Last year, I had the opportunity to visit Denmark and meet with union leaders to discuss their education system. Though much has stuck with me from that trip, the piece that stands out foremost in my mind is their underlying philosophy about teaching children – the notion that “first we are human.”
I was reminded of that core philosophy when I visited Georgetown Exempted Village Schools a few weeks ago. Full disclosure, I must first confess that Georgetown is the town where I spent my entire life before becoming President of the Ohio Federation of Teachers. I graduated from Georgetown and taught at Georgetown, my husband graduated from Georgetown as well as taught and coached there, and my five children all graduated from Georgetown, so I have deep roots in the system. Of course, anytime you have spent a lifetime somewhere, you accumulate both good and bad memories, so I tried to approach this visit with a fresh set of eyes. After all, approximately half the staff has turned over since I left six years ago though several of those spots have been filled with students I once taught.
You can’t help but feel welcome as soon as you walk through the doors at either building. In the high school, you will be greeted by Christy Lucas who has lived in Georgetown her entire life, probably already knows everyone who walks through the doors, and treats them all as if they are family. In the elementary, you will be greeted by Karen Colwell, whose warm smile and genuine love for kids makes everyone feel immediately at home. The warmth these two show visitors to the schools is multiplied in the care and attention that they give the students who come to the office for multiple reasons – sometimes even just to get encouragement from one of these ladies.
The overall atmosphere in each school is also inviting. In the elementary school, the walls along the hallways are covered with impressive art work done by the students – so impressive that I stopped in unannounced to compliment the art teacher Lynette Garrett, on the quality of work. Her art room is a treasure trove of materials used to engage the students in art projects. She clearly loves teaching art and has inspired her students.
The jr./sr high school has transformed its library – my former space – into a student learning/resource center. The space is designed not only for comfort, but also for learning with an area for classroom presentations and a large whiteboard covered with information about college visits, scholarship information, and other items to help students think about their futures.
In the elementary school, teachers are experimenting with flexible seating options, as evidenced in some of the pictures above. The idea behind this is that optimal learning doesn’t necessarily take place when students are sitting in traditional desks in straight rows but rather when students are comfortable and can adjust according to their needs. For example, many students are kinesthetic learners and learn not only learn through motion but can also concentrate better when they can fidget a little – kind of like an adult who doodles or clicks a pen. Seats that look like bouncy balls can provide that movement without being a disruption to the rest of the class. Also, flexible space within the classroom allows for students to work together in different types of groupings or even find isolated space for when they need to minimize distractions and focus alone. I, admittedly, was a little skeptical of how these type of classrooms might function because I was imagining a classroom management nightmare, but after observing 6th-grade math teacher Molly Ellis in action, it was clear that not only did she have command of the room, but the students were actually deeply engaged in figuring out a complex word problem with fractions. This type of atmosphere fits in well with the notion that first we are human – instead of treating everyone the same, the space accommodates the different comfort levels and learning styles of students.
Physical space is just one of the aspects of putting students first though. The deeper aspect of this is how the teachers interact with the students. Georgetown, like several schools I have visited, has an advisory period during each day that they use to build mentoring relationships with the students. The elementary has advisory once a week, but the middle school and high school have it every day. Each week, the advisory groups throughout the whole district focus on some type of personal characteristic or social responsibility. For example, when I visited, they were discussing leadership. Prior to that , they had discussed responsible use of social media. The week starts with a video message from the superintendent about the topic of the week. The advisory group then discusses the concept more in-depth with the teacher and ends the week by talking about examples they saw throughout the week. During the week, the advisory teacher meets with each student individually to check on the progress being made in all classes but also to identify if the student is struggling in any way or just needs to talk about an issue. This type of relationship is intended to provide each student with at least one caring adult who is checking in with him or her on a human level and showing an interest in that student as a person. I had the opportunity to observe Heather Bertram’s advisory period which was rich with discussion about the many different ways to display leadership and the people they viewed as leaders within the school. The conversation was very open and fluid which indicates to me that the students have trust in Heather and feel comfortable have open conversation in that advisory space.
After Heather’s advisory period, I also talked with her about the additional work she and another colleague, Krista Cahall, do with younger students in the system. They run a program called Girl Strong (check it out on Facebook or Twitter – @GEVSGirlStrong). Originally started as a program to get girls in grades 3-6 physically active, the group has grown into a mentoring program where Heather and Krista work with students in grades 9-12 to provide mentorship to the younger girls in the Girl Strong program. In addition to staying physically active, the girls work on various projects and raise money for special causes. More importantly though, this group, which includes over 90% of the girls in grades 3-6 has become a place where girls can be a part of something bigger than themselves, build friendships, and have positive role models. In addition, the older girls providing the mentorship are learning the value of giving their time to help others, and will tell you themselves, as I heard one senior express, that they think twice about their own decisions now because they know they have younger students looking up to them.
I started the afternoon by visiting Rachel Bishop’s kindergarten class. I try to do this anytime I am back in Georgetown schools because Rachel has always amazed me a teacher. Several of my own children had her as a teacher, so I have seen her skills from the parent perspective. As someone who worked with her in the school though, I can attest to her ability to both command respect from the children while also nurturing them and helping them to develop confidence in their learning abilities. Somehow, she could walk into the library after I would read a rousing rendition of Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus that would get the students very rambunctious and somehow within three seconds have the students quiet and ready to move on their next activity. And her students adore her. During this visit, Rachel’s students demonstrated their counting abilities – all the way to 100- and also taught me everything they knew about the letter “Y.”
