A Professional At Work

First I want to tell you about a terrific teacher–and then invite you to watch her at work. When I met Maria Eby, she was wearing a fluorescent green wig and was dressed all in green. As she passed me, I smiled and said something like “You’re either early for Halloween or late for St. Patrick’s Day.” She smiled and said something that I didn’t catch, but it didn’t matter. After all, we were filming in an arts-oriented elementary school, so it was perfectly logical that an arts teacher would appear in a weird costume.

As it happened, the film crew, producer Cat McGrath and I walked into Mrs. Eby’s class shortly afterwards, just as she was telling the first-graders that it was time to hear the story of Jack and the Beanstalk from the point of view of the Beanstalk. The light bulb went on in my head: She was the Beanstalk!

As you will see in the video, once she got into that role, she inhabited it. Not only did she explore the characters and elements of the story from the Beanstalk’s perspective, she also, as a representative of all plants, demanded to know from the kids what plants contribute to the world. The first graders knew the answers: oxygen, food and shade. Before long she invited students to join in the drama by playing other parts: the ogre, Jack and so forth, and they got into and stayed in their roles.

At one point I whispered to Cat that this woman was a terrific arts teacher. “No,” Cat whispered back, “She’s a regular first grade teacher.” Oh, wow…..

I asked Mrs. Eby to tell me how she came up with this approach. Here’s her response: “You look at your objectives for the upcoming week and you say, OK, I need to cover this, this this and this. (you ask yourself) what is the best way I can do this? What’s going to be engaging? What integrates more than one of the things at a time?”

Me: So you sat home and thought and thought, ‘I’m going to figure out a way to teach science, higher level thinking, literacy.’ Did you just dream this thing up?
Maria Eby: You kind of start at the end. You start off with what you want to accomplish and then you decide what is the best way to accomplish that, and which part of the arts can I bring into this to meet the needs of the goals and the objectives of my kids.

In other words, no one told Mrs. Eby how to get across the concepts of photosynthesis and role-playing and empathy. She’s trusted to be a the professional that she is. What a concept!

The teachers in her school, the Charles R. Bugg Creative Arts and Science A+ Magnet Elementary school in Raleigh, North Carolina, work together on curriculum, doing their best to integrate the arts into all aspects of learning. (You will see more of the school on the NewsHour soon.)

My favorite moment in the entire class was when one student said she did not want to take a role in the play because….well, you really have to see that play out, especially Mrs. Eby’s response.

Please watch this edited version of her class below (or click here.)

Maria Eby, 1st Grade Teacher, Charles R. Bugg Creative Arts and Science A+ Magnet Elementary
For 20 years Maria Eby worked in Michigan as a graphic arts designer in a company she ran with her husband. Feeling a need for a change after her 2 boys started school, she became a teacher’s assistant and eventually earned a teaching certification through Saginaw Valley State University. In 2008, when Michigan’s economy crashed, she looked for jobs in other, warmer, states. Because North Carolina and Michigan have reciprocal licenses and Wake County was recruiting, she found it an easy transition to move her family to Raleigh. Mrs. Eby took her first teaching position in her early 40s and over the past 6 years has had the opportunity to teach 1st, 3rd, 4th and 5th grade. A self proclaimed “life-long learner” Mrs. Eby is currently in the process of obtaining her Masters degree in arts integration at Lesley University. This year, in addition to Jack and the Beanstalk, Mrs. Eby has integrated Theatre Arts into teaching her 1st grade class The Three Little Pigs and the The Three Billy Goat’s Gruff. Although she enjoyed dressing up as a pig and a troll, she says the beanstalk has been her favorite role because it is a unique perspective to think about how the beanstalk might have felt.

19 thoughts on “A Professional At Work

  1. I’m delighted Learning Matters has highlighted arts integration. Like Maria, there are Lesley University ITA (Integrated Teaching through the Arts) M.Ed students across the country doing some version of what she is doing. AND students thrive in that environment. ALL students. And test scores go up, behavioral problems go down, and children learn in an environment that makes learning relevant and creative. I would only add to Maria’s comments that I know from experience that this works for teachers K-12. Any student, of any age, needs to be engaged to learn. Thanks for doing this piece.


