Welcome Back! / / Back to School Message 2018-2019

It’s that time of year, teachers! I am Spencer Kiper, STEM enrichment educator at Elm Grove Middle School in Bossier Parish, and I am your 2019 Louisiana State Teacher of the Year. Back to School aisles at local stores are full of teachers like us, getting ready to stock their classrooms with supplies that will be used to take their students on some amazing adventures. Principals are getting in-service agendas prepared to ensure that teachers and staff are prepared to tackle the challenges that they will face this year in order to make a positive impact in the lives of their students.

This August, let’s begin the year with focusing on the power of a single day. What can you be to your students and your school community in a single day? To your students, you are able to be a teacher, a parent, a coach, and a role model. To your school, you are able to be a faculty member, a data analyst, an educational leader, and a content expert. I am incredibly humbled and constantly awe-struck by the ability that teachers have to become whatever role that their students and schools need them to be. We’re going to begin the year not only setting high expectations and goals for our students, but also ourselves. Let’s support and challenge each other to use the power of each and every single day to elevate the efforts we make to turn learning into an adventure for all of us!

As you finish putting the finishing touches on your classroom to make it the perfect learning environment for your students, don’t forget that our teachers and content experts have been working feverishly this summer to provide you with some pretty fantastic instructional resources to start the school year off on the best foot possible. The Educator Resource Guide is like a one-stop-shop that offers links and information to teachers of all levels. Some fantastic new assessment resources for both Science and Social Studies have also been added, and I can barely contain my excitement for the new Louisiana STEM Initiative that is sure to make an incredible impact in the lives of our students taking advantage of the many Jump Start opportunities. Be sure to plug in to your local Content Leaders to gain additional knowledge, skills, and support.

Being in the Room Where It Happens / / EVERFI #FiTeacherLeaders Ambassador Summit

In the Beginning

Seven years ago seems like just weeks ago to me. When I think of it from a classroom standpoint though, I’m almost shocked at all of the experiences I’ve been fortunate (and even unfortunate at times) to have seen during my near decade-long adventure in the classroom.

In seven years, I’ve seen technologies go from innovative to dull. Companies that specialize in educational solutions start up, then disappear. Attitudes shift from “that will never work” to “I still can’t believe that that was such a game changer!”

For seven years, I’ve changed so much as a person and as a teacher. My strategies and tools have changed drastically over the years. Rarely does anything stay relevant in education to last even five years, much less nearly a decade. EVERFI was a software that I used my first year teaching because, like many, I saw the need for my students to spend valuable academic time building skills in both the academic and life skill arenas.

At the time, it was a digital platform for students to learn and engage in financial literacy concepts. What I didn’t realize at the time is that EVERFI would become the company that I would compare all other educational companies to from there on out. Why? Because as the weeks turned into months and the school years started to chase by, EVERFI continued to serve as a beacon for instruction in critical skill areas like financial literacy, digital literacy, STEM career awareness, and even social/emotional learning. It gave solutions to teachers in all of these areas and more while maintaining their promise to always be free to every teacher and to every classroom.

Teacher Ambassador Summit

In July of 2018, EVERFI brought together eight (out of the twelve) educators from across the country to serve as ambassadors for their first ever Teacher Ambassador Summit at the company’s headquarters in Washington D.C. After meeting many of the staff that serve in the brain of the EVERFI network, there’s no question why the company stays on the cutting edge of both quality and development. We shared our experiences, philosophies, triumphs, and challenges from our classrooms and they listened intently to our stories. The idea that the stories of my adventure with my students would somehow shape future experiences for hundreds of thousands of other children brought a great sense of pride and accomplishment to me as well as others in our group.

It’s my hope that EVERFI continues to bring teachers into their home as well as continues to elevate teachers and the mission of putting the needs of our students first. I cannot wait to see what the future holds for EVERFI and their future Teacher Ambassadors!

Capital City Adventures

Washington D.C. is one of my favorite places. It never ceases to amaze me how much history and opportunity is at every street corner. After finishing up an incredible two days with EVERFI, I decided to treat myself to a few days touring the capital with an open mind and no agenda.

I was able to meet up with some awesome Space Camp friends, which is always a wonderful bonus when traveling to places around the United States. Scooters have become quite popular around the city, and before I knew it, I was sipping around the city, taking in all of the sites and soaking in all of the atmosphere and culture.

Lisa, a newly discovered cousin, was generous enough to serve as an unofficial tour guide to the city for me. She shared story after story that captivated me the entire evening. Suffice it to say that I am leaving Washington D.C. with a new appreciation for history.

Seeing Hamilton: An American Music in Chicago was incredible. Seeing it in Washington D.C. took it to a whole new lever for me! Thanks, Trevor, for connecting me to that opportunity!

My takeaways from the EVERFI Teacher Ambassador Summit and Washington D.C: always be ready to share your passion with others, you’re never too old to forge new relationships with others, and never throw away your shot!

Advanced Space Academy for Educators / / An Incredible Tribe of Teachers

Very few places hold a place in my heart like Huntsville, Alabama. It never fails – when I cross the hill on I-565 and see the very top of the Saturn V, my heart flutters! Incredible history, diverse people, and a culture that makes it a unique experience for any kind of person. One of these experiences combines everything Huntsville has to offer into one unforgettable opportunity: the Space Academy for Educators at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center!

