From Pain to Progress

“One day, Joni Smith, you are going to do great things.” I never heard those words as a child but the thing is I never needed to hear them….I wanted to hear them but I didn’t really need them because I have this great thing called faith. My faith in Christ has always been the foundation on which I plot my course and the drive which lies within me to encourage and enrich the lives of the students that I am blessed to call my own. I am reminded that “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13). I know this to be true because I am living proof of this phenomena.

In my youth, I wanted to break the mold and defy the statistics. I didn’t want my traumatic past to determine the steps of my future. I have suffered through so much pain and it took most of my childhood to recognize that with God’s help, and the help of the family and friends that He has provided, I have been able to overcome the odds that were seemingly stacked against me.

Like me, many of our students face overwhelming odds, and we as educators, mentors and advocates are responsible for encouraging and nurturing these young minds. Our babies need someone to tell them that they are capable of doing amazing things and that they are worthwhile and valuable; I wish someone had spoken these words to me. It wasn’t until years later that I developed the faith necessary to trust God and finally believe that I CAN DO ALL THINGS.

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The adversity I faced early in life definitely generated a tremendous growth in my character. It’s difficult to believe that I would one day become a successful science teacher, when as a third grader at Northside Elementary I was coping with becoming an orphan and struggling in school daily. No one could have predicted that an emotionally lost 6th grader at Denham Springs Junior High that was being neglected in foster care would go on to be recognized as the Louisiana State Teacher of the Year. Who could have known that a quiet 10th grader at Live Oak High School that was depressed and yearning for parental love and support would one day stand in the oval office and be commended by the President of the United States.

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It’s been said that teachers have superpowers. Well my superpower is helping students carve their own path no matter how difficult their childhood may have been. We learn from our pasts, our mistakes and move forward not allowing any label to adhere. We learn to trust and believe in ourselves to grow and be successful.

 

 

 

 

Honoring schools that defy the odds: Spotlighting Marie Riviere Elementary

I once had an administrator tell me that in school buildings there are 3 types of educators: walkers, joggers and runners. Walkers are those that do the bare minimum to get by and are quite content with not seeing many results. Joggers are those that work well but not well enough to truly make a change. Runners are those that work hard for change, chasing results and willing to grow.

I was honored to join Mallory Padgett and Keith Leger with Stand for Children, BESE member Jim Garvey and many other State leaders on a school visit to Marie Riveria Elementary School. We were welcomed on campus by the principal. Mr. John Starr.Principal

Immediately we could feel his passion and could detect the positive growth mindset that he had with a focus on continuing of improvement. As he began sharing his school’s story of success, we couldn’t help but notice his flexible approach to meet the diverse array of student needs based off of his school’s demographics serving approximately 500 students in grades Pre-K through 5. Due to their students’ growth, they earned the recognition of a Top Gains School along with an “A” on their school report card. You see, the school is classified as high poverty, high performing with over 75 % of their students on free or reduced lunch and 39% of their students classified as English Language Learners (ELL). Poverty is a strong predictor of lack of academic success in reading, and schools serving high-poverty populations are more likely to show weak performance in high-stakes tests. Despite their obstacles, the students continue to defy the odds and thrive in a positive climate with high standards.

Due to their students’ growth, they earned the recognition of a ‘Top Gains’ School along with an “A” on their school report card. Additionally there is a strong sense of teamwork across all grade bands. The teachers enjoy their jobs and are actively involved in high levels of collaboration and communication with one another.Principal and teachers

During their collaborations, they identify problems and work on a set of solutions. The teachers recognize that there are significant barriers for the students however, they also recognize that all students can learn and meet rigorous standards.

After observing a day of work at Marie Riviere Elementary School, it’s quite evident that the educators in that building are runners by nature. When walking through their classrooms, I saw a diverse set of learners all engaged in the lesson while the teacher was applying his/her skills of differentiated instruction that was aligned to the standards.principal and school

The students are encouraged to make good choices with the knowledge of knowing that their choices define who they will become. Their focus is achieving a shared vision and understanding their role of achieving that vision. As I observed their little minds engaged in learning, I couldn’t help but think of how narrow the achievement gap would be if all schools would model this type of mindset. Their strategies are effective and their data speaks for itself. Thank you to the hard working educators at Marie Riviere Elementary School for your dynamic work. You are empowering our state’s most precious resource…our students.

