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Upper School Science Teacher Brittany Coker is an innovator by nature, wearing many hats at Westridge from student advisor and chair of the new Westridge Global Initiative Committee, to technology mentor for other faculty members, helping integrate new learning technologies into the classroom. She has a B.S. in Biology from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, her M.Ed. in Secondary Education from Azusa Pacific University, and recently received her M.S. in Biology from Clemson University.
In this Q&A, find out more about her work at Westridge and beyond (and don’t miss the surprise twist at the end of the interview!).
Tell us about what you do at Westridge.
I teach 9th Grade Biology and Anatomy & Physiology for juniors and seniors. I’m also an 11th Grade advisor, a member of the “EdTech” (Educational Technology) team, which works with teachers on integrating technology into their classrooms, and chair of the Westridge Global Initiative Committee [Editor’s Note: The Westridge Global Initiative is a new program this year designed to provide students an opportunity for meaningful interdisciplinary study of a modern-day global issue.].
I’ve been here at Westridge in some capacity for the last 10 years. I started out in Middle School teaching 7th Grade Life Science for a few years. Then I took a break to raise my kids when they were very small, and I started doing long-term and daily substitute teaching, so I’ve pretty much been in every teacher’s classroom on campus! I subbed for Chemistry, AP Environmental Science, Biology, and 7th Grade Algebra at Westridge before I was hired back full-time in 2014.
Why did you choose Westridge?
After I left an early career job teaching at a co-ed public school, I started doing substitute work at other schools in the area. But this school always resonated. Every time I’d work at Westridge for the day, I’d come back feeling recharged and rejuvenated. The students here have a passion, and a deep curiosity. It’s something that you feed on as a teacher. I started realizing that this was the only school that I wanted to work at. Since then, I know I could work at other schools, but I don’t have any desire to, because I love these students so much. They’re quirky, they’re silly, they’re fun. They’re amazing! And every day I go home with a big smile on my face because I’m able to teach them.
You were one of the first Westridge teachers to go almost completely digital in your classes – what has that process been like and what do you see as the benefits of incorporating technology into the classroom?
Before we went paperless in my science classes a few years ago, students would lose their notebooks and feel like their life was over, because they’d taken their lab notes, tracked their data, and done everything in them.
Now we use Microsoft OneNote and I have a centralized, online class notebook. Students can put everything in their digital class notebooks and if they have questions, I can go into their notebook, see what they’re doing, and give them immediate feedback. Going digital also allows us to integrate more media into class; students will take pictures of their labs and insert data from their probes into their notebooks, and I can embed short YouTube clips into our class notebook for everyone to see. In years past, we’ve even had students create their own videos, talking us through their process.
By having the class be computer-based, we’re able to relate to a far more diverse group of students. We also live in a digital age and a lot of their content and information comes in the form of multimedia; being able to tap into that seems to be a very natural mode of learning.
Talk about the balance between using technology and doing hands-on work in science.
So, the aspects of science that we’re getting into these days almost universally require some computer understanding and knowledge. This summer I went with [Upper School Science Teacher] Dr. Ryan Skophammer to the University of Seattle with the AP Biology students for their research project [Editor’s Note: click here to find out why members of the Westridge AP Biology class went to Seattle this summer!], and we watched as most scientists were on their computers doing data analysis. That’s a lot of what science is today! So, I do think technology integration in a classroom setting really prepares students for current science practices.
That said, there’s a lot of different kinds of science; there’s the computer data analysis, and there’s also the getting-your-hands-dirty-in-the-field science, and I have a passion for both. But even field biologists take what data they’ve collected and spend the next months working on their computers.
I have such an amazing opportunity this year – I’m co-leading a Galápagos Interim trip in the Upper School. When I was at the University of Seattle, I talked to a research scientist who is a leading Galápagos penguin expert, who told me all about research on the Galápagos and how that works. She’s one of those scientists who does get her hands dirty in the field.
Tell us more about your teaching philosophy.
I think there’s joy and play in learning, and I want students to develop a love of science. I don’t believe that school has to be tedious, so I teach for a number of modalities, doing a lot of hands-on labs and keeping things light-hearted.
I personally have had amazing experiences in science and have seen firsthand how fun it is. I was a zoology major in college and I worked my way through undergrad as an exotic animal keeper and trainer at a wildlife education company. We would take these exotic animals that had been donated to us and go into schools to teach students about conservation efforts. I was a keeper for a coati and a kinkajou and a bobcat and fennec foxes... all kinds of animals! It was just a really neat, hands-on job, and I loved that fact that I could learn about and interact with the animals, and teach others about them.
In Galápagos for Interim, we’re going to see a lot of animals―iguanas and penguins and flamingos and the Galápagos finches―and learn all about them. And then we’re going to go to the Charles Darwin Research Center and talk to some scientists there. I’m so excited. As a biologist, it’s a check off the bucket list!
Can we go back to you working as an exotic animal keeper and trainer? Please tell us more about that!
I did that for almost three years. Really, when you’re working with exotic animals or any animal, it’s mostly just cleaning. But I would also do behavioral enrichment with them or do clicker training. Porcupines especially were very reward-motivated and very cuddly! We first clicker-trained them to get into their crates so we could take them to different schools. But then I started teaching the porcupines various fun things, and one of those things was to skateboard.
You taught a porcupine to skateboard? Are there pictures?
