For most students there is one teacher who made an impact on them growing up that forever changed their lives. Jennifer Macias Morris is finding innovative ways to be that for many young students.
The Hermiston High School graduate is taking techniques from inspiring teachers who helped transform her from a shy middle school student in a new environment, and advancing them to the next level in her own teaching career.
Macias Morris, a 2007 Hermiston High School graduate, is a teacher in the Spokane Public Language Immersion program at the Libby Center, an option school through Spokane Public Schools. Children in the program spend half the day being taught in Spanish by Macias Morris and the other half in English.
“My passion is to make an impact on all students, especially underrepresented minority students similar to myself,” she said. “As a first-generation Mexican-American, I understand how adaptation can be a factor for diverse students, and I know how to integrate it into my classroom.”
Macias Morris uses different techniques to inspire her first grade students to take risks and not be afraid of failure. For her efforts, Macias Morris won the Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation Teacher Innovator Award. She was one of 10 grand prize winners in June.
She won a $1,500 Amazon gift card and a one-year subscription to inHub. It will allow Macias Morris to take trainings to help expand her techniques in the classroom, and give her access to a community of educators to learn from.
“[Winning] was amazing and a great feeling that my work is being seen,” she said. “You have to be innovative to be teaching in a different language with young students. A lot of people are happy for me and congratulating me.”
Macias Morris teaches Spanish to 50 students who are selected through a lottery where the waitlist is always long.
“I teach in Spanish in the morning and I teach social studies, Spanish language arts, math and Spanish,” she said. “Then the kids switch to a teacher in the afternoon teaching other content in English.”
One of Macias Morris’ tenets in the classroom is to teach children using the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Students vote on one of the 16 goals they want to focus on in the classroom.
“I teach the curriculum, but I also add things to it to make it more relevant,” she said. “We explore how it is used outside the classroom, and I try to get the students to understand what is happening outside their community and connect it to them.”
The students get opportunities to try computer coding, conduct a canned food drive to combat hunger or try hands-on activities like gardening.
“They get to see what they are doing is making a difference,” Macias Morris said.
The students also have projects where they get to focus on matters they want to learn about and design themselves. Success is secondary to thinking about ways to complete the project and the tools necessary to do it.
“It builds on a lot of 21st century skills students need today,” Macias Morris said. “Jobs change and you need to know how to work with others, problem solve and be empathetic.”
Planting these ideas at a young age of being willing to try things, even if success doesn’t come immediately, teaches students important life skills, Macias Morris said.
By the end of the school year, Macias Morris said students are more motivated and love to learn, especially in Spanish, because they are more confident.
Don’t expect Macias Morris to become content with her lesson plan anytime soon. The school is acquiring a 3D printer, and she already is trying to learn all she can to pass along to her students.
Progression of success
Macias Morris was born in California after her father and mother, Jose Macias and Lidia Becerril, immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico. The oldest of five children, she struggled to find a comfort level in the classroom, but a family move to Hermiston during her third grade year brought better opportunities as she blossomed in and out of the classroom.
By the time she was a senior in 2007, she was a state track champion in the 1,500 and 3,000 meters, earning a full-ride scholarship to Oregon State University.
“We were able to have a better lifestyle and do more things in Hermiston,” she said. “I wanted to dig into this and help the community.”
Macias Morris became the first person in her family to graduate high school, college and earn a master’s degree.
She would become a head teacher at a Head Start Program before spending seven months in Chile teaching English to students in first through 12th grade. A few other positions and the completion of her master’s degree helped to shape her teaching style that has earned her several other awards through the years.
“Growing up I know what I liked from the teachers I looked up to and what I didn’t like,” Macias Morris said. “It is just a mixture of those things definitely put in perspective what I wanted to do in my classroom.
“I want to get to know my students and their families inside and out of the classroom. I want to get parents involved and to feel welcome and know that we want to interact with them in a positive way.”