‘Innovator of the Month’ showcases award-winning classroom

If every classroom were like the fourth grade reading and literacy class at Elizabeth Shelton School, you would not hear much about the problematic state of education in America or young people’s lack of language skills.

This is home base for Amanda Wandishion and two groups of 48 fourth graders — 24 in the morning hours and another 24 in the afternoon. Wandishion was recently selected as Shelton’s innovative educator of the month. If you spend some time in one or both of the classes, you can easily learn why.

The room is a wee bit noisy and very lively, with enthusiasm etched on students’ faces whenever they’re in class. One key to Wandishion’s success: students here are in charge of their own learning.

“I like to say that the students drive the bus and the teacher navigates,” said Wandishion. “They often joke with me, saying ‘you’re the GPS.’”

A key element of student reading is an innovative online program called Newsela, which lets students pick from an array of interesting stories curated directly from current events. Besides being interesting to read, the material is matched precisely to each student’s reading level and interests.

Newsela also incorporates robust reading-comprehension exercises as well, which makes it a bit like the SRA reading boxes that were a mainstay in classrooms from the ’60s through the ’90s. The difference here is in the sheer volume of web-based reading material and the precision with which the software — and teachers such as Wandishion — can ensure that it is both level-appropriate and challenging for the student.

When asked to comment on their reading, hands leap into the air. And, thanks to an educational grant, the classroom now features three amplified microphones. These help students hone their abilities to speak before groups and build confidence. In speaking, the student also aims to persuade others to read the same piece.

Cole St. Pierre was among the first to step up to a mike, relating a story about how to become a movie stunt person. Next, Evan Stanchfield talked about the flocks of seagulls that plague outdoor sports stadiums in cities near oceans.

“They wait until the crowds leave to dine on leftovers,” Stanchfield pointed out, “but this kind of food is not good for birds.”

Jay Kneen talked about his surname, which he shares with a busy street near Route 8.

“Edward Kneen was one of the first mayors of Shelton,” he said.

Speaking in front of others imparts yet another critical lesson — fluency with language.

“At any grade level a student might have great reading and comprehension skills, but nonetheless struggle with fluency,” Wandishion said. “These are important lessons for students.”

The content within Newsela is closely linked to another component of Wandishion’s classroom: a study of the world. Wandishion’s students have spent this year writing letters to two groups of students from Canada: One in a fourth-grade classroom on an island near Newfoundland, the other in a class of fourth, fifth and sixth graders in rural Alberta.

“In one of our classroom exercises, we used Google Maps to find exactly where these schools are and where the students live,” said Wandishion. “The kids were fascinated by it. Including these kinds of activities adds globalization to their learning: The kids know that the world doesn’t just consist of Shelton, Connecticut.”

Just as exchanging letters builds strong writing skills, so does “Feel Good Friday.” In this weekly exercise, students praise their classmates via a well-written note about some characteristic in which that other student excels. The accent is on the positive: Besides honing writing abilities the lesson teaches them the importance of empathy in society.

This classroom is chock full of other innovations. Remember doing “Mad Libs” as a kid?

Filling in those blanks with misused words cracked many up as kids, but they also taught new words and their proper meanings. In Wandishion’s class, kids do them as part of vocabulary lessons.

Currently, the class is prepping for an important milestone — its first student-parent-teacher conference, which will take place next month. This concept offers a striking contrast to “normal” school conferences, in which teachers typically host parents at the classroom, and hire a sitter for the evening.

Here again, the kids are in charge. Each student plans out what he or she wants to say about milestones achieved and skills requiring additional work. They also meet at least once for a dress rehearsal of sorts. A second conference is scheduled for May.

All of this aims to equip Shelton students for work — and life — in the interconnected world of the 21st century. Skills such as reading, writing and the social sciences have been often labeled “soft skills,” which, in the past, were derided as inferior to the more important “hard skills” of science and mathematics. Not any more, says Wandishion.

“More and more colleges and workplaces are recognizing that soft skills are valuable,” said Wandishion. “This type of learning provides a foundation for them to be successful, now and in the future."