AAPS Exceptional Teachers: Ko Shih & Jason DePasquale, Ann Arbor Open team teachers

By Jo Mathis/AAPS District News

Teaching can be a lonely profession, but that’s never a problem for Ko Shih and Jason DePasquale.

Now in their fourth year of team-teaching 5th and 6th graders at Ann Arbor Open, the two say they wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It’s great to have a team teacher,” says Pasquale, “because your students can have two teachers, and that’s double the chances for you to make a connection with the student, or for the student to make a connection with you.”

“It makes it more fun to have somebody else in here,” says Shih, who has been team teaching for 18 years now. “Teaching can be such a lonely, lonely experience, it’s nice to have someone else around.”

At Ann Arbor Open, teachers have the same students for two years. So, fifth graders have the same teacher for sixth grade, first graders have the same teacher for second grade, etc.

So half the class is always moving on, and the other half is always coming up.

“And that creates just a great continuity, because sometimes you need a year to figure a kid out and for a kid to figure you out,” says DePasquale, “and by the time we’re done with fifth grade, we know each other very well. We know each other’s challenges and strengths. And so we get them for another full year to continue.”

There are other teams of teachers at A2 Open and throughout the district, but this 5th/6th multi-age classroom is unique in that DePasquale and Shih team teacher every subject together, all the time.

“The way Jason and I run things, we’re just one big, happy family,” says Shih, noting that in normal times, students are free to walk back and forth between classrooms.

The team teaches in two adjoining rooms, moving easily back and forth between classes, and sometimes opening the room up to one large classroom. (COVID restrictions, of course, have temporarily altered this dynamic.)

The curriculum can be very individualized, and tailored to kids who are struggling in certain areas but thriving in others.

“We have two years with them to support them where they’re where they have some challenges and to encourage them where they really have an affinity,” he says.

Several sixth graders said they enjoy learning from two very different teachers with complementary strengths and challenges, and having a larger pool of classmates with whom to buddy up.

Parents say they appreciate the team’s effort they keep their children engaged in learning whether they’re at school (“roomies”) or online (“Zoomies”).

Celia Ross says that although her daughter, Josie Simpson,  is now in seventh grade, she still feels connected to her time in her 5/6 classroom because of DePasquale’s and Shih’s outreach and engagement with past students.

“Even though all of her seventh grade teachers were great from the start, they were all new to her—and she was new to them—so I know it meant a lot to her to still have this connection to familiar and comfortable ties to school,” says Ross.  “I think this really helped her with the transition to seventh, especially during the crazy time that has been the 20/21 school year … She still references learning and other topics she experienced during that time and applies it to new learning today.”

A big advantage to having a teaching partner is the instantaneous feedback and brainstorming that comes from having two sets of eyes on the students, DePasquale says.

“It really helps to have another brain in the room who’s seeing different things than you are, who is sparking new ideas,” says DePasquale “We’re just able to create and react and respond in a way that I couldn’t have done on my own, and I would think Ko would say the same thing.”

“The second the kids leave the room we can start talking about how something went, and you’re talking to someone who was there for the entirety of it,” he says.

DePasquale’s wife, Amy Sumerton, says she’s watched him, Shih and every other teacher she knows “get worn down to a nib, and yet somehow keep going.”

Indeed, watching him teach in a corner of the bedroom while their two children were learning online and she was working/trying to keep the kids quiet in their 850-square-foot home was extremely stressful at times, she says.

“Luckily, Ko and Jason have an amazing balance,” says Sumerton. “They are team-teacher soulmates. From my vantage point, they truly complete each other. In a year of great duress, it’s been inspiring to watch Jason navigate, learn, try new things, finagle, tweak, and forge ahead. Keeping the students engaged, feeling safe and secure, and working were always at the forefront of his mind, and to do that, he created a variety of games, in-jokes, ridiculous stories, wild videos, and clever assignments.”

For instance, they had their students make videos where they interviewed a family pet or sibling.

“They were so funny, my whole family watched them,” she recalls.