 

 

Teachers: Let your Voice be Heard

As I sat in the Board  of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) meeting on March 7th, my heart was pounding and there was a rather large lump in my throat. I was nervous because the results of this meeting were going to have a direct effect on the science students of Louisiana and in particularly MY young scientists.  The meeting was in reference to adopting the newly proposed science standards. I expected controversy and push back from outside stakeholders but I wasn’t going to join the debate with a negative approach. I wanted to speak from my heart and keep the best interest of my students as my focal point.

When I was called to the front, my perspective was clear and concise. I made a suggestion to the esteemed members of the board to consider attaching the verbiage of the Science Education Act of 2008 along with the new updated science standards . There are so many strong points to the new standards with a personal favorite of mine – incorporating engineering practices. However, most science educators are not aware of the flexibility they are given by the law. I am hoping by having the documents applied as an addendum to the standards, teachers will become aware of said law and all that it entails in relationship to the most controversial issues when teaching science.

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A motion was based by a board member and was voted 7-2. Joy filled my soul and this 7th grade Science teacher was smiling from ear to ear. I am so thankful that this teacher voice of mine was heard.

Science educators are no longer applying a mile wide, inch deep approach to teaching science. In fact, it is now just the opposite. I am pleased to tell you that under the new standards, there are fewer per grade level with more opportunities for students to dig deeper into the subject matter. For example, in 3rd grade science there are currently 62 grade level expectations (GLEs), also known as standards, however under the new and improved science standards there are now a total of 15 standards in 3rd grade science. Imagine the depth of knowledge that can be reached in science classrooms across our state.

The updated standards can be viewed and printed at Louisiana Student Standards Review. The most significant change can be seen at the middle school level, grades (6-8). Those respective grade levels will be using an ‘integrated approach’ so that the students learning is scaffold as they progress from grade level to grade level. According to research gathered by Kevin C. Costley, students reported that after being exposed to an integrated curriculum, they were able to make connections between content knowledge and real life experiences. Their way of thinking transformed, and they began linking knowledge from their lessons with their personal lives. The students also recognized that integrating the curriculum unified each discipline into a whole. It actively engages students in lessons and extends their critical thinking skills while diminishing achievement gaps.

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Pictured above from left to right: Karen Parrino, Joni Smith, Kathy Edmonston, Krystal Swain and Michelle Savoy

The Louisiana Department of Education is already making efforts to provide teacher training to familiarize and facilitate science educators as they move into a transitional school year during 2017/2018. Other stakeholders such as A+pel, local school districts, LSU Cain Center and other universities are planning to provide trainings and webinars to better equip the science teachers of our state.

 

It’s an exciting time in education for the state of Louisiana and especially for science teachers and students. I commend the Science Standards Work groups for their tireless efforts in making sure that standards were rigorous yet attainable and that vertical alignment existed between all grade levels. As a state, we aim to ensure that all students are on a path for college and/or career readiness and the new science standards are doing just that.

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Joni Smith, 2017 Louisiana State Teacher of the Year, advocating for the new science standards along with making a few suggestions to the members of the BESE board.

Magnetized by Mindset

On Wednesday, February 8th, I was privileged to meet 53 other educators from all across the nation. I was not quite prepared for the journey that I was about to embark on. I am actually having a rather difficult time putting it into words. The National Teacher of the Year (NTOY) Conference was held for 3 fast paced days in Dallas, Texas. The dynamic group of educators that represented their respective states immediately became my ‘life blood’.

It’s been said that people naturally gravitate towards others that are similar to themselves. Not only did we gravitate, we were magnetized by mindset! Never in my life have I felt such a strong bond between a group of people that I barely knew. There’s something to be said about teachers and the special characteristics that we possess. We can walk into a room and immediately feel it with joy. We are happy to break the silence and let our voices be heard. We are contagious with passion!

The State Teachers were given the opportunity to share a few of their strongest skills during a lightning lesson. Imagine soaking up this robust information from teacher leaders across the nation. My cup was running over. We were also trained on education policy and history by very prestigious organizations. The previous National Teachers of the Year facilitated small and large groups on learning network and pedagogical skills. We identify our role and the Council of Chief State School Offices also known as the CCSSSO,  along with Andy Goodman helped us tell our story! If you are interested in learning more about Andy Goodman and his incredible story telling skills visit The Goodman Center.

