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Online Exclusive - Posted December 18, 2012 4:54 p.m.
photos courtesy of Mark Williams
Mark Williams, an English, Speech and Multimedia teacher at North Heights Alternative School, has recently been named runner up for the prestigious Brock International Prize in Education.

Modern Teaching

Local alternative education teacher recognized by prestigious international prize for innovative, creative methods in the classroom

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Filling out standard worksheets, memorizing the periodic table, reciting the Bill of Rights in front of your classmates, watching them nod off at their desks – sounds like a stereotypical portrait of a classroom, right?

Mark Williams, an English, Speech and Multimedia teacher at North Heights Alternative School, would wholeheartedly disagree. In regard to his innovative teaching methods and forward thinking, Mark was recently named runner up for the prestigious 2013 Brock International Prize in Education. Usually claimed by highly regarded university professors and well-renowned educational reformers, academics such as Dr. Robert Marzano, cofounder and CEO of Marzano Research Laboratory, or Dr. Howard Gardner, a developmental psychologist and Harvard University professor, Mark is the first alternative educator and the first everyday teacher to be nominated in the prize’s history.

For a high school teacher at an alternative school situated in a city of less than 200,000 people, to even be nominated for this award is no small feat, stresses Stacey Harris, AISD Director of Content, Support and Instruction. Only nine people are nominated worldwide each year.

“We’re talking people who are theorists in our field, who speak to Congress, who really have power and influence on a national and international stage,” Stacey says. “And then, we have Mark, who because of his work here in Amarillo, Texas, this little place, a little pond, he is nominated for such a position. It is an immense honor to even be nominated and it is almost beyond anyone’s dreams here.”

Mark’s colleagues and students submitted a video to one of the prize jurors, Lori Lamb, urging her to nominate him for his experimental, and thriving, methods in the classroom. One for example, is the collaborative student project producing the Amarillo Tourism iPad app with the Chamber of Commerce, the first professional app designed by high school students in the United States. Mark is humble, and while he is proud of his recognition among the world’s most influential minds, it’s his job rather than this honor that validates his teachings. He loves his students, and he forges relationships with them that last beyond graduation day. They are “learning partners for life.”

“It’s not about the award because I feel validated day to day,” exclaims Mark, who has authored numerous books and iPad apps. “I feel validated for small things, not because someone makes a good grade, but because someone overcomes a struggle, or learns a new skill or understands a concept. I think for all my colleagues, for our staff and administrators, there is a certain sense of accomplishment with what we’ve been doing. We’re experimental here! And other people are recognizing that what we’re doing is working.”

Mark teaches what most people would pigeonhole as “at-risk” students. North Heights is a school of privilege, he insists, and students must apply to be accepted into the school. Alternative programs have been marred with the reputation of teaching students with behavioral problems but that’s not the case at North Heights. Many of Mark’s students are parents and live alone, having overcome challenges, struggles and misperceptions Mark never encountered growing up. They are treated like adults because they are.

“There are not many programs for alternative education that stand out right now,” says Mark, whose students are the first to produce a regular news-blog for their school district, “and I hope the exposure with the Brock Prize will facilitate that.”

Mark was 40 years old when he came to North Heights. Prior to that, he taught at Amarillo College and Texas A&M University, and since he was a child, he recalls a disenchantment with the education system, much like many of his students today. Mark, who says he was an at-risk student throughout high school and college, teaches the way he would want to be taught. His ideas were met with resistance at first, but he continued to persist and move forward with his students because it felt right.

“They are me,” he professes.

Withstanding a period of hesitance from his fellow teachers and administrators, Mark’s system is now commended, and his modern approach isn’t just impacting students and teachers at North Heights.

“Our only model is how we were taught so we march back in as a new teacher and we line up those desks and stand in front and we start imparting knowledge,” Stacey explains. “Well Mark doesn’t do that. Mark changes the paradigm for us. And many other teachers in Amarillo are doing that, too.”

Mark’s method is what he calls “creative disobedience,” meaning he wants his students to understand that answers are not limited to right and wrong. He encourages his students to be open to and accept failure, because unless they fail, they never tried, and if they never try, then they won’t succeed. He wants them to ask questions and break the rules. He’s the person who believes you should ask for forgiveness, and not for permission.

“I want them to find unique learning,” says Mark, whose student-created series of award-winning PSAs about digital citizenship and internet permanency, won the best school campaign in Texas. “I want them to capitalize on their unique backgrounds. I want them to create and innovate.”

Students at North Heights, who dropped out of high school, who were expelled for cutting class, who would rather doodle in their notebooks and doze off than intently listen to an instructor, have embraced Mark’s teaching techniques and look forward to attending class every day. Mark realizes his students won’t learn from him reciting monotonous passages from a book, or demanding they memorize mathematical equations; they can find every fact and figure with a tap or swipe of their finger on a smart phone or iPad. Students need to be digitally fit in this day and age, he insists.

“He teaches students in 2012, for a life in 2012,” says Stacey, a former school principal. “Mark has figured out within four walls that still have the traditional desks… He’s figured out how not be limited by that. He’s figured out how to truly individualize instruction, so that every kid is heard. Every kid’s strengths and weaknesses are built upon and also erased. Weaknesses are erased and turned into strengths in Mark’s room.”

Mark predicts more alternative education programs will follow in North Heights’ footsteps, not just in this area, but all around the country. Since he began teaching, he has witnessed a movement that revolves around student-centered learning. Not all students are compliant, guessing what circle to fill in on their true-or-false pop quiz, when they know they can easily look up the answer on the Internet.

“These kids are much more informed when they come to school than we ever were,” he declares. “They are much more intuitive toward technology. They come with a set of skills and background knowledge that we never came with. They won’t memorize. They have Google!”

Mark says rigor, relevance and relationships maintain a student’s focus, and provide them with a lasting drive they will carry with them after high school. In his small-classroom setting of five to 10 students, Mark takes note of when students reveal their interests and finds a relevant form of teaching, ultimately building a relationship with his students based on respect and gratitude. And every day, those students thank Mark and reciprocate his passion by equally motivating and challenging him with their questions and ideas.

“If you find relevance with these students and you build relationships, they do not want to disappoint you. And they don’t want to disappoint themselves,” he adds.

Mark’s thinking is the way to move forward in education, Stacey agrees. Young adults and even children are so globally aware, and Mark’s system is the catalyst vital to the future of learning.

“It serves us to think like Mark is thinking,” Stacey concludes. “He really is a hero in our field.”

by Drew Belle Zerby

After graduating from LSU in 2009, Drew Belle worked as a page designer in north Louisiana until moving to Amarillo and joining AGN Media in late 2010. In her spare time, she loves to read, travel and spout out useless movie trivia.
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