School district opens its virtual doors to Cranbrook classes

Karen Swords


By Alan Madlane
Hamtramck Public Schools just upped their curriculum offerings.
Unless you have a student who has benefited from these programs, you may be unaware that classes in the district have been able to receive some key outreach-type programming from the esteemed Cranbrook Institute of Science in Bloomfield Hills.
These programs would seem to be extremely successful, engaging students in ways that a lot of the more-traditional programming can sometimes struggle to do.
We caught up with one of the HPS teachers who is on the front lines of this effort, Karen Swords, to discuss the project.

The Review: Can you first give our readership a bit of background on yourself and how you came to be a teacher in the district? What was your own educational background? Which school(s) do you, or have you, taught for in the district, including at present, and what subjects?

Karen Swords: For nearly 12 years, I was a social worker at a domestic violence, sexual assault, and child abuse center.Part of my responsibilities there included training law enforcement, judges, and even members of President Clinton’s cabinet. Group facilitation was something I enjoyed.
I realized that my clients who struggled with reading had limited life options, so I decided to switch career paths.
Back in 2002, my childhood BFF taught in the district, and they encouraged me to teach summer school. I taught Language Arts K-5 at Dickinson East and Early Childhood Elementary, and have taught sixth grade at East since 2007.
When I was laid off from 2004-07, I then subbed at Dickinson West, lived and taught in Ashville, N.C., and for several months volunteered at a school when I traveled to Varanasi, India.
I have a master’s degree in education from U of M-Ann Arbor and started, but did not finish, a PhD. My undergrad degree in sociology with a concentration in criminal justice is from Oakland University.

The Review: What gave you the thought to reach out to the Cranbrook Institute of Science (CIS), in particular – had you had any kind of working relationship with them previously?
Were there other institutes or organizations you also reached out to and, if so, have you engaged with any of them as well?

Swords: HPS has a long-standing relationship with Cranbrook Institute of Science (CIS), which has provided programs, experiences, and resources for our students since 2002.
Knowing they are a reliable partner in the field of natural history and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics), I asked them to pivot their delivery options to a virtual platform when Covid hit.
Cranbrook acknowledged the diverse needs of our student population, and allowed us an opportunity to review and comment on their programs prior to delivery — to insure the optimum engagement experience for our children. Their expertise and situational responsiveness make them a valued resource in the tri-metropolitan area.
Last year, I reached out to the Smithsonian Institute, the World Wildlife Fund, The Audubon Society, Michigan State University, the National Museum of the American Indian, the DIA, the Macomb Center, the DSO, and Ford Theater, and secured virtual programming for my students.

The Review: I’ll admit that I wasn’t aware that Cranbrook had this kind of outreach program, as such.

Swords: Having been a partner with CIS for many years, this was an easy “ask.”
Virtual (platforming) was not something, for any museum, that was a primary source of interaction. When Covid hit, virtual service delivery was something schools, CIS and many other institutes and museums had to figure out.
Given the transportation difficulties experienced by financially strapped districts, the virtual platform makes interacting with experts in the field accessible to many students.

The Review: I was surprised that a financially themed presentation would be on the menu, so to speak, as an offering from a science institute.
Also, can you talk about some of the other previous programs that have taken place before this one?

Swords: Natural history includes anthropology, and CIS’s funder, Ally Bank, knows the importance of financial literacy.
Other virtual programs have included “People, Power, Place” (energy resources and use), “Water Shed-Health of the Great Lakes,” “Get to the Point” (the physics of hunting tools), “Sugar with Your Tea” (European exploration, colonization, and commerce spreading around the globe), and “Humankind Emerging.”

The Review: Those sound amazing.
Getting to this particular presentation, how did it go? I would think the kids might have generally been rather fascinated to learn about such an adult subject as personal finances; where money comes from, how easily it goes (and for what), etc.?

Swords: The students loved the program.
CIS’s staff are not only knowledgeable, but entertaining, too. Programs are designed by content experts and educators who know how to engage, and facilitate inquiry.
Dickinson East fifth- and sixth-grade students learned about needs, wants, value, and what money is; they also viewed artifacts from Ancient Egypt and Medieval England (sixth grade in October, and fifth grade in November).
CIS challenged students to consider under what circumstances water could be more valued than gold. Students created family budgets that engaged other family members.
The interactive trade game incorporated the impact of Covid and climate change on the imports and exports of major supply chains (produce, oil, automobiles, and technology).

The Review: Did anything funny stand out from the two days of the “Money” presentation? Any funny stories, any kids surprised by what they learned?

Swords: When working with children, funny is a given.
A class experienced technical issues. A student commented that the issue needed to be resolved quickly, because “time is money.” Very insightful, given the topic.
Students listed items that are part of a family budget. All mentioned giving money to help those less fortunate than themselves — AND cell phones. This led to a discussion on how cell phones were once a luxury item available to few people.
Funny situations happened to students during the import/export trade games. When many were financially strong, situations like war, hurricanes, Covid, and drought, quickly took away their wealth. “Funny, not funny,” was the student phrase said most repeatedly during the game.

The Review: Do you have any other such virtual learning programs scheduled in the near future? Do any programs ever get repeated? This financial one seems like something that would be good for most students.

Swords: We were again selected as a “service audience,” and will receive programs funded by DTE, Ally Bank, and the Karen and Drew Peslar Foundation. These funders support Hamtramck Public Schools, and will provide us with people power, place, money, and a host of other virtual-content-selected options.

The Review: How has the feedback been, from students, parents, school administrators, etc.?

Swords: Students beg for more Cranbrook programs. Staff equally enjoy the experience, and can easily align CIS content with district curriculum. CIS sends a follow-up survey to make sure needs are being met by their services.
Our parents like that a revered resource like Cranbrook partnered with the HPS community.

The Review: This is great stuff, and very exciting for the students in our district. Hopefully, all this cross-pollination continues to have a long life here in the Hamtramck Schools.

Posted Dec. 10, 2021

One Response to School district opens its virtual doors to Cranbrook classes

  1. Fatema Hossain

    December 11, 2021 at 1:06 pm

    Cranbrook is a quality educational experience.

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