Photo by George Lauby
Photo by George Lauby
Early-out Wednesdays, when classes are dismissed at 1:30 p.m. so teachers can huddle, began with clouds of controversy kicked up by disgruntled parents and teachers.
After one school year, the new sets of teacher meetings are becoming the norm, according to rounds of reports at the last two North Platte school board meetings.
Weekly teacher meetings are focused on collaborative teaching and learning, where students gather around tables to figure out answers but individuals contribute in individual ways.
During recent weeks, school board members visited schools themselves to check out the "professional development Wednesdays," talking to administrators and instructional coaches.
They generally came away with a good impression, they said.
School board president Jim Paloucek said traditional lectures coupled with individual studies are not the best way to teach, or learn.
It's nonsensical "to think that every third grader should get the same grade on the same exam," Palouck said. "Success is not spewing a set of facts to a set of rote questions."
School leaders such as Paloucek speak of building relationships in classrooms, of students challenging and encouraging one another to learn, of sharing the excitement and joy of discovery and understanding.
The goal is for every student to be engaged and excited about learning; not just those who currently get the best grades.
Too many students are failing, Paloucek has said. What students need to do now is work with others, learning how to solve real-life problems.
Today, every person has a machine in their pocket that can answer factual questions. Learning facts in the classroom is not as important as loving the process of learning.
Paloucek cited the motto of the public schools foundation -- education is not the filling of a bucket but the lighting of a fire.
Paloucek echoed the only complaints about the changes. When he gave his report, he held up a written list of concerns that teachers had handed to him. He asked outgoing curriculum director Kate Orozco if she would see that another administrator pays attention to the complaints.
Orozco said she would.
Paloucek said parents at Eisenhower Elementary generally told him they were inconvenienced by the early out program, but Washington Elementary parents were less concerned about it, when he visited both schools.
Outgoing Cody Elementary Principal Mike McPherron encouraged board members to make more visits to the schools.
"That format (of personal visits) is much more authentic and realistic (than school board meetings)," he said. "I really encourage it."
When the school's so-called "learning culture" is alive and cooking, students verbalize their thoughts. When they become reasonably confident to share their thoughts, their verbal skills take a giant step forward, Principal Jim Whitney told the board.
Teachers are likewise challenged, said High School Principal Todd Rhoades. They are not typically comfortable talking to one another each week about ways to become better teachers.
But it's good for teachers to work together, said High School English teacher Terry Sodawasser, who was one of the first teachers to buy in.
"I really bought in," he he told the school board May 10. "I've gotten a lot closer with students. I'm an emotional person. I was moved to tears by what I'm seeing and how it's working."
Being book-smart is always important, Sodawasser said, but being able to think on your feet and problem-solve is just as important.
Sodawasser told the Bulletin more students are realizing they have the skills to study and learn.
Likewise, high school math teacher Josh Oberg said he's seen some students make "tremendous strides," as evidenced by students with disabilities who are signing up to study upper level math.
Sodawasser said he gives fewer lectures and gets to know his students better, grasping their individual ways of learning.
He asks more questions. He gives fewer answers.
Kids want to discover the answers, not just be taught, board member Kathy Phares said in her report.
Instilling curiosity and the desire to learn is fabulous, board member Kimberley Kaschke said.
Nose to the wind
"We used to think writing was best taught if it was teacher-directed, but students are better writers if they pick their choice of topics," board member Julie Nielsen said. "Likewise, students learn to read better if they can pick their own reading materials from the library."
Midge Moughey, the principal at the Lake and Osgood Elementary schools, asked the board to continue the early-out Wednesday program.
Lincoln Elementary Principal George Schere said teachers are taking chances and growing, but generally getting their noses to the wind, to use an aircraft analogy, so they fly.
It will take years for team teaching and collaborative learning to become standard practice in every classroom, but at the school board meeting, officials agreed to keep at it.
"It's not a sprint; it's a marathon," Paloucek said.
At the end of the school board meeting, parent Missy Greene and another parent voiced concern about changing counselors at Washington school. Washington will have a new principal too, next year.
Changing both at the same time certainly means less continuity, and less background knowledge about students and families by key school leaders, Greene said.
Paloucek thanked them for their comments.
First published in the May 11 print edition of the North Platte Bulletin.