“Imagine what could happen if we did this all year” Working with The Learning Alliance at Fellsmere Elementary by Story Tapestries Master Teaching Artist Debbi Arseneaux

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After an intense week of working in four different classrooms at Fellsmere Elementary in Indian River County, Florida, this past spring, I sat in a debriefing meeting with the four teachers and their principal. I had just completed an embedded coaching residency where I modeled arts based strategies to teach vocabulary and deepen comprehe​n​sion of text,
and then supported the teachers as they tried out these strategies with their students. The teachers biggest feedback was how impressed they were with the level of engagement of their students and their biggest complaint was that they wanted more time with me. The principal, Mr E. (as they call him), was passionate about the impact he saw on their students: “The level of comprehension, their understanding of the vocabulary and the text, the way they smiled when you walked in the room…You were only here for such a short time. Can you imagine what could happen if we did this all year?”

IMG_1295For us at Story Tapestries, that is indeed the million dollar question! We want to help unlock the potential in all teachers to use creative strategies that engage their students in meaningful ways all the time. We want to help all students take charge of their learning and give them reasons to love coming to school…when kids are engaged, they are learning! And when they are working together, they are developing those critical 21st Century skills we know they need: collaboration, critical thinking, creativity and communication.

The school population is largely Hispanic with many English Language Learners. Whereas in many classrooms, teachers are worried about how to reign in the behavior of their students when they get excited and actively engaged in creative activities, in this
school, the teachers often expressed concern that they weren’t sure how to bring the energy out of some of their students. They worried that they might not be able to accurately assess some of their quieter students’ progress in comprehension. The wonderful thing about working on comprehension through movement and drama techniques is that it provides multiple entry points to demonstrate learning, including verbally and physically. The teachers could see immediately if a student understood the vocabularIMG_1292y word or the key detail in the text when they made a choice about how to participate in a tableau, for example.Our process is always to custom tailor our programs to the needs of the school and the meet the teachers where they are at in terms of their comfort level with arts integrated lessons. In this instance, as is often the case, I was working with teachers with a range of skills and differing comfort levels with the arts, but all of them were open and eager to see what I might be able to do to help them improve their practice. The importance of the support of the administration in this cannot be overstated. The energy and enthusiasm I saw in the staff at Fellsmere was modelled and led every step of the way by Principal Ramon Echeverria and Assistant Principal Kimberly Garcia. No one claims to have all the answers, but it appeared to me that Echeverria and Garcia approach creating positive school and classroom culture as a team effort and go out of their way to support their teachers.

IMG_1301I left that school feeling embraced and supported and challenged and like the work I was doing had the potential to make a real, lasting impact on an entire school community. So, soon after that experience, when The Learning Alliance, the literacy organization we partnered with to visit Fellsmere, offered me a full time position to help support more programs like this in Florida, I decided to take a big leap and dive into the deep end. Who doesn’t want to go to work every day feeling that sincerely appreciated and like your work could make a difference?

As of this writing, I am now living in that community, working with that school, and others like it, to make sure students have access to this kind of meaningful learning experience all year.

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