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Fast Start: Seeing beyond the classroom

Rochester Business Journal
November 23, 2012

The passion Kelly Knickerbocker brings to her job as a teacher very nearly sent her to law school.
As a high-schooler in Mahopac, Putnam County, Knickerbocker went behind the scenes in Congress and participated in other accelerated programs for high achievers. She cared deeply about issues of social justice.
But she didn't have the stamina for ferocious legal debates and cut-throat politics.
"I get very emotionally invested," she says. "When I was 17, it was very hard for me to keep my emotions in check. Politics are personal."
Instead Knickerbocker, who today teaches at Cobblestone School, followed another interest that was unfolding at the same time: working with children. As a senior she taught elementary students in her school through an experiential learning program. On her first day she made 20 mistakes-"a disaster," she says-but felt at home.
"Basically I'm always working with kids. It's been something that's very natural for me. I'm just very interested in what they have to say," says Knickerbocker, 28. "They're very honest, they're very straightforward, and they're very curious. And they cause me to be. I think it makes me a better person overall to be around kids."
At Cobblestone, a school for children ages 4 to 12, Knickerbocker teaches 11 fifth- and sixth-graders. Small class sizes make it easier to tap the natural inquisitiveness and creativity of each student, she says. While course work covers learning standards set by the state, teachers weave in plenty of student interests to boost their engagement with the material.
"Students bring their own interests to the classroom," she says. "When their experiences are memorable, they start making connections between those experiences, which helps them learn."
Her students this year are interested in fantasy stories, so Knickerbocker fashioned a yearlong project for them to write their own. They began by creating maps of their fantasy lands, a kind of visual aid for what they'll be writing about. Now they are writing travelogues that describe places on the map. By the end of the year they will have created their own books.
In the process her students learn map skills and historical references; read stories, poems and books that inspire their own fantasy lands; practice measurements and use math to compute travel times between destinations on their maps; and use computer technology to produce the book. For service learning they will work with staff at the Rochester Regional Community Design Center to explore neighborhoods and cities, from architectural details to road systems. And students will make three-dimensional models of their lands.
"You can see how it all kind of intertwines and weaves together. This is what I mean about a deeper kind of learning," she says.
Knickerbocker enjoys the moment when a student understands something for the first time.
"It's immediately rewarding. I don't think there's another kind of profession that could give me that kind of instant gratification," she says.
Active in theater and music growing up, Knickerbocker first planned to teach high school English and dramatic arts. But after a year at Albright College in Pennsylvania, she felt pulled to teach littler ones and transferred to SUNY College at Geneseo. There she earned a B.S. in childhood education and an M.S. in education and literacy.
Her first job was teaching fifth- and sixth-graders at Cobblestone. But when the little school had to downsize staff the following year, Knickerbocker lost her job and took a long-term substitute position in Mount Morris. She learned how public schools operate and enjoyed her colleagues, but as a substitute she couldn't put her own stamp on the curriculum.
When Cobblestone called the following year, she gladly returned to teach seventh and eighth grades. Since 2010 she has taught fifth and sixth grades.
Knickerbocker, who moved frequently when she was young after her parents divorced, found an early knack for helping students navigate social situations. She remembers the awkwardness of middle school-the teasing, the growth spurts, the alliances that were formed-and grabs teachable moments when they arise.
"It's fun to be a kid in some ways, ... but in reality you don't really want to be back there. There's all kinds of social issues, and you don't know how to talk to people, and everything makes you nervous."
Knickerbocker gives her preteens the space to work through the crazy feelings that bubble up.
"My students talk about social issues and how to handle them, and we all take that time to understand how to react to people when they frustrate us," she says. "I love that part of my job. It's really rewarding, because then I see them using those skills. And I'm constantly addressing them, constantly."
Knickerbocker-who describes her personality as Type A-tells her students that making mistakes is not only OK but an opportunity to learn.
"We are not perfect. We are just trying our hardest to get as close as we can to that. That's an important life lesson for kids going into their teen years," she says.
As a community, Cobblestone faculty and staff have been going through a trial of their own. Last year the school faced the possibility of closure due to lack of funds. Faculty, parents and others rallied to raise enough money to continue through this year. Fundraisers continue, including a promotion at Barnes & Noble in Pittsford from 4 to 8 p.m. Dec. 14.
Cobblestone has sold its current building and will move to a new location next year, she says.
"It's a wonderful place to be a part of. It really is. When we were facing the possibility of closure, ... how would we manage that? I think it was really hard for people to think about."
Knickerbocker wants to use her Cobblestone experience to make a national impact. She plans to follow her early interest in law with a return to school for educational policymaking or law.
"What I'd really like to do is gain more experience in the classroom for good practices and take what we're doing here and effect change nationally," she says. "I'm really interested in taking some of the standards we have in place and modifying them for critical thinking and social skills-things we're lacking as a country now. I'm not satisfied with it being localized. I think there need to be more opportunities like Cobblestone for kids and their families.
"I'm hoping that people will read this article and start to think about those things too," Knickerbocker says. "If we don't invest in our children, we're not going to have much of a future in our country."
11/23/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email

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