BHS educators talk with U.S. education official
BISBEE — A large group of people moved silently into the library at Bisbee High School Wednesday where a group of special education students were gathered with their teacher to share their written thoughts.
Little did the students know that in the midst of the group was the acting U.S. assistant deputy of the Secretary of Education Nadya Dabby, who is in charge of the Office of Innovation and Improvement, along with other dignitaries from a special program called the Southern Arizona Writing Project (SAWP), as well as some educators from Cochise College. They came to see how the program was working in this small, border town.
These normally shy students were far more intent on reading their thoughts for the day than worrying about these new faces, and wondering who they were. One young boy spoke about trying to help someone who was being bullied and then found himself a target.
Their teacher Debbie Herrera said that though she was interested in the program that is meant to help develop critical thinking and writing skills in students, at first she did not expect them to take to such a task easily. She was very happy to be proven wrong.
“Now, they all want to share what they write,” Herrera explained to Dabby. “With their emotional and learning challenges, I really thought it would be hard to get them to write. Now, I’ve found that the special education students don’t hesitate to write, and it’s my honor students who are struggling to share their reflections. One of my students has never written his thoughts. Now he loves to share.”
In Nicolette Baker’s junior English class, a religious debate was underway between the Puritans, Native Americans and observers. The class had been broken up into the three groups and each one had to step into the shoes of the cause for which they were debating. Their arguments were well though-out even though they were spontaneous.
“I didn’t tell them what we were going to be doing,” Baker said. “I wanted some spontaneity. Didn’t want them to do research. But, I may pose the question and let them research it to see what the difference is.”
Fellow BHS teachers Maria Asaro and Tierney Parker and Lowell Junior High School teachers Ed and Sarah Bromke were also excited about the prospects of opening minds and reading what pens had put to paper thanks to the 30-year-old program that finally made its way to the school district.
Tom Fox, with the National Writing Project, explained that grant funding comes through that organization and is then passed to local groups, like SAWP. The goal of the program is to improve academic writing skills at all levels of education from kindergarten through college.
Though the goal and strategies are spelled out, the program can easily be customized to fit the needs of the particular student population, Fox added.
Flory Simon, with the University of Arizona and director of the SAWP in Arizona, said that once the grant money was received, a collaborative leadership team was developed, that included BHS Principal Lisa Holland.
Each team member was assigned a teacher at BHS and held a retreat to train the teachers in this new way of presenting writing to students, continued Flory. It is not a matter of getting punctuation or spelling right. The point is to get the students writing, to be creative thinkers and then worry with the spelling and grammar.
Dabby was impressed with the excitement of the faculty as well as that of the students.
“It’s our job to find unmet needs and provide funding,” said Dabby. “SAWP has been so successful for years and years. I’m happy that a small community like this is receiving the help to better educate the students. I was struck by the sense of engagement the students had and their creativity.”
Dabby pointed out that it is important for teachers to help their students dig deep to find that creative spark that turns on the flow of thoughts.
“We are humbled by the work that you do,” she told the staff.
As the teachers work with their mentors and become more familiar with the aspects and possibilities that lie ahead thanks to this program, Holland plans to have all her faculty trained in this new method that brings out the imagination as well as acquired knowledge in the student body.
Herrera asked Dabby to take one thing back to Washington, D.C., with her. It was a request to tell the U.S. legislators that before they make any decisions on education, they need to come sit in a classroom.
“Sometimes, I think they make decisions based on their environment in Washington and not on what is happening in the rest of the country,” stated Herrera. Their decisions can have a negative impact on the education of our students. Sometimes, it feels like we are being punished, that we’re getting our hands slapped. They need to get out and see what is going on in schools like ours.
“Bisbee is very unique. It’s like an inner city school in a rural area. We have the same problems. When our students go to other schools they see the inequality. They see we are not all equal. This grant helps them to realize their worth.”
As Dabby left to go back to Tucson to continue the bus trip around the country, Holland presented Dabby with a basket of BHS memorabilia, including some hand-made note cards from the students.
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