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A Shelton fourth-grade teacher puts the kids in charge

January 21, 2019

SHELTON — Teacher Amanda Wandishion lets her kids set the agenda.

The fourth-grade reading and literacy class at Elizabeth Shelton School is home base for Wandishion — recently named Shelton’s innovative educator of the month — and 48 fourth graders, 24 in the morning and another 24 in the afternoon.

“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.’”

Helping that bus stay on the road is Newsela, an online program that lets students pick from an array of stories taken directly from current events. Beside being interesting to read, the material is designed to match each student’s reading level and interests.

Newsela also incorporates reading-comprehension exercises similar to reading boxes that were a mainstay in classrooms from the ’60s through the ’90s.

What’s different is the sheer volume of web-based reading material and the precision with which the software — and Wandishion — can ensure that what the students read is both level-appropriate and challenging.

An educational grant provided the classroom with three microphones the students use to discuss their reading and persuade their classmates to read the same piece. And the students learn to hone their speaking abilities and build confidence.

On a day last week, 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, Wandishion said.

“At any grade level, a student might have great reading and comprehension skills but nonetheless struggle with fluency,” she 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 the weekly exercise, students praise their classmates via a written note about some characteristic in which that other student excels.

The accent is on the positive: Beside honing writing abilities, the lesson teaches them the importance of empathy in society, Wandishion said.

The classroom is full of other innovations including a version of the “Mad Libs” game the students complete as part of a vocabulary lesson.

Currently, the class is prepping for an important milestone — its first student-parent-teacher conference, set for next month.

Here again, the kids are in charge. Each student plans 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. 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, Wandishion said.

Skills such as reading, writing and the social sciences, occasionally derided as inferior skills to the more important “hard skills” of science and mathematics, are front and center.

“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.”

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