By Randy Watson, Kansas Commissioner of Education
I’ve had the good fortune of working with and knowing some outstanding language arts teachers over the many years I have been involved in Kansas education. To just name a few there were Sharon Nelson - Tescott High School, Carol Williams - Andover High School, Barb Wentz – Concordia High School, Bev Nigh – McPherson Middle School, and Carole Ferguson – McPherson High School. These are just a few whom I had the pleasure of working with over the years. In addition, I have had the good fortune of getting to know another outstanding language arts teacher, Jeff Baxter. When I first met Jeff, he was teaching at Leavenworth High School, but now graces the halls of Blue Valley West. Jeff was not only a Kansas Teacher of the Year in 2014, but was inducted into the National Teacher Hall of Fame in 2018.
What these outstanding language arts teachers all have in common is a combination of a love for their content and craft. They love literature, the written English language, the flow of prose that speaks in wonderful ways and analysis of great works of story. However, love of their content alone would not have made any of them wonderful teachers. Each coupled his or her outstanding knowledge and passion of language arts with a deep commitment and dedication to the students they taught daily.
Each of these world-class educators embodies a special gift – to help their students love and see the value of literature, language, poetry and moving oration. As one of their students told me, “You have to love that piece of literature because she loves it so much. She wills you to love it and soon I fell in love with it also.”
During this school year, the challenges of COVID-19 will stretch any educator, even the outstanding, seasoned ones I have mentioned. Challenges of hybrid schedules, of on-site learning coupled with remote learning, possibly changing every day to meet the needs of students and families convey the ever-changing nature of the virus that impacts our state.
This year will challenge the way all great language arts teachers go about teaching and learning. The need to establish deep relationships will be deeply contested as they will have to navigate teaching students who may not physically be present in the classroom.
And it is in this environment of challenges, that I am excited to see what teachers of language arts do this year to inspire their students. It is in that background that another group of fantastic language arts teachers helped craft a document, titled Navigating Change, for all Kansas’ teachers. Those teachers include: Monica Diaz - Garden City USD 457, Whitney Linenberger - Dighton USD 482, Amanda Buethe - Ness City USD 303, Daniel Dawson - Lyons USD 405, Wayne Greenlee - Caldwell USD 360, Megan Kohlman - Hesston USD 460, Peggy Neufeld - Buhler USD 313, Angie Powers - Olathe USD 233, Kendra Preston - DeSoto USD 232, Lori Stratton - Gardner-Edgerton USD 231, and Heather Sazama - Buhler USD 313.
The document they helped produce encapsulated nearly 30 years of work from the Kansas Language Arts Standards and within 60 days they transformed the standards into a competency-based model by grade bands. They also organized these new competencies into a broader theme of Humanities. The work this amazing group of language arts teachers produced has the potential to dramatically change the way we meet student needs this year and well into the future. This work will enable students to demonstrate mastery of language arts competencies in a variety of methods.
In a competency-based model, students move through the curriculum in a personalized way, at their own pace. This pace is aligned to their individual plan of study. Students earn credit and grades based on demonstrating mastery, not based on simply sitting in a class for a defined period of time.
In examining the work completed this summer by these phenomenal teachers, I can only imagine being back in the classroom. I would have been excited to have walked down the hall at Andover High School and begged Carol Williams to co-teach Humanities with me. She would have pushed me to be a far better teacher than I had been in the past. We could have taken Navigating Change and crafted new project-based lessons that brought her love of literature and my love of history into focus for our students. We could have experienced the joy of planning and learning together, instead of teaching far across the school from each other. I’m sure that we would have recruited some other teachers – teachers of music, art, drama -- to help us in this new venture. It not only could have been some of our best time teaching, it would have transformed learning for our students.
This is the opportunity presented to every language arts teacher this school term. The resource language arts teachers created took the work of those great educators I have known over the years and brought teaching and learning forward into a new era. We will see a heightened focus on rigor, accountability and an unwavering commitment to personalizing learning for students.
This year, we have the opportunity to experience what Carol Williams and I never grew to realize – an opportunity to craft new learning experiences for our students. I look forward to what new opportunities language arts teachers will bring to their school and classrooms this fall.
Navigating Change Competencies by Grade Levels
About the Author
Known for his visionary leadership, Dr. Randy Watson’s roots run deep in public education. As a former history teacher, school principal and superintendent, Dr. Watson has dedicated more than 35 years of his life working in public education settings across the state and ensuring every child receives a world class education. That dedication continues in his current role as Kansas Commissioner of Education.
The Kansas State Board of Education named Watson Kansas Education Commissioner in November 2014. In his role as the state’s chief education officer, Dr. Watson provides leadership to the Kansas State Department of Education in carrying out the policies and programs set by the State Board of Education. Currently, Commissioner Watson is leading the agency in the redesign of Kansas public education. Fueled by the state board’s vision for education crafted in partnership with the citizens of Kansas, Watson is leading statewide initiatives designed to achieve this new vision that Kansas leads the world in the success of each student.
A native of Coffeyville Kansas, Dr. Watson attended Kansas State University where he earned a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s degree in science in secondary administration, staff supervision and staff development, building level certification. Additionally, he received his doctorate of education in secondary administration, school law, curriculum development and instructional leadership, and district level certification.
The recipient of many awards, Dr. Watson was named an Alumni Fellow at Kansas State and in 2015, was honored by being named the Kansas Superintendent of the Year.
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