How can we better support our students starting middle and high school? Join us in conversation with Newton County's Laura Lambert and Muscogee County's Vanessa Ellis to get some transformative tips!

Laura Lambert and Vanessa Ellis in Classroom Conversations

How can we better support our students starting middle and high school? Join us in conversation with Newton County's Laura Lambert and Muscogee County's Vanessa Ellis to get some transformative tips!

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Ashley Mengwasser: Good day educators. Welcome to our award-winning podcast series, Classroom Conversations, the platform for Georgia's teachers. Classroom Conversations is a joint project from your very favorite education meets media duo, the Georgia Department of Education and Georgia Public Broadcasting. Wherefore, art we here? Why? To serve as a place for educators to share and learn. May this be the 30-minute highlight of your day as you listen in. Hi, I am host Ashley Mengwasser in studio with two mystery guests, whom I'll reveal momentarily. Today's vibe is moving on up, onward and upward, full steam ahead, forward march. You picking up what I'm putting down? For professionals, few words come with feelings as happy and hopeful as the word promotion. In the context of our schools, promotions refers to advancing students from their current grade level to the next. Let's widen our listener circle for this convo because today's episode bears powerful information for teachers, students, and families alike. Promotions is about the strategies and support teachers give students to succeed in the next grade level as they are promoted from elementary to middle school, from middle to high or from high school to their continuing education. Talk about cha-cha-changes. Without the proper support, it could feel like entering a whole new world, an educational twilight zone, but my guest today just wouldn't let that happen. So don't worry about that. How apropos that both women beside me today have their own promotions to boast of. Vanessa Ellis' current title is Academic Coach for Double Churches Middle School in Muskogee County. Before this, Vanessa taught eighth grade social studies and has a true passion for history, which I'll only tease. Now, you just wait. Vanessa was named the 2022 Muskogee County Teacher of the Year and the 2017 Georgia Economics Teacher of the Year by the Georgia Council on Economic Education. And Laura Lambert now serves as STEM Program Director for the Newton College and Career Academy's STEM Institute, non-traditional high school in Newton County where she is the project-based learning queen. That's right, Laura. Laura was formerly an AP biology and biotechnology teacher there. She began her career as a Woodrow Wilson STEM teaching fellow. Fancy. And is the 2023 Newton County Teacher of the Year. Both Vanessa and Laura are 2024 Teacher of The Year finalists for Georgia, landing in the top 10. And Vanessa is our runner up. How amazing. Welcome and congratulations you two.

Vanessa Ellis: Hey, thank you so much, Ashley. I'm glad to be here today.

Laura Lambert: I'm so glad to be here.

Ashley Mengwasser: You're glad to be here?

Laura Lambert: Yeah.

Ashley Mengwasser: How's everybody today?

Vanessa Ellis: We're doing well. Excited.

Ashley Mengwasser: We're doing good. We're doing good. And you guys, honestly, you're superb representatives for promotions episode. You are dropping accolades like pennies in a well or like I drop my phone on concrete, which is daily. Laura, you're in year seven. Vanessa, you're in year 12 in education.

Vanessa Ellis: Starting my 13th.

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh, starting your 13th. Okay. You guys tell me what led you to teaching. Laura?

Laura Lambert: Nothing. I did not want to be a teacher. So my mom's a teacher and growing up I got that behind-the-scenes look at the trials and tribulations of being a public educator. And I, under no circumstances wanted to be a teacher.

Ashley Mengwasser: Look at you.

Laura Lambert: And look at me now. No, it was really in my senior year of college that I started to think about what about science did I really enjoy? And it wasn't necessarily being in the lab. It was more of how do I get to talk to other people and explain to them what I've been doing in the lab? And those opportunities to communicate science to people was really valuable to me. And so the Woodrow Wilson STEM Fellowship came across my desk and I went for it. And look, I'm here, seven years later.

Ashley Mengwasser: And now you're on a podcast-

Laura Lambert: Yeah, yeah.

Ashley Mengwasser: For educators, seven years in. Congratulations on that and all that you've achieved.

Laura Lambert: Thank you.

Ashley Mengwasser: Vanessa, what's your pathway to education?

Vanessa Ellis: So, I'm on the opposite end of the spectrum from Laura. I have always known that I was going to be an educator from when I was growing up. I would have my little brothers and force them to play school with me.

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh, yeah.

