In Chad Downs’s third- and fourth-grade classroom at Ann Arbor Open School in Ann Arbor, Michigan, students aspire to join the Super Hero Club. The group isn’t for those with extraordinary strength or speed; instead, the Super Heroes are students advanced in English Language Arts who earn the coveted position of mentor, helping their classmates with spelling and vocabulary. The public K-8 magnet school focuses on self-directed exploration and project-based learning, helping students achieve academic and social-emotional goals that exceed grade-level expectations. Downs brings out the best in every child he teaches. His students make a lot of choices about the direction of their learning, engaging in self-evaluation and taking ownership of their progress. Downs gives students both freedom and structure as they rotate through different jobs and work at their own pace, following their passions in their projects.
With relationship-building at the core of the Open School philosophy, Downs plays games with his pupils, engages them in conversation, and talks with them about their outside interests. He asks them to write weekly letters home that summarize their accomplishments and keep parents included in the classroom’s educational process. The walls of Downs’s classroom feature work from former students as inspiration for the current class. To bring learning to life, he brings in guest speakers to talk about their careers and organizes trips to Detroit, Kalamazoo and the Henry Ford Museum. He teaches a course on manners and civility during the school’s twice-yearly Focus study period and encourages students to join him in community service projects. On all fronts, Downs’s students are thriving: Nearly all of them hit their learning benchmarks last year.
Downs has been a social studies and math curriculum instructor, developed curriculum, and led professional development. As the building’s Lead Teacher, he supervised student activity, maintained safety, led staff meetings, sat on the school improvement team, implemented the Crisis Task Force and Diabetic Crisis Team, and organized schoolwide celebrations like Field Day. Downs is the Ann Arbor Middle School District’s co-curricular director, responsible for athletic and academic clubs. He has organized the popular Open School Conference, a weekend-long meeting for staff, retirees, former parents and students. Downs is a renowned problem-solver; when a question arises, someone inevitably responds, “Ask Chad.”
Downs earned a bachelor’s in elementary education in 2003 from Eastern Michigan University and a master’s in educational leadership in 2008 from Concordia University.
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