What Do “Educational Best Practices” Look Like? Verbena Students Can Show You

A lot of education jargon gets used by the professionals to help explain what works in improving education; high academic standards, aligned assessments, deeper learning for real-life application, team collaboration, etc. But what does it all mean, and what does it really look like?

I discovered on a recent visit to an Alabama school that all the educational terms and best practices can be best explained by the students at Verbena schools in Chilton County.

In April, the Verbena K-12 students held a “Showcase of Learning” for their parents and interested community members. In their own words, students shared with visitors how they have taken the knowledge acquired from their math, English, science and history classes and applied it through real activities, experiments, and even performing arts.

“We had been getting a lot of questions from parents about Alabama’s College and Career Ready Standards, which are based on the Common Core State Standards,” explained Instructional Coach, Sue Ellen Gilliland. “We hope that this event will help educate the public on the new standards so that they can see for themselves how powerful they can be in educating our children.”

Wanting to see real examples of what Sue Ellen mentioned, I first visited a Kindergarten class where students were dressed as what they wanted to be when they grow up. Each student manned a booth to help explain their chosen profession. It was clear from the variety of occupations identified that they understood that the sky was the limit when they learn to aim high in school.

“Meteorologist is my name, telling the weather is my game,” recited a well-dressed young gentleman at his prospective booth. “Using numbers I tell the forecast, tomorrow’s weather might be a blast!” (Click here to view a video from the “Showcase of Learning.”)

Kindergartners are instinctively excited about learning new things and how they can affect the world around them. Giving them a choice about learning specific key concepts in ways that make it both relevant and interesting to them is important. The exercise of learning more about what it takes to become a meteorologist, a dentist, a veterinarian, and even a princess leads to “deeper learning,” not only with the content, but also through the practice of communication and presentation skills, building their confidence to move up to 1st grade and beyond. These outcomes help students meet the appropriate grade-level goals for College and Career Ready Standards.

Verbena parents agree. “My child has really come out of her shell,” said one parent as we left together from the elementary school. “She never spoke in front of strangers, and hid behind my leg. I couldn’t believe how confident she was showing off her booth!”

Keeping that momentum going often becomes difficult in the higher grades, as the students’ work becomes more complicated, and sometimes seems tedious. But Verbena middle, junior and high school students exhibited just as much excitement about what they’ve learned.

Before entering a 9th-grade history classroom, I was greeted by a young man holding an iPad. He played an animated presentation that he created to introduce the French Revolution. Not only was his presentation factual and informing, it was also humorous as his voice-over explained, in his own words, how the revolution began and why.

“The French Revolution: How? When? Why? Follow the money,” the student’s video explained. “The French had money, but not much after Marie Antoinette’s spending sprees. The Seven Years War and the American Revolution also helped to drain France’s economy dry.”

In a 12th-grade English literature class, I observed a young man explaining “learning targets” to parents. In laymen’s terms, learning targets help students clearly understand what they are expected to learn. The “big” learning target in this class was to read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and relate it today’s world and culture. The students jumped right in and highlighted the variety of learning tools they used help them make connections. The greeter’s classmates were dressed in costumes from Chaucer’s period, and explained in fascinating detail the medieval society and its social classes, and what they discovered to be similarities in today’s society within economic- and cultural-class divisions.

“The Alabama Best Practices Center (ABPC) is the reason why we are doing this,” explained Gilliland. “Our participation in its Powerful Conversations Network (PCN) has been the most powerful learning opportunity for our teachers and school.

“When we embarked on the journey with ABPC many years ago, we were really making significant gains toward becoming a Blue Ribbon School. PCN has been the constant for me and our faculty.  It truly provides us with guidance on what is BEST for all students,” Gilliland said.

Education advocates talk about best practices, research-based pedagogy, and the implementation of high standards aligned to appropriate assessments that engage students in deeper, more applicable learning. But the students in Verbena explain it so much better. This Showcase of Learning was a vivid demonstration of how high standards and more innovative teaching methods – which encourage students to be the leaders in their own learning – can impact education in Alabama for generations to come.

Written by Jill West, A+ Communications Director