Teaching on the Plains

In a tiny town where everybody knows every teacher, Cassie Sonnenberg is confident the community holds her and colleagues at Wiggins High School in pretty high esteem. She’s less confident that parents understand the changes rolling through Colorado classrooms. “I don’t think the parents have heard the educators’ side of anything. It’s definitely something we need to work on.”

Cassie Sonnenberg, a member of Wiggins EA, shows editing techniques to ninth-grade students at Wiggins High

Sonnenberg is reflecting on Colorado Academic Standards, particularly the language arts piece she teaches that comes from the national Common Core. She’s playing catch-up to best explain the standards’ intent to parents back in Wiggins, a town of about 900 residents an hour northeast of Denver on I-76. “They’re only going to get what they see on the news, and in our area, it’s going to be FOX News. They really need to see the other side of it and hear it from us.”

She’s in Loveland on this day, attending a ‘Theory into Practice’ professional development course hosted by the Colorado Education Association. The training is designed to let teachers talk through weighty issues such as standards and assessments, away from the distractions of daily school business. The members, through their involvement with the Association, are learning how to make a more powerful difference in their kids’ learning and academic success.

“They’re not really that different,” Sonnenberg says of Common Core standards. “We’re still teaching our kids to read and write well. There’s a lot of assessment I don’t agree with, but kids are still learning to read, to write, to critically think, to communicate with each other – all of the things we’ve been trying to teach them forever. It just looks a bit different now…”

“It’s things that we’ve been doing, but we’ve got to take it a step beyond where we have been,” chimes in Becky Lubbers, an elementary teacher attending the training from Yuma. “We just have to be stronger and more diligent about the communication piece – for the kids to be able to communicate with each other, how to get it down on paper and show their knowledge.”

Yuma EA's Becky Lubbers guides her fourth-graders through a writing assignment at Morrison Elementary.

Yuma EA’s Becky Lubbers guides her fourth-graders through a writing assignment at Morrison Elementary.

In Yuma, a larger town of about 3,500 people more than an hour east of Wiggins, people have trust in Lubbers and her fellow teachers. However, she says more dialogue is needed with parents, particularly those who don’t agree with the changes. “The naysayers are the first ones to tell us that this is what they don’t agree with, and why are we doing that, and then it’s our job to educate them,” Lubbers explains. “We’ve got to build that next level of trust and say, ‘This is where we’re going, the standards are going to work, and they’re going to be here to stay.’”

That’s not to say rural teachers aren’t feeling anxious along with the parents. At ‘Theory Into Practice,’ Sonnenberg is asking about new standardized tests in group discussion and how they’re looking for everyone else across the state. “We’ve had to update a lot of our technology and the updates haven’t worked as we want them to,” she remarked, (getting instant agreement from Lubbers). “Where we are, there’s only so much we can do – there’s only so much bandwidth, there’s only so much money to pay for computers for all these kids we need to be testing. The start of the school year is always exciting and everybody is pumped up, but there’s also this underlying level of stress.”

PlainsStory3Lubbers said “a lot of headaches were happening” in her group discussions, with teachers thinking back into their districts about the need to do this or try that. “I’ve taught for 34 years, and I keep thinking, ‘Oh, we’ve done this. This is that pendulum that keeps coming back.’ But this is a different type of pendulum now.”

The focus on standards is what’s coming back around in her fourth-grade class, but with a 21st-century flair. “It’s got more meat to it – the communications piece, the technology piece. Kids have got to be accountable for their learning.”

“And we need the parents to be on board with us too,” Sonnenberg added. “When your kid comes home and says he’s doing a discussion in class or a group project, it won’t necessarily look like the group project that you did when you were in high school, where the A-student did all the work and everybody else sat back and said, ‘Good job.’ We expect more out of everybody now and really working together, not just saying they are.”

Sonnenberg and Lubbers have something in common with each other and with many of the new teachers coming into their schools: years ago, they viewed the beginning teaching job in a small town as a stepping stone to greener pastures. “My husband and I made an agreement when we moved to Yuma that we would be there for two years. We’ve now been there for 34 years. We’ve raised our family there, because we’ve found a community that felt like home,” Lubbers proudly proclaimed, knowing her story is the statistical outlier. “We do a lot of dog-paddling because we go back and retrain our new teachers on what works in our district, what we’ve been doing. We back-peddle with them and sometimes we stay stagnant.”

PlainsStory4While Wiggins has been fortunate to keep most teachers in place for several years, it’s hard to bring a new one in when needed. “Last spring I sat on an interview committee for an open position and we had tons of applicants,” Sonnenberg recalled. “Most of them were first-year teachers coming straight out of school from the Front Range, and they thought they were interested until they drove to Wiggins for the interview. Then they see there are no stores here and no mountains here, and it’s hard for us to overcome that.

“When I started – this is my eighth year – I thought Wiggins was going to be a stepping stone for me. My plan was to work a couple of years and then go to Poudre. And then I fell in love with the community and the kids, and now I don’t want to leave.”

Sonnenberg returned to Wiggins this time with a goal to get her teammates involved in answering Theory’s big questions, from how new teachers are treated to how the district uses data. “You would think, in a tiny little school like Wiggins, it would be so easy for us to all sit down together and make sure we’re talking about those things, but we don’t. There’s no time. ‘Theory into Practice’ is giving us a chance to talk about these things, and we each need to bring the conversations back to our own building and to the district as a whole.”

Lubbers said her district helped Yuma teachers adjust to the changing requirements by sending them to ‘Theory into Practice.’ “It’s a big step for our district to do something like this. We have representatives from each one of our buildings here, so six of us. We work pretty well together and we’re excited about taking some of the lessons back.”

With new tools, Lubbers hopes to rebuild school unity and develop a professional learning community among teachers in Yuma “where you can have an opposite opinion and not have it held against you, so you don’t later go to the parking lot, saying, ‘That won’t work in my classroom, this is what we should do.’ We want the open dialogue, not the parking lot meetings.”

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