Ware to Advance: Teaching Kids Critical and Creative Thinking Skills
Mandy Ware, an award-winning teacher, has found her calling for 21st century students in a retro 1970s camper.
Victoria pops into the 1970s aqua and white Boler ECO camper with a glowing grin on her face.
She is greeted by Mandy Ware, master tutor and founder of Ware to Advance that teaches students — six to 11 years old — to master critical and creative thinking skills.
For more than 30 years, Ware was an award-winning gifted and talented educator in the North Little Rock School District. In 2013 she was Arkansas Teacher of the Year for gifted and talented education.
Parents also nominated Ware in 2017 as Little Rock Family magazine's statewide elementary teacher of the year. In October 2017 she was beyond surprised when she attended what she thought was a random assembly and received the award.
“I couldn't believe it,” she said. “I was sitting in this assembly and suddenly I was like they are talking about me.”
For decades, Ware has created and implemented a national award-winning curriculum that other teachers have used in their classrooms.
Now retired from teaching in public schools, Ware has forged an innovative path. She's moved her teaching knowledge from classroom to camper.
“The camper actually looks like a brain, if you think about it,” Ware said.
Remember as a kid how much you longed to just jump through the TV into the worlds of Mr. Rogers, Captain Kangaroo and Sesame Street? Ware has created a very similar kind of magical safe world.
The retro camper is a place where children can retreat – and unplug – from the hectic 21st century and learn lessons they may no longer receive in school. But while the hour-long tutoring session may appear like playtime, it's really think and learn time.
“One-on-one time is no longer what kids get in education," Ware said on a recent afternoon. "Teachers are programmed now with lesson plans created by corporations and restricted by time. Kids are missing out on critical thinking skills, using their imagination and getting the attention they need.”
Ware realized a few years ago education was far from where it was in 1985 when she began teaching.
Teachers once created their own lesson plans. They had freedom to spend more time with a student who needed an extra 10 minutes to understand a math problem or ask a few more questions about the universe or English literature.
Now teachers follow strict guidelines and curriculum developed by consultants and companies. They are timed as if they are soldiers in trainibg for an imaginary war. Their lesson plans have to be literally down to the minute and are analyzed by QR codes.
“Personally, students do not learn in an 'x' amount of time...it's ongoing & organic,” Ware said. “I do agree we need to be held accountable – but test scores and statewide grades prove what we're doing now is not working.”
After retiring in 2019, Ware decided to return to teaching in 2022 as a second grade teacher in the North Little Rock School District.
That didn't go as planned. By a long shot.
Ware discovered that just in the short time she had been out of education, the system had changed even more.
Her second grade students could barely read much less at a second grade level. Yet, administrators expected her to do the impossible – teach the students the second-grade curriculum regardless if they could read or not.
“That made no sense whatsoever to me,” Ware said.
Additionally, students were abusive — physically and emotionally.
Ware again retired, traumatized and disheartened.
But Ware, who grew up in Pine Bluff, said that people don't quit doing what they love. They persevere. It's a lesson she learned from her dad, Bob Abbott, a well-known Pine Bluff businessman who until recently owned Martha Mitchell's childhood home.
As Ware pondered her future, she visited her dad a lot. The little 1970s ECO, which is highly coveted by camper connoisseurs, sat in the sun in her dad's office parking lot.
The camper needed many repairs like Ware's soul. Ware was beyond heartbroken and disillusioned about teaching, she said.
With words of encouragement from her dad, she finally started envisioning the camper's destiny — a tutoring spot for children who crave help and attention to excel, create and think.
“Critical thinking skills are lacking these days because they aren't taught,” Ware said. “Without critical thinking skills how can kids develop what they need to learn?”
In the heat of last summer, Ware worked and sweated. She knew very little about restoring a camper, but she figured it out – except the floor. She hired someone to help with that, she said with a laugh.
Ware transformed the camper, creating shelves for books, papers and folders and decorating nooks and cranies with intuitive inspiration like she once did in her classroom.
Ware placed a piece of cut wood to make a home for Cerebellum the Plant. Inspiring words — hers not a consultant's — hang throughout the camper. Pencils, markers and glue sticks sit at the ready on the camper’s folding table.
Ware, her husband and dad moved the camper to North Little Rock on a Sunday morning, taking the old two-lane road that once was the only way to get to Pulaski County from Jefferson County before Interstate 530. The camper fit perfectly into Ware's garage.
Ware's wonderland is a continuous work in progress. She decorates for holidays and continuously ponders new additions to inspire her students.
“I come out here sometimes and just sit,” Ware said.
Who can blame her? It's a refuge from reality.
A Teacher Never Stops Teaching
Bubbly and curious, Victoria slides into the camper seat and puts down her cute pink stuffed animal. She's entered not just a vintage camper, but an escape from reality where a plant is named Cerebellum and stuffed owls look as if they speak in British accents.
Once Victoria is settled, Ware retrieves her folder.
Ware creates folders for each one student with his or her name on it. Every student has different needs, and before Ware takes on a new student she performs an assessment. That way every student’s specific needs are tailored by Ware.
With Halloween approaching, Ware's lessons for Victoria focus on the holiday. Looking at a stuffed Frankenstein, Victoria analyzes the monster while Ware transcribes the description.
Ware’s assignments center on Bloom's Taxonomy, a chart hanging in the camper with six components: remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate and create.
Victoria draws a costume for “Ms. Mandy” and transforms her tutor into a magic fairy. But it's not just drawing. Victoria studies the Bloom's Taxonomy chart and explains what she's doing as she creates.
Why a fairy? How did Victoria conjure a fairy? What's Ms. Mandy's superpower as a fairy?
After that assignment, Ware chooses a book about capturing creatures to read with Victoria.
Ware doesn't just read to Victoria.
Victoria reads, too, and analyzes the book, explaining how each monster is captured. She becomes more giddy with the turn of each page.
Ware tells Victoria to choose a monster from the book and draw it. A naturally talented young artist, Victoria picks a sea dragon. Within minutes, she freehands the dragon and colors it.
To capture her own dragon, she draws Ware's camper to trap the dragon. She then has to explain her finished project. Victoria is proud of her work and rightly so.
“Victoria went obviously beyond the task,” Ware said. “She extended the boundaries. That means a student is very open-minded. When they (students) extend boundaries it means their brains are working creatively to expand critical thinking skills.”
It's this type of flexible learning that public schools lack these days – the ability for kids to think outside the box and think for themselves even if it takes a few extra minutes. Teachers suffer the same fate.
Call it the corporatization of education. Teachers fall in line with a one-size-fits-all expensive curriculum, bought by the school district with tax dollars, and, in turn, teachers are evaluated with QR codes.
Students fall further behind in learning. Most students can't read, write, add or subtract. Kids are checked tested-to-death boxes moved to the next grade whether they should be or not by teachers who are cogs in the education machine.
“None of this has anything to do with teaching kids,” Ware said.
In Ware's universe, students’ brains turn. When Victoria's hour is up, she doesn't want to leave the camper. Her mom waits in the driveway, and when Victoria sees her, she can't wait to tell her about her work.
Learning, Ware said, should be exciting for teachers and students.
“Kids need to be able to think and create and teachers need the freedom to teach,” Ware, who is taking on more new students each week, says. “Personally, students do not learn in an 'x' amount of time. It's ongoing & organic. I do agree we need to be held accountable — but test scores and statewide grades prove what we're doing now is not working.”
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