While students may have had a day off March 11 from classes, their teachers were still hard at work, going through a day of training led by their peers who recently returned from the North Carolina Technology In Education Society conference.
The teachers weren’t the only Elkin City Schools employees and officials working that day, as the board of education and administration were in a two-day board retreat. During the retreat, Cynthia Altemueller, chief academic officer, took time to explain what the teachers were doing that day and to thank the board for protecting the staff development day rather than using it as a snow make-up day.
Some staff development days are different than others, she explained. One training which took place involved a representative from the North Carolina Museum of Art who shared ways to incorporate fine art and classical works of art into classrooms.
“We’ve had teachers ask ‘what do we do with arts’ in their classroom. It’s not just about Adam Beshears teaching them an art lesson,” said Altemueller of what that was one of the seminars scheduled.
Elkin City Schools has chosen to follow a STEAM (science technology engineering arts mathematics) program in its curriculum, and the seminar was provided as a way to teach instructors how to blend the arts element of STEAM into the core curriculum classes.
The afternoon was a time for the teachers to share with each other what they’d brought back from the NCTIES conference held just a week earlier in Raleigh. The teachers signed up for two sessions and the presenters, Altemueller explained, were the system’s own teachers.
“When you see those teachers who presented, thank them for being a leader,” she said. “It is easy to stand in front of students, but when you have to stand up in front of your peers to teach them or explain something that will make their job easier, it is very hard to do that.”
Elkin High School Principal Joel Hoyle said this is the second year the system has used this format, with different teachers being sent to the conference each year. “It’s not a cheap conference, but it is something we all felt like was very good. We had very good feedback from other teachers last year on what was brought back. They bring back useful things they can go straight into the class and use.”
“I taught one [seminar] last year,” said Elkin Elementary School Principal Pam Colbert. “It was packed, and they wanted to be there. And I saw it being used in the classrooms.”
Altemueller said a focus of training the teachers is to make sure they are prepared to teach “21st century learners who can go out to college or in the community and have the preparedness to be successful.”
That means making sure they know the three R’s — reading, writing and arithmetic, as well as the four C’s — critical thinking, creativity, communication and collaboration.
The instructors know what the standards are and getting to the standards is the goal, but the vehicle to get to those standards, the curriculum, varies so it can be differentiated depending on what type of learner a student is, Altemueller explained to the board.
“Standards, we are required to do, and curriculum is the path we take to get there,” explained Dustin Webb, assistant principal for Elkin Elementary School, as Altemueller asked those in the room to describe a picture of a runner along a path labeled curriculum with the finish line being the standards.
She then showed everyone a slide breaking down a right brain and a left brain, with the left brain focusing on scientific, technical and analytical things, while the right brain was illustrated as more creative with a focus on theater, music and art.
“What does that have to do with learning?” she asked the board members.
“We have to teach based on all learning types,” responded Haley Sullivan, vice chair of the school board. While member Dr. Jane Riley added, “And incorporate their strengths.”
Riley said she was able to see an early college presentation from students who wrote and performed a song on the history of chemistry. “It was amazing, it was fascinating, and it was the epitome of what project-based learning is about.”
“We need to make sure we address those learners,” Altemueller said. “As we prepare for professional development, we are forever saying ‘let’s not forget the kind of learners we have,’ so when we offer sessions like this we’ve tapped into the right brain, the left brain. There are many types of learners, and we have to practice what we preach.”
One of the new additions to being sure the students are using project-based learning are the schools’ new MakerSpaces, with the elementary school’s up and running full steam already. Colbert said she was at an event with other school administrators, and a Chapel Hill administrator was fascinated with the description of what Elkin Elementary’s MakerSpace is about, and they have already called to schedule a visit to see it.
Altemueller said the MakerSpace project at the middle and high schools will look different than the one at the elementary school, “because the students are different.” They are looking at redirecting carts so the MakerSpaces will go to the classroom instead of the students going to the MakerSpace.
“My goal by this summer is to define what goes on that cart, and if it is a room at the school, what do we want the room to look like,” she said.
“STEAM is not going away. It’s here to stay, and the fact we are on the forefront of educating our teachers and not just using the lingo but performing it in the classroom and preparing our students,” she said.
In addition to MakerSpaces for the classroom, Altemueller said the schools are discussing the idea of putting areas in the media center at the high school where students can visit during their breaks or lunches and tinker or play chess, like MakerSpace on a smaller scale.
Hoyle said he is hoping to visit East Forsyth High School after hearing about its MakerSpace area at the NCTIES conference. “The big thing is we have so many core content areas, and I want it to be able to fit so if history is doing something curriculum related it will line up.”
Altemueller showed a video of young boy doing a project at home from magictricks-withcards.blogspots.com called Audri’s Monster Trap, which was an example of what those at the retreat called “enthusiasm, creativity and the scientific method.”
“It’s so far from my generation’s view of what’s expected from you in school, that first time you do something it has to be perfect and your best work. For my generation the word failure is taboo,” said Superintendent Dr. Randy Bledsoe after seeing the video.
With two mandatory staff development days and five early release days, the school system has been able to fit in 27 hours of staff development which didn’t cost the district anything, Altemueller said.
“I want you to know our teachers have opportunities within, and we utilize our experts,” she said.
Bledsoe said this STEAM and STEM training is very important to the students, because “over the next few years, 17 percent of the available jobs are going to be STEM related compared to about eight percent that are non-STEM related. I want my kid in the 17 percent, I want Elkin City Schools kids in the 17 percent.
For [some teachers], we’re pushing the edge, because we might have to change their teaching methods. Our kids are different than my generation,” he said.
“When we took this on three years ago, it took us all out of our comfort zone. What we’re talking about teaching and learning is getting us to the future of our community and helping our students support what they were going to be learning,” said Bledsoe.
“When you look at the data, the data tells us that teachers and this team are doing the right thing. We are an envy. When we go to Chapel Hill or wherever, they say I can’t believe you’re doing that.”
Wendy Byerly Wood may be reached at 336-258-4035 or on Twitter @wendywoodeditor.