The Blue Ridge Learning Interview
Over the years, Wade has made numerous television, radio, and internet appearances to talk about teaching and learning. In Spring, 2003, he was the featured guest on Blue Ridge Learning, a production of Roanoke's WBRA Blue Ridge Public Television. This interview was hosted by Tom Landon, WBRA Education Specialist and Producer.
Tom Landon (TL): Hello, and welcome to Blue Ridge Learning. I’m Tom Landon. The McGlothlin Awards for Teaching Excellence began in the year 2000 and continue to recognize and reward teachers in our viewing area who successfully bring the world into their classrooms. The awards are among the largest individual teaching awards in the country. Each year, two area teachers receive checks for twenty-five thousand dollars, ten thousand of which must be used for international travel. In May of 2002, Wade Whitehead of Crystal Spring Elementary in Roanoke City was named the winner of one of these awards, and he joins us here in the studio to talk about the art of teaching and his plans for traveling overseas with the McGlothlin Award traveling stipend. We recently got the chance to visit Wade in his classroom and, before we talk to him, I’d like you to take a look and see what goes on there.
[cut to prerecorded segment]
Tom McGlothlin: Teachers must reach out on behalf of students so they can look far beyond the walls of this school building. Wade, for your inventiveness in the classroom and your devotion as a teacher, on behalf of the McGlothlin Foundation, I’m happy to present to you the McGlothlin Award for Teaching Excellence for grades one through five. Also, I want to present you with a check for twenty-five thousand dollars, to be used to travel and broaden the horizons of both you and your students. Congratulations.
TL: When Wade Whitehead was selected as one of two McGlothlin Award winners for 2002, it was because the judges liked what they saw when they observed him with his students.
Stephen Sage: I think what set Wade apart from the others was just his natural ability to feel comfortable in the classroom, to know where the students were. It was really impressive to see Wade analyze his students and know exactly what each student needed. He knows that every student has a strength and that every student has a weakness, and he really tries to build on the students’ strengths so that they can overcome these weaknesses, and this really came through during our observations.
Wade Whitehead (WW) (to students): The first thing we’re going to do today is talk about this theory called the Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Now a theory is just an idea. There are lots and lots of theories out there. This is one. Today, I’m going to ask you to use some of these intelligences in your work. Like if I think you’re really good at puts things together, building things, making things, if you’re kinesthetic, I might ask you to do that today. If I think you’re word smart, if you’re a good reader, I might ask you to do some of that.
Gary Overbay: Wade first started teaching back at Westside [Elementary School] about seven years ago, and the principal wanted me to kind of watch over him, since he was a new teacher and I had about twenty-five years of experience. And within about two weeks, I felt that Wade was my mentor, instead of the other way around. He has such a great rapport with children. He teaches them things beyond what many people think they can learn.
Anne Burke: The multiple intelligences are terms, I guess, that Howard Gardner made up because he believed that people aren’t just one thing, like they don’t just have one intelligence. They have many. I’ve found out that some of my friends are body smart and some are more word smart than body smart and some are more body smart than word smart. It actually tells me more about them and I get to know them better, and not be mean to them [laughs].
TL: It is Wade’s ability to engage his students that keeps them involved in the learning process. He also makes sure that the children in his class are scholars, active participants in the quest for knowledge. And he encourages them to start thinking about their plans for the future.
WW (to students): No matter how old you are, no matter what your parents do, I really, really want for you to think about becoming a teacher. I really want you to think about it. It’s never too early to set that goal for yourself. You can go to any college you want to go to and still become a teacher. You can study almost anything you want to study and still become a teacher. And the world will be better off if you decide to.
[cut to live studio interview]
TL: Wow! There is a lot going on in that classroom, Wade. I don’t know if everyday is like that or not, but the day we visited, certainly, there was quite a bit going on in there. You mention in that piece that you encourage, the last thing we see is you encouraging students to think about becoming a teacher. You came from a teaching background, but what made you decide to be a school teacher?