Vanessa Ellis: And going through school, if my friends didn't understand something, they would say, "Hey Vanessa, can you break this down for us?" And I just learned that I had a way of communicating with people and getting them to understand abstract information. And then also, the teachers that I had growing up in Muskogee County who poured into me, I was like, "Wow, I really want to do what they do and give back how they give back." So I always knew I was going to be a teacher and that's exactly what I went to college for and majored in history and education.

Ashley Mengwasser: And you stayed in Muskogee?

Vanessa Ellis: Stayed in Muskogee. Product of it and now I teach there.

Ashley Mengwasser: A full circle Cinderella story. I love it so much. In your spare time, women... I know that's probably funny. In your spare time and also just you being you, I want to hear more about you personally. So would you tell me about yourselves? You go first, Vanessa.

Vanessa Ellis: Sure. So I'm married to Oliver Ellis and we have three children together. My husband is also an educator. We actually met teaching at the same school. We started dating, got engaged, got married, had our first kid together, all while working at the same school. So our family is really intricately linked with school. And so in our spare time, a lot of what we do is related to education, but when we're not doing that, we love to travel, we love to eat. We especially love exploring the state of Georgia. And teaching Georgia studies for so long is really cool that my state is like this big backyard to explore, to connect with what I teach my students. So for our anniversary actually, we went up to Dahlonega, Georgia, which was-

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh, yeah.

Vanessa Ellis: Where the first gold rush was, and I was able to explore that with my husband and then take pictures and share it on Instagram with my students.

Ashley Mengwasser: Of course. Did you pan for gold?

Vanessa Ellis: I did not, but I did visit the Gold Museum.

Ashley Mengwasser: Okay, so there was some gold in your experience.

Vanessa Ellis: Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: Well, you're going to earn some gold in your own right, Vanessa, because you're a pretty good rapper.

Vanessa Ellis: Oh, Lord.

Ashley Mengwasser: And we have evidence of that. Would you tell us a bit about it first?

Vanessa Ellis: Okay, so my first year of teaching, I went to the Ron Clark Academy. And Ron Clark is known for his raps and his songs and all the teachers at his school. And I was like, "I could do that." Now, I didn't think I was a good rapper, but I am a good writer. I know how to write. So I tried it one day. I put myself out there in front of seventh graders and for all my middle school teachers, you know how horrifying that could be, but they really loved it and enjoyed it. And so every year I would write more and more songs and I've built up this bank of educational raps that help my students connect with the content.

Ashley Mengwasser: And they are brilliant. In fact, we have one of your sample tracks about World War I and World War II. So, let's cue that up and listen for a moment. Vanessa, that is true treasure. You're providing your students. Not only are you so on rhythm, your beat is a pretty sick beat.

Vanessa Ellis: Oh, I thank you.

Ashley Mengwasser: And the lyrics, what did you think, Laura?

Laura Lambert: I learned something.

Ashley Mengwasser: I did too.

Laura Lambert: Because I'm no history teacher and 1917 is a date that I...

Ashley Mengwasser: Yeah, and Germany's involvement. It was wonderful for me too, rehashing those lessons I should have learned in school.

Vanessa Ellis: You guys are too kind.

Ashley Mengwasser: No, thank you for what you're doing in your classroom. It's awesome. I want to hear about what you're doing in and out of the classroom, Laura. Tell us about yourself and your own quirks?

Laura Lambert: Sure, sure. So my husband and I actually had chemistry class together.

Vanessa Ellis: Nice.

Ashley Mengwasser: I wonder where you're going to do that?

Laura Lambert: So, we met in high school, and we've been together, and we have a four-legged child.

Ashley Mengwasser: I get that.

Laura Lambert: He's a Golden Retriever.

Ashley Mengwasser: What's his name?

Laura Lambert: His name is Tucker.

Ashley Mengwasser: Tucker.

Laura Lambert: We love to travel with him. He's a great road trip dog.

Ashley Mengwasser: Aw.

Laura Lambert: He's been to more states than most people have.

Ashley Mengwasser: How many states has he been to?

Laura Lambert: I think we're at 14.

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh, my gosh.

Laura Lambert: Yeah, he's been up and down the East Coast.

Ashley Mengwasser: He's a well-traveled woofer.

Laura Lambert: He is.

Ashley Mengwasser: What a cutie.

