Empowering All Students by Bringing Learning to Life

December 07, 2017

Bring learning experiences to life so they are worthy of the pursuit for both students and educators. That was the message from Allison Zmuda, the keynote speaker at the Empowering All Learners: Strategies to Ensure Success conference at Putnam÷ Northern Westchester BOCES last week.
Zmuda is a former social studies teacher who is the author of nine books and a full-time education consultant specializing in curriculum, assessment and instruction. She explained to conference participants that empowering learners requires educators to personalize learning by designing work that is relevant, meaningful, challenging and appropriate.
“The goal is not to develop personalized learning profiles or purchase software platforms so that students can independently work through a set of topics or to have genius hour once a week,” says Zmuda. “The goal is for (all students) to become self-directed learners through the design and development of their learning experiences.”
The keynote address kicked off a daylong event that attracted educators from 24 school districts across the region to share innovative work on student empowerment. Teachers and administrators from 12 different districts led breakout sessions for conference attendees, sharing experiences and best practices highlighting a variety of strategies including blended learning, math workshop, and the parent-teacher team model.
During a panel on Empowering All Learners, Ossining Superintendent Ray Sanchez spoke about the need to work with families. “Over the course of 365 days, students spend the majority of their time outside of school,” Sanchez said. “If the goal is to personalize education for each student, it is critical that we work with families to get to know individual students.”
Other panelists included: Zmuda, Pat Cyganovich, retired principal of North Salem Middle/High School, Jen DeLisi-Hall, English department chair in Irvington High School, and Ben Leicht, a junior at North Salem Middle/High School.
At the breakout session led by Somers Central School District administrators, Superintendent Dr. Raymond Blanch discussed the methods his district is using to assess student engagement, focusing on the differences between the busy student and the actively engaged student.
Somers CSD is using three tools at Somers Middle School to clearly define and assess students’ cognitive engagement: student surveys, student focus groups, and the Instructional Practices Inventory (IPI) developed by Jerry Valentine.
As SMS Principal Jeff Getman and Assistant Superintendent Julie Gherardi explained IPI, participant Jennifer DeLisi-Hall, who coincidentally has a student in Somers Schools, raised her hand.
“What you’re showing us in an amazing tool,” said DeLisi-Hall. “I can use these in my classroom with my students tomorrow.”
In a session led by Peekskill Interim Superintendent Dr. Mary Foster and teachers Therese Wood Chang and Nancy Castro, presenters talked about creating a “multilingual ecology in the school and classroom with signs, labels captions and texts that represent the cultures of staff, students and families” as a means of supporting English Language Learners. Presenters also discussed the importance of using books that mirror the cultures of the students, and how to use a four-square method to teach vocabulary using a picture/drawing, both languages, a definition and a non-example.
Dr. Foster, who also attended workshops when not presenting, said she was particularly impressed by a session led by Carrieann Sipos, director of elementary teaching and learning in the Ossining School District, on a new model for family engagement.
“Teachers are working with families on one or two foundational skills and sharing class and individual data,” said Dr. Foster. “There are five to seven meetings a year, some of which are relationship and trust building workshops. In addition, families are given games to play to reinforce the skills at home. The results have been amazing.”
Cara Dippolito, a teacher in Eastchester, was both presenter and attendee.
“The overall experience of presenting and attending the conference was very positive,” she said. “The project based learning seminar ... left us with a plethora of new ideas for our current and incoming students. We look forward to presenting at BOCES again next year.”
That was precisely the result Joe Mannozzi, conference organizer, was seeking. Mannozzi is coordinator of the School Library System & Professional Library at Putnam | Northern Westchester BOCES.
 “This conference was an opportunity for regional educators to immerse themselves in the why and the how of student empowerment,” said Mannozzi. “From Allison Zmuda’s keynote, to the fifteen best practice sessions, to the conference panel, participants and presenters alike learned from each other and left with solid next steps and a sense of urgency in doing more to empower their students.”
Caption: Somers Superintendent Dr. Raymond Blanch explains the Instructional Practices Inventory tool.