Three Questions: Alex Ford

"Three Questions" is a series that explores the work of members of the School of Education's faculty and its students.

Alex Ford is like many Carolina students. She’s smart, deeply engaged in her school work and digs into civic activities. Ford, from Kernersville, N.C., will be a senior in the Fall, pursuing her bachelor’s degree in the Middle Grades program.

In the past year, Ford co-chaired Project Literacy, a Campus Y-housed student group that coordinates student volunteers to work in area literacy programs. She’s also been active with Habitat for Humanity.

During the Spring semester, Ford was inducted into Carolina’s chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, the nation’s most prestigious honor society.

1. What are some of the surprising things you’ve learned through your work as an education major?

I entered the program already aware that teachers have a tough job, but taking classes in the education program has really deepened my understanding of just how much we expect teachers to do. We expect teachers to create a universal design for learning in their classrooms and tailor each lesson to the specific needs of each child. We expect them to make sure that each of their students is socially well adjusted among his or her peers.

We expect them to use a narrow block of time to teach a lesson to an often large group of students who have different methods by which they learn best and who enter the classroom with varying levels of prior knowledge. We expect them to teach this group of students in such a way that they do not bore or overwhelm any of the students. We expect teachers to be social justice advocates despite potential opposition from students’ parents or from school administrators.

We expect teachers to help their students through difficult social and developmental challenges. We expect teachers to interact with the families and communities where they work and adjust their teaching to the students’ life experiences, which the teachers may or may not share. We expect teachers to instruct using evidence-based practices, which are continually updated based on scholarly research.

Don’t get me wrong¬– I am not complaining. These are all worthwhile and important objectives (and I am sure that I left some out), or we would not dedicate ourselves to learning how to meet these expectations.

Learning about the objectives that we ask teachers to accomplish with a classroom full of unique individuals and realizing the careful planning that goes into each aspect of teaching has been an eye-opening experience, and I have a new appreciation for the profound opportunity and responsibility that awaits all of us in the program.

2. As a co-chair of Project Literacy, you recruit Carolina students to participate in literacy work in our community. What’s your pitch? How do you convince people to engage in this work?

We usually grab students’ attention with the prospect of working with people. Through our sites, volunteers can work with people with a wide range of experiences while engaging in different activities– tutoring children after school, helping UNC employees earn their GEDs, and conducting creative writing workshops with people experiencing homelessness, just to name a few. Through Project Literacy, students have the opportunity to work with some great community organizations including Orange Literacy, the Street Scene Teen Center, UNC Hospitals, and the local public schools.

It is easy for us as students to become insulated at UNC considering all that it has to offer as a university, but it can be really refreshing to step out into the larger Chapel Hill and Carrboro community. With five different volunteer sites, Project Literacy also offers flexibility to students, and volunteers are almost always able to find a volunteer site whose schedule coincides with theirs.

The bottom line though, is that the work Project Literacy does is meaningful and essential. According to Orange Literacy, here in Orange County, 50 percent of adults have at least a bachelor’s degree, 30 percent have an advanced degree, and 15 percent have difficulty reading at a high school level, so the need is definitely present.

Further, when Project Literacy members volunteer at the sites, they are not so much performing a service for someone else as they are gaining mutual partners in learning, which makes the experience truly rewarding. Project Literacy is also part of the Campus Y, so we benefit from the great support and advice that the Y has to offer!

3. In addition to your work with Project Literacy, you’ve also worked with Habitat for Humanity and you have a strong interest in civic education. What have you gained from getting involved in civic work and how do you think those new understandings will inform your life and work?

My involvement in civic work has taught me that efforts in this arena are not always perfect and that the work can be difficult and even discouraging. However, I have come to realize that civic work isn’t about not making mistakes; it’s about making a difference.

As a self-diagnosed perfectionist, the acceptance of setbacks as part of the process has not been an easy lesson to learn. At the same time, mishaps make great learning experiences. On occasions when everything has not quite gone according to plan, I have gained insight for potential improvements, and the effect of simply having tried something has been empowering.

Something else I have realized through my involvement in civic work is the need to be open. It is always important to consider alternative views, methods, and perspectives. One of my favorite quotations is from Aristotle: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

Considering other views not only helps develop critical thinking skills, but it also cultivates a greater sense of understanding among those who hold opposing views. I hope to foster this type of deliberative spirit in my future classroom.

Being open does not only apply to being open-minded but also being open to new experiences. I was a member of a Habitat team of UNC students who went to Thailand last summer. We knew next to nothing of the Thai language, and our goal was to build a house under the instruction of the local Thai workers who knew very little English. Experiences like this one helped me work on the ability to dive in and figure things out on the go. Even though it was difficult, it was an experience I would not trade, and we built a significant portion of the house.

On a side note, the Thai military declared martial law in the middle of our second week there, and we were not allowed to return to our work site. You really cannot plan for everything!