When it’s time to write report cards and have parent teacher conferences, the two will talk to each other first so they can share what they’ve both noticed.

“More information helps us be more reactive to a situation or to a student or to ideas that are percolating in the classroom,” says DePasquale.

Abbey Woodman says that as much as her fifth grade daughter, Charlie, enjoys being in the class, she, too, gets a kick out of the dynamic between the teachers.

“Ko and Jason also banter and tease each other, students can tell how much they care for each other,” she says. “Seeing two very different adults get along and support each other is important … I really do love them both.  They have helped keep us all entertained. And my girl has enjoyed finally meeting them in person.”

Meanwhile, the “Zoomies” learning at home are given just as much consideration, as they were when it was 100 percent remote.

Their Schoology classroom is easy to navigate and you can tell they thought about how to leverage Schoology’s features, not just upload everything and call it “done,” Woodman notes.

Woodman says the team use a variety of activities to keep students engaged, an essential element made even more difficult by telelearning. Every morning begins with jokes and a warm-up activity to complete.

“Jason is a talented artist and often illustrates principles and metaphors students are learning about,” says Woodman. “At lunchtime, students (at home) have the option to eat with each other in Zoom breakout rooms. At the end of the day, the class recaps the day’s events and watches a fun video together.”

Shih attended The Open School at Bach herself, and when she did her student teaching, she decided she’d love to do so at the Open School, which in 1998 moved into Mack Elementary to become Ann Arbor Open at Mack.

Shih did her student teaching with Rick Hall in the fall of 2001, and from the get-go, the two functioned more like a team.

“He really created an environment that made me feel more like a co-teacher than a student teacher, encouraging me to contribute as much as possible,” she recalls. “ When I was hired at AAPS in 2003, Rick and I decided to get the team back together.  Rick taught me the beauty of having a partner in the classroom whom you could bounce ideas of off, help make connections with all of the kids, always question what we are doing and why and how we can make it better, and above all, to have fun.”

They team-taught together from 2003 until he retired in June of 2017 when DePasquale—who had been their student-teacher—stepped in.

“People will ask me what the difference is between open schools and traditional schools,” says Shih, “and oftentimes I have a hard time answering because I don’t know, I’ve just lived here my whole life.”

Ko Shih

Education: Born and raised in Ann Arbor. Attended Open School at Wines, then moved to Bach when the program was consolidated to that building; Clague Middle School; Huron High School graduate. Teaching degree from Eastern Michigan University, followed by a Master’s in Education Leadership and Administration in 2008.

Career path: Started teaching 5/6 at Open in 2003.

Family:  No kids, but a wonderful dog named Luna. 🙂

Current hometown: Ann Arbor.

Jason DePasquale

Education: Wheeler High School in Valparaiso, Indiana. College: Eastern Michigan University, and several other places before that.

Career path: It took me quite a while to discover teaching. I had many odd and interesting jobs throughout my twenties, but nothing that was a career path. When I moved to Ann Arbor in 2002, two important things happened: I began nannying for my nieces, which meant that I was frequently visiting my sister’s classroom (also a teacher in the district), and my niece’s classrooms at Ann Arbor Open School. I also started volunteering at 826michigan, a local nonprofit tutoring and writing center. I suddenly learned that I enjoyed working with kids, and that school had changed quite a bit since my own elementary school days. I went back to school to get my teaching degree. (I also did my student teaching in Rick & Ko’s classroom!). I taught for five years at Summers-Knoll School, then moved to Open to take over for Rick when he retired in 2017.

Family: My wife Amy is an editor and writer. We have two kids: Violet (9) and Abe (6), both of whom attend Ann Arbor Open School. My sister Natalie DePasquale is a teacher at Lawton (and she’s responsible for launching my teaching career), and my brother-in-law Mike Sumerton is an assistant principal at Huron High School.

Current hometown: Ann Arbor.

Mantra: This year? Probably something like, “I don’t know why it’s not working. Did you reload? Try reloading.”