Worse. My boss thought we should go on a TV show, so... [laughs] yeah. I was on Animal Planet's Pet Star with a porcupine.
But it didn’t go well. They made me have her on a really slippery table and she just got scared and she wouldn’t do it. But at our facility, she would just get on the skateboard and go down the concrete.
Can you share the video with us?
Ha! My students keep asking me for it, and it would be great if the porcupine actually did what she was supposed to! But she didn’t. So...
So that’s a negative on the video.
Above: Student Voices Co-Representatives Oona L. '19 and Caroline P. '19 introduce the theme of the assembly.
As Upper and Middle School students filed into the first Student Voices Assembly of the school year, they were greeted with a slideshow of posters from recent blockbuster films highlighting the highest paid actor from each film, the majority of whom were white and male.
“For our first Student Voices Assembly of the year,” said Student Voices Representative Oona L. ’19, “we thought it was important to talk about representation because it is something that is applicable to everyone. I believe that diverse representation is important because it gives all of us the ability, no matter who we are or where we come from, to understand that we matter."
Caroline P. ’19, Student Voices co-representative, introduced the theme by dispelling the myth that conversations about representation in film are no longer necessary due to high profile box offices hits such as Marvel’s Black Panther, or Crazy Rich Asians. According to the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative’s study examining portrayals of gender, race/ethnicity, LGBTQ+, and disability in 1,100 major films released between 2007 and 2017, the percentage of female characters who speak in a film has barely risen in the past 10 years and 70.7% of all speaking characters have been white.
Other students went on to highlight pioneering women of color in film, including producer/screenwriter Shonda Rhimes and director Ava DuVernay, the first black woman to be Oscar-nominated for best picture and documentary feature, who students quoted by saying: “Diversity is not one in the room. Diversity is not two in the room. Diversity is not three in the room. True diversity is half the room.”
Next, a number of students shared personal experiences of seeing their culture represented in media. Paloma S. ’19 took to the podium, describing her deeply emotional reaction to watching Coco, a fantastical film centered around Día de los Muertos (“And I’m not an emotional person!” she insisted). “Growing up without seeing my culture represented in media,” Paloma said, “made me feel like my experience wasn’t important, so much so that I used to feel embarrassed to pronounce Spanish words or even my own name with a Spanish accent.” Watching Coco, she added, was one of the first times she realized that she could be proud of her culture, and that her heritage was something to be celebrated.
McKenna B. ’21 shared a personal testimony about her experience watching DuVernay’s 2018 film A Wrinkle in Time, saying that growing up as a mixed-race, half-African American female, she had often felt like she didn’t belong anywhere. Though she had always felt a kinship in spirit with Meg O’Keefe, the white, blonde main character of Madeleine L’Engle’s book by the same name, when McKenna saw Meg portrayed as a half-black girl in DuVernay’s movie, she said she felt suddenly like she was seen – like she mattered.
Above: Author Jenny Han (To All the Boys I Loved Before) is quoted saying, "Because when you see someone who looks like you, it reveals what is possible. It's not just maybe I could be an actress. It's maybe I could be an astronaut, a fighter, a president. A writer. This is why it matters who is visible. It matters a lot. And for the girls of 2018, I want more. I want the whole world."
Another student spoke on her recent experience watching Crazy Rich Asians (a comedy-drama starring an all-Asian cast), and one anonymous student’s testimonial on the film Love, Simon (a 2018 romantic comedy centering on an LGBTQ+ protagonist) was read aloud.“Inclusion is one of our school's core values,” said Elizabeth J. McGregor, head of school, “and as a community we work to advance diversity and inclusion on our campus, but the voices of our student leaders in our Student Voices groups are the most powerful, as this assembly demonstrated. All of us in the audience were able to reflect and take something away that will encourage us to look at the world in more thoughtful ways.”
It’s the week before opening night for Westridge Theatre’s first production of the year, and the costume shop is abuzz with students sewing costume pieces and making alterations for Once in a Lifetime. It is unusual for a high school to have a costume department at all, and according to Theatre Director Brandon Kruhm, Westridge’s highly developed costume program operates at a collegiate level. It provides students with opportunities to both design and construct costumes, as well as makeup, wigs, and of course, faux facial hair. Westridge offers two classes, Fundamentals of Costume Design and Costume Construction, as well as the chance to learn by working on the four theatre productions the theatre department presents each year.
Once in a Lifetime has three assistant costume designers, sophomores Ava F., Emerson L., and Samantha S. who have taken the lead in expanding Costume Designer Io Hawk’s vision for the fabulous 1920s looks in the show. The original concepts for Once in a Lifetime were sketched out by Ms. Hawk, but she is quick to explain that “even if the idea originated with me, the students are always giving input and bouncing ideas off each other. The actual construction of the costumes [of which the students do 90%] is as much a part of the design process as drawing it out. The final costumes wouldn’t look the way they do without their inut and ideas.”
Ava and Samantha, along with Ellie M. ’20 will each design costumes for two vignettes for the winter production of All in the Timing. They have been working on theatre productions for several years already, learning the technical skills of costume construction as well as the soft skills necessary to be successful costumers. They have learned to communicate and work effectively with many personalities, to quickly solve problems (so many broken zippers in the middle of shows!), and to work as part of a team towards a common goal: the success of the show.
Once in a Lifetime will be performed October 19-21 in the Fran Norris Scoble Performing Arts Center on the Westridge campus. You can purchase tickets online by clicking here.
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