History teacher’s passion for intentional design pays off for students

By Cindy O'Dell for Brandman University, an ACSA Partner4Purpose

It’s not your usual classroom.

Chris Cumiford

Chris Cumiford makes history tangible to students in Visalia.

It’s all a matter of perspective, which is really what this high school teacher is all about. Step into Chris Cumiford’s high school room and you’re likely to think you’ve stepped through time. Or maybe into a coffeehouse. Or maybe someone’s college-era living room, complete with well-used, overstuffed chairs. Or maybe into the best museum you’ve been in lately.

“I want the students in my room to feel challenged but also to have laughed about, touched and felt like they lived history,” said Cumiford as he introduced a pair of visitors to his Visalia Technical Early College (VTEC) High School room.

One wall holds three screens for showing multimedia presentations. Another is a series of nooks with everything from a Wheaties box to skulls to artwork to books. Another wall is dedicated to a place for students to create a magazine. The harsh fluorescent lights are off. Lantern-like light fixtures of various designs give the room a warm glow.

Sonia Guiterrez-Mendoza and Chris Cumiford

Brandman University Visalia Campus Director Sonia Guiterrez-Mendoza looks over some of the materials Chris Cumiford uses in his classroom. Guiterrez-Mendoza invited him to be part of the California Teachers Summit session held at the Visalia campus earlier this year.

While his Target experience makes him “appreciate every second I have in education,” it also opened his eyes to how intentional design influences behavior, making him think about how it could be used to bring history back to life. Cumiford, who earned his teaching credential at Brandman’s Visalia campus in 2011 when it was still known as Chapman University College, didn’t initially plan to be a teacher, although both his parents were educators. Instead, he decided to try his luck in business, going to work as an executive team leader at Target after graduating from San Francisco State University.

“It isn’t just decoration. It’s much more than that. It’s how you come to understand the world,” he said. And to help his students understand the world that existed before they did, he makes it tangible: a gas mask to touch and study while learning about World War I; gargoyles and reproductions of art to understand the medieval world. But they're not just pictures in a book or on the wall. They’re there to be touched and studied.

The room also boasts some of the major influences in his life: maps and the work of National Geographic “guerilla geographer” Daniel Raven-Ellison, a poster for an exhibit of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus with its mixture of art and science, and a quote from Marcel Proust, “My destination is no longer a place, rather a new way of seeing.”

That all feeds his mission to get students excited about learning to learn rather than just learning.

“We haven’t trained educators to sell their subject,” he said, using another lesson learned at Target. “You have to make sure students are engaged.”

To do that, he splits his classes into self-sustaining modules featuring areas for discussion, project-based learning and interactive lectures. He encourages his students to revisit the past as if they were journalists. That makes them think about more than writing. They also consider how to present the information, who will read it and what they want someone else to know and understand.

None of that would be possible, he said, without the good fortune of meeting VTEC’s principal, Victoria Porter, early in his teaching career.

“She could see the vision and she let me grow as a teacher.”

His first teaching experience was at a charter school for middle school and high school-age students expelled from other schools. While many would consider that the toughest assignment possible, Cumiford said it taught him to make sure there was never any down time.

When VTEC opened – it’s a dependent charter school in the Visalia Unified School District on the Agricultural Farm Campus of the College of the Sequoias – Porter made Cumiford her first hire.

She isn’t the only one to notice his gift for educating. In 2015 he was the Tulare County Teacher of the Year and in 2016 a finalist for California Teacher of the Year. This summer he introduced more teachers to his approach as part of the California Teachers Summit, presenting an EdTalk at Brandman’s Visalia Campus.

And then there are the students. Although he’s been on family leave following the birth of his daughter this fall, his recent visit to his classroom didn’t go unnoticed. “I miss you. I’m used to the way you teach,” shouted a student as soon as she spotted him at his doorway.

That’s where it all begins for Cumiford – at the doorway. “The entrance to the class sets the tone, and the teacher sets the tone for the class from the first moment. You have to let people know the information is important.”

Come on in and learn.

ACSA is dedicated to providing K-12 administrators with relevant content and building events that focus on today’s most important school administration issues. Join us on November 8-10 in San Diego for ACSA’s annual Leadership Summit, a world-class premier professional development event. The Summit is a gathering of educators at all levels of administration in celebration of the profession. For 2.5 days, this event provides opportunities for invaluable networking, offering professional development on current critical leadership and educational issues.

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