WW: Well, my parents both teach. They’re still teachers in Washington County, down near the Tennessee border. My grandmother taught. My mom’s extended family taught in eastern Virginia. So, I kind of saw teaching from that angle as a child. And, I saw what went on in the classrooms that I was attending. When I was thinking about a college choice, I knew where I wanted to go to school, and William & Mary had a School of Education, and I thought of that as a possibility. But, you know, my parents were strongly encouraging me, as I went into college, to consider other fields, because they, as career teachers, sort of knew some of the options, and some of the lack of options, for classroom teachers in Virginia and in the United States. So, I did that. I thought of other options. I studied anthropology, majored in anthropology, and, as a junior, went into the school of education, studied elementary education, and did it anyway. I guess I thought there is so much potential in other areas, and I was drawn to other areas for that reason. But in the end I had to think if it’s not going to be me, then who is it going to be?
TL: I’m sure your students are glad for that. Now you are an elementary teacher. And when anybody goes into an elementary school, you don’t see many men teaching in an elementary school. Sort of reversed in high school, but what was it that drew you to elementary?
WW: I think there were several factors. One may have been that my parents are both elementary school teachers. In elementary school I had one male teacher. I have to say that I don’t think we need more male teachers in elementary school. I think we need more good teachers in elementary school. I thought that I could make an impact there. I thought that the earlier I could get to my students, maybe the more impact I could have.
TL: Let’s talk about your students a little bit, what kinds of students you have at Crystal Spring Elementary, possibly, but maybe of more interest to me and, I think, to our viewers, is clearly they’re doing some great, some neat things there. Let’s talk about your expectations of those kids.
WW: My expectation for any child is totally dependent on who that child is. I think the mission of schools ought to be to help all learners navigate their true potential. That’s sort of simple and really, really complicated at the same time. You know, a student’s success is really individual. A lot of the time we confuse what the state says about what schools should be doing with what they really should be doing. The state mandates a set of standards that every teacher, in every grade, in every classroom listens to. But those standards really are a means, not an end. The bar should be set way beyond those standards that the state prints for us. And the state would say that, if you asked them to. So, I guess my expectation for my students at Crystal Spring is that they navigate the true potential that they have.
TL: When we were there in your classroom, let’s see if I get this right, your lesson was on multiple intelligences.
TL: I think that’s great, that a third grader, this was something that I learned in education school. So what does it do for those kids to be learning about multiple intelligences at age eight?
WW: All I’m trying to do is let them in on some of the secrets. At the end of “The Wizard of Oz,” the man behind the curtain keeps telling everybody not to look at him, to look at the production that he’s putting on. That sort of reminds me of what happens in school sometimes. We do these things with kids, and for kids, and to kids, without ever really explaining to them what we’re doing, and why we’re doing it, and what difference it can make for them. I think it’s all about investment, really. And so by talking about the idea of multiple intelligences, or even how my lessons are designed, or why everybody isn’t doing the same thing in the same way at the same time, my students take a more intuitive interest in what’s going on. I don’t have to ask them to pay attention when they’re that interested. It’s really about getting their input and treating them like the experts that they are.
TL: The whole “because I said so” answer has got to be the least satisfying answer for a kid.
WW: I think so.
TL: “Why? Because I said so.” And, yet, how many times do they hear that? Sometimes, as parents, we say that.
WW: Absolutely. Or we say “I don’t know why, but this is how it’s always been done.” So that’s even less satisfying than “because I said so.”
TL: How does that then spill over into the more traditional things you have to teach them, the things the state says you have to teach them, or the things that a third grader needs to know?
WW: I think there’s just one fundamental difference. Typically, if I think about the school experience that I had, or if I look at the school experiences that I’ve observed myself, I see time after time that kids or students are expected to change to fit the environment that they’re in. And that’s true in college and elementary schools. The student is expected to change to fit whatever delivery system or instructional preference the teacher has, when, in fact, what should be happening is that school should be changing to fit kids. The learning environment should be adaptable and flexible enough to meet the needs of this diverse group of learners inside. And when the learners themselves understand that, and they understand that they’re different, and that there are reasons they’re different, and that these differences are good things, then they’re more a part of it from the get go.
TL: Talk a little bit about that sort of differentiated instruction. I know it’s done to varying degrees and it’s a real trend to work on that more, but how do you see that playing out in schools in general that you might have observed? Do you think it’s being done as well as it should?
