Sydney Chaffee Interview: Thoughts on OER and Equity

Image of Sydney Chaffee

By: Erika Aparaka

Sydney Chaffee, the 2017 National Teacher of the Year is a 9th grade Humanities teacher at Codman Academy Charter Public School in Dorchester, Massachusetts. In her biography for her National Teacher of the Year (NTOY) application, Sydney highlighted her work as a consultant on Expeditionary Learning (EL) Education’s curriculum design project where she collaborated with educators from across the country to write 8th grade English-Language Arts (ELA) curricula. The modules Sydney contributed became a part of EL Education’s year-long curriculum. At the time Sydney’s application was submitted, the curricula she developed had been downloaded more than 3 million times and implemented by over 1,000 schools nationwide.

Last month, Sydney took time out of her demanding NTOY schedule to share her experiences in education and her thoughts on Open Educational Resources (OER) and their value to teachers and students as a teaching and learning resource.


Q: What is your background with OER?  

A: I helped write the Unbroken and A Midsummer Night’s Dream Modules. EL put out a call for teachers to do a week long workshop to design these curricula, including how to break down/unpack common core standards. That experience helped me realize there was more to the standards. We worked in teams using the 4T strategy to write the lessons. I returned as a consultant and helped design student materials. This included explanatory documents down to daily worksheets. Those modules were received really well.


Q: What inspired you to develop an OER module?

A: OER was not a [well-known] term, but the call was a good opportunity for professional development. It was a way to build my resume and skills while staying in the classroom. I was looking for ways to grow and build as a classroom teacher, and then stayed involved because of the incredible learning experience. Afterward, I felt more confident in addressing standards. It was an investment that paid out to the school community.

Q: How do you think OER can be harnessed for increased student success?

A: As an example, we used the curricula from the Choices Program developed by Brown University over 30 years ago. The Choices curriculum helped with teaching the Haitian Revolution, a topic I was unfamiliar with. Someone had been doing the research and the work, which provided a good jumping off point. A team of people created this material to the benefit of the students. In thinking about the EL curriculum, if there’s a new teacher, who needs something to hang on to, there is the option to use the lessons as-is, but many other teachers can use it simply as a resource, suggested activities and then have the freedom to personalize that material as well. Teachers are the experts of their kids and need to be empowered to modify materials as they need for their students.


Q: What role do you see OER playing in education’s future?

A: Teachers are super connected on social media. Twitter chats harness and help new teachers navigate and identify what types of resources will be most helpful to them. Professional development is necessary to provide guidance. If we really believe teachers are experts, teachers have to be empowered to personalize [learning materials] and to prevent all of this from becoming overwhelming and help them find what they need. There is so much information all the time.


Q: How can OER increase equity?

A: Teachers know that talking about equity issues is important, but don’t always know how to start and end up not doing it. Having openly available curricular materials on equity is a good way to have that first step about equity is one thing and making it more accessible. Teacher capacity and teacher time are also important. Planning a unit for different types of learners, for example, how do you address specific needs? EL used slots to determine during lesson planning where the places are to develop different access points, helping ensure all kids have access to different points. Providing the “hand hold’ [is important] until teachers get comfortable doing it themselves.


Q: What’s next for you?

A: If the opportunity becomes available, I will continue to do curriculum design. I want to continue being a teacher and keep doing that kind of work. Next year I will go back into my own classroom and spend some time coaching other teachers and helping them design their curriculum.

*Note: Some of the interview text has been modified for clarity.

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