Olmsted Awards: Through technology, empathy, local grants support teaching 'the whole child'

Date Published: 
May 30, 2019
Author: 
Jenn Smith
News Type: 
WILLIAMSTOWN — Whether it has been through a robotics challenge or ceramics class, lessons on civil discourse or financial literacy, Williams College English professor Bernard "Bernie" Rhie thanked local educators for addressing "the whole child" during the school day.
 
Rhie told a roomful of area teachers, administrators and school committee members that he typically doesn't like to make public talks. But he said he felt compelled to connect with members of Northern Berkshire public schools during the 2019 Bicentennial Olmsted Awards for Faculty and Curricular Development, held Monday morning at the Williams Faculty Club.
 
He noted that higher education professionals stand to learn much from their pre-K-12 counterparts and their understanding of the importance of their efforts to blend social and emotional learning with academics.
 
"I don't think we serve our students well, I don't think we serve our world well when we think of our students primarily as intellectual beings. We need to think of them as whole persons," Rhie said.
 
That means, he said, having the ability and training to recognize when students are struggling to learn because of the effects of hunger or trauma. Himself being a high school dropout turned Zen scholar and tenure-track academic, and someone who, as a parent, watched his child struggling in school after surviving a sudden life-threatening infection, Rhie said he has seen firsthand the difference that compassion can make in the classroom.
 
He told he teachers, "I value you all because you embrace consciously, intentionally, every day the hard work, the beautiful work, the challenging work of working with the entire student."
 
Before his address, Williams College President Maud Mandel served as emcee for the awards ceremony, welcoming and introducing each local school district and their projects. Each will receive $5,000 for professional and curricular development projects through the endowment from the estates of George Olmsted, Jr. ('24) and his wife, Frances. Olmsted was a proponent for excellence in teaching, and he served as president and chairman of the board of the former S.D. Warren (Paper) Co. in Maine.
 
Speaking on behalf of the Adams-Cheshire Regional School District, Hoosac Valley Middle School Principal Chris Sposato shared the work students in grades 4 to 7 have been doing through a science, technology, engineering and mathematics curriculum known as Project Lead The Way. During hands-on classes in robotics and design, Sposato said, "You'll see smiling and engaged students."
 
Through this new round of funding, the district will furnish a robotics classroom at Hoosac Valley Elementary School.
 
Executive Director James "Jay" White said that Berkshire Arts and Technology Charter Public School is developing an "academic master plan." He said new efforts will include enhancing curricula, revising schedules to better accommodate student learning, partnering with other schools and institutions to share strategies, better integrating special education and so-called regular education models, and giving teachers more training to implement these actions.
 
"We need to make sure adults in our school are happy and thriving, too," White said.
 
Lanesborough Elementary School used Olmsted funds over the course of the current school year to provide education programs to students, teachers and staff, as well as families about gender diversity and gender identity.
 
Fourth-grade teacher Jen Szymanski said the goal was to help everyone "be aware of current and appropriate vocabulary" to address students and adults who are transgender or gender fluid.
 
"The Olmsted funds helped us to continue to make a safe space to grow and learn [at the school]," Szymanski said.
 
During the 2019-2020 school year, Lanesborough will use new Olmsted funds to support teacher training in integrated STEM and arts instruction.
 
McCann Technical School library and media specialist Rick Moon explained to the group how iPads have been purchased and integrated into instruction to make learning more engaging.
 
"We thought, let's unleash our teachers and let's get them away from the podium," he said.
 
For the upcoming school year, McCann will focus on revising its grading and assessment policies and developing a "student citizenship score" to evaluate and track students' work ethic, accountability, behavior and respect for others.
 
Made evident through a slideshow of handmade boxes, bowls and sculptures, Mount Greylock Regional School students seem to be enjoying the new ceramics studio and program made possible this year through an Olmsted investment.
 
Fine arts instructor Jane-Ellen DeSomma said, "I understand how technology is so, so important, but I'm very, very happy to furnish kids with this [ceramics] experience."
 
Mount Greylock will use its forthcoming grant to work with the school community in identifying implicit bias and expanding cultural competence. The school also will partner with tje Berkshire County Regional Employment Board and the Credit for Life organization to develop career exploration and financial literacy programs for ninth- and 10th-graders.
 
North Adams Public Schools Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment Kimberly Roberts-Morandi said the district had a vested team of teachers working on nights and weekends to improve student data collection and use it to identify everything from gaps in the curriculum to patterns in student absenteeism. She said the efforts led to things like "some really exciting K-12 alignment" where various themes are being taught across the grades to reinforce students' understanding of a subject.
 
For the upcoming year, the district will focus on preparing teachers to use new strategies in math and civics instruction.
 
Principal Joelle Brookner said Williamstown Elementary School will use Olmsted funds to continue its partnership with cultural competency trainers by working with the Anti-Defamation League, after spending the past year focusing on empathy, respect and digital citizenship. The school also will use new Olmsted funds to support stipends for teachers developing curriculum around the new state history and social studies curriculum frameworks.
 
Brookner said it's important for the school to focus on the former before moving on to the latter.
 
As Rhie, Szymanski and others indicated, adverse childhood experiences, without helpful interventions, can adversely affect students' attitudes and abilities in the classroom.
 
"We're seeing more and more children coming in not ready to learn," Brookner said. "It's a whole different time to be a teacher."