Laura Lambert: But yeah, in my time outside of the classroom, I'm a big traveler. We did a pretty big trip in Europe this summer, and not only do I like to travel in my personal life, but I've also traveled with students before and that is such a big part of my teaching experience so far is getting to take kids out of the classroom, whether it's to Athens, which is just down the road from Covington, or if it's across the ocean. Getting to see kids in new environments and watching them contend with the world around them is hilarious, but it's really fun and exciting because you get to live the experience again through them. And I love that.

Ashley Mengwasser: You're a part-time tour guide. Where have you taken your students?

Laura Lambert: Yeah, for sure. So I've taken them to Germany and Switzerland. We actually got to hike through the Alps-

Ashley Mengwasser: Wow.

Laura Lambert: When we were in Switzerland. And then just last summer, I took a group to Italy.

Ashley Mengwasser: That is so cool. I know you told me when we first spoke that just part of being a teacher means your professional and personal lives just blur.

Laura Lambert: They do. They do.

Ashley Mengwasser: And Vanessa echoed that. Well, thank you for all you're doing for our students and classrooms. You guys are fascinating people. What are you both looking forward to this academic year?

Laura Lambert: So, we're both in new roles and I don't even think either of us quite know what we've gotten ourselves into with these new positions. But my big goal as the STEM Program Director is first and foremost, let's keep up the successes that our program had last year. But second is, well, what more can we do and what new initiatives can we start and have our kids be a part of? Last year for the first time, we were able to send a student to the International Science Fair. And the goal this year is, well, we sent one, let's send three-

Ashley Mengwasser: More.

Laura Lambert: More.

Ashley Mengwasser: More to ISEF.

Laura Lambert: So just more opportunities for students to set themselves apart is a big goal of our STEM program.

Ashley Mengwasser: That's a great goal. Vanessa?

Vanessa Ellis: It's funny because I would've never seen myself where I am today. When you start off and you major in education or you become a teacher, one, you never seek out to become the Teacher of The Year. It's like something that happens to you and you're like, "Wow." So when I became my district's Teacher of The Year, you get to travel around your district and you hear teachers' stories. And a lot of them were saying the same thing, "We want support. We want affirmation, we want to be treated like professionals." And I just heard that everywhere that I went. And so after the Georgia Teacher of The Year running, I returned back to my county and I said, "What more can I do for teachers? If I've heard that same line over and over again, I want to be part of that solution. I want to be the support for teachers." And so going into an academic coach role, man, I have been getting it because the first couple of weeks of school was like, "All right, well, I need to be visible. I want to build relationships with teachers, get them to trust me, let them know that I'm here to support them, their instruction, and ultimately their students." And so, as a result of that, it's just like I've been on go mode the entire time. So what I'm looking forward to most this year is just getting the teachers to trust me, welcoming them or having them welcome me into their classroom. Since I don't have students of my own, I'm looking forward to learning all of the kids of this building and just really being the teacher and the support system that teachers want at this time.

Ashley Mengwasser: That teachers need.

Vanessa Ellis: Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: You're showing up for teachers.

Vanessa Ellis: Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: Well, Vanessa, with you in the late middle school background side, Laura's with high school, you're a great tag team to discuss our topic today. That handoff from middle to high or from elementary to middle, depending on our teachers who are listening. Help tease our promotions topic today by revealing a few factors, if you will, that are surprisingly relevant to promoting students? Maybe something we haven't always thought about. Who'd like to go first?

Vanessa Ellis: So, for the elementary students who are moving into-

Ashley Mengwasser: Into middle.

Vanessa Ellis: Middle School, something that may be surprising for a middle school teacher is when we come in, we automatically assume students know how to do all of these things.

Ashley Mengwasser: Everything.

Vanessa Ellis: They know how to study, they know how to plan, right? You've been in school all this time, you know how to do all these things. And so it's a big reality check when those kids come to us and they have no executive functioning skills whatsoever. And they've been taught some things in elementary school, but it's been very regimented or they have Chance or they have things that guide them, but it kind of falls off when they get to middle school and they really have to learn through experience. And so it's just interesting to see them carry a million trapper keepers and colored pencils are falling all over the floor when they first get there because they just don't know how to manage all the things.

Ashley Mengwasser: All the stuff. Yes. The heavier backpack.

Vanessa Ellis: Oh my gosh, they're so tiny. The book bag is bigger than them when they come in sixth grade.