WW: I think in some places we’re getting there. I think anybody you talk to would say that our student population has a more variant degree of difference than any before them. It’s unprecedented. And the things to which kids are exposed now are things we didn’t have to worry about, and that our teachers didn’t have to worry about addressing. So I think it’s more important than ever. I also think that as the teacher shortage approaches, and as it hits in the next year or two, here in the Roanoke Valley and in your viewing area, it’s going to be even more a paramount issue. You know, teacher quality is the number one issue. And as the teacher shortage approaches, that’s going to become even more paramount. A good teacher is able to look at an individual student’s strengths and use those strengths to build that student’s weaknesses, and that really is what differentiation is.
TL: Let’s shift gears a little bit and talk about the McGlothlin Award. What was the process like that lead you to apply for this award?
WW: I heard about it early last school year, in the fall of 2001, and a colleague [Michele Dahlquist] suggested that I complete the application, and that colleague helped round up the references and that kind of thing. It was an interesting process. It took basically an entire school year. At each step - there were really three main steps along the way) - it became more involved, more intimate, more personal. It definitely made me a better teacher. I told the McGlothlin judges that they had a huge impact on my classroom because I was paying more attention to the things I was doing, thinking “Wow! Why would anyone want to nominate me for this sort of honor?” So I think just the fact that the award exists is a good thing for teaching. But the process just started that day last August or September.
TL: This is an award that Public Television administers, so I do know the answers to a lot of these questions, but I like to hear it from you. From that finalist stage, when you were named a finalist, describe what that was like for you.
WW: I think at that point the reward had been in the process. Meeting the two other elementary finalists [Anita Fink and Tracy Dingus], both from the Bristol area, and taking a look at the things they had been doing in their classrooms, and reflecting on the things I had been doing, talking to other teachers about what was going on in my classroom, really the process of the nomination procedure was the reward at that point. It reminded me a little bit of the National Board [for Professional Teaching Standards] certification process, where you’re just putting yourself under the microscope and trying to make sure you’re doing everything you can do.
TL: And now with the award comes $25,000. Ten of that must be used for travel. I won’t ask what you did with the other 15,000, but what do you plan to do with the travel?
WW: Next summer, I’m planning a trip to Italy and Greece. We’re going to spend nine days in Italy. We’re going to Rome, Venice, Florence, Milan, then on to Athens and maybe a Greek island or two, with the overarching objective of gathering some primary research that I can use to teach young kids about the roots of western civilization.
TL: I think it’s significant that there is no restriction on where you are going to travel, that there’s nothing that says you must travel somewhere that fits with your subject area or grade level, but every single one of our McGlothlin winners so far has gone somewhere that they can then immediately bring back into the classroom, which is a big goal of the award, to make you a better teacher by getting you out into the world so you can bring it in. You may not know yet, but how do you think this trip is going to affect your teaching, your school, your students?
WW: I know for me it will be profound. I hope for other people it will be, too. Just to open the windows of any classroom to the things that are beyond what’s immediately local or easily accessible is the exciting part. Tom McGlothlin grew up without those opportunities, as did his family. Being in rural southwest Virginia, they probably never dreamed they’d go some of the places they have. I think they know better than anybody the value of going out to see what the world has to offer and then the value of bringing it back to people that don’t have that opportunity.
TL: For those that don’t know, Crystal Spring is located in a very nice neighborhood in Roanoke, but the population is not all from that neighborhood. With that in mind, when you get to work in the morning, what do you hope goes on in your classroom with the students every day?
WW: That’s a good question. Crystal Spring is one of the schools, like others in Roanoke City, that has students from different areas of town. Students from Gainsboro come to Crystal Spring. Students from immediately around the school come there. It’s a pretty good mix, socio-economically and culturally. I guess my hope is that my students come in and sort of drop their baggage at the door, whatever it is, and look at each other during the day and appreciate the person sitting across the desk for who they are, and the kinds of things I talked about that are my goals as a teacher, to recognize strengths, try to build weaknesses, and try to move forward, wherever you are.
TL: I know one of things you do, because you refer to it quite often, is your own independent research and reading about the things that a lot of people cover in graduate school, and maybe nowhere else, in terms of brain development, brain theory, and all the different theories of teaching. That’s a lot of extra work for you, I’m sure. I’m not sure all teachers would go that route. Why is it that you do?
