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State superintendent swings by Troy schools

By: Terry Oparka | Troy Times | Published September 23, 2015

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New Michigan State Superintendent Brian Whiston made his first visit to schools in session this fall at four buildings in the Troy School District Sept. 11.

He started his duties in the top state spot July 1.

Whiston, members of the Troy School District Board of Education and administrators visited Wass Elementary School; Baker Middle School; the International Academy-East, an International Baccalaureate school; and the Troy Center for Transition, a life skills program for cognitively impaired or developmentally disabled young adults ages 18 to 26 that focuses on developing job, social,  and independent living skills and awareness of community resources.

At Wass Elementary, Whiston saw students in Lauren Fragomeni’s first-grade class engage in Visible Thinking practices, discussing the book titled “Daniel Goes to School,” by Becky Friedman.

Kerry Birmingham, community and media relations director for the Troy School District, explained via email that Visible Thinking serves as a flexible framework for enriching learning. Key goals include fostering a deeper understanding of content and greater motivation for learning, developing thinking and learning abilities and attitudes toward thinking, being alert to opportunities to think and learn, and shifting classroom culture toward a community of “enthusiastically engaged thinkers and learners.”

In Jackie Skinner’s second-grade class, Whiston saw students engage in table-talking, where students discuss a question together, then share their thoughts with Skinner using another component of Visible Thinking to pull out students’ feelings and thinking as they began to explore a unit on insects, Wass Principal Matt Jansen said.

“Every kid has a voice in every lesson every day,” Jansen explained to Whiston, adding that Visible Thinking is a part of the larger culture of thinking adopted in the district.

“There is an expectation of (student) participation. There’s an expectation that the students’ thinking is valued within the classroom,” Jansen said.

All 12 elementary schools in the Troy School District are embracing various thinking practices, Jansen said.

“We’re on day four (of school), and it’s amazing what we’re seeing in the classroom,” Whiston said.

He said that he and his staff planned to visit 300 school districts and charter schools across the state this year to take note of best practices and share those with districts and schools where there are things that need work.

“It’s a customer service commitment,” he said.

He explained that he and his staff will talk about test data, ask school staff how the Michigan Department of Education can help, take note of things they see that staff and students need to work on, and have honest and frank conversations about school board, student and academic issues.

“That didn’t happen in Troy,” he said, referring to seeing needed areas of improvement. He said that he was impressed with the culture of Visible Thinking used in the district.

Whiston said  his visit to the Troy School District was his first chance to see students in the classroom since school started.

“I did want to see Troy. I wanted to see the culture of thinking, the Troy Center for Transition, and the International Baccalaureate program,” Whiston said. “I wanted to see what worked very well.”

Whiston said he was impressed with the high level of instruction, the level of student and staff engagement, and the vocabulary words and table-talking among students on the fourth day of instruction. 

He said the Michigan Department of Education plans to make best practices gleaned from the school visits available to educators across the state on the MDE website and “highlight the good things schools are doing.”

“It’s exciting,” he said. “Some districts can learn great things from Troy, and I hope they will.”

He congratulated the Troy Board of Education and administrators for their good working relationship.

“In successful districts, that’s the model,” he said. “The board sets the goals and gets out of the superintendent’s and staff’s way. School boards could learn from the Troy board.”

“To comment on what he’s observed speaks to the deep commitment toward a high level of student engagement across the district,” said Troy School District Superintendent Richard Machesky.

“We appreciate your making Troy your first stop,” he said to Whiston.

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