Combining Two Passions to Improve Education
Amber Parks always felt like teaching was her calling. “I remember teaching my stuffed animals when I was a little girl,” she recalls. “There was never a question about what I would do.”
After graduating from Vanderbilt and the University of Oklahoma, she taught elementary school students in Spain, South Africa, Mississippi and Oklahoma. “I loved the classroom and had no intention of leaving,” she adds. Her students always excelled and consequently other teachers began to ask her for strategies and ideas. As they began to request more and more of her time, she made the decision to leave the classroom for a year to work with teachers more closely through professional development training. That was five years ago, and today the organization she founded, The Learning Project, works with teachers and students in more than 40 schools across the country.
“The Learning Project combines the skills of teaching and writing, which was my secret in the classroom,” she explains. “I created an approach to writing, called Writing with Design, that is not grade-dependent, but rather meets students where they are and uses strategies to help them improve their writing skills. It’s amazing to see students grow to love writing, which opens so many doors in life.”
Amber travels across the country implementing Writing with Design, which strengthens students’ writing by using visual maps called Mind Designs to help students plan and organize for their writing. “I tell them what they do before they write the sentences is most important – how they plan and organize will help them find their theme and bring out their creativity,” she says.
During her sessions with teachers, they also write and they typically find enthusiasm for the often-begrudged subject. Discovering their own affinity for writing helps teachers change the culture of their school from having a negative view of writing to a positive one. Amber loves to hear teachers say, “Before Writing with Design, I avoided writing. Now, I constantly look for ways to bring more writing into the school day.”
“It’s incredibly humbling and inspiring to be part of that culture change,” she says. “Writing is such a gateway skill for students that whatever their passion is in life, there will always be an opportunity for them if they can write.”
The Learning Project has grown to incorporate three additional consultants who work with schools as they implement Writing with Design, and 20 writing analysts who score writing samples for schools to give them feedback on writing growth throughout the school year. Along with Writing with Design, The Learning Project offers several educational solutions, including a program called ScholarBound, which guides students in middle and high school as they prepare to apply to their dream colleges. As the recipient of more than $250,000 in scholarship funding, Amber is well qualified to coach college bound students.
She is currently launching another facet of The Learning Project that will make an even greater impact on education around the world. In the spirit of the Tom’s Shoes model, Learning Project Schools will directly support schools in developing countries. “When schools become part of The Learning Project, their involvement will help fund professional development for a school in a developing country. The domestic school will know the international school that is benefitting and the schools will have the option to partner and connect. “With technology, there are so many ways for schools around the world to connect in real time,” Amber explains. “The schools can decide how to make and maintain that connection. It might be through a pen pal program that many Learning Project Schools already have, but however it evolves, this allows The Learning Project to create an awareness and an approach to giving back to the world community.”
Giving back to the community is something Amber has embraced throughout her life. Her passion in high school was her community service, including helping to implement Healthy Learning Fairs in every school in her district. At these fairs, students received basic screenings, such as vision and dental. When she attended Scholars Weekend, she was amazed and reassured that there were many other people like her who had such a deep sense of purpose.
“It’s almost mind-boggling to think about the number of Coca-Cola Scholars today – even in my home state of Oklahoma,” she says. “It’s incredible to be part of such a network of people who believe in the same life purpose. The world continues to become a better place with each new group of Scholars.”