Faces of 501: Karin Thompson
Karin Thompson is the rainforest lab/life science teacher at Williams Science & Fine Arts Magnet. Though Thompson has worked in education for almost 28 years, her current classroom is the most unique. Her classroom is attached to a living rainforest and is full of animals such as lizards, birds, guinea pigs and a tortoise. Because of the unique learning environment, Thompson has the opportunity to teach her students about science in a special and exciting way.
Before Karin Thompson began working as a life science teacher at Williams Science & Fine Arts Magnet, she had experience working in many different facets of the education field. "I have been in education for 28 years, and most of those years have been in the classroom," said Thompson, "As a teacher, I've taught early childhood up through sixth grade, and I also did special educations for two years. I left (the classroom) for a little bit and worked as a positive behavior implementation consultant for a non-profit in Lawrence." She also worked for Scholastic as a literacy consultant for two years. "I traveled around the country and did a lot of work with supporting teachers in standard operating procedure for a classroom so that they were able to use the Scholastic products more effectively."
Thomspon believes that the life science classrooms that are housed at Williams are important to students' learning because they offer opportunities and experiences they may not have had outside of school. "This is probably the most unique classroom I have ever seen," Thompson explaied, "I've been all over the country working in classrooms, so I think I can say that with confidence."
Thompson has been working at Williams Science & Fine Arts Magnet since May of 2018. She has worked as a teacher for Topeka Public Schools for three years, and when she was invited to work in the rainforest lab at Williams, she was thrilled. "I was attracted to it because it was an experience that any kid could benefit from; they don't get life experiences like a tortoise crawling across their feet or a bearded dragon sitting on their shoulder. Animals are expensive, and their maintenance is expensive, so a lot of our kids don't get that opportunity."
The unique and lively environment is also what interested Thompson in this type of classroom. When speaking about the impact it has on students learning, she said, "There is also a lot of room for imagination and creativity here. Kyrsten, our principal, has been so supportive of letting our kids extend beyond things that they normally would be doing. A good example of that is that all of the students, from preschool through fifth grade, use tools - hammers, hand drills, screws, nails - they use all of those materials."
Her students range from all grade levels, but she believes that the skills they learn aren't dependent on age. She continually challenges her students to try new things and work through their frustration if a project isn't going as planned. "There is nothing more satisfying than building something that was inside your head, taking that design, putting it on paper and actually creating it," Thomspon said, "and also, going through some of those struggles and failures of when it doesn't turn out quite the way you want it to. So, a classroom like this gives so many opportunities to teach social skills as well."
Thompson believes that there are a variety of skills that can be taught in her classroom other than science. Students work daily with live plants and animals and learn how to care for each of their unique needs. Thompson explained why she believes working with live animals has such an impact on students. "We live in a society that expects things to come to us, either through the quickness of the internet or with free things here and there, and we've kind of forgotten how to empower the kids to give back. And one of the things that I love in here is that these animals are 100 percent dependent on us for everything. So, if you choose not to do one of your jobs, it could mean one of these animals goes hungry. If you don't watch where you're walking, a tail could get stepped on. It helps them (the students) to have that awareness of how important their impact can be on a bird or even the crickets."
Thompson gave an example of how her students behavior changed as they learned how to care and work with different types of creatures in their classroom. "Crickets escape all the time. I have 1,500 of them come every other Wednesday, and inevitably some of them escape." She explained, "The dynamic has changed so much, because at first the kids were scared or they would immediately run and squash it. But now, because they are in this living classroom, they will say, 'oh, there's a cricket, let me go get that.' And they will pick it up and put it back in the rainforest or one of the cages." Even though her class uses the crickets as food for the other animals, she teaches her students to treat them humanely.
While Thompson has had an experienced career in education, she also believes that a teacher's life experiences can impact the way that they teach, and that they should strive to make school a positive experience for their students. A few weeks ago, she had an opportunity to visit Chicago, and decided to spend some time at the aquarium. She signed up to be a part of a behind-the-scenes tour with the penguin exhibit. Unexpectedly, she was the only person on the tour that day and had a one-on-one experience with the trainer and tour guide. Thompson explained that this experience taught her more than just facts about penguins, but also gave her insight on the type of impact she has on her students. She explained, "When you are visiting with these animals, they are captive, but they are not domesticated. The trainer tells you when you can pet it, and when not to pet it. She also tells you where you can pet it and how to do it. I asked her, 'Why is this happening? Why are you doing that?' And she said, 'Every experience for these animals has to start on a positive and end on a positive. That way they will want to come in here and work with you, and when it's time to leave, it has been a positive experience for them so they will want to return.' And I thought about that, and I thought that's exactly what teaching should be." Thompson believes teachers have the responsibility to create a safe and positive environment for their students to learn, which in turn will create a more cooperative environment for the teacher. "Every day is not the best," she said, "but when the students come in here, they need to start on a positive and do everything in our power to end on a positive, so that the next day I have a much higher chance of having cooperation and being able to teach them. And I thought, my gosh, if we can do it for a penguin, more of us need to make sure we are doing it for these kids. That's what I would encourage teachers to do. Start looking at what you can do differently to change your classroom and make it work."
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