When I was in the classroom I often had visitors from outside fields. Some teachers loved this and piggy backed, having the visitor come to their classroom after mine or brought their class over to visit. But some teachers didn't like visitors, citing lost learning time when the expert isn't good with kids or just the amount of time it takes compared to a lesson.
So then why use them? Is it really that valuable? Or was I just being lazy (as one teacher told me) by having other people come in and do my teaching work?
Here's my case for using visiting experts in the classroom.
1- A lot of organizations now have a person who's job is dedicated to the teaching outreach aspect of their organization. We've had visitors from the dairy council (along with her cow), a local water conservation organization, education researchers from local colleges, health care workers and even our local police department now has a designated "educator". These people specialize in working with kids and know how to keep them engaged. And as experts in their fields, they also know what information is most relevant to the child's life. The water conservation person knew kids couldn't vote, but they could turn the water off while brushing their teeth.
Down below I'll address what to do if you're not getting an education expert, but for now let's continue with why you want outside experts to begin with.
2- Students often get to use real tools or see tools in real life. Learning about wire strippers and ammeters and what electricians to do is vastly different, and less likely to be remembered, than actually stripping a wire with wire strippers or watching an electrician use an ammeter to check the current to your classroom equipment.
3- When an expert visits the teacher is usually learning something too. Surprise! We don't know everything! It's a great opportunity for students to see teachers as learners, for you to model how to appropriately ask questions, to show what it means to be a life long learner. Modeling this is invaluable.
4- It's like a mini field trip without having to go anywhere! You don't have to collect permission slips or book buses or be on top kids about paying. You enjoy a real life lesson from the comfort of your own classroom. Sometimes the information is even better than a field trip. For example, say your class goes to the zoo. There's a person there who presents an animal, maybe gives a small presentation, has time for just a few questions and then the kids are learning little bits here and there as they wander around the zoo in their groups. They learn a lot for sure. But let me tell you about my daughter.
My daughter went to the zoo in first grade. She's in 4th grade now. She remembers there were monkeys and that aardvarks were bigger than she thought they'd be. She remembers a kid misbehaving. ;) She also now remembers what most of those animals look like in real life. That's about it. But you know what, my daughter will NEVER forget the day she got to hold a baby alligator. It was three years ago as well and she still talks about it. She also still remembers quite a lot about alligators and reptiles from that presentation because she was so emotionally tied into it. That was not at the zoo. That was at school when a wild life rep from a rescue place came to her school. The kids got to hold large snakes, baby alligators, and guess the age of a desert tortoise. That was 3 years ago and those kids can still tell me the answer to just about any question I have related to reptiles.
5- With scientists specifically, kids learn how to give evidence. They see it in action. When the visiting biologist asks kids to guess what an animal eats and explain why they're thinking what they are and then kids get to see the teeth of the animal and hear about their native habitats to help further the validity of their guesses (or change their guess all together), students see how evidence is really used to drive what we learn.
6- There's a different relationship developed with your students when you share the experience from their point of view. Instead of you being on the presenting side of the memory, you are on the receiving side with them. I've been having a hard time figuring out how to explain this, but the bottom line is there is some sort of comraderie that develops when you experience learning together.
7- Students get to see a far wider range of careers. Most students don't realize there are so many branches to each job. A scientist isn't just a scient. One is a rock expert who examines every detail. One performs research that helps other scientists. One discovers new ways to generate electricity. A writer doesn't just write kids books. He/she can write magazine articles, novels, newspaper articles, travel for journalism, write cookcooks, and more. An engineer can design and test new products that will later become used across the world every day or design freeway overpasses that are safer and alleviate traffic. A doctor can be a foot doctor, a kid doctor, a researching doctor or even a teaching doctor.
So what do you do if you have a willing expert to visit your class but they are not one who specializes in working with kids? There's a lot you can do to make their experience, and your classroom experience, valuable and smooth.
-Make sure you provide all the details the visitor will need. Date, time, location, how long of a time frame they have, etc... You could even let them know your discipline policy if you think they'll feel comfortable using it. You should also tell them how many students you have so they bring the right amount of materials.
-Ask them for what they will need and make sure it's ready. Will kids need paper? Do you need to move desks out of the way before hand for a wide open space? Do they need access to water or electricity or something like that? Do you need to be able to make the room completely dark with no light at all? Also make sure they know you're available for feedback if they have an idea they want to try with the kids but they're not sure it's the right level.
-Ask your visitor for any special instructions for your kids before the speaker arrives. Do students need to be extra quiet to not scare a sensitive animal? Do they need to have questions on a certain topic prepared in advance?
-I liked to have my students wear name tags and I wrote their names on them myself to ensure the tags were large enough to read across the room. It's just a lot easier for a presenter to call a volunteer by name or pick someone to answer a question by name rather than by pointing and going through the whole "Who me?" with every person remotely near the one you're pointing at while you're saying things like "You there. In the red shirt."
-Remind students about proper behavior for a visitor before the expert ever enters the room. Always remind. Yes, they already know. Still, remind.
-Follow up with feedback. Student thank you notes are always nice. I used to make my students be specific about an item they learned to make the notes more interesting to read. (30 letters of "Thanks for coming! We love you." get boring after about 6). Also, if the expert was fabulous and has a boss at their organization, sending a note their superior about how much the class enjoyed them and how influential their presentation was is always appreciated.
What about you? Do you have any tips to add for using experts in the classroom? Is there a type of expert you think is easily available for most schools but is underutilized? Share in the comments below!