#RiseGI: Igniting Student Ownership in Grand Island, Nebraska

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By Theresa Staley

The Jefferson Elementary School faculty, along with 255 K–5 students, are currently housed in a temporary location across the city, as a new site is under construction and will open in August 2020. Therefore, the teachers, coach, and school administrator, Mrs. Sheree Stockwell, have innovatively created a student-friendly environment encompassing makeshift decorative curtains as classroom doors and a teachers’ lounge that doubles as a conference room. They brace for the cold as they voyage to and from the building, since several classroom accommodations are in nearby trailers.

A Title I school, 67.2 % of the children are Hispanic, 25.2 % are White, and 4.7% are African American. 87.5% are economically disadvantaged. Although the learning conditions seem somewhat compromised, the staff has an undeniable wealth of love, passion, thirst for knowledge, and devotion to students and to one another.

The district’s motto is #RiseGI, a motto that Jefferson embodies in its collaborative vision for 21st-century learning. Hence, I suggest three distinguishing attributes that launch them as noteworthy and memorable trailblazers in education.

1) A Willingness to Learn: “I’m Doing It All Wrong!”

“Can we take just a minute?” kindergarten teacher Jill Corman turned to me quizzically. “I think I’m doing this all wrong!” It was a Coaching for Implementation day and our C4I team was on the move, walking through classrooms to calibrate our understanding of new teaching techniques in the hopes to effectively peer coach one another.

Ms. Corman, however, wasn’t doing anything in error. Like her colleagues, she was just restless to adopt some of the techniques she had seen in the classrooms she observed. Igniting Student Ownership enkindled a hunger in this staff to investigate what this new form of instruction “looked like” and “sounded like” in their pedagogical practices. From that training onward, the staff asked questions, shared their work, clarified misconceptions, and in the end, stretched far outside their comfort zones to try a new way of teaching and learning.

Today, at any given time, through the diligence of the faculty and the instructional leadership of Mrs. Stockwell, Jefferson’s principal, along with their coach, Mrs. Sarah Sell, students can be found partner monitoring, teaming, and searching for evidences, at any grade level and in any content area. Moreover, the teachers can be seen continuously developing their craft and dabbling in a new technique.

2) The Soup’s Always On!

I’m not sure how low the temperature plummets in this Midwestern region, but “freezing” is an understatement. However, the warmth is undeniable at Jefferson Elementary School. The staff might humbly attribute that to the homemade crockpots of soup they bring to school and share at lunch.

That’s only part of it, though. The happiness, hard work, and educational integrity of these staff members make it a pure joy to be part of the learning environment — one that is completely focused on contributing  to children and the community. Relationships are an enormous part of school culture.

 3) Enjoying Life and Learning

During the first week of 2018, I was in Grand Island presenting our LSI Standards Tracker training to three schools across the district. On January 4, I was gleeful to be in the company of the Jefferson team.

We were all still recovering from the holiday break, and the teachers would be joining me for a new training that would require steadfast attention to the work and their investment in its implementation. Moreover, old man winter was relentless and, once more, I was intruding into their teachers’ lounge with a projector and multiple attachments.

One by one, the teachers entered our workspace, laptops in hand, logged in and prepared to learn. There they were, alert, pleasant, each with a smile, a hug, and gesture of kindness like no other.

“On the upper right-hand corner, just next to your name, you will see a chevron,” I explained, as I instructed them on where to click in the Standards Tracker portal.

Then it happened. They were slow and steady movements, but the faces of the staff began to rise, as their eyes slowly peered at one another. Their wide grins conspicuously said it all. “Chevron?” Mr. Zelansney, a second-grade teacher, attempted to query politely.

Then his colleagues bellowed in chorus with amusement, as did I! As a matter of fact, not one of us could contain ourselves! The chain of events that followed set the stage for a day of merriment as we elaborated on our personal connections surrounding this language, anchoring “chevron” as far more than a drop-down arrow in the Learning Sciences portal.

Word spread across the school as each team entered the training with “chevron” on their minds. From that moment forward, it was part of the Jefferson faculty vocabulary. At that instant, I knew, unequivocally, they would remember far more than our new jargon.

It was the Jefferson way. Enjoy life and learning. As a testament to this notion, the faculty and I gathered after dismissal to pose for a school photo, holding our pinky fingers out to denote our own “chevrons.”

As I drove away that afternoon, the inspiration of a good day emanated, for the work we did and the relationships we built. Every day, I imagined, is a good day in Grand Island.

My colleagues and I truly enjoy every minute spent with the teachers at Jefferson Elementary School. Grand Island’s district leader from Learning Sciences International, Amy Spicher, along with fellow Staff Developers, Phil Carr and Joan Pinkerton have expressed equal advocacy for the staff at both Walnut Middle School and Starr Elementary School.

Personally, the stakeholders of the Grand Island School District convey a powerful message; one that parallels with a unified awareness that something uniquely distinct and exceptionally significant echoes in the climate and culture of their organization. One leader with a vision invested in the leadership of many, and the transformation built them all up for the betterment of our children and mankind. Now, that is impressive!