Williams College English professor Bernie Rhie addresses the Olmsted Award breakfast.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Williams College English professor Bernie Rhie's audience last week was a roomful of public school teachers, administrators and school committee members.
But his message was for his colleagues in academia.
"We are really good at what we do: scholarship, teaching scholarship, teaching knowledge," Rhie said. "My colleagues and I are not necessarily good at some of the other things I think our students need, which is working with pain, grief, sorrow, working with feelings of alienation, working with the heart.
"What I'd like to see Williams do in the coming years … is go deeper and go deeper partly by engaging in deeper and more intentional dialogue with teachers in the community, who have been doing this type of work, who know what our kids are like before they get here.
"Because they're only one year older. They're not that much different. Things don't radically change when they get to college."
Rhie was the principal speaker at the college's annual Olmsted Award presentation and breakfast last Tuesday morning.
Faculty from four North County schools and three school districts shared how their schools have utilized Olmsted grants in the past and how the funds will be put to use in the 2019-20 academic year.
Rhie quipped that he easily could have ducked the speaking engagement but instead was happy to attend and recognize the work of elementary and secondary educators who, as he put it, address the needs of the whole person.
He shared his very personal experience of having taken a leave from his tenured faculty position at the college and teaching at the Berkshire School in Sheffield when his son enrolled at prep school.
"I was an English teacher, I ran a dorm, I coached two varsity sports for the two years I was there," Rhie said. "And that was amazing, because it reminded me of why I got into teaching: the all-in, emotional wellness of the students. Being in a dorm, driving the students to games and practices … Professors here at Williams think they work hard, but they have no idea."
Now that his son is back at Mount Greylock and the elder Rhie is back at Williams, he has an even greater appreciation for the work done by public school teachers.
"That experience at Berkshire -- seeing what my kids have been through, seeing what you all are doing, seeing what you spoke about this morning, makes me think that Williams professors have so much they can learn from you," Rhie said.
Williams President Maud Mandel thanked the public school teachers for furthering the college's mission in another way: teaching its undergraduates.
"This has been one of the things that has struck me since I've been here," said Mandel, who is wrapping up her first academic year in the corner office at Williams. "As I've talked to students that work with many of you, I've seen the impact of engagement of our students with the schools.
"They've learned so much from you as they volunteer in your schools -- learning from your example and, in many cases, being inspired to pursue their own careers in education."
Once again this year, Williams is giving back to its neighboring communities and their public schools with funding that will support programs ranging from STEM education at Hoosac Valley Elementary School to developing an academic master plan at Berkshire Arts & Technology Charter Public School to focusing on social and emotional learning at Lanesborough and Williamstown elementary schools.
The last initiatives spoke directly to Rhie's point about the whole student, and they will be a continuation of work previously funded through Olmsted grants.
WES Principal Joelle Brookner told attendees at the breakfast that her school sees its mission as: "creating small citizens with open hearts, fierce hearts, kind hearts."
Brookner said accomplishing that mission is more challenging than ever as pupils as young as the primary grades are exposed to social media and children come to school with more stress from the outside world.
"There are things happening that we haven't seen, really, before," Brookner said. "In the past several years, we have had a real shift not only in the demographic of the children who are coming to school, but in their … ability to cope and the experiences children are bringing to school with them, many of which can't be left at the door when they walk in."
North Adams Public Schools are using their Olmsted grant funds to work on curriculum development and build up a reporting system, Kimberly Roberts-Morandi said.
In 2018-19, that entailed a focus on the district's social studies curriculum in light of changing state standards and creating a "through line" that vertically integrates instruction throughout the city's schools, Roberts-Morandi said.
"We were really excited to be able to bring together a committee of people representing all of our schools in a range of grade levels to think about: 'What are we up to now?' and 'How is this going to change what it is we're currently teaching?' ‘How can we weave it into some of the other content areas?' ‘What are the potential expectations that the state is going to have for our students having to show what they've learned?'
Kimberly Roberts-Morandi explains how the North Adams' public schools used its Olmsted grant funds.
"In other words: Is it going to be a test or is it going to be some other way of showing competency? Through the Olmsted grant, we attended a number of programs the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education held. We had meetings right in our school district. … We did some on-site trainings. We had people working on the weekends and after school, too."
Of the seven presenters on Tuesday morning, one gave a demonstration of the the kind of work being funded by the grant at his school.
McCann Tech media specialist Rick Moon explained that the school used the funds to acquire tablets to use in the classroom and promote more interaction with between teachers and students.
Stepping away from the lectern at the front of the dining room at Williams' Faculty House, Moon walked among the attendees, demonstrating the kind of interaction that McCann Tech is hoping to encourage in the classroom.
"The Olmsted grant was one of the main features of us trying to grab technology and bring it into the classroom," Moon said. "But let's make it mobile. Let's unleash our teachers. Let's get them away from the podium. Let's get them away from their computer."
Mandel praised all the educators in the room for putting the college's grants to work in variety of ways with the same end goal in mind.
"As you can see from the range of things we saw, from ceramics in the classrooms [at Mount Greylock] to implicit bias training to curricular development and engaged work with helping our youngest emerging citizens be challenged for the range of things they're going to face … one of the things that strikes as I listened to the presentations is how much, at the college level, we're thinking about all the same things," Mandel said.
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