For teachers, New Year’s resolutions are made in summer

Pam Reilly, IEA Member and 2013-14 Teacher of the Year
Pam Reilly, IEA Member and 2013-14 Teacher of the Year

When the New Year rolls around, some of us resolve to finally shed those extra pounds, to save more money or maybe travel somewhere new.

For teachers, though, resolutions for our classrooms take place in the summer. Resolutions for teachers often involve the well being of their students as much as improving themselves. Great teachers are continuously trying to better themselves and help their students get the most of the year spent together.

The beginning of a new school year is always exciting for me; it feels like a fresh new start and the possibilities are endless.

A new batch of dumplings for me to make connections with, encourage and inspire. I come in with new ideas I’d like to try that I’ve heard about at a conference or an art project I’ve seen on that awe- inspiring Pinterest.

I like to return to my cozy little second grade classroom in my hometown snuggled in among all of the sweet little homes that surround it. So, I can’t imagine packing it all up and heading towns away and leaving my school behind.

This is just what six of our I.E.A. teachers did; they packed it all up and left their home schools in East Aurora, West Aurora and Indian Prairie School District and are unpacking it at a brand new school miles away that is nestled onto the campus of Aurora University.

Their new school is John C. Dunham STEM Partnership School and is our Sight of Success this month. It is a third-through-eighth-grade school with one teacher per grade level. There are 150 students total; two teachers and 50 students from each district.

Front: Kevin O’Connell, Mark Plummer, Allison Kapitanoff, Ed Howerton Back: Sandy Quintanilla, Ann Marie Decker, Michelle Lange, Candace Pierce, Liz Kaleta, Vicki Schacht, Pam Faber Missing: Arin Carter, Kathleen Bradley, Linda Ball, Joan Finn
Front: Kevin O’Connell, Mark Plummer, Allison Kapitanoff, Ed Howerton
Back: Sandy Quintanilla, Ann Marie Decker, Michelle Lange,
Candace Pierce, Liz Kaleta, Vicki Schacht, Pam Faber
Missing: Arin Carter, Kathleen Bradley, Linda Ball, Joan Finn

I’m trying to imagine what their “new school year resolutions” looked like if I were in their shoes. Their school address, new staff and students aren’t the only changes they have encountered.

The Dunham School is paperless – NO paper, NO worksheets of any kind, NO notes home to parents; everything is project based and digital. Every student has their own laptop to do all of their work on. The curriculum is brand new; they are developing it on their own for the most part. They are teaching all of the same subjects but it all revolves around science, technology, engineering and math.

When I had conversations with the teachers, the resounding theme among them was that they felt like they could take the time to dive deep into projects with the students and allow them to explore without being tied to a bell-to-bell, rigid schedule.

Because all of the subjects are integrated into project-based learning, there is no need to have blocks of time set aside for each subject. During my visit I learned that the teachers are learning as they go; they even needed to develop a brand new report card because the standard report card would not work for their students.

Five years in planning, this school has been praised as a model of collaboration among teachers, nonprofits, businesses, university officials, school district leaders and legislators. The state law had to be changed twice in order for the school to begin operation.

The teachers will work at the school in two-to-four-year shifts. After their shift is over, they will return back to their districts to provide professional development to their “home” schools on STEM curriculum and then two new teachers will be recruited to create a cycle of benefit for all of the students in their districts.

The students were chosen through meeting certain academic criteria, and also a lottery. Once a child is in the school, they will remain unless they choose to return back to their own “home” school.

“We know that the work that begins here will reach across the nation and show other communities the pathway to truly creating an outstanding STEM-based academy for the future of our country” said Rebecca Sherrick, Aurora University’s president.

Over the summer, the teachers met several times to work on their new curriculum utilizing technology and 3D printers. Their curriculum is based on Next Generation Science Standards. The students will learn all of their subjects with science in mind.

Candace Pierce, a fourth grade teacher at the new STEM school, who came from Indian Prairie School District, shared her thoughts on being a teacher leader.

“In the beginning, there were a few challenges for our staff, students and parents, as well. The most evident challenge for everyone was the idea of being a digital school. The teachers had all used technology in various ways in previous teaching experiences, but none of us had completely digital classrooms. The majority of resources, students’ work and parent communication are digital. As the year progresses, the technology has become second nature for the students and teachers.

“The ability to be a leader in education, my love of learning and authentic 21st Century learning ignited my interest in applying to the STEM school. I believe the staff at the STEM school is leading the way in education by putting science first. We are also including engineering activities in each unit that require students to apply their new knowledge to solve a problem.”

Ed Howerton, the director at John C. Dunham, described the reservations he had for the first year at the new school.

“There were so many pieces to put together that it seemed overwhelming: a new integrated curriculum, a fully digital environment, hands-on, problem-based learning driven by the new NGS standards.

“But, the main concern for me was bringing together 150 third through eighth grade students and 25 staff members from three school districts and Aurora University to form a school community on the university campus. It turns out, that has been the easiest piece to put into place.”

I am proud of these teacher leaders for leaving their classroom comfort zones and taking on the challenge of a new school, new students, new curriculum and a new staff. Thank you for opening your doors to me and to our IEA members to learn about your Sight of Success.

Happy New Year!

Yours for Better Schools,
Pam Reilly

See previous Sight of Success blog post

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