Ashley Mengwasser: That's true. I remember when I went from elementary to middle, I asked my mom, I was like, "Do they speak English there?" And she was like, "Yes." You can't take anything for granted as a kid because you're just not sure. It seems like a completely different wilderness, doesn't it?

Vanessa Ellis: For sure. Yeah.

Ashley Mengwasser: What's your take on this, Laura?

Laura Lambert: No, I think Vanessa is so right. That is a challenge in middle school and that is a continuing challenge in high school of you expect them to be able to do all of these things when they come in, and a lot of them don't. A lot of them don't know how to write an email. A lot of them don't know how to manage things with an agenda or a calendar. And so I can definitely echo Vanessa's sentiment at the high school level. For me, I would say the biggest thing is self-advocacy.

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh wow.

Laura Lambert: That coming with the lack of maybe some of those executive skills, there's also the, "Well, how do I get help?" Well, you have to advocate for yourself.

Ashley Mengwasser: How do I ask for what I want?

Laura Lambert: And how do you ask for what you want in a professional way and how do you make sure that you're getting what you need? That's a really challenging thing to get students to grasp because if they don't tell us that they are challenged or they need help, it may be a while before we figure that out ourselves. And so at a high school level, just being able to advocate for oneself is huge. And the teenager advocating for themselves and maybe letting the teenager do it. There are still parents at the high school level that are not quite ready to let go of that control, but it's really important that they do it.

Ashley Mengwasser: This is going to be such a wonderful conversation. Let's get into our topical question, shall we? Okay. So students are being promoted through the grade levels. How do teachers help students get used to changes like campus size, class size, teacher accessibility? What can teachers do?

Vanessa Ellis: So, it's really important that your elementary schools and your middle schools are talking, and your middle schools and your high schools are talking so that you can set up a seamless transition or as seamless as you can make it. So where I teach in Muskogee County, we have what's called feeder schools. So you have a cluster of elementary schools that feed into the middle school. So we reach out to them and we set up fifth grade nights and our incoming sixth graders and their families will come in and we'll give them an overview of what middle school is like. We showcase all of our sports and our clubs to get the kids really excited, give them a tour of the school. And probably according to the kid, the most important thing is getting their first locker.

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh, yeah.

Vanessa Ellis: So, getting that locker combination, getting that practice.

Ashley Mengwasser: Big dreams coming true.

Vanessa Ellis: Yeah, but just a lot of communication to say, "Hey, this is what we're doing. We want to invite you in. We want to communicate with you," so that kids don't show up on the first day of middle school not knowing. We want it to be a comfortable transition for our students and our parents.

Ashley Mengwasser: Yes. It's almost like that night is so important because they're getting... I'm from the entertainment industry, obviously Vanessa, but they get a rehearsal, right?

Vanessa Ellis: Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: They get to see what it's like.

Vanessa Ellis: Exactly.

Ashley Mengwasser: How could you do it otherwise? What do you add to this, Laura?

Laura Lambert: No. So I love that you brought up the idea of rehearsals because the STEM Institute at NCCA, which is the Newton College and Career Academy, we're a bit unique in that students have to apply, interview and be accepted into our school.

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh.

Laura Lambert: And so, we only accept a cohort of 56 freshmen every year.

Ashley Mengwasser: Wow.

Laura Lambert: And then they move as a cohort through our program. And so what we do is we actually have a summer bridge camp that they come to for a day. And this year, since I'm the STEM Program Director now, I was in charge of planning and running it. And one of the things I thought about is, well, how are they going to know how to navigate a high school class schedule and class changes? And we are on an AB schedule, which means they have A classes on Mondays and Wednesdays and B classes on Wednesdays or Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Ashley Mengwasser: I got you.

Laura Lambert: So, what I did is I made a mock schedule, I gave him a map and, "Hey, pretend to follow this schedule today. You have to get to your class on time. Good luck." And so it was really cool because instead of just having some of our older students give them a tour, now we gave them all the tools they needed-

Ashley Mengwasser: It's like a scavenger.

Laura Lambert: To figure it out. Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh, I like that.

Laura Lambert: So, I asked some of our freshmen if they thought it was helpful on the first day of school? And they were like, "Yes, I'm so glad I figured out where these classes were."

Ashley Mengwasser: That's really cool. Vanessa, here's one for you. When an elementary student moves up to middle school, how can teachers help students learn to manage the expectations of having multiple teachers, which is a big shift from elementary to middle?

