Making the Grade
Ryan Summerlin January 11, 2006
In today’s global economy, educators are faced with the challenges of preparing their students for a multi-cultural society that extends to international economics. In her 27 years of teaching, Debbie Griffith has continually risen to that challenge.Griffith began a teaching career at Silverthorne Elementary in 1979. Three years later she transferred to Dillon Valley, where she has remained for the past 24 years. During that time, the first-grade teacher’s dedication to multi-culturalism in education, along with Dillon Valley’s commitment to becoming an International Baccalaureate (IB) accredited school, has made for a perfect pairing.Griffith caught the travel bug at an early age. Her father was an engineer, and she spent five years of her childhood growing up in Puerto Rico, where she still maintains family ties and visits frequently.Directly after college, Griffith joined the Peace Corps and spent two years in Malaysia. She married a Peace Corps colleague, and the two returned to live in Colorado in 1978, when she began her work as an educator in Summit County.Griffith considers her Peace Corps experience to be invaluable as she teaches her students to deal with an increasingly multi-cultural society.”The Peace Corps does an intensive cultural training,” she said. “Its goal is for you to walk in someone else’s shoes. When you’re on a Peace Corps mission, you’re expected to live in that country as a native person.”
In seeking IB accreditation, Dillon Valley is utilizing IB concepts in its curriculum. In addition, this past year the school instituted a full-time dual-language program beginning in kindergarten and scheduled to advance to another grade each year. Griffith is a firm believer in the multi-cultural aspects of the IB program.”Dillon Valley has experienced a tremendous change in its cultural demographic, and the IB program has helped us to see what a wonderful thing it is to have these children and their families from other places,” she said. “The IB program affords us an opportunity to learn from each other.” Griffith said that another important aspect of the IB program is that it stresses what educators call the “inquiry method” of teaching. This method encourages students to ask questions, reason and rationalize what they learn in an imaginative and inquisitive way, which in turn helps them to take more responsibility for their own learning.”It’s not a curriculum,” said Griffith. “It’s more of a philosophy.”The inquiry method involves questioning students on their subjects in a way that makes them creatively analyze and question concepts on their own. Griffith calls it a basic exercise of having students think deeper.As an example, Griffith cited a recent class where her students read about the Caribbean. Afterwards, she asked them how they thought the islands would change if their climate changed and became cold. This led to a discussion where the students offered their opinions on how people’s jobs and lives would be changed by an arctic atmosphere.
Griffith said that she was proud to see her students so responsive to this kind of intellectual reasoning.”This is a method that honors each individual student’s way of thinking,” she said. “It teaches who we are, where we are in time and place, and how the world works.”Griffith said that many of the concepts of IB training are similar to those used by Peace Corps volunteers.”The Peace Corps uses a hands-on direct inquiry method of teaching, like IB does,” she said. “So this has all taken me back to my roots. I’m coming full circle, and I’m energized by the whole thing.”Griffith lives in Silverthorne with her husband Clark and their daughters, 17-year-old Melissa and 11-year-old Emily.By her own admission, the 52-year-old is still being bitten by the travel bug. In 1999, she was awarded a Fulbright exchange grant and spent a year working with five-year-olds in a primary school in Southampton, England.
As she explained, it’s all part of her commitment to learning about how the rest of the world lives by experiencing it first-hand.”It’s all about putting yourself in someone else’s way of thinking,” said Griffith. “It stretches you and makes you understand that we’re part of the global community. We’re all sharing the planet and we need to extend ourselves in an accepting and loving way.”Challenges: Having the time to plan for my class, as well as the time to meet with colleagues and parents. Having the time to address these issues is a big challenge because my heart’s in it and I want to do the best job that I can.Goals: To be open to the changes coming in the next few years with IB coming in. The program stays alive and you’re always moving it forward.Gratifications: The opportunity of having kids tell me what they’re thinking. I’m always in awe of what they’re thinking, and having them ask me the right questions. What is one thing about you that your colleagues and students would be surprised to know? When I was 21 and in the Peace Corps, my very first vehicle was a motorcycle. It was a 250 Triumph and I have the pictures to prove it.