WW: I have some concerns about the profession of teaching. I think teachers ought to be treated more professionally than they are. But I also think teachers should take some profession initiative. So I don’t really think it’s anything to be commended if a teacher is trying to stay current on brain research, for example. Doing the best job you can and being congratulated for it is like being congratulated for driving by a bank and not stopping to rob it. It’s what you should be doing anyway. I’ve also worked closely with a friend and colleague, Peter Reynolds, from Boston, Massachusetts, to take this idea of multiple intelligences and many learning styles and adapt it so kids can understand it and use it. So it’s become a real personal interest of mine, and luckily I’ve had a couple of partners there to bounce ideas of off and for me to listen to. The potential is there.
TL: This may be a natural place, then, to talk about The North Star, which I know is something you use in your classroom. Can you describe what The North Star is, for people who have no idea?
WW: This is a three hour show, right?
TL: (laughing) We have about six minutes left.
WW: Okay. The North Star is a book that was written and illustrated by Peter Reynolds. He’s the founder and president of a studio [FableVision] in Boston. Their real mission is my mission, too: to help learners navigate their true potential. He wrote a book that is an allegory for how learning happens. Learning doesn’t happen in a one size fits all environment. In fact, one size fits few. And that’s sort of a guiding principal of his book, and of my teaching preferences. I’ve worked with Pete, and with some other teachers, across the country and here in Roanoke, to develop and refine this approach to teaching that embraces those ideas, because I don’t feel like school is always set up for those things to happen naturally. It isn’t set up as a one size fits few environment, unless you make it that way.
TL: In your classroom, you know what’s going on in there, but to some it looks a little chaotic, I’m sure. Have you ever had to address that with people who might be skeptical of the way your teaching goes on and, also, what’s the preparation amount that it must require to have all of that ready for those kids when they come in?
WW: Well, I don’t think it’s as daunting or as unorganized as it might seem at first. Differentiating isn’t about making sure every child is doing a different thing all the time. It’s about taking the one size fits all environment and making a small change that each child can latch on to. Really it’s about changing either what the kids are learning, or changing how they’re learning it, or changing what they’re doing to show that they’ve learned it. If you change just one of those three things, then the environment is very, very adaptable to many, many types of learners. If somebody comes in and things seem a little chaotic, if they ask me or, better yet, one of my students, usually they get an okay explanation.
TL: We saw that in the piece when the little girl was able to explain to me what the multiple intelligences were. You know, as a third grade teacher, you do have that spectre of the SOLs [Virginia Standards of Learning], probably constantly. One thing that strikes me is that the SOLs, because they’re something people can really focus on, something parents now know about, something principals are certainly concerned about, and teachers have had to be concerned about, what is your approach to the SOLs and what are your thoughts on them in a general way?
WW: I think anybody in any profession has to have a set of standards for their work. I’m glad we have a set of standards. I think we should have a set of standards. I think they should be high and rigorous and I think they should be comprehensive. I am concerned about the instrument we use to evaluate mastery of those standards. I believe school ought to be changing some to change different types of learners.
TL: Sure. When you talk about one size fits few, it is a one size test.
WW: It certainly is. That’s something I can’t directly control, but it is something I’m trying to have an impact on. I think that information ought to be taken along with some other information to determine whether or not students are learning. The bottom line is that I believe some students are at a disadvantage if you’re using any single assessment instrument, including a test or any other. So, when it comes to standards, I’m glad we have a set of standards. I think we should. I think we should look carefully at evaluation of mastery of those standards at all levels.
TL: We’re down to inside a couple of minutes here. I just wanted to ask you. We started the program talking about your parents, who are in Washington County, right?
WW: Right. My brother is in Roanoke County.
TL: How did it make them feel? How did it make them feel to see you standing up there?
WW: You know, my dad knows Karen Cross, one of the former McGlothlin winners. They were elated. I’m glad they received some attention for their thirty plus years of service each. Athletics, music, and movies are quick to recognize excellence, but teaching has been left out of the act. I try to shine some of that spotlight on them, because they’ve put in far more hard work than I have.
TL: We are out of time.
WW: Thank you.
TL: We’ll check in on you as the year goes on. I’d like to thank my guest, Wade Whitehead, 2002 McGlothlin Award winner, and teacher at Crystal Spring Elementary in Roanoke, for joining me here today on Blue Ridge Learning. If you’d like to find out more about Wade and the other winners of the McGlothlin Award for Teaching Excellence, check out the Blue Ridge Public Television website at www.wbra.org. The deadline for applications is in November, so if you’re interested, please check out that website. Thanks for joining us today. I’m Tom Landon for Blue Ridge Learning.