Vanessa Ellis: So, the first thing is, especially if you teach sixth grade only because sixth graders are so different from seventh and eighth graders.

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh, yeah.

Vanessa Ellis: So, our sixth-grade teachers especially, they have to have grace and understanding of that transitionary period with those kids, but how you get them is first to make a comfortable learning environment for them. That's by building relationships, building trust with the kids. And then from there, making sure that you're modeling expectations for the students and you're explicitly going over it. Because just like we teach academics, you have to teach those executive function skills. You have to teach behaviors because what was acceptable in elementary school may or may not be acceptable now in middle school. So you have to explicitly tell them these things. You have to model it for them, and you also have to practice. So things like how you walk down a hallway. No, you don't shimmy the entire way down. No, you don't hit your friends when you're walking down the hallway. We have a bell system, so you have to get to class on time now. It's not a teacher escorting you-

Ashley Mengwasser: From class to class.

Vanessa Ellis: From class to class. And so you have to tell them this. You have to give them practice, and you have to remain firm in those expectations because if you don't, the kids will just continue to do what they've always done. And then communication is a huge part of this. And so you spoke about advocacy, and so we try to start that at the middle school level as well, especially in this more digital age. So kids have all kind of apps and things. We have a learning management system, Canvas. We have a student information system, Infinite Campus, we have all of these things. So we have to teach them and show them how to utilize it.

Ashley Mengwasser: These platforms.

Vanessa Ellis: Exactly. And so you just teach it to them.

Ashley Mengwasser: If they can learn like the little ones I'm around how to play five different games, they can do it.

Vanessa Ellis: Yes, they can.

Ashley Mengwasser: They can do it. Have you two noticed any physical changes that affect students as they're growing, moving into adolescence? I imagine there are some.

Laura Lambert: So, there are some unique challenges with working, I would say with freshmen in particular because there are some big physical differences in the boys especially, and that can cause some kind of tensions in the classroom sometimes. It's also a challenge from a science teacher's perspective because lab coats sometimes don't fit and sometimes swallow them. But in terms of whether or not physical differences cause any challenges in high school, I wouldn't say so. It's more of a social hierarchy that's created there.

Ashley Mengwasser: That is kind of looming.

Laura Lambert: Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: And that the students are very much aware of, where they fit into it. What do you say, Vanessa?

Vanessa Ellis: So, one of the many reasons why I love middle school is because there is so much growth. From the time they enter sixth grade to the time they live leave in eighth grade, they are completely different kids.

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh, my gosh.

Vanessa Ellis: They look completely different. So you have sixth graders who look like actual babies, and you have eighth graders who look like grown adults. And then you get to watch them come in as these awkward-

Ashley Mengwasser: I remember, not so fondly.

Vanessa Ellis: Just awkward and unsure of themselves. Their social skills are all over the place and you watch them grow. And by the time they live in eighth grade, there are these young adults, most of them, who are ready to take on high school. And it's just really heartwarming to watch that development.

Ashley Mengwasser: Yes, I totally get that. How can middle and high school teachers help students learn their routine and their new school faster so that the transition from one school to the next has minimal effects on them? We heard about Curriculum Night, that's a big deal. Or Fifth Grade Night, whatever you called it.

Vanessa Ellis: Certainly. So as I alluded to earlier, is just making sure you're teaching those practices, giving students opportunities to, "Hey, let's log into our learning management system. Let's learn our logins. Let's make sure we know how to find our email, compose an email." We are managing things like due dates and calendars, making sure that students are getting to class on time, adhering to that bell system and receiving consequences if they don't. There are so many things that teachers can do to help that. And like I said earlier, a lot of that is just making sure that you're working with those kids and holding high expectations for them and giving opportunities to fail and giving them that feedback along the way.

Ashley Mengwasser: Right. And talking about it openly with your class. Right?

Vanessa Ellis: Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: Like, "Hey, I've noticed a lot of people relate today." We need to be conscious of that.

Vanessa Ellis: Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: Calling it out and making it a shared responsibility.

Vanessa Ellis: Certainly, for the class.

Laura Lambert: I think too, as a teacher, it's your responsibility to create that culture of high expectations in your classroom. But at the Career Academy, we have a building-wide culture of high expectations. It's funny that Vanessa brought up bells. We don't have bells at our school.

Ashley Mengwasser: You don't?

Laura Lambert: No.

Vanessa Ellis: What?

Laura Lambert: No, they're not bells in the workplace.

