Belvidere Teacher Team to Receive Top State Honors
By Amanda Hudson, News Editor
October 5, 2017

BELVIDERE—It is easy to see why three teachers from St. James School, here, will soon be honored with the highest award given by the Illinois State Board of Education —Those Who Excel, the Award of Academic Excellence.

Denise Hauser, Vicki Van-Aker and Sherri Morrall provide multi-age differentiated instruction to students in kindergarten through third grade.

It is a labor of love for the trio, all of whom have taught at St. James between 17 and 26 years.

Along with fellow teacher Pat Rosecrans, team teaching was in the back of Hauser’s and Morrall’s minds for several years.

Rosecrans died this past May, and junior high teacher Van-

Aker, who filled in for Rosecrans when she became ill, decided to stay and be part of the team, which serves 49 students.

St. James principal, Dr. Kathleen Miller, was familiar with differentiation and joined her teachers in their research.

The four women visited a handful of schools, including Woodlands School in Wisconsin. That public charter school has been using what they call a “character education movement” since its beginnings in 1936.

As at St. James, teachers at Woodlands collaborate and link students in multi-age groups across subjects, sharing resources, concepts and vocabulary.

“They said, ‘Make it your own,’” recalls Morrall. “That’s been our philosophy. We looked at our strengths and our weaknesses. We’ve been colleagues for so many years, we all help each other. We leave our egos at the door.”

As the three teachers talk, it becomes clear why this teaching style is rare. It is a model of instruction that requires a lot of planning, organization, flexibility and commitment.

“One of us might create something, and we all give input and end up with something different,” Hauser says. “We gauge where we are and what we need, (we’re) constantly evaluating and adjusting.”

“It’s incredibly time consuming to plan,” Morrall says. “We are here late and work weekends, but we love what we do. We come to each other if something is not working (smoothly), and we say, ‘Let’s sit down and see how to do it better.’ ”

“We use GoogleDocs,” Hauser says. “We can go home, go online and see what each other is doing.”
They plan three weeks of curriculum each month, followed by one week “out of the box,” Hauser says.

That fourth week is a time when they “go heavy on science.”

In a recent unit on space the multi-age groups created and presented their own spaceships.

“Surprisingly, some of the younger students stepped forward and spoke” about their contributions to the spaceship, VanAker says.

Morrall says that older students are willing to step back and let the younger students contribute.

Keeping organized

The three teachers and four grades occupy the entire second floor of the school. The three classrooms are named for saints and primary colors. The hallway has artwork, a display about saints, an old church kneeler and a tower with color-coded drawers.

Desks are grouped together in the classrooms and turned so the openings are hidden.

Each classroom has a table with supplies in a central location. Students each have a “home base” container that holds their own items, folders and journals.

Generally, students choose their own seats, “but we sometimes assign a group,” Hauser says.

All the grades follow the same morning “flow.” The bell rings and they go to their lockers.

They put their lunch boxes in a basket in their homeroom — and teachers know right away if lunches are forgotten so parents can be called.

Students take their homework out of their green folders and put it in the color-coded drawers in the hallway tower. Those green homework folders then go into their home base containers, which they have been taught how to carry as they go from room to room.

Between instruction and watching other students, youngsters quickly learn the ydaily routine.

Homerooms are multi-age and serve as such for 15 to 20 minutes at the beginning and end of the day.

Students move among the classrooms for lessons.

At the start of the school year, kindergarten students are kept together, and Morrall works with them on life skills and small motor skills. “Once we see growth in (kindergartners’) self-control, they (begin to) move into groups,” she says.

VanAker and Hauser mostly work with grades 1-3. As the year progresses the students become more intermingled. Language arts are more easily taught to combined grades, they say, while math usually needs to be targeted to particular grades. The teachers use a variety of methods as they teach different ages and abilities.

A group science and art project last year had first graders making bubble wands, while kindergartners, second and third graders worked on recipes for bubbles.

Older students soon began teaching younger ones how thinner soap solutions created lighter colored bubbles. The teachers grin as they admit that detail had never occurred to them.

Examples spread

Students learn from each other by example as well. While the four grades attend Mass as one group, the religion instruction generally puts kindergarten and first grade together,  while second graders receive sacramental preparation.

Older students are welcome to use the hallway kneeler when saying penance prayers after confession.

Morrell describes one little girl in kindergarten who saw third-grade boys prayerfully kneeling. The next day that kindergartener took a moment to kneel there.

“She knew the big boys were praying, and she wanted to do it too,” Morrall says. “That kind of thing happens every day. We didn’t have to say a word.”

A sense of cooperation among students is one benefit these educators have noticed. They’ve also seen students’ communication skills grow stronger, and they note that students learn how to work cooperatively with every age group and problem-solve together.

“All this higher thinking is happening,” these happy teachers say.

Behind all these extras, of course, are the Diocesan Learning Standards. The trio says they “unpacked” and studied those standards, and they make sure students are exposed to all they are expected to learn.

Some standards overlap, some are being introduced and some are being mastered as the school year progresses, they say, adding, “Every day is different,” and that “We all have clipboards and touch base each morning and at lunchtime.”

Dr. Miller says she supports all her teachers’ “fire and passion” and that making this differentiated instruction successful “all revolves around a good match (of) curriculum, teachers and expectations. Nothing happens in isolation. I give credit to the entire building” of teachers and students.

Dr. Miller nominated the three “seasoned and open-minded” teachers for the prestigious State award. They will receive that award on Oct. 28.

“Making it our own and putting students first,” is how Morrell sums up the K-3 teaching team’s award-winning philosophy. She calls the award, “very humbling.”