Q&A with Jake Bryson, Middle School Educator and Innovator

By May 10, 2024 News

Jake Bryson is a middle school science teacher at Northeast Academy for Aerospace and Advanced Technologies (NEAAAT), a public charter school in Elizabeth City, N.C. NEAAAT is also a recent honoree of The Canopy Project, which recognizes the country’s most innovative schools. Canopy assesses innovation based on 1:1 mentoring, project-based learning, makerspace capacity, career readiness, and more.

 In conjunction with National Teacher Appreciation Week and National Charter Schools Week, Kristen Blair, the communications director for the Coalition, spoke with Coach Bryson about his approach to innovation in education and how he encourages it in his classroom. The interview covers NEAAAT’s focus on real-world learning—including a “Plant the Moon” project with a simulated regolith and a lot of moon dirt! —charter flexibility, and more.

Could you share your background in education and why you became a teacher?  

Jake Bryson: I got kind of a late start. I graduated from college with an English degree, and my wife and I moved to Boston, Massachusetts. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with my degree. I bounced around with different jobs, working as a waiter and delivery driver. I ended up getting an opportunity to work as a secondary teacher for fifth grade at a school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, called the Fletcher Maynard Academy. I had no idea about middle school teaching! But I went into this fifth grade math class and realized that was what I was put on earth to do. I helped out with discipline and got my feet wet with having a master teacher in the room.

So, I did that for a year, and then decided to get my Master’s. My wife and I both went to ECU [East Carolina University]. From there, I got a job teaching seventh grade English. I realized that teaching middle school was exactly what I was supposed to do. The weirdness of middle schoolers—that strange stage in life I was so familiar with—pulled me into the field and that group of individuals. I remember the struggles of middle school, and [teaching those students] is the thing I’ve become great at.

Jake Bryson works with middle school students at NEAAAT.

What drew you to NEAAAT and to a public charter school? 

Bryson: I spent most of my career, 15 -17 years, in regular public schools. When I found out about NEAAAT and what they were doing here, it just spoke to me. So, for the last three years, I’ve been working at NEAAAT, and it has rejuvenated me as a teacher. I love what we’re doing and the possibilities of what we can accomplish at a charter school. It blows away what can happen in a traditional public school.

The thing I love the most is the chance we have at a charter school to take risks. It’s okay. It’s messy. We have the freedom to try innovative ways of doing things—to focus on what the kids need rather than all the other stuff you have to deal with in a traditional public school. Our standards-based mastery is something I’ve dreamed about doing as a teacher. It eliminates grading for behaviors, and anything unrelated to “Can this kid do this standard?” I also know if I have an idea, I’m supported in trying it.

NEAAAT recently earned recognition from The Canopy Project for innovation in education. How do you work personally to cultivate an innovative classroom environment for teaching and learning?

Bryson: I’ll give you an example. Earlier this year, our STEM coordinator came to me and said, “There’s this ‘Plant the Moon’ project that we have an option to do. Would you like to do it?” It was in conjunction with NASA and the International Science Competition Committee. They put this on together, and it’s a competition of middle and high schoolers trying to grow plants in a simulated moon regolith. We got bags and bags of moon dirt. I took a day with my father, and we built greenhouses that were in the hallway outside my classroom with grow lights and plants.

NEAAAT students take a turn growing plants in moon dirt.

For eight weeks, we focused on trying to grow plants in moon dirt in my class! It took over what we were doing. I was able to take a lot of the standards we were supposed to cover and incorporate them into the “Plant the Moon” project. But I threw out the traditional pacing guide and tried to rebuild the curriculum back around this giant project because of how much of our class it took up.

The principals were all supportive. For two straight months, we had greenhouses in the hallway outside my classroom with plants growing, dying, and being replanted. We had moon dirt around the classroom, and water and fertilizer right inside the school building. The kids loved it. They were super excited every day to come to class and look at their plants—and think about the next steps for their projects. I saw kids come up with solutions I had never thought of, which showed me: This is the way to do it.