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh yeah, you got to get to that meeting.

Laura Lambert: Yeah. So our students have to manage their time in a very different way. They know that class ends at 11:07, and so you'll see students at 11:05 starting to pack up. And as a teacher, that was always my cue of like, "Oh, wait, class is over."

Ashley Mengwasser: "Oh, class is almost over."

Laura Lambert: And then they just leave.

Ashley Mengwasser: How very self-starting of them.

Laura Lambert: Yeah, absolutely. And I think too at the Career Academy, because our focus is on workforce development and preparedness in terms of employability and professionalism, we have adopted this culture that all of us say hi to our students every single morning. All of us are shaking hands, and we know our students pretty strongly and we know what their goals are. So, I think that culture of excellence is important to foster in your classroom, but also in your building. And then transparency, that's always been a big thing for me as a teacher, that if I am assigning something or asking you to do something, I'm going to be as transparent as possible about what my expectations are. And we have a learning management system, Canvas as well. And when I'm designing my Canvas page, I'm making sure how do I reduce the number of clicks it takes for a student to get to what I need them to get to?

Ashley Mengwasser: Ah, nice.

Laura Lambert: How do I make sure that my rubrics are crystal clear and my assignment instructions are crystal clear? Because so much of high school I think is figuring out the game and knowing what each of your separate teachers is expecting because they do have, just like in middle school, a group of teachers that they're trying to work with and work for. And so knowing what each wants is the learning curve of the first semester, I think.

Ashley Mengwasser: Wow, that is a connection I've never made. Here I sit, 36 years old when Laura just said it. The college level curriculum approach, which you're taking at your school is very much like the teacher-student relationship for the student is very much like serving a client. It's like, how does this work? How do you regard this work? Is there something I could do differently or better? It's kind of the reverse responsibility relationship.

Laura Lambert: Yeah, in a way.

Ashley Mengwasser: I like that.

Laura Lambert: And that's too at the Career Academy, and I hope I'm speaking for most of our staff, I'm not even sure we view ourselves as instructors or educators. Some days we are project managers, some days we are facilitators, some days we're subject matter experts. But I think in general, in a classroom, you just have a continuum of learners.

Ashley Mengwasser: Yes.

Laura Lambert: And the educator is on there as well in the continuum. And working as a team in a classroom is a much different experience. Whereas I think so often we are used to teacher at the front of the class is delivering instruction. And in my experience, that's not what at least my high school looks like anymore.

Ashley Mengwasser: I love that. What are your insider tips for students? Let's talk to students for a second. What do you want them to do as they're promoted?

Vanessa Ellis: So, at the middle school level, as they're moving from grade to grade, I want our students to remember that middle school is a challenging time. We've talked a lot about academics and executive function, but a lot of school is also those relationships and the social aspect of it. And so, making sure that we're teaching our students to be nice human beings who are accepting of one another and help one another and can communicate and collaborate. Students need to avoid some of the bad things that can happen or they can be exposed to, learn how to communicate that to a parent or a teacher. If they see something, say something. So just remembering that it's not just books and academics, but our school is a place where we want to feel joy and we want to feel safe and we want to feel accepted.

Ashley Mengwasser: Beautiful.

Laura Lambert: So, this year in our STEM program, there's an excerpt of a poem that I keep reading to our students, and I cannot remember for the life of me, the poet's name, but the poem is called Traveler, There is No Path. And the poem basically goes, "Traveler, there is no path. The path is made by walking." And this idea that there are an infinite number of paths to success.

Ashley Mengwasser: Yes.

Laura Lambert: And that success for one student does not look the same for success for another student. And this idea that you do not have to follow the prescribed graduate top of your class must go to a four-year university, must get a six figure job. That is just one version of success, and we really encourage our students to blaze their own paths, to start their own projects and their own student-led organizations. We have a project called the STEM Extension Project or SEP, and it's something that was started probably about six years ago by a student at our school that thought, "Hey, wouldn't it be cool if we had a bus that we drove around our community and could do science experiments in?"

Ashley Mengwasser: Whoa.

Laura Lambert: And you get those kids in front of the right people and with the right funding source and you can make those projects happen.

Ashley Mengwasser: Their ideas come to life.

Laura Lambert: And that has been a sustained project and that was something that was student led, and they're taking it in new and different directions every year. And so I think for me, students have to realize that there is no prescribed way to do it right.

