Guest experts are a cornerstone of project work at Duke School, visiting classrooms to offer real-world perspectives that help students research a topic. Parents, family, friends, and other community members are typically recruited to provide this crucial element. Last year’s COVID-19 protocols prohibited most in-person appearances by guest experts. Surprisingly, this restriction resulted in opening a few doors—or Zoom windows—that otherwise might not have been considered.
First-grade classes, for example, were able to tap resources from both near and far during their bird project last spring. In May, they had a Zoom visit with renowned author and bird photographer Ralph Fletcher. They also found a great resource much closer to home—first- grade student Jane Boyer.
Based in Durham, New Hampshire, Ralph Fletcher has written close to 50 books including picture books, fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. He has also authored numerous texts for writing teachers.
“He is like a writing teacher guru,” said first-grade teacher Carolynn Klein. “Kathy Bartelmay and I remembered when we heard him speak at Teachers College that he had a hobby of doing bird photography and writing poetry, as well. We reached out to him in hopes that he would share some of his bird photography.”
He accepted the invitation and shared some of his bird photographs with the students as well as answering their questions.
“The images are just striking,” said Carolynn. “And he talked to the kids about the process and the patience behind it, how he gets his shots, and where he travels to get them.” Because the students were studying poetry at the same time, Fletcher also spoke to them about the beauty of poetry and how his photographs also inspire his poetry writing.
“He was a really amazing guest expert,” said Carolynn. “To have one of my heroes that I studied come in and talk to the kids from educator, photographer and writing perspectives was really cool.”
Student Jane Boyer’s presentation was the only in-person guest expert visit during the project. Jane raises chickens and brought a hen to show her classmates.
“She shared how she cared for the chicken—things that the chicken ate, how big they can get how long they can live, how they lay eggs, as well as how to tell a male from a female,” said Jane’s teacher Janeia Knox. The students were also able to touch and pet the hen.
Having students as guest experts has many benefits, Janeia said. Often students can connect and relay information to each other in interesting ways, and classmates respect seeing their peers in that role.
It is also a great experience for the presenter. “It involves planning, organizing, and also thinking critically about what’s important to share,” said Janeia. “She (Jane) had her note cards there … to refer to things that she wanted to hit in case children didn’t ask about it. She had her whole teacher voice going on and was fully answering questions. She had the class fully engaged.”