When the U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, came to visit us here in Milpitas Unified, we gave ourselves an opportunity to share our mission and vision with the country. As Secretary DeVos walked in to Paul Ngo’s US History class, she heard this dynamic teacher engaging his students in an analysis of the “greatest breakup letter in history,” that is, the Declaration of Independence. As he concluded their discussion, he pulled from his pocket a wrinkled letter that he had read to the students earlier that week. He asked them if they remembered this letter, and the students chuckled, realizing it had the same elements as the Declaration of Independence. They were hooked and ready to dive in to the concepts and events leading to this amazing piece of living history. We left their room, and opened the next classroom door to find World History teacher Stephanie Woodhams, standing amidst a whirlwind of student activity.
Ms. Woodhams met with students individually about their progress in mastering the content objectives for learning about Chinese Dynasties. Clusters of students worked together on projects within their Summit Personalized Learning Platform (PLP), while others worked independently on content areas going deeper or broader according to their needs assessment. As in Mr. Ngo’s class, the students worked as a community of learners, commenting on one another’s insights and work. As we departed from Ms. Woodhams’ class and headed towards Barbara Knitter’s AVID class, we learned from the Secretary’s staff that they had not visited a school like Russell Middle School, and they were impressed by both the instruction and overall sense of connection the staff and students shared with one another.
This cohesive student learning environment was evident, too, in Joyce Tang’s science class, where students taught Secretary DeVos about dragon DNA. Ms. Tang’s contagious energy was felt in the learning conversations the students had with one another. One student, who is a newcomer from Central America, was able to access the content through the Spanish translation of her PLP. As she conversed en Español with Assistant Superintendent Norma Rodriguez, she stated that she felt valued and included because she was able to understand the same concepts that her English-only peers were tackling alongside her. Personalizing learning is about being inclusive of each learner’s unique learning goals.
Teaching the whole child, and being responsive to each student’s sense of well-being is integral in the fabric of Milpitas Unified; this is something that Secretary DeVos experienced throughout her visit. Perhaps one of the most connected moments that the Secretary seemed to have was when she was invited by two students to sit between them so that they could teach her how to draw a self-portrait using proportion and scale. The three of them spoke about the intricate details involved in drawing one’s facial features, and the inspiration that art stirs in us. The students listened intently to Secretary DeVos’ description of her friend, and how he was able to have a career based on his passion for art. Creativity in how we learn and teach is a cornerstone of personalized learning for students, and it is another aspect of who we are in Milpitas.
Following classroom visits, Secretary DeVos was introduced to 25 of our staff and Board members in a discussion about learning in Milpitas Unified. Representatives from preschool through adult school spoke to different aspects of innovation in MUSD. As math teacher Dawn Hartman said, “we spin gold out of straw” with limited resources and a legacy of pioneering, as educators throughout MUSD seek ways that they can do things differently for kids. The challenge of meeting the needs of our underperforming students, requires that we think differently about interventions and how we provide experiences to bridge the opportunity gap. While this has been a decades-old conversation, it is one that drives our work; every student’s passion for learning should be ignited and nurtured along different pathways ultimately leading to her career.
Patti Gairaud, MAE transition specialist, spoke to our collaboration efforts between adult school and elementary teachers in partnering adult and young learners with one another so that one can experience the power of community service while the other strengthens his English skills. Building career pathways for our middle and high school students is integral to how we can deepen our practice in personalizing learning. In our unique partnership with San Jose Evergreen Community College District, we are providing dual enrollment opportunities for our high school students, and within the next four years they will be able to graduate from high school with both a high school diploma and an AA degree. Through our partnership with Silicon Valley Career Tech Education, our students can graduate with career-ready skills in dental, fire, and emergency medical fields, among many others. Secretary DeVos learned about these and other pathways, such as early childhood education and biotech that we have launched this year. As one educator said to Secretary DeVos, “We embrace the diversity of our community, and personalization lets us get what each needs.”
All of our staff is committed to building a Culture of We so that our students will lead the world of work for the 22nd century. We believe Secretary DeVos witnessed this in what she saw and heard during her visit. In her words, “I experienced a little bit of what you’re engaged in each day. It was a joy to visit, and I enjoyed all of the classrooms I observed, especially the art class. I hear from you your openness to continue to challenge yourselves, to look to new ways in helping kids learn and take charge of their own learning. You’ll be able to unlock the future for so many kids by the work that you are doing.”
Yes, we will, and WE will do it together!