Ashley Mengwasser: Yes.

Laura Lambert: And to be comfortable with living in the unknown and making mistakes because especially in our program, it's our job to challenge you.

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh, yeah.

Laura Lambert: It's not our job to make it easy. We're not challenging you just out of spite, we're challenging you because it's going to make you better.

Ashley Mengwasser: Yes. One of the shock waves of high school, the latter years and going on to college is the dawning of self-agency. You realize, "I'm responsible for myself." And what you said, Laura, "I choose my own path in life." It's like being the character in the play. And then the spotlight comes right on top of your head and you're up. You're the star of the show. So that's something interesting to think about. Do either of you have a personal story about a student who may have struggled or succeeded with their grade level promotion?

Vanessa Ellis: So, in my classroom, I'm a big advocate for grade reform. Often we see students working for grades, not working for learning, not working for understanding. And so at the start of the school year, I present to them, "What is a grade? What is an A? What is a B?" And we talk about these things. And slowly over the year, I'm chipping away at that grade heavy mentality of my students. And so they come to me at the beginning of eighth grade obsessed about their grades because they want to get into the magnet programs at the high school.

Ashley Mengwasser: That's right.

Vanessa Ellis: They're just really-

Ashley Mengwasser: They're thinking ahead.

Vanessa Ellis: But as we talk about grades and learning, I had a young lady who just obsessed, would come to me about every little point, but by the end of the year, she wrote me this entire long email saying, "Ms. Ellis, thank you so much for changing my mind about how I learn because the good grades will come if I'm focused on the learning, if I'm focused on how to self-assess, how to prioritize, how to look at what I've done wrong or incorrectly, and look at how I can improve that because those are skills that transfer out not just my grades." And so those little stories really warm my heart because I'm passionate about grading, but I also want students for themselves to see why it's important to focus on their learning because that's what matters ultimately.

Ashley Mengwasser: Dang, Vanessa, I got goosebumps. It's not because I'm cold either. That was beautiful. What do you have for us, Laura?

Laura Lambert: Yeah, so one of our STEM program initiatives in the past few years has been to start teaching AP Biology to freshmen. And some people think we are absolutely crazy for doing it, but we have good intentions behind it and we have a track record of success so far. And so when our freshmen come into our program, they are very bright, very motivated. They have to apply and get accepted into the program. They are very grades motivated. And so one of the things that I did, and it really bothered some of the freshmen for the first nine weeks of school was introducing a project where they had to design a drug. And the idea is there's not a right answer to this.

Ashley Mengwasser: They hate that.

Laura Lambert: And they hate that. They hate that there is not one single right answer-

Ashley Mengwasser: Right answer.

Laura Lambert: That they can just tick off and know for sure that they got those 10 points or whatever. And so we engage in what's called project-based learning, where they are given this problem at the beginning of the unit or semester. And their learning process over the course of the semester is them figuring out and answering or coming up with their solution. And so at the beginning of last year, I said, "Hey, you guys need to design a drug that does this. Good luck." And so many came up and were like, "Is this the right answer?" "Well, guys, there isn't a right answer. It's can you support what you've done here? Can you explain your reasoning?"

Ashley Mengwasser: "Can you convince me this is a good answer?"

Laura Lambert: "Do you have an argument for why this works?" And I think shifting that mindset is really hard to do, but I have seen it happen. I know that it can happen. And though that freshman class is better off for it as they enter their sophomore year, and then they go through the rest of their high school experience.

Ashley Mengwasser: And that is why I told you people, she's the project-based learning queen for things like that. We know class changes can be hectic. So I want to conclude with this. If you guys could just leave us with one in-class instruction or routine that you offer students to help them calm down from class changes and enter your learning environment, do you have something?

Vanessa Ellis: Yes. So Laura, you mentioned this when we were talking about what we wanted to say on the podcast about teaching bell to bell, meaning that there's not a lot of lag time. The students come in, there are structures and routines in place. Students are learning from the minute they walk into the classroom to the minute that they're getting ready to leave. So what I like to do about 10 minutes, excuse me, before the bell rings is have the students... I play Closing Time by Semisonic.

Ashley Mengwasser: Who doesn't love that track? Yes.

Vanessa Ellis: I saw a former student the other day, and the first question was, "Do you still play that song at the end of class?"

Ashley Mengwasser: It's a ritual.