  2. I am so thrilled to see this video and drama and critical literacy in action. I teach Drama and have witnessed teachers and youth across the country transforming curriculum and community in the classroom and outside the classroom through the arts. it is heartwarming to see this wonderful teacher highlighted.
    I have seen all ages use the arts successfully, and in this case drama, and with solid outcomes for learning. Thanks for doing this video for Learning Matters and believe me the “arts” matter in learning!


      • I have posted this on FB on my personal account and on the Gilbert Highet Society page. Highet, as you know was one of the greatest teachers of the 20th century as well as being a popular radio show host and autor.


  3. Maria is one of many great teachers at Bugg Elementary, a school who has worked hard for 18 years to bring students arts-infused, creative and rigorous learning experiences as a part of the A+ Schools Network! Great lesson, Maria! Keep up the great work, Bugg Elementary!


  4. This is a great story about effective teaching and learning. Mrs. Eby talks about invoking an emotional response in order to make lessons meaningful, and she gets at it through the arts, drama in this case. Those students will remember a long time the story of beanstalk, the motivation of the characters and the role of plantlife in our society, on our planet. Encore! Thanks for posting.


  5. This is fabulous!
    Thank you for doing this story. In my years of teaching I have seen teachers and students transformed through the arts. The arts are such a powerful teaching tool. Integrating the arts across the curriculum can make a difference in the lives of students and in the educational landscape. The video is a wonderful example of how you can engage and teach your students in ways they will always remember.
    This does need to go viral!


  6. I’m so excited to see this story! It’s always rewarding when you know the subject of the article as well as the content being discussed.

    Eby (as she refers to herself) is a wonderfully reflective and senstive educator. It was my pleasure to teach her, along with others when opening the Raleigh cohort. Indeed, we need to have more of these kinds of stories coming from the lens of practitioners who persist in their commitment and dedication to arts integrated teaching.

    Feels great to see such a great exemplary method of conecting core curriculum to the arts!


  7. Thank you for posting this story. It was enjoyable to see the students connecting through the arts – and their teacher is an imaginative and engaging professional. The arts can wake up the curriculum, and help all learners to engage. Arts integration is a multi-faceted approach to teaching effectively – through all grade levels.


    • I hope you will be watching for the full story on the PBS NewsHour coming up pretty soon. The full picture is very important for Americans to understand. Thanks


      • Yes, I agree entirely. John Merrow is an honest and insightful reporter of American schools, their virtues and their flaws.


  8. I am going to immediately post this to my graduate students (prospective teachers) who are doing their first arts-integrated presentations in class next week. These are the kinds of outcomes we want from all our teachers and for all our children. When I ask students to recall their best school experiences, they talk about teachers who brought subjects alive, let them participate in their own learning, and respected them as individuals. These children will not forget this lesson or this teacher!


  9. “You kind of start at the end. You start off with what you want to accomplish and then you decide what is the best way to accomplish that”

    This statement resonates to my core.

    Such a passionate teacher!


    • But she is not unique, not by a long shot. Please do all you can to see that millions watch her at work. The rest of us need to work to ENABLE teachers to work this way. It’s not enough to go after the teacher-bashers.


