Faculty in Focus: Siri Berman, High School Social Studies Teacher

The Graded Gazette

Your majors at Bates College were psychology and rhetoric. How does your academic background inform your teaching?

Early on in my first semester of college, I discovered that much of what I learned in each class was connected and relevant to the content in my other classes. I was amazed by how much the topics in my psychology and rhetoric (the art of persuasion) courses complemented one another. I was fascinated by how theories of rhetoric—like Burke’s theory, which suggests that persuasion involves identification—could be useful in my education studies. There were no rigid boundaries between courses, unlike what I had experienced in high school. 

As a teacher, I try to help my students see and appreciate those cross-disciplinary connections. So if you’re in my psychology class, you will engage with ideas from TOK, biology, and English. When discussing mental health, for instance, we might talk about how a character from a book read for a literature class exhibits symptoms of PTSD.

Approaching learning in this fashion makes the process much easier and more exciting. When students can connect new ideas to concepts with which they are already familiar, they are more likely to remember and understand them. This interdisciplinary approach also allows students to explore topics in greater depth as they consider them from different perspectives. 

Ms. Berman working with her students at Graded

As a Massachusetts native, what inspired you to teach abroad? 

Pure chance! Before going to college, I had never even left North America, and I had no inclination to do so. Even during my first years of college, I was not particularly interested in living abroad. But at Bates, studying abroad is extremely common. So in my junior year, I just followed my classmates’ lead and enrolled at a university abroad for a semester. 

The subsequent months in New Zealand changed my life. The people I met there didn’t seem to fit into stereotypes the way my high school and college classmates had; my Kiwi friends couldn’t be described as jocks or musicians but rather as kooky Renaissance people who were unlike anyone I had ever met. 

I caught the travel bug in New Zealand. Every day I was awed by breathtaking views. After that semester, I returned to Maine with the newfound knowledge that I desperately wanted to keep exploring the world. 

After I graduated, a family friend put me in touch with a small, Massachusetts-based company that offered month-long learning-skills courses to students at several national and international private schools. At the time, I wanted to pursue a career in advertising, but I was eager to travel first. So, when the company offered me a position as a course instructor, I took it. I spent the following year teaching study skills to students at schools in Mexico, Spain, Thailand, and Australia. By the time my contract expired, I was completely hooked, and I immediately accepted a full-time position as a teacher at the school at which I had worked in Mexico City. 

Ms. Berman enjoying her time in New Zealand

In what ways have your experiences living in Mexico, Ecuador, and Brazil been similar? How have they been different? 

The people of Mexico, Ecuador, and Brazil demonstrate an amazing zest for life. They are so optimistic, loving, playful, and joyful, and they always seem to be celebrating something! That energy makes Latin America an incredible place. Some of my most cherished memories in each of these countries are of sharing regional foods with local people and listening to them speak about their cultures. They are often very excited to learn about other countries, too. 

Brazil, Mexico, and Ecuador all boast natural resources and postcard-worthy vistas: the blue waters and white rocks of the Huasteca region of Mexico; the imposing mountains and volcanoes of Ecuador; the pristine, sandy beaches of Brazil. Unfortunately, all three of these countries also share very high levels of corruption and socioeconomic inequality. As a result, many locals cannot benefit from their country’s natural beauty. 

Our experience in Brazil so far has been vastly different because we have young kids here! In Ecuador, for example, my husband and I would often go on spur-of-the-moment trips to remote locations, which would have been impossible had we had small children.

Ms. Berman and Mr. Barsanti’s wedding in Ecuador

What would your students say are your greatest strengths as a teacher? 

That’s a really tough question. I’d like to think they would say that I help them develop agency in my classes and that I create a space in which they feel empowered to direct their own learning. 

Their academic empowerment is my main goal, but I take many steps to get them there. For students to develop agency, it is imperative that they first practice their skills in controlled and predictable environments. So I hope students always come into my classroom knowing what to expect. 

Similarly, for students to make sound and informed decisions about their education, they need to be familiar with different learning strategies and know which approaches work best for them. I aim to support my students as much as possible as they put these strategies to use. 

If you had to leave teaching, what other career(s) might you pursue? 

I often fantasize about being a voice actor for cartoons or Audible (because I love reading out loud!). More realistically, though, I think a lot about going back to school to deepen my knowledge of health psychology, specifically focusing on women’s health. 

Most knowledge we have about how to lead a healthy life (how much to exercise, what the best diets are, etc.) is based on data from men and post-menopausal women. It’s more challenging to study menstruating women because of the hormonal fluctuations in their bodies. As a result, almost half of our population is underserved by the medical knowledge available. It is irresponsible (and may even be dangerous) to apply knowledge gleaned from biased research to women’s healthcare. 

Researchers are finally realizing it’s worth investing the time and brainpower to get the appropriate data from menstruating women. I am fascinated by this work and would love to help gather and interpret that data. 

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

In my free time, I like to walk in nature, read, and have long, philosophical conversations with people. 

Ms. Berman and friends hiking up the Illiniza Norte Volcano in Ecuador

What are the challenges and joys of living abroad with two young children?

The challenges include being far from family (especially during those long and exhausting first years of motherhood) and never having enough energy to explore the city and country as much as we would like. 

The joys, on the other hand, far outweigh the challenges. It’s delightful to hear our kids speaking Portuguese, and we love showing them the beauty of Brazil and South America. It’s lovely to see them interact with friends from multiple nationalities and learn so much from their nanny and school [Graded]. 

Overall, it’s so much easier having young children here than in the US. Brazil is such a family-friendly country! Brazilians celebrate Children’s Day (even though we all know that every day is children’s day!), and strangers will regularly stop on the street to compliment you on your kids and have a quick chat. When I traveled to the US with my then three-month-old son, Miro, I experienced a bit of culture shock when no one I walked by told me how beautiful or sweet he was! Brazilians are just much more affectionate! 

Ms. Berman and her family on a trip to Mexico City

What do you like most about Graded? 

There is a construct we study in social psychology called reciprocal determinism, which is the idea that we both influence and are influenced by our environment. At Graded, I work with some of the most outstanding scholars, leaders, and advocates I’ve ever met (both adults and students), and it’s pretty exciting to be part of a reciprocal loop of such incredible people! Graded has such wonderful energy. The smiling students, the fantastic lunches, the gorgeous school facilities, and the impressive teacher efficacy at Graded are all the cause and effect of something exceptional that happens here.