Oklahoma youth educator founds nonprofit to help teachers bring creativity to the classroom
Emily Burris’ classroom serves many purposes: operating room, construction site, campground, superhero staging area.
Her first-grade students measure paper “bones,” video conference with construction workers onsite and read stories about real-life superheroes bringing change to their communities. Burris, OSU alumna and instruction specialist with Yukon Public Schools, hopes the transformations spark students’ curiosity and desire to come to school.
“I had six-year-olds coming to school saying, ‘I don’t want to be here,’” Burris said. “I thought, ‘I’m the one who can make a change.’ I can’t change legislation. I can’t change school policy, but I can change the way my students view school and the way they feel about learning.”
Burris’ first classroom transformation was a doctor’s office. Plastic shower curtains from the dollar store partitioned the room, a parent donated medical gloves and hats and students conducted research on various body systems.
“I planned all of these activities based on all of the standards and essential questions we were supposed to be hitting that week,” Burris said. “I didn’t want to do things just because they were cute.”
Burris has since developed 11 more themes ranging from camping to detective work, each with the goal of exposing students to new opportunities they may not typically find in a classroom. Burris, who earned her bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Oklahoma State University, knows first-hand teachers’ unique needs.
“I want to be there to help teachers who feel like, ‘I want to be this kind of teacher, but I don’t know how.’ It’s my passion and interest, and I want them to know they don’t have to do it by themselves.”
Burris recently established the nonprofit Operation Engagement for teachers to check out theme kits. On any given night, you’ll likely find Burris driving across northeast Oklahoma to deliver and pick up kits from teachers. She also hosts conference presentations, manages a website and social media accounts and networks with community members related to Operation Engagement themes.
“We are providing an opportunity for teachers to engage their students so creativity and curiosity can be fostered. I’d like to build a network where people can share their ideas.”
Burris welcomes both monetary donations and theme-related household items, as all kits are completely free for teachers to use. She is building a student adviser committee to receive regular feedback from youth and wants to train representatives at schools across the state. Volunteers are also welcome.
Still, with all of her personal investments, Burris hopes her work draws attention to other teachers’ classrooms.
“I really want to change the narrative behind how people are representing teachers in their minds. The teachers I know are professionals and extreme experts in their areas. This gets to highlight their creativity and passion for what they do.”
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