Conference seeks to rally, empower Montana's top teachers

2014-07-23T20:00:00Z 2014-08-18T14:19:17Z Conference seeks to rally, empower Montana's top teachersBy DEREK BROUWER dbrouwer@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

It wasn’t entirely clear whether the wastebasket Billings teacher Shelly Stanton clutched was a receptacle or a shield as she fielded a barrage of crumpled paper hurled by fellow educators during her conference session on Wednesday.

This was Stanton’s idea of facilitating discussion, a fun technique the teachers could use to excite their students to speak up. They were to dash to the front of the classroom to retrieve the paper, then read and answer questions their peers had written on them.

Speaking up was also the message to all 100 or so educators who took part in the state’s first Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teaching and Teachers, or ECET2, event this week at Skyview High School.

The event, hosted by and for some of Montana’s top teachers, urged attendees to serve as leaders in their schools and become ambassadors for public education, including Common Core.

“Teachers are crucial change agents in our school system,” said Anne Keith, an instructional coach in Bozeman.

Keith, the 2010 Montana Teacher of the Year, organized ECET2-Montana after attending a national version of the conference earlier this year.

The way the national conference brought teachers together to learn from and empower one another got Keith “fired up,” she said. She secured funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Montana Professional Teaching Foundation to bring ECET2 to her home state.

Presenters on Wednesday included former state teacher of the year winners as well as those who have earned National Board Certification. Their fellow award winners, plus educators from Billings and Bozeman, attended the workshops.

“Before, we would bring in experts to teach us to be better teachers,” attendee and Bozeman instructional coach Kim Quigley, said. “But I think now we’re realizing, we are the experts.”

Stanton’s session, titled “Get Your ‘Fun’ On,” was designated as B.Y.O.D — bring your own device — and highlighted the latest interactive tech tools at teachers’ fingertips. In another session, early education teachers discussed how new state standards are impacting young children.

“This puts the exploration back in for kids who are young,” Billings teacher Lisa Scott commented during the session on Common Core. “These standards are giving us that permission to back up and let them explore, let them come up with their ideas.”

At ECET2, teachers were encouraged to speak up about the new, more rigorous standards, which have faced varying degrees of public opposition and legislative backlash across the country.

Officials with the state Office of Public Instruction and MEA-MFT hosted a session on “Elevating teacher voices in support of Common Core,” and recorded video clips of attendees expressing their enthusiasm for the standards.

State Superintendent Denise Juneau emphasized the importance of strong leadership from Montana teachers in an address to the group Wednesday morning.

“You are the best messengers for public education,” Juneau said.

Teachers who attended didn’t need cajoling to discuss how Common Core is changing their classrooms and their profession.

The broad and challenging nature of the standards are encouraging teachers to take new risks in their lesson plans, Bozeman teacher Kristi Jacobs said. That also means Jacobs and her peers must work together more than ever to figure out which strategies work and which don’t.

“If you do not collaborate, you will fail as a teacher with the Common Core,” she said.

Her fellow Bozeman teachers, chatting about the topic during lunch, said they are embracing the challenge, in part because they have already seen it benefit their students.

“I’m super excited about the Common Core,” Becca Stevens said. 

Kristi Gaines, who teaches second grade, said about half of her students last year had been educated under the standards, and she noticed a difference.

Students differed not necessarily in the concepts they knew, Gaines said, but rather in their ability to show and discuss their understanding.

The teachers are also thrilled to see that important skills like writing and critical thinking are introduced earlier to students, they said. Therese Alexander’s kindergartners completed exercises in persuasive writing last year, while Gaines’ second graders were writing perhaps four times each day in all subject areas.

In science, a writing component to lessons is helping Gaines’ students think more deeply and find answers on their own. They’re even formulating simple science experiments on their own, Gaines said.

“You need to present that,” Quigley encouraged her, “because that’s huge.”

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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