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Teachers College faculty recognized at national conference

December 07, 2010

Margarita Jimenez-Silva, an assistant professor in Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, was honored in October with the Higher Education Distinguished Teacher Award from the National Council for Geographic Education (NCGE). The award was presented at the organization’s annual conference in Savannah, Ga.

The award, one of the most prominent presented by NCGE, focuses on teachers who “have made extraordinary commitments to the teaching and learning of geography at the post-secondary level.”

“I consider teaching to be the most important work I do, so to be honored with such a teaching award is especially meaningful to me,” said Jimenez-Silva, who weaves geoliteracy – the integration of geography content and language arts – into the courses she teaches that prepare tomorrow’s teachers to work with a diverse audience of students, including English language learners. “I love being able to provide teachers with resources that will not only develop English learners’ language skills, but also develop their understanding about the world they live in.”

Jimenez-Silva came to ASU’s West campus in 2005 after earning her M.Ed. and Ed.D. degrees in human development and psychology from the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University. She now teaches at ASU’s West, Polytechnic and Tempe campuses. As a middle school teacher in California, she had taught math and science in a newcomer program for recent immigrants. With classrooms of young students who spoke little English, she found that geography provided a means to develop their content knowledge and English skills.

“The themes of geography – location, human-environment interaction, movement, place, regions – had personal meaning to my students and allowed me to use what they already knew as a starting point; it was a natural bridge between the knowledge they brought into the classroom and what they needed to learn.”

At ASU, Jimenez-Silva, a recipient of the West campus Environment Team’s (CET) Excellence in Diversity award in 2009, leads the effort to adapt classroom lessons for English language learners, providing her with an opportunity to turn back to geography as an effective teaching tool.

“The lessons that focused on the GeoLiteracy program have been very successful. In fact, a study conducted by several of my colleagues and me found that the reading lessons were effective in helping our diverse learners’ reading comprehension,” she said. “The integration of language arts and geography, along with the resources and adaptations we made to the lessons proved effective.”

An advisor to Kappa Delta Pi at the West, Polytechnic and Tempe campuses – a community service and honors academic organization dedicated to educational excellence – Jimenez-Silva has a simple philosophy when it comes to using geography as a classroom tool.

“It is important to me that my students learn the content we are covering and make it personally meaningful,” she said.

“If students don’t understand why it is important, then they won’t apply the ideas, the strategies and concepts to their own teaching. I want my students to care about their future students and see how vital their role as teachers is and how everyday interactions with their students can make a world of difference.

“The most important lesson I try to impart to my students is that each of them can be that individual who changes the course of a child’s life. Our role as teachers gives us great power to affect how a child sees himself or herself, positively or negatively.”

Jimenez-Silva is also part of the ASU team that was recognized by the NCGE in Savannah last month for the creation of an online virtual workshop that provides educators an opportunity to learn about teaching geography without leaving their computers. Jimenez-Silva, Professor Ron Dorn (School of Geographical Sciences & Urban Planning/College of Liberal Arts and Sciences), Associate Professor Elizabeth Hinde (Teachers College), Assistant Professor Sharon Osborn Popp (Teachers College) and Gale Ekiss, co-coordinator of the Arizona Geographic Alliance were awarded Geography Excellence in Media honors for their program, “GeoLiteracy with ELL Adaptations: A Program for Integrating Tested Language Arts Skills and Geography Content for Grades K-8.”

The virtual workshop is modeled after Arizona Geographic Alliance actual workshops and offers 10 strategies that have proven effective in the teaching of geography to diverse learners. Each segment begins with a short strategy introduction by Hinde and is followed by Jimenez-Silva, who relates the educational research that confirms the use of the strategy.  Next, Ekiss demonstrates one of the 85 GeoLiteracy lessons as an example of how to apply the strategy in teaching geography. The final portion of the workshop features an Internet link to the lesson plan and any auxiliary materials need to teach the lesson.

“GeoLiteracy is a curriculum comprised of 85 lesson plans for kindergarten through 8th grade that teach geography while reinforcing reading and writing skills,” said Hinde, who also serves as the Teachers College coordinator at ASU’s Polytechnic campus. “Geography is not simply about capitals of states and countries or maps and globes. Geography is about understanding place in the world, including cultures and physical features of the earth.

“To be recognized by the NCGE for our GeoLiteracy program is humbling and rewarding. Many people are doing great things in schools and in social studies in particular; so, when my peers, who are doing incredible things themselves, are recognized, it is just very rewarding. Geography is and always has been a crucial element of schools.”