After finishing in Rachel’s room, I went to Molly Ellis’ sixth-grade math class. They were studying fractions. Earlier in the week, I had testified before the House Education Committee about Ohio’s Learning Standards and had been drilled by some legislators about “new math” (funny that people have been talking about new math for 50 years), and had specifically been asked why students are asked to demonstrate their math work through different models. I wish those legislators could have observed Molly’s class with me. The class watched a short video math problem in which a container of Kool-Aid was partially emptied into another container. The class had to estimate how much was left and give answers in different fractions. After spending some time discussing whether the estimates looked too high or too low, they moved to the next part of the problem. In this part, they were told that the original amount of fluid was 1/2 liter and that 3/8 of a liter was left. They then had to use models to figure out how much had been poured out. I thought I could do this problem in my head, as I’m sure did many of the students. AS the students started drawing the problem out though, I could see, as could Molly, where many of us were making a mistake. The models, as well as the manipulatives that Molly used, helped the students visualize the concepts they were working with. Instead of just applying a math formula, they could see how the numbers interacted with each other and why an answer was right or wrong. Molly was able to coach the students through their work instead of just showing them how to work a problem by writing it on the board and trying to explain the concept. This style of teaching will help build a stronger foundation for much higher level math down the road because students are actually developing an understanding of deeper concepts rather than just memorizing math facts.
I wish, as I wish every time I end a day at a school, that I had had more time to see more classes. I know that what I saw while visiting Georgetown was just the tip of the iceberg of all that is happening, but that tip was impressive. High-quality teaching combined with treating the students with individual care and attention is laying a foundation for future success.
Georgetown teachers, thank you for understanding that while academic achievement is important, caring about kids and teaching them how to interact with each other, care about each other, and work with each other is the underlying structure that allows for that success to happen.
Though this visit was back on Nov. 3, it is now the day before Thanksgiving. (yes – I am way behind on my blogs. I have done two visits since this which I will be writing about over the course of the next few days.) In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I want to say “Thank you” to some special people I saw while in Georgetown but did not get to spend much time with:
John Copas – thank you for believing in my ability to move on to this job even when I had given up on myself
Chad McKibben – one of my enduring memories is the night my step-father passed away. I was at a basketball game at the school when I found out and rushed immediately to the hospital. I don’t know how you found out so quickly, but when I got out of my car at the hospital, you were pulling up behind me to check on me. Thank you!
Deanne Cooper – I miss seeing you and talking with you. Thank you for always being a good friend.
Tuesday Nichols – I always admired not only your great teaching but also your kind spirit. Thank you for being a positive influence.
Heidi Hyde – Thank you for always making me laugh and for always stopping in to see how you and your students could help me.
Tanja Haughaboo – Whenever I ask my children to list best teachers, you are always on that list. Thank you for making school challenging yet interesting for my children.
Donna DeVries – Even before you became a teacher, your presence in the school had a strong impact on my children. Thank you.
Carrie Hudson – I do not know anyone who works as hard as you but you are still always smiling. Thank you for being a role model for me.
Karen Colwell – It would take a book to thank you for all the ways you have touched my life and the lives of my children- plus I’d probably have to share some embarrassing stories. Thank you! Love You!
Rachel Bishop – Most dependable person I have ever met in my life. Thank you for everything you have ever done for me. Really miss you.
Donna Day – Such a beautiful spirit. Thank you for your gentleness and kindness.
GiGi Grant – I’ve been fortunate to have traveled to a lot of places, but no trip will ever mean as much to me as the one you let me take with you. Thank you for your friendship and for continuing to check up on me periodically even now.
Christy Lucas – Not enough words. You have been such a positive influence on my whole family. Thanks for always caring.
Cary Gray – I always enjoy seeing you. Thanks for always taking an interest in my family and for being someone my children continue to want to stay in contact with.
Holly Woodruff – Wish I could have actually talked with you while I was in Georgetown. Thank you for being that teacher who makes students think. And thank you for all the investment you have made in Georgetown schools. Every time I think of you, I smile.
Brent Caldwell – Why didn’t I see you? You are another teacher my children list as a favorite. Thank you for being a positive male role model.
Faith Ecker – I didn’t see you either. Thank you for your friendship.
Matt Cameron – You are such a great guy. Wish I could have talked with you while there. Thank you for stepping in for me after I left, and thank you for all the laughs over the years.
Dee Dee Faust – I didn’t get to see you either. Thank you for all you have done through the years at Georgetown and for always being a friendly person to talk to.
Rachael Osman – You are an amazing leader and teacher! Just this week, I was bragging about you to someone in Columbus. Thank you for taking the union work at Georgetown to new levels. You impress me!
Gar Seigla – If you made it all the way to the bottom of this blog, then you truly are a good friend! I’m glad that there was still a door across the hall from you when I was at Georgetown. Having you there to listen to me vent on bad days or to share a laugh with on good days was one of the best parts of being at Georgetown. Thank you for always being a good friend (and for rescuing me that day when I was screaming for help!). I truly miss you!
Tony Becraft – I know we lost you years ago, but there is no way I can step into that school ( or even drive into the town) without thinking about you. You were Georgetown schools to literally hundreds (thousands?) of students. You always took the time to really get to know your students and to treat them as important individuals. You truly cared, and your students felt that. Thank you for all the laughs, all the encouragement, all the friendship you gave me in the too short time that I knew you.
I apologize for those I am sure that I have missed. So many of you have had a positive impact on my life. Thank you all and have a wonderful Thanksgiving!
Interested in having OFT visit your classroom? Contact Jill Jones to schedule a visit.