      • teacher bashers are a bore; they are akin to armchair generals. My personal rule is to pay little attention to any reformer who has not spent at least 3-5 years in the classroom. One can learn from many perspectives, of course. But one must always consider the source. I value, for example, the opinion of multilingual teachers when it comes to foreign language teaching and ESL/ELD. But why should I value the opinion of someone who has difficulty in reading, writing and expressing himself in English-only? If I want to learn about AP Spanish I talk to college professors and other high school AP Spanish teachers as well as other foreign language teachers. Since ESL/ELD is related to English and Foreign language teaching such teachers also provide interesting material and perspectives. Frontline soldiers and Marines do not admire Pogey-bait Pomey Officers -that is to say ivory tower rear-echelon types. Classroom teachers just shrug at politicians and “reformers” (destroyers is more like it) pontificate about reforming k-8 and k-12 public education. The American people do not want our public school system destroyed or dismantled. They want it protected and, where necessary, reformed for the common good. The average American knows that public schools, community colleges and public colleges are his or her only hope for an education. I have nothing against home schooling per se; I believe ALL STUDENTS should be actively home schooled even if they are enrolled in public schools. We home schooled all our children in 1) Spanish 2) English 3) the Bible and religion 4) classical literature 5) classical and traditional music 6) art, culture and history. We encouraged our children to be good students but we always emphasized the point that education is an open-ended process. When one finished high school, for example, one is just at the start of knowledge. Our children were all AP scholars but were taught to have humility that even though they had 5’s in AP Spanish literature, AP English, AP US history, AP European history, AP Environmental Science, AP Calculus, AP Spanish they were just at the beginning of knowledge and the acquisition of “sophia” (true wisdom) and “prudence” (practical wisdom or understanding that can be achieve only by experience). Non datur saltus in historia humanitas (Propertius); “there are no leaps in the history or inquires of the humanities.” I am not a music teacher or an arts teacher but i try to integrate the best of music and art in my English and history classes because “unculture” (apaideusia) has tragic results for youth who remain ignorant of the limits of art and the greatest goods in life which are not materialist possessions. Yes, schools must cultivate the intellect but not neglect the formation of character. Yes, schools must help the youth develop judgment but also should encourage delight in art, music and things worthy of contemplation. How sad is the man or woman without a moral compass and without experience in the things wonderful and beautiful. How said the people who do not value their splendid ancient heritage. One doubts a people can long remain a people -a united people- without any sense of a common culture, a common history and a common future. Before the 20th century not a single one of my ancestors was American nor could they speak English; I am not ashamed to say they came from the lowest and most ignorant social strata of their native Isles. Yes, fortunately, for me they were not without a strong heritage of faith and a native culture which valued practical wisdom, music, song, poetry and language learning. And I can never forget for a minute that I am the son of my parents -each of whom was the first person in their family EVER to graduate from high school. Everything they were and everything I am I owe to America’s public schools. If we abandon the model of universal free public education we also will abandon any hope for a happy, prosperous and united America in the future.


  10. It’s such a pleasure to see this story and the accompanying video clips of Ms. Eby engaging the students in her classroom. She worked on this fascinating idea for a lesson in one of the courses in the Creative Arts in Learning master’s degree program at Lesley University, Drama and Critical Literacy. As the instructor for the course, the other teachers taking the class and I had the advantage of seeing Ms. Eby rehearse the monologue in her “stylish” beanstalk costume. The invitation to her students to interact with the beanstalk character as other characters from the story (in costume) was inspired! All of the teachers in the course created lessons that use drama as a tool for asking students to think more deeply about the ideas offered in the texts they read. As other commenters have noted here, arts-based instructional strategies have the potential to revolutionize the classroom experience for children (and their teachers).


  11. What a delight! Maria Eby’s students are indeed fortunate to be taught by her. I am currently teaching a course in CULTURAL HISTORY THROUGH STORYTELLING to teachers in Charleston, South Carolina. I have forwarded this link to my students and have encouraged them to watch it. It’s an inspiring example of using storytelling to teach state standards. Ms Eby’s costume certainly adds pizazz to her storytelling, but it’s important to remember that telling stories to students, even without costumes or props, is a powerful tool for learning. TELLING (as opposed to READING) stories to students engages students’ imaginations and allows students to create their own powerful mental images. And maintaining eye contact while telling students a story not only helps students stay connected to the content, but also is a useful management strategy! Whether it is a familiar folk tale, a biography of an important person, a historical story about an event, or a spur-of-the-moment anecdote about the teacher’s own experience shared to make a point, a story told to students sticks with them. It only takes a few minutes to learn a short story–a familiar fable such as The Lion and the Mouse, for example–and teachers who have taken the plunge and tried storytelling to their students are amazed to discover how easy, and how powerful, storytelling is. If you are lucky enough to be a teacher of students of any age, from pre-school through adult, I encourage you to try storyTELLING today!


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