Canopy called out NEAAAT’s focus on students working with industry experts as an “exemplar” for other schools. Why is real-world learning so valuable for students?

Bryson: The big key word is relevancy. The kids start to realize they aren’t sitting here learning a math formula or memorizing scientific terms. For “Plant the Moon,” one of the things we looked at is this: Why would we need to start growing crops on the moon? What are the issues we’re facing? We looked at what’s happening on Planet Earth. As part of “Plant the Moon” outreach, they brought a temporary planetarium into our cafeteria. It’s a weird air-inflated planetarium with a light show at the bottom of it. My kids came in and they watched a presentation about the Artemis missions that are going up the next couple of years. The reason it was so important is that NASA is using some of the data we have collected to try and grow plants on the moon so they can start to have a permanent colony. They can produce their own food and it will make oxygen and a small amount of water.

We studied the Artemis missions there, too. We had some of the scientists come in and talk online to us; they are going to be the people growing the plants on the moon. The kids could see that what they were doing as we went through this project wasn’t just something limited to school. This was a world-changing project. Some of their ideas and data we’ve collected will help make decisions.  The more I sold the kids on the idea that data collection was super important—because NASA was going to use data to make good decisions—the more those kids focused on collecting clean, pure data. They got excited every day to measure precisely; they felt they were having an impact on the world itself. When you see that the stuff you’re learning in school matters outside of school, it makes things lock in so much more. This could actually change the world!

You presented recently to an international audience at the Carnegie Summit for the Improvement of Education. Could you share key ideas from your message to that audience?

Bryson: My idea was to take improvement science and focus that on our MTSS [Multi-tiered Systems of Support] Tier 3 students, who are the 1-5% most challenging students we deal with.

I’ve always done a lot of conferencing with students—sitting down and talking about their actions and how they impact other people. But I’ve never tried to quantify it.  Two years ago, I went to Carnegie Institute, which is all about improvement science, and I started to develop this idea of trying to quantify conferencing. I took individual conferences in which students and I came up with an improvement plan, and I asked them to identify three specific actions they do that most impact other students’ learning.

Jake Bryson and other educators attend the 2024 Carnegie Foundation Summit on Improvement in Education in March 2024. Photo credits: Jake Bryson.

Then, we tried to figure out how much time each of those behaviors—arguing with the teacher, misusing equipment, or getting out of their seat to see what their best friends were doing—took away from the class’s learning. We talked about how much that harms other kids’ learning, and we tried to track and minimize the amount of time those distractions took up. Our end result is to look at our EOG [End of Grade] scores this year. My theory is that we could use the EOG scores to show impacts that these MTSS Tier 3 kids are having on the school. Here’s the craziest thing: When I have conferences with these kids now, they all say the same thing: “Coach Bryson, when are the EOGs? I can’t wait to take the EOGs!” They aren’t excited about taking the EOGs. They’re excited to see how their impact has increased everyone else’s scores.

So, I made a poster about this program and how I had developed it from last year’s conference to bring it to this year’s conference. I wanted people to stop by my poster at the Carnegie Institute and recognize that everyone could make one small change using improvement science to impact their school. We have a massive impact on everyone around us. When we are positive and helping kids, those scores are going to go up. But if we’re negative, everyone else’s scores are going to go down.

What is your favorite charter school moment?

Bryson: I’ve been here for three years. My number one thing is the investment NEAAAT makes in its teachers. NEAAAT sent a group of teachers to San Diego, California, to learn about improvement science. This was an entire field of science that I wasn’t even aware existed. It isn’t the fact that I got sent to San Diego! It’s the fact that there is a real investment by the school into its employees. They really care about quality employees and making sure they have all the tools to be the best teachers they can be. That’s the number one thing I love about NEAAAT. It makes me so certain about my decision to come to this school.