Zoe Schirmer: Using Experience as a Tool to Learn and Grow
Updated: Jul 17
Zoe Schirmer recently completed a Masters in Education from Northwestern University and is one of the most enduring and kindest teachers I have ever met. She blends her experience living and working abroad with Improvisation to master the art of the 4th grade teacher. Her ability to help shape the mind of child who will most likely remember the experience of grammar school well into adulthood is something I will never know. After speaking with her sister Eleni, I wanted to get Zoe's take on beautiful knowledge for kids. She starts by talking about a lesson she did the other day where she busted out some rhymes. “Reread if you need” “Keep track of the facts”—she called, they responded.
You taught 5 years at a Greek school. Talk about your experience teaching students curriculum with an added language component.
Well there is a lot of scientific evidence that you learn languages much easier at a younger age. By exposing kids to this, it is taking advantage of something that by the time they are old enough to realize, they will appreciate it. What was great about teaching Greek students is that it's the language their grandparents speak, a cool generational thing that is now being lost and it's a special thing. I also think it was about Greek culture and opening their eyes to other parts of the world.
Having a sense of the world as this much bigger place than their own home and that they are a part of it, and can actually make a difference. Our mom always uses the phrase “You are a piece of the puzzle, but not the picture on the puzzle."
You lived and worked in Greece for six years before teaching. What did that experience do for you?
One of the hardest things was the weird interplay of inside and outside. I am Greek American, which was always very important growing up and I spent years participating in cultural things. I then moved to Greece where I didn't know the language fluently and felt so much like an outsider, but yet in America I identified with it. I somehow got thrown into it and didn't know where I belonged, but what helped me most were the relationships I built through my grandfather, and finding family to connect with there. I went to Greece with a goal of becoming fluent in the language, but quickly realized that the more you know, the less you know. The more Greek I knew, the more I would become aware of things like not understanding how to properly speak to the economic crises. So then I would push on that boundary, and it helped me continuously grow. This was a huge shift for me because I was worried about not making mistakes and felt I had to say things perfect, but I would never get fluent if I always had to say things perfect. I then started to talk more and say things less correctly in order to learn. I then met more people who I can have conversations in part English and Greek which helped me get over this fear of placing my imperfection on a sign and showing it to the world. Those connections helped me realize that I knew I belonged as I was and who I was, and they will love me for who I am at that moment. After that I just kept getting more and more connected to the people and the environment.
From the words of your sister Eleni, “You are so good at figuring out how to speak their language"- Tell me about a moment in the classroom where you did just that.
This is where I prove Improv can be very useful in the classroom. I recently pulled out a football reference, and I typically don't think in NFL metaphors, but it made them excited because they were talking about how the Bears beat the Giants earlier that morning. It was a moment where I was trying to teach long division, and if a student doesn't understand the signs you need to determine the answer with, then you won't get the point across. I have to teach this concept to the whole class, but this one student might be lost so I can't continue---if enough of them get it, I can then work with that other student later but in that moment I came up with first thing I could think of.
What do you want your students to remember most when they leave your class?
I want them at the end of every day to know this person pushed and supported me, made me laugh and made learning fun. Later I want them to know they learned so much from me, want them to feel valued, and hope that they realize that they grew as learners.