We were lavished with wonderful informational to take back to our classrooms along with a few extra pounds due to the plethora of delicious food that was offered to us. Meeting Renee Zellweger and seeing her concern for education was a highlight of the conference as well. What a great way for a celebrity to make an impact.

On our very last night we closed the conference by hearing words of wisdom from none other than Mrs. Jahana Hayes, the 2016 National Teacher of the Year! Her encouraging words filled my soul with desire to be a trailblazer for students. She inspired us to stand firm in our role and be willing to take risk by “playing in the snow”.

I am so grateful for this journey that I am on and even more grateful for my new NTOY family. I left this conference feeling eager and empowered. Ready to take on my body of work and make an impact for the students in my state! I AM the 2017 Louisiana State Teacher of the Year and I am striving for better opportunities for all students.

 

 

 

 

2017: Year of Awakening Learners and Refreshing Educators

It’s 2017! Wow! It really is incredible how quickly time flies. Well, unless you are waiting for your food to warm up in the microwave. For some non-scientific reason, that time seems to slow down. Hunger is a powerful force to be reckoned with.

I am now in the second semester of my eighth year teaching middle school science. Who else can say that they have been stuck in middle school for eight years aside from a teacher?

As I embark on this new semester, I would like to take a moment to remind all educators to sit down and think deeply about creating their own ‘classroom’ resolutions. Self assessment has been a vital factor in my growth as a teacher. The craft we call teaching is so complex but yet so rewarding that I feel at times we forget our value. Well, let me remind you of your worth! You, my friend, have the chance of a lifetime to make a difference in the mind of a child. You make an impact, a lasting impression on their hearts. So make those moments count! Let go and give your whole heart to a group of young people who will remember you most not by the content that you taught but how you made them feel when they were with you.

My 2017 Classroom Resolutions:

  1. MEET THEIR NEEDS. No matter what the challenge, deficit or delay may be, I will bridge gaps. I will make connections. I will build rapport. I will consistently measure their learning and do my best to meet them at their individual needs.
  2. IMPROVE CLASSROOM CULTURE. I want to embrace the diversity and challenges with a positive, equitable approach so that ALL of my students feel safe and welcome when they walk in my classroom! I want them all to feel as if I am teaching for them.
  3. COMMUNICATE WITH FAMILIES MORE. Using my class roll, I will make a goal to communicate with each of my student’s families (all 152) expressing only positive attributes about their child. It’s amazing what a little praise can do.
  4. FORGIVE! I will always be short to anger and quick to grace. I will proactively investigate the underlying causes of misbehavior rather than be reactive. Students need to see their teachers showing forgiveness to others. After all, they are kids. And they are watching us!
  5. ENCOURAGE THEM TO TAKE RISK. To often many students are reluctant to do so in fear of failure. I will let them see me take risks as well. I will be transparent. I will  apply rigorous measures and high expectations so that they can challenge themselves to reach the goal. I will celebrate in their successes and encourage them in their failures.

Let 2017 be the year of AWAKENING all learners and REFRESHING all educators!

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Empowering Students to Serve

The middle school years: those awkward years of our lives that, for the most part, we try to forget about. The peculiar life stage better known as young adolescence that most adults can attest to as being a rather difficult time of their life. While in my teacher residency, there was no systematic training that prepares teachers for this developmental stage. Hence, this is why when I get asked, “What grades do you teach?” and my response is “Middle school”; they then respond with, “Awe, bless your heart”.   I proceed to explain how much I enjoy my “tweenagers” I proudly teach 7th grade science. The majority of my students are 11, 12, and 13 years old. In the year that I have them, I watch them grow from young people searching for their place in society to strong community leaders and DYNAMIC young scientist might I add. I consider it to be an honor to be their teacher. They were placed on my roster for a purpose. They are mine!

