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Teach for America Week makes FedEx exec a ‘teacher’

A critical-thinking lesson arrived sharply dressed at Fairview Middle School on Tuesday. It was delivered right on time and in the person of Shannon Brown, senior vice president and chief human resources and diversity officer of FedEx Express. A critical-thinking lesson arrived sharply dressed and all the way live at Fairview Middle School on Tuesday.

Shannon Brown and Tracee Walls of FedEx are the support team as a Fairview Middle School sixth grader works her way through a thinking exercise that Brown introduced as a guest teacher during Teach For America Week in Memphis. (Photos by Tyrone P. Easley)

This Fairview Middle School support team includes (l-r) Selina Sparkman, Shannon Brown, Jessica Ball and Athena Turner (executive director of Teach For America).

It was delivered right on time and in the person of Shannon Brown, senior vice president and chief human resources and diversity officer of FedEx Express.

Hello guest teacher.

“I’m going to teach them how to think,” said Brown when asked his curriculum for the day. “And how to think outside the box.”

The experience was part of Teach For America Week in Memphis, which engages local leaders in support of the movement to expand educational opportunity. Volunteers serve as guest teachers in the classrooms of Teach For America corps members such as Jessica Ball, the Fairview sixth-grade teacher who welcomed Brown into her world.

Brown stepped right up, confidently embracing the week’s goal of inspiring students with lessons that connect the curriculum to real life.

“Good morning,” he said. The students responded on prompt, turning up the volume at his request.

Brown told them he was raised in the LeMoyne-Gardens housing project, noting that it’s a much nicer place today than when he lived there. He said he spent much of his time at the nearby Boys and Girls Club, learning lessons that have propelled him, through and around much of the world.

“You can do anything you want to, and that’s what I want to talk about today,” he said.

He introduced them to a series of “fun exercises” to build a foundation for each of them discovering the truth in his declaration.

Instruction: Draw four straight lines through nine dots (on a handout) without retracing and without lifting pen from paper.

Lesson to learn: “In order to do this, you have to go outside the box,” Brown said. “And that’s what successful people do. For the iPhone and the other things you all like to play with, somebody had to think outside the box.”

Next, he wrote a sequence of numbers on the board and directed them to build upon it. Minutes later, he told them that what looked like a math problem actually was a word problem.

Lesson to learn: Think outside the box.

Then students were asked to find 41 squares on a handout. At the top was a question: “How many squares?”

“His” students went to work, coming up close, but short of the answer. The 41st square was the written word “square.”

Lesson? Right, think outside the box.

“You have to listen for directions first,” said Brown. “If you start out right, you will end up right.”

Brown told them that one can do better as part of a team than as an individual. Case in point: the Grizzlies, he said.

Then, quite matter-of-factly, Brown said he was certain that they were smarter than he was at their age. “Because you have seen more,” he said.

Each person, however, has to take responsibility for what they see and what they have, and must know how to accept help, he said.

In response to a question, he told them of a teacher who turned the light bulb on for him on the subject of math, so much so that it became a favorite.

“Everything you do in life requires something to do with math. The better you are in math, the more successful you will be,” he said.

Fairview is located at 750 East Parkway South. The school is undergoing extensive renovation. Part of the building is shutdown, forcing the auditorium stage to become the home of four classrooms.

Principal Selina Sparkman said amid the transition creativity is sparking – students have named the stage area “Cube City,” with one class naming its space “Millerville” in honor of its teacher.

Attendance has increased, she said, attributing it to teachers who are creating an environment that make students want to be at school.

Ball is among them. She was born on Chicago’s Southside, went to undergrad at Spelman College and earned her masters at Columbia University. Her focus was education anthropology and her desire was to know just what she learned looked like in a classroom.

Teach America helped provide the opportunity.

“Education doesn’t just happen in the classroom. It happens in our homes, it happens around the kitchen table. It happens in Boys & Girls Clubs. So my focus is on bringing education from all aspects to give our children the best education that they can have.”

She arrived excited and hopeful that her new students would be open to her desire to be a good teacher. Hope gave way to a pleasant reality.

“I am honored to be their teacher,” she said. “They have this desire to learn, like sponges, and they don’t even realize that they are sponges. They take it all in.”

In a few weeks, the school year will come to a close and Ball knows her students will recall what they soaked up from “guest teacher” Shannon Brown.

“I know that phrase ‘think outside the box’ is going to stick with them,” she said.

“It will far transcend middle school.”

“Guest teacher” Shannon Brown of FedEx Express found himself in good company during a visit to Fairview Middle School.


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