Students have a day off, teachers SOAR

At the ESU13 SOAR midwinter conference on Monday, presenter Warren Phillips leads a group of teachers in a song designed to help students remember science concepts. Photo by Katie Bradshaw

School buses from Gordon-Rushville and Hemingford were in the parking lot of the Gering Civic Center Monday, but the buses did not transport students.

Students across the Panhandle had the day off school. Their teachers were on the job, learning about the newest educational research and best teaching practices.

On Monday’s “inservice day,” some 1,300 teachers from around the Panhandle gathered in Scottsbluff and Gering to participate in the midwinter conference organized by the Educational Service Unit 13 professional development department, also known as SOAR – Sharing Opportunities Achieving Results.

In addition to the Gering Civic Center, activities were held at Western Nebraska Community College, Harms Advanced Technology Center, Hampton Inn and Scottsbluff High School.

The SOAR webpage highlights a 2007 report by a global consulting company that found that the world’s best schools are those that help their teachers become more effective instructors. At the top of the page is a quotation attributed to New Jersey librarian J.C. Dana: “Who dares to teach must never cease to learn.”

According to Penny Businga, director of staff development at ESU13, the midwinter conference this year focused on a theme of increasing student engagement and motivation – a topic about which many teachers wanted to learn.

Businga explained that there have been significant changes in the demographics of the students served by school districts in the ESU13 region since 1990. There are more minority students and more students who come from families with low incomes, and these students may need different motivators to succeed in school.

“Teachers are wanting to find ways to engage their students,” Businga said.

Businga is proud of the midwinter conference offering, pointing out that few educational service units offer such a conference. She said the information presented at the conference is a great resource for rural school districts that are often isolated from such educational events.

Businga pointed out that the conference makes continuing education for teachers more affordable. Schools might only be able to afford sending teachers to national conferences once or twice in their entire careers, she said.

“Districts can bring their entire staff (to the midwinter conference) for the cost of bringing one (person) to a national convention,” Businga said.

The topics and speakers at the conference were selected based on the most recent educational research. Some teachers had difficulty choosing among the 57 sessions given by more than 30 presenters.  Businga highlighted a few of the more popular sessions.

Educational consultant Jean Blaydes-Madigan spoke about brain research that suggests that getting students up and moving during a lesson can improve learning.

In another session, a science teacher from Massachusetts named Warren Phillips put this concept into practice and got the teachers up and moving during his “sing-a-long science” session.

Jordan Haas, a student math teacher from Banner County Schools, said he appreciated the fact that Phillips was a “high energy guy” and agreed that the energetic presentation made it easier to learn.

“Character education” leader Dr. Hal Urban talked about actions teachers can take to bring out the best in their students.

Upon coming out of Urban’s session, Scottsbluff High School computer teacher Mark Land said it was wonderful to hear concepts and stories that he will be able to apply in his classroom. Roxie Smith, an English teacher at Alliance High School, appreciated the fact that Urban’s tips could be used right away in the classroom and “don’t cost money.” She said his advice was not just applicable to the classroom, but could “help kids for life.”

Businga said the sessions presented by Nebraska State Trooper Chuck Elley filled rapidly as well. Elley spoke about the drug problems law enforcement officers are currently seeing in Nebraska communities.

Businga said the interest in the drug education session might indicate that drug use “may be more of an issue than we thought.”

Thompson Koch, an English Language Learning teacher from Emerson Elementary in Alliance, said Elley’s talk was useful in helping him to learn the signs of a drug problem not just with students, but with parents as well. By knowing what to look for, he would be more aware of when a student needed help.

Scottsbluff Public Schools Superintendent Richard Myles was attending his first midwinter conference and was duly impressed.

“I think it is fantastic,” Myles said, noting that experts from around the country had come to speak at the conference, which is something more expected from a conference in a large city.