Each summer, hundreds of educators from around the world descend upon the U.S. Space & Rocket Center for some out-of-this-world professional development. For the first time in 4 years, I haven’t been with them all summer while they train like astronauts, engage in engineering design challenges, and build leadership skills and relationships that turn many educators into dynamic, powerhouse STEM and space enthusiasts. But this summer, we got to do something a little different: the Advanced Space Academy for Educators!

These teachers are incredible. I was inspired by the body of work and expertise that each of them had developed since their time going through their initial Space Camp experience. Each person learned how to challenge everyone else on the team to pull from their experiences to not only challenge themselves in the present, but to also think ahead and set some pretty amazing goals for one another!

We got great feedback on some of the new lessons and programming that we tried out with this amazing group of educators. The neatest thing that I got to witness throughout the week was the multitude of the ideas that they were throwing around. Being surrounded by passionate educators from your “tribe” has a way of inspiring one to take risks and push to the next level as a teacher. That’s what I saw these amazing teachers do, and it was incredible to witness.

My takeaways from the Advanced Space Academy for Educators experience: teachers are professionals at making dreams come true, disappointment can suddenly turn into amazing opportunity if you keep a positive outlook, and always, always, always, take a second to put yourself into the shoes and mindset of a child.

And Now, We Wait. / / #LASTOY Final Interviews

First off, allow me to congratulate the other eight finalists for the 2019 Louisiana Teacher of the Year program. Spending time with all of the other finalists and the staff from Dream Teachers and Louisiana Department of Education was refreshing and inspiring. The stories and expertise that each finalist brings to the table is so invaluable to our students in our state. It’s my hope that we can work together somehow in the near future and figure out how we can leave a positive mark on the state.

While in Baton Rouge, we had a good amount of fellowship time prior to our big interviews. The Old State Capitol is such a cultural gem for us in Louisiana. Did you know that it’s haunted? Check it out if you ever get the chance to see it!

Joni Lacey and Kimberly Eckert made the process of interviewing so much easier emotionally! The insights that they shared with us allowed my nerves to calm, and built a sense of confidence in me that was definitely reassuring. I think we were all really nervous, and the inevitable imposter syndrome had done more than just appear, it had moved it with the intention to stay for the long haul.

I practiced my speech so many times the night before, I began to stress myself out. My speech was filled with statistics and platform-based verbiage, but what I neglected to maintain focus on was the main reason why I even made it to the finalist level to begin with – my students.

My students are the heart of what I do.

Our journey together tells a story that embodies everything I would ever want to say and do as Louisiana State Teacher of the Year. Being an expert on their academic and emotional needs is something I can speak truthfully to and from the heart. Everything after that just adds detail to the adventure that I get to live with my kids. I decided to fold the paper that my speech was printed on, turn my bedside light off, and get some rest knowing that my love for what I do and my students would somehow guide my words the following morning.

Despite the outcome, I am so happy that I got to share this adventure with my students and as well as our story with the interview panel. I’d like to take the opportunity to thank each panelist for their time to listen and their interest in my work and the work of the other finalists. Each of you made us feel like rock stars!

My takeaways from the interview process are these: don’t let stress eat away at amazing life experiences, never waste an opportunity to show someone your passion, and when in doubt, lead with passion and you’ll never be disappointed in yourself.

Innovations of the Past / / New Orleans, Louisiana with #EGMSTEM

If time travel were possible, I think one of the first things I would do would be to visit all of my former teachers who planned field trips for my classmates and I and give them a giant hug. Field trips are stressful for any teacher. The months and months of planning that go into making trips valuable opportunities for students is unpaid and oftentimes overlooked. For me, though, they offer me the best bonus I could ever ask for as a teacher – the opportunity to see my students applying what they have been taught in settings that make learning fun and organic!

“If you haven’t experienced an escape room with your students, you haven’t lived!”

This year, our annual EGMSTEM trip was down to New Orleans, Louisiana. For us in the northern part of the state, it can be easy to feel disconnected or unplugged to the cultural heart of our state. Louisiana has a long-standing history of being the home (both temporary and lifelong) of some of our history’s most innovative and eclectic figures. Knowing about our state’s history and how these figures worked to sharp both culture and industry in our state is something I wanted my students to live, breathe, and experience this year.

Clue Carrè

If you haven’t experienced an escape room with your kids, you haven’t lived! Many of my students have experienced and loved the BreakoutEDU version, so I thought it would be neat to challenge them to a professional one. There are times when we as teachers take a step back and wonder if what we are doing in our classrooms is making a difference. During that hour that I was locked in a room with my 8th graders (many of whom I have taught for three years in a row), I was blown away by them. Their ability to think critically, work and communicate together, use their executive skills to manage their time and personnel, and emotionally support one another to ensure success was something I felt was…well, it made the months and months of planning the trip worth it in that one moment.

The National World War II Museum

I stress anytime we go to a major museum. Hopefully, that’s a natural feeling to have as a teacher. Priceless antiques. Expensive exhibits. