and most negative educational influences for you personally?

     I remember spending a lot of time on my grandparents’ farm in Prince George, Virginia. I really came to

know the value of farming but also the value of environmental education and nature. I learned how to make

things grow and how to take care of flowers, fruit, vegetables, and animals. I learned to look closely at weather

 patterns, temperature and goings-on in nature.

      I have carried this love of science and math and a deep connection to nature with me for my whole life. I also vividly remember fishing, doing artwork, and making wallets and belts out of leather.  These experiences all contributed to my love of learning and creating, and I work hard to create spaces for students to have similar experiences as well. 

     When I was in high school, I really learned the value of being a leader and engaging in independent and self-sustaining learning experiences. I'll never forget doing research for a class on African-American poets; my teacher accepted my proposal and developed a full-fledged class that was added to our repertoire! 

     As a high school student, I also took classes at the Math & Science Center, where I am now the Executive Director. These classes were built on a deep exploration of math and science ideas and learning in community (our own Math & Science community and the community at large). The classes had a deep and profound impact on the kind of educator that I am to this day. 

     The only difficult learning experience that I had during my formal educational experience was when I went to Columbia University. Coming from a very progressive high school and simply seeing the university’s architecture (Lowe Library in particular, filled with names of authors of the so-called great works) on the frieze was enough to throw me into full-blown imposter syndrome. I knew how to learn but I did not enter Columbia with the requisite knowledge that many other students had in high school regarding the "great works" as well as how to navigate a hierarchical way of working and being.  I made my way through close friendships, tutoring to “catch up” and independent learning, but it wasn’t until I started my Masters degree at Bank Street (and doctorate at Boston College) that I really felt like my learning style and way of working was valued again. 

     I continue to be a learner and engage in activities where I learn something new and also where I can create space for students and adults to explore their connection to the world, to each other, and to themselves. 

>>>Can you identify an educator (or educators) who provided you with uniquely positive insights into subject matter as well as teaching style? If so, please explain what made them unique.

     Fortunately, I started interning at the Columbia Greenhouse Nursery School and then was offered my first teaching job by Julie Diamond at the Westside Community School (a progressive school within a school in NYC). These experiences on-boarded me to the academic (and more technical) aspect of the learning style and philosophy that I learned with my dad and in other earlier learning experiences. 

      I remember sitting down and going over my curriculum unit with Leslie Alexander, Director of the Muscota New School (NYC) where I worked as an elementary classroom teacher. While talking about my ideas for my science curriculum, she continued to ask me questions about reading, art, music, culture, etc. that I could incorporate. This conversation gave me pause and made me think more deeply about making cross-curricular connections for myself and for students. 

     While at Muscota, I was part of the North Dakota Study Group and the Prospect Center for Education and Research. These experiences provided a diversity of thought around educational issues and also demanded that we observe student work closely and to work from an asset model rather than a deficit model of understanding students, what they think and how they orient themselves to learning. 

     I have had a whole lineup of amazing educators who have been role models, mentors and colleagues. I have worked at the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the Technical Education Research Center, the Boston Teacher Residency, and consulted/led learning experiences in public, private, rural, suburban and urban schools across the United States. Each of these experiences added more specific and unique tools to my toolbox while affirming my role and stance as a progressive educator. 

>>>Identify a couple of accomplishments that you and/or members of your school and/or organization achieved that you feel have had a lasting impact on education.

     When I was preparing for an interview with the Math/Science Innovation Center, I decided to call the organization to see if I could get a tour. I did not share that I was an interviewee. I simply asked if I could have a tour to get a better idea of the programming and space. I was told that a tour was not possible since I was not a member of the consortium. So I elected to drive by a few times to take a look (from the outside) at how and who was using the space. 

     I was awarded the job as Executive Director a few weeks later, and I vowed to myself and the Governing Board that the conversation I had about a tour would never happen again for ANY member of the community—not the consortium, but the community because I believed that this regional STEM center should be open and available to all. 

     During my 10-year tenure at the Math/Science Innovation Center, the team and I increased the number of Black and Latino students who had access to the programming and other (vast) resources that the Center offers. We created satellite centers in communities that were further away in order to mitigate the issue of transportation to put STEM programming in their own neighborhoods. This included libraries and schools. We created programming delivered in Spanish and partnered with HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges & Universities) to create a pipeline of STEM students in undergraduate education and careers.  We partnered with Career and Technical Education Centers, NASCAR, and other organizations to create a space for learning that did not necessarily explicitly exist for all students in the region. 

     To do this work required developing trusted partnerships and raising capital. I was hard at work on a grant to provide access for 200 K-12 students in an under-resourced town in Central Virginia to participate in our summer programs held at a local community college. When I was notified of the grant award, I rushed to my secret spot (my bathroom) and cried. I was so overwhelmed with joy that these Black, Indigenous, and People of Color(BIPOC) students, in particular, would have access to robust, engaging STEM programming, where they otherwise would not. 

     During the program, I remember seeing a White student from a rural town and a Black student from the city lying on the floor, side-by-side working on a rocket project. It was not just the project that stopped me in my tracks but the fact that they were talking about lots of other topics as well. I thought to myself, were it not for this program, right here at this time, these students, and other students like them, might never have met. Furthermore, they would not have had an opportunity to get to know each other. As we talk about multicultural, multi-talented teams in the workplace, experiences like this will get us there and make our products better, our work places better, our humanity stronger. 

>>>What do you see as the major challenges in education today?

     I see the major challenge in education today as being the extreme dichotomy that communities have regarding access to educational resources. This dichotomy has always existed. However, the issue has been made more clear with the onset of the pandemic when we saw which families had the resources to mobilize learning pods for their neighborhoods and which families did not. Consequently, this severe difference in educational access to resources has also shown the very present through-line concerning the connection between chasms in technology access, use of time, health and wellness, transportation and workforce issues, to name a few. 
>>>
Has the remote learning that started as a result of the pandemic become entrenched as a new direction that education will take and, if so, could it have a positive impact?

     I’m not convinced that remote learning will become entrenched as a new direction for education. Remote learning may be more readily offered post-pandemic, but I hesitate to say that it will be a long-term, viable modus operandi for K-8 education. While, I know that remote learning provides a type of ease for some students who perform better and are more comfortable using remote learning platforms, it leaves many students in an untenable situation. 

     A large part of schooling is socialization. That is greatly diminished through remote learning. In my own experience teaching remotely, there is a different (and for me, unwelcomed) part of teaching in which you are interacting with blank or black squares rather than students' own faces. Moreover, even when all students are “video-on,” the level of interaction is stunted. It is more difficult to use body language to convey information and working in cooperative groups just isn’t the same. Technically, remote learning allows instructors and teachers to convey information but the adaptive portion of teaching is not (and cannot be) built into remote learning platforms. 

     All of this is to say that, yes, remote learning has provided positive impact and outcomes for some students. However, many students have been negatively impacted given the lack of in-person support that instructors and other faculty in schools provide. I think that most teachers and students want to return to in-person schooling. I, for one, do so as well. 

Copyright: Chuck Cascio and Hollee Freeman; all rights reserved

Your thoughts are always welcome; please send to chuckwrites@yahoo.com