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‘Blown Away by Awesomeness’

iTeach Premise: No Teacher Is An Island

During the 5-Minute Design Challenge, Kent Innovation High School students worked together on creating new and improved cat strollers. You could say it was “the cat’s meow.”

In teams of four they discussed methods of transporting felines including pros and cons of kitty carriers before brainstorming improved features. Then they presented ideas for improvement: cat hovercrafts, cat-themed TV screens and portable litter trays. In all, each group had designed a new product in five minutes.

The students’ creative and hilarious designs were tangible results of educators getting together to talk about ways to improve teaching. Teachers Gerry Verwey and Marcus Deja learned about the activity from September Buys, a middle school teacher in Greenville Public Schools. Buys shared the format for 5-Minute Design at an iTeach Professional Learning Community meeting.

Sophomore James Tran brainstorms cat stroller designs during the 5-Minute Design Challenge
Sophomore James Tran brainstorms cat stroller designs during the 5-Minute Design Challenge

iTeach is a grassroots effort started in 2014 that has grown to include teachers from Grand Rapids Public Schools, Kelloggsville Public Schools, Kentwood Public Schools, Greenville Public Schools, Kent ISD, Kent Innovation High School, Grandville Public Schools, Kenowa Hills Public Schools, Grand Haven Public Schools and Jenison Public Schools.

Monthly meetings take place in participating teachers’ classrooms, and those involved say ideas have emerged, curriculum has taken shape, the seeds of programs have sprouted and teachers have built a support network. They discuss what they do in their classrooms, goals for the future and learn about each others’ instruction practices.

Each meeting involves educators presenting on something new and how it’s working. They explore topics like career-readiness, new trends in education, student projects that involve an audience of community members and business people. After presentations comes questions and discussion.

It’s all about thinking new, better and different and getting back to work to implement it.

In the Kent Innovation High School classroom, the 5-Minute Design Challenge involved quick, creative and collaborative thinking. “Cat strollers are definitely an innovative new thing and we feel we’re on the forefront of it,” said sophomore Haley Yeager as she presented their design.

54th Street Academy teacher Rick Jackson plays an icebreaking game during an iTeach meeting
54th Street Academy teacher Rick Jackson plays an icebreaking game during an iTeach meeting

Where Ideas Lead to Innovation

Verwey and Jeff Bush, also a Kent Innovation High School teacher, started the multi-district group of educators to share, discuss and collaborate on innovative teaching strategies. The idea took shape after a meeting with Bill Smith, Kent ISD assistant superintendent of Instructional Services. They began organizing focus groups of instructors, administrators and consultants.

“As for impacts, one of the largest is it has increased the capacity of teachers in our group,” Verwey said. “Some of our members feel like they teach by themselves on an island and our community provides them an oasis of support and ideas to draw from. I have watched the confidence grow in our regular members as they have come to realize through our discussions that their ideas and thoughts matter and have value.”

Great conversations happen, Verhey added, when educators share lessons and project ideas and provide feedback to each other on how the make the instruction more impactful. That equips them to better meet the needs of students at every level, a process called differentiation.

“Although it’s difficult to measure, I believe the differentiation of instruction for students of teachers in iTeach has increased because our members are coming away with more ideas and more confidence on how to relay concepts to their students,” Verwey said.

A Peek At How Good Ideas Spread

Lori Barr’s Pinewood Elementary School sixth-grade classroom was host to a recent iTeach meeting, where talk centered on science, engineering, technology and math, or STEM as it’s called in today’s instruction. Jenison Public Schools has recently started a STEM class at its five elementary schools.

Barr said her students love the class. “When I tell the kids we have STEM, there’s cheering.”

Students involved in nine-week projects take on the roles of scientists, mathematicians, tech-gurus and engineers, analyzing and interpreting data, and working through a process of design and problem-solving. They take machines apart, examine how they work, discuss design and then make something new from the parts. They create projects with 3D printers, learn coding, and film places using a drone then create math projects using the images.

STEM teachers tie literacy to instruction by reading children’s books such as “The Most Magnificent Thing,” about a girl who has to make many tweaks to her invention before it is perfect. They focus on “soft skills” including collaboration, creativity, communication and critical thinking, said Holly McGoran, Jenison Elementary STEM instructional specialist.

“We wanted our kids to build the skills to create the most magnificent things,” McGoran said.

Soon iTeach teachers listening to the STEM presentation were asking about sharing resources and tapping into ideas implemented at Jenison Public Schools. McGoran directed teachers to the Grand Valley State University Regional Math and Science Cener, STEM group at Kent ISD and Discovery Education STEM Academy.

“The value of iTeach for me has been the friendships I have made with the other teachers I have met,” Barr said. “Collaborating with colleagues that are so passionate about their students and the projects they create has inspired me.”

Jeff Bush said iTeach is really about building on one another’s knowledge and ideas.

“iTeach isn’t a group of super-star teachers.” said Bush, a teacher at Kent Innovation High School. “There are certainly phenomenal teachers in iTeach, but no one considers that they have ‘arrived’ as a teacher. iTeach is simply a group of teachers who want to get better in our practice and use each other as a way to support that growth. Being connected to a community who share these values, and having intentional conversations about student learning – that is what makes iTeach a powerful community.”

Teachers Jeff Bush and Gerry Verhey chat
Teachers Jeff Bush and Gerry Verhey chat

Growing as Educators

There’s a common theme, a buzzword in education, that emerges from each meeting, and educators say is a key to teaching well: innovation. These teachers want to do new and different things that better prepare students for the future.

Marcus Deja, math teacher at Kent Innovation High School, said he values coming together with other teachers in a regular, effective way.

“If we truly believe in the power of collaborative thinking then we need to live out this belief,” he said. “We often joke about how none of us feel like innovative facilitators yet. I’m always blown away by the awesomeness of this group’s thinking.”

Teachers say the meeting have motivated them to grow.

“This group is empowering,” Deja said.”After every session I feel encouraged to try something new, knowing that it’s OK to make mistakes because I’ve got the support of other iTeach members.”


Another Major Way Local Educators Collaborate

Literacy Coaches Network Also Gathers Educators Who Aim to Innovate

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is managing editor and reporter, covering Kentwood, Lowell and Wyoming. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013, and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio


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