Aaron Jongko has always challenged himself as a teacher: “how do I make learning happen and keep students fully engaged while they’re having fun?” Over the 10 years he’s been teaching, he thinks he’s found the secret sauce. “I’ve tried to always keep kids at ease because it makes learning happen more naturally.” Aaron has found this to be especially important given the project-based learning approach he uses for social studies. “I know that when students start this class they have a lot of anxiety on their faces because they know there are going to be a lot of projects. That alone is something that intimidates them. As they go through the school year, I see them start to do things more fluidly and confidently when I’m looking over their shoulders. I can see them reading a lot of text and summarizing without copying; when they are doing that independently then I know that they are learning.”
Mr. Jongko believes the most important thing his students can take away from his classroom is empathy for the human experience. “In American and European history we look at a lot of very difficult topics—slavery, the trail of tears, the Holocaust. I hope they come to see that different people have different experiences and that you need to learn from them. If they can learn that as a child, they are more likely to make decisions that will help a lot of people as they get older. These students have an opportunity to be really influential in the future.”
Also important are the critical research skills students develop which help them address questions that don’t have a right or wrong answer: “Was the Civil War worth the cost?” he asks them. Mr. Jongko is excited to watch as his students research, summarize information, and form their own conclusions. “I always see a huge amount of growth between the first research project and the last one in terms of their comfort, confidence, and how proud they are of their work.”
Mr. Jongko has a passion for social studies but it’s one that students don’t always share. “If you ask students what their favorite subject is, it’s rarely social studies,” he says. But he wanted to put this to the test. As part of a research project developed for Apple Education and one he presented at the annual conference for Apple Distinguished Schools (which GAC has been since 2010), Mr. Jongko worked for a year to address what affects motivation in an elementary social studies class. He conducted a pre-survey and then tailored the class to meet the students’ preferences. What he got was a more interesting and exciting experience for both him and his students. “The blended learning style has worked really well for this class as it gives students the chance to be independent. And this means greater learning outcomes for them.” In the three years that he’s taught fifth grade, Mr. Jongko has refined his curriculum, bringing together the best of online and traditional instruction. For example, students are able to take advantage of the video tutorials that Mr. Jongko creates as resources for them.
Having spent time working in both public and private schools, Mr. Jongko finds that he can be more innovative in his classroom at a private school. “As a teacher, I get to be really responsive to students’ learning needs. If I am looking at a learning standard and think we need to add something to the curriculum, I can make it happen if I make a case for it and present a solution. There is no bureaucracy and red tape to go through. Teachers have the ability to be change-makers and ultimately the students benefit.”
Mr. Jongko has significant experience with curriculum development and has played an influential role at GAC as Lower School Social Studies Chair and PK-12 Instructional Lead Teacher. He was a finalist for the GAC Lower School Educator of the Year, and was the Athens Chamber of Commerce Educator of Excellence, Clarke County School District Teacher of the Year, Whitehead Road Elementary Teacher of the Year, and has been awarded the Foundation for Excellence Mae Whatley and Peach State Crystal Apple Awards. Among his secret talents is that he is a licensed pyrotechnician and a skilled carpenter. When he’s not perfecting his pyrotechnics or building something, you’ll find him thinking up yet another way to create even more meaningful experiences for the students in his classroom.