My students are engaged in a Lead2Feed project where they are serving and boxing hot meals and pantry food boxes to those people in our community that are in need. We facilitate a local 501 (c) (3) non-profit organization known as Helping Hands. This organization aims to feed the needy, help the elderly, and assist in disaster relief efforts. Once a month on Saturday mornings, Helping Hands opens their doors to serve the community and a large group of my students and I show up ready to work. Initially when I started partnering with Helping Hands, I was bringing one class period at a time. Now we are bringing students from all grade levels at our school. It has been so wonderful to watch this program grow and to see middle schoolers plugged in as community leaders. Their volunteer work has spread like wildfire across campus; making more and more students interested in being a part of this meaningful work.

Helping Hands mission is to help love and serve the communities in need. They have been just as much as a blessing to my students as my students have been to them. I would like to graciously thank John and Kristen Hair for their humble service and for allowing my students to a part of such a wonderful opportunity.  The students at Albany Middle School are trailblazing their generation for a brighter future! 

Please visit Helping Hands to learn more about their program and how you

can get involved.

7 Things You May Not Know About Teachers

Teaching has made me a better person! However, as much as I love my job, we don’t always get a fair perspective from the public. Let me share with you just a few things you may not know about the wonderful profession of teaching.

  1. So, you’re a teacher, right?  Teaching is just one of the hats that we wear. We are mentors, leaders, sponsors, counselors, listeners and learners. Most teachers are also very active in their communities. I find myself being a teacher everywhere I go. I teach at school, I teach classes at my local gym, and I teach little ones in Sunday school at church. I teach young people how to be leaders in their communities. Teaching comes natural; it’s in my DNA!
  2. Teachers only work until 3:00, it must be nice. I challenge you to observe a school after the students have been dismissed and I bet majority of the faculty parking lot will remain packed. Teachers are hard workers and most times we need to stay after work hours to modify lessons, grade papers, contact parents, assess daily work to gauge our instruction, etc. According to a survey conducted in 2012 of 10,000 public school teachers, here’s how they spent their time:
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    • almost five hours on instruction.
    • 45 minutes planning, preparing, or collaborating with colleagues
    • about 36 minutes on student supervision and discipline.
    • 36 minutes  grading, documenting, and analyzing student work.
    • just under 15 minutes communicating with parents via email, phone, or face-to-face meetings.
  3. Wait, you can’t go to the bathroom at free will? This is true. We teachers like to say that we have trained our bladders for the school year. We have to find time to squeeze in visits to the restroom. It’s not uncommon to see a teacher making a mad dash to the bathroom between transition bells.
  4.   My child’s teacher doesn’t do anything for my child. It makes me so sad to hear a parent say these words. I wish that you could see what goes on in a classroom. We go above and beyond the line of duty. For example, have you not seen a teacher at Wal-Mart with a cart full of school supplies? The public may think that is for their own children but in all actuality, we are constantly purchasing materials and supplies for our students that are in need. Personally, I have even paid for a few haircuts to keep my students from getting dress codes and paid a few lunch tabs so that my students weren’t embarrassed by an overdue balance. We gladly do whatever it takes to make the climate of our classrooms a positive and comfortable experience.
  5. Teaching must be easy, you get 3 months off! Well, actually we are off in the month of June and July not August. However, most teachers are guilty of using their 2 month summer break revamping their lesson plans to better fit their students needs or spending the summer as a learner by attending professional development workshops.
  6.  Yeah, I heard on the news about how awful teachers are… Just like any profession there are ‘rotten apples’. I can assure you that population consists of only a small percentage of those in our profession. Unfortunately, majority of all hard-working, effective teachers are not recognized by the media for their efforts but nonetheless there are multitudes upon multitudes of wonderful teachers doing incredible work in classrooms in every community.
  7.  I don’t like to answer the phone when the school calls. Most times when teachers call home, it’s for three reasons:
    1. We call because your child has missed several days of school and we are concerned about he/she falling behind.
    2. We call to brag on an achievement or a wonderful thing that your child did that we would like to share with you.
    3. We call to voice either a behavioral or academic concern for your child and we want the parents and teachers to be on the same side to help the student succeed. I encourage you to be actively involved with your child’s education and don’t hesitate to answer the phone.

Teachers are PATIENT. Teachers are KIND. Teachers are AWESOME!

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MY AMAZING YOUNG SCIENTISTS! THEY ARE MY REASON AND MY JOY.