Oakland Teacher Alison Ball Breathes Life into Math & Science

 

Alison Ball and her friendly classroom skeleton Photo: Oakland Voices/January 2013

Alison Ball and her friendly classroom skeleton
Photo: Oakland Voices/January 2013

By Debora Gordon

After early teaching stints in far flung locales from Ecuador and China to New York and Sunnyvale, 4th year middle school teacher Alison Ball, 29, came to Urban Promise Academy (UPA), where she is having a blast teaching seventh grade.

Aside from computation and life science, Alison is excited about Crew, a UPA program focusing on the social and emotional learning skills that are part of OUSD’s strategic plan.

“What drives my work,” Alison said, “is that it’s such a time of self discovery, with students getting to discover themselves as people, figuring out, ‘what do I stand for as a person? How can I navigate the social world that I’m in?’”

Alison helps provide opportunities for students to talk with one another about what they are studying. “What I find is that in general students will have the conversation when they have the skills to have the conversation. If sometimes there’s some goofing off, it’s because they don’t know how to have that conversation or they don’t know how to explain their thinking.” 

She uses a variety of strategies to help prepare students to talk about their thinking and how they arrive at conclusions.

“The math,” she explained, “is about the element of logic – students being able to see the logic and predictability, being able to solve problems, to ask what are my tools, beyond math, figure out possible outcomes. That element of mathematical thinking provides reasoning beyond math. Those kinds of things can be really empowering for students.”

Alison finds that the greatest reward of teaching is getting to spend time with young people. “My job never gets old, it’s never boring. There is always something that I‘m working on professionally, always new goals I’m setting.”

Although Alison did not originally set out to be a teacher, she says she tries to emulate her 3rd grade teacher Mr. Kraemer. “He had a sense of wonder in the classroom. There were always weird, gooey, crawly things around the classroom – worms and brine shrimp, and I loved the ‘ew, gross!’ factor.” She also values the high standard he had for his students.

Alison advises new teachers not to take on too much that first year, which can often backfire, she says.  She also reminds them to “breathe. At that moment, when you have a decision to make in the classroom, about how to respond to a student, that can feel really overwhelming, watching yourself making a decision, I definitely can and do breathe, on many occasions.”

Debora Gordon

About Debora Gordon
Debora Gordon is a writer, artist, educator and non-violence activist. She has been living in Oakland since 1991, moving here to become a teacher in the Oakland Unified School District. In all of these roles, Debora is interested in developing a life of the mind. “As a mere human living in these simultaneously thrilling and troubled times,” Debora says, “I try to tread lightly, live thoughtfully, teach peace, and not take myself too seriously.”

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