Vanessa Ellis: Yeah. So that's their cue to start winding down. They start to pack up. We always have a closing question to kind of tie the learning together.

Ashley Mengwasser: That's cool.

Vanessa Ellis: It could be comprehension questions, or it could just be metacognitive, like reflecting on your thinking, reflecting on the process of learning for that day. But you hate to just send kids out of your class in a rush. You don't have bells. So I'm interested to see how that works, but you want to give them time to calm down. That music really helps them and primes them to say, "Oh, it's time to go." We tie up the learning so it's nice and neat before they leave.

Ashley Mengwasser: Love that.

Vanessa Ellis: And they get all of their things. Middle schoolers are insanely forgetful. So just making sure, "Hey, have you checked your space? Do you have all of your things?" We get them out and making sure that I say, "Hey, have a great day of learning." And just sending them out on a positive note. They love that.

Ashley Mengwasser: Literally on a positive note. Laura, what's your tradition?

Laura Lambert: It's funny that Vanessa plays Closing Time for them to leave. I play Jojo's Get Out. That's what I play.

Ashley Mengwasser: Different message-

Laura Lambert: Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: But same outcome.

Laura Lambert: Yeah, same outcome.

Ashley Mengwasser: That's a great track too.

Laura Lambert: They think it's hilarious.

Ashley Mengwasser: That's on my workout playlist, I think.

Laura Lambert: Yeah. So just know that I'm playing that to get teenagers leave my classroom. But no, one of the ways that we start class, and I think this is a way that gets them in a mindset as soon as they walk in, I am outside my door shaking their hands and greeting them as they come in, that if I'm not there, they know to just line up in the hallway until I arrive, that nobody enters my class without me saying something or greeting them in some way. And I think by doing that, you're setting the expectation of like, "Hey, we are here together and we are about to do whatever it is we're doing today." I'm the opposite of Vanessa. I like to leave my classes on a cliffhanger.

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh.

Laura Lambert: I like to-

Ashley Mengwasser: Create that dissonance.

Laura Lambert: Yes, that suspense for the next class. Usually our class ends with a new question being posed after we've done an experiment or a case study of, "Well, let's consider this. What might happen if this were to occur?" And, "Get out right now. It's the end of class today." That kind of thing. But for me, I'm a bell to bell. We have 90 minute blocks every other day, and I fill every second of it.

Ashley Mengwasser: Every second.

Laura Lambert: I do offer breaks. That is something that I think is important is, "Hey, we've just done this pretty intense thing. Let's take five minutes, take a phone break. That's fine. I need a break."

Ashley Mengwasser: Yes.

Laura Lambert: And also, with my students, we don't have bells. And it's funny, the first couple of weeks of school, our freshmen will do this. They'll raise their hand to ask to go to the bathroom, and that's not something we do in my class. If you need to go to the bathroom-

Ashley Mengwasser: You go.

Laura Lambert: "There's the door guys. Just sign your name so I know you're gone," but that's it. And it takes a while for them to transition out of, "Wow, I don't have to ask to do this." So those kinds of things.

Ashley Mengwasser: An idea just came to me. It would probably not shock you guys to know I was a cheerleader when I was in high school, but one of the things that we did that was so exciting for the game, the team and the cheerleaders run out of the tunnel, right?

Vanessa Ellis: Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: What if your students ran into your class and the lights were off and there was some fog? Just something to think about. You guys can workshop that. Get back to me.

Vanessa Ellis: I don't know what that would do with the sprinkler system.

Ashley Mengwasser: True.

Vanessa Ellis: I have to think about that.

Ashley Mengwasser: Please do not cause any emergencies at your school. Thank you Vanessa and Laura for being here today. Did you have a good time?

Vanessa Ellis: Awesome time. This was so cool. Thank you for having us.

Laura Lambert: Yes. Thank you so much.

Ashley Mengwasser: Very good. Thank you for sharing all your beautiful insights and for ensuring that our students are eager and equipped for the great beyond as they promote for the top-notch instructional and instrumental support you educators are providing in the classroom. Make this phrase your forever affirmation. Would you please and remember it? You're a great teacher. I'm Ashley, and I can assure you that I won't be promoted before next week's episode. Nor do I wish to be. I am perfectly content sitting behind this microphone as your Classroom Conversations host until retirement. So please come back next week and we'll make this farewell a goodbye for now. Talk to you soon. Funding for Classroom Conversations is made possible through the School Climate Transformation Grant.