Greens Farms Academy is a PreK-12, coed school in Westport, CT

Faculty Spotlight

Valeria Ibarcena: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Education

After growing up in Peru, California, and Chile, Valeria Ibarcena entered her freshman. year at Princeton University intending to major in international studies. In addition to her travel experiences, she was also drawing on her academic experiences.

“I did Model UN in high school — it was really my thing. So I was 100% sure I wanted to study international politics when I got to college,” she explained.

Princeton, being a liberal arts university, offered a wide variety of classes and Ibarcena took every opportunity to explore the many areas that piqued her interest, which is when she found religion — or rather, Religion as a major. In addition to the ecclesiastical focus of the major, it also crossed over into many other disciplines, like international studies and history. (This would come in handy when she got to GFA.) Her particular focus was New American Religious Movements, culminating in a thesis paper studying the Church of Latter-day Saints to discover how groups and identities are created over time.

“The LDS in particular is such a good movement to study. They’re old enough to have ties to American history, but new enough to be faced with a lot of pressures in defining themselves as a new religious movement,” she said.

As graduation neared, Ibarcena wasn’t exactly sure what her next move would be. She envisioned doing some kind of nonprofit work, and with that in mind she applied for a related summer internship that she did not get. Instead, she was placed in a summer internship program in Boston, working in a classroom with low-income students to help them avoid “summer slide.” To her surprise, she learned she would be teaching math to first through eighth graders. Math was not one of the subjects she had spent a lot of time with in the past few years, but she looked forward to the challenge. Ibarcena spent the first half of the 12-week program learning common core math for grades 1-8, developing curriculum, and devising extracurricular activities to balance out the academics. She spent the next six weeks working with the students, and discovered a new passion along the way.

“It just felt very right to be teaching,” she smiled. “I fell in love with teaching that summer.”

When she returned to Princeton that fall, Ibarcena enrolled in the school’s teacher preparation program, and hasn’t looked back.

In 2017 Ibarcena joined GFA and is now a Global Studies Teacher. From the beginning, she was drawn to the interdisciplinary nature of the school’s curriculum. In many ways, it reflected her own educational journey: when she started down one path, she discovered that it intersected with another, and another, and so on, until she realized that each path related to the ones that came before and after.

Take, for example, her ninth grade Big Histories class. The curriculum spans a timeline of 14 billion years, beginning with the Big Bang, “broken into eight thresholds that increase in complexity from that moment to the next.” The first weeks of the class are actually more closely related to math, astronomy, biology, and chemistry than “history,” in a traditional sense. That interdisciplinary complexity is what Ibarcena loves most about the class. Its draw is that it can appeal to any student, regardless of what their interests are.

“It’s such a broad-ranging class. I like that the students are able to work their own interests and perspectives in at some point during the year,” she said. “That is the most rewarding part of teaching that class: getting know the students individually and have them each shine at different moments depending on where in the historical story we were.”

She also co-teaches the Global Thesis class alongside two other teachers. Throughout the year students will research a global topic of their choice, and then develop an in-depth analysis and presentation on their topic later in the spring. While the class could be very insular, with each student working on his or her own project, and each topic ranging widely from the next, instead it is collaborative and interactive. This approach also enables the students to support each other through problems with their research, and to share different methodological approaches.

Ibarcena explained, “When we come together, we’re having conversations about politics, what’s happening in the world, and students’ particular projects. I think they really enjoy being able to be in the classroom space with each other and talk about whatever important thing is on their mind.”

She also pointed out that the difficulty with a class where students pick their own area of study is that they could pick something that the faculty members know very little about.

“We’re learning so much right along with them. It’s a collaborative class on all fronts,” she confirmed. “It’s some subjects I’m familiar with and some that I have no idea about until the students and the teachers learn about it together.”

Learning to say, “I don’t know,” is something every new teacher struggles with, but it was a concept that she grasped right from the beginning of her teaching experience: “I think you admit it, and once you admit it, the next step is that you and the student can figure it out together.”

Two years into her teaching career, Ibarcena said she is constantly surprised about how invigorated she feels.

“You’re having all kinds of conversations with students and faculty about academic perspectives, political and civic opinions, issues that the students are going through, any number of things. Every day is different, but every day is deeply, deeply exciting in its own way,” she said.