Getting to Know Us: Interview With Rebecca Grainger

Posted on February 17th, 2014 by Pam Goldman

Rebecca Grainger is a member of the Institute for Learning's Disciplinary Literacy Science Team. Read on to learn about her life with the four-legged namesake of a famous geneticist.

Rebecca Grainger

What did you do before coming to the IFL?

Before coming to the IFL I was in public education, as a high school science teacher, for just shy of 10 years. I worked with a population of high minority, lower income students in a struggling school. I absolutely loved being “in the trenches.” Teaching is ridiculously rewarding but it is also tough. Really tough. And exhausting, in both rewarding and difficult ways. You want so much for your students to see the beauty of an education and the opportunity it provides. It’s one thing for them to regurgitate something you’ve taught or said. But I think the real breakthrough is when kids start to “feel” what they are learning. If we can find a way for education to spark an emotional response, something kids want to hold on to and want more of, that’s when we have really helped form a learner. That can be life changing. It’s not easy though. Nor is there a guaranteed way to achieve this. And as a teacher, sometimes it feels like you want it more than your students do.

What drew you to the IFL?

One of the things that drew me to the IFL is the approach of changing the way we think about the process of learning. While there are definitely similarities between schools around the country, there are also a lot of differences. What is refreshing to me, especially being relatively fresh out of the classroom, is that the IFL doesn’t ask you to throw everything out. We also don’t come in claiming to know the entire situation, population, or a surefire solution. Instead, we help teachers think and be reflective about their approach and the needs of their learners. Sometimes a shift in how the situation is viewed or giving people the opportunity to stop and think can make a powerful impact. We want students to be lifelong learners, I think it’s fair that we ask educators to challenge their thinking and to be reflective learners as well. It’s never too late to make shifts to better your approach to teaching and learning. I feel like when I’m working with teachers, I’m constantly learning and evolving also. I love that.

Why science?

I think science (for me life science!) is incredibly interesting. I realize that not everyone is going to be drawn to science concepts, but the process of thinking scientifically and problem solving is valuable to everyone. Science is a great avenue to teach kids skills that can be applied to all disciplines and to life outside of school.

What keeps you in education?

I truly believe everyone deserves an opportunity to an education. I think receiving a quality learning experience is a real gift. I think we are at a crossroads in American education. Not all schools are equal. By equal I don’t mean the same, not all schools should be the same. But all schools should offer quality opportunities. We aren’t there, but I believe we can get there. I want to be part of that process.

What is one of the biggest struggles in education?

I think we want kids to come into the classroom ready to learn, but we forget all the things we were taught in order to be ready. You really do have to learn to want to learn. Or at least be exposed to the process of learning in a positive light. We also need to teach the ability to overcome the fear of failing. Failing is scary. In schools we have to make it safe to make mistakes. And then instill the belief that once you flop, you get up, try again and do it better.

I also think we need to better involve communities in our schools. We need to be realistic about where kids are coming from. I think communities and parents want to be involved. We need to have better communication about needs between our communities and schools.

What education books are you reading right now?

I really enjoyed the both of Paul Tough's books. Both made me think about the choices we are making in education. I also really enjoy listening to podcasts. This American Life and Radiolab are my favorites. They aren’t directly about education, but they draw you in and present information so creatively! And they often indirectly give me ideas about education.

Was education important in your family growing up?

Both of my parents were first in their family to go to college. They always put a huge emphasis on the importance of education. Formal education was important but my parents would also take us (I have 3 sisters) to festivals and museums to expose us to other cultures and different ways of learning. We had this contest growing up where you would write the books you had read on your list on the refrigerator. When you reached a certain number of books, my dad would take us to this labyrinth of a used bookstore to pick out a “new” book. I loved the smell of that bookstore!

How did these experiences translate into your adult life?

Rothko painting
Rothko painting
Rothko painting
Rothko painting

Going to museums is still one of my favorite leisure activities. I can spend hours wandering through rooms, especially in art and nature and science museums. I remember the first time I saw a Rothko painting. It was in the Tate Modern in London. It took my breath away. I sat there with my husband, just staring, looking at all of the beautiful nuances Rothko captured in his work. Afterwards we were mentally spent from the experience. Absolutely amazing.

I hear you have two dogs who can occasionally drag you away from science, books, and museums and into the great outdoors. Tell us a little about them and about the sand dunes.

Rebecca Grainger

Well, here we are at the Sand Dunes National Park but you can't say we got away from science altogether. A couple years ago I recruited my husband to take pictures for one of our IFL science units. We camped in the Great Sand Dunes National Park on our "landforms vacation" when we were taking photographs for an IFL unit on, you guessed it, landforms.

We have two dogs, Zhela and Benzer. Zhela, short for Anzhela, is a husky mix (we're not sure since we adopted her from the Humane Society) so my husband picked a Russian name. She loves being outside, especially when it's cold. Because of her outdoor obsession she loves camping, except for the sleeping in a tent part. Zhela couldn't get enough of the miles of sand.

Benzer came home with me during my senior year of college. I went to a local pet store for fish food and came home with a puppy that someone had left on their door step. He is the most wonderful, not well thought out, decision I have ever made. I named him after Seymour Benzer, a geneticist who worked on linking genes and behavior. When I adopted Benzer (the dog) I was reading Time, Love, Memory by Jonathan Weiner. The book discusses Benzer, the scientist's, work. I loved the book. In fact it is one of the few books that has always made it through my book purges, an annual ritual where I go through every book on my shelf and sort between those that stay and those that are donated. Thirteen years later the book is still sitting on my shelf and Benzer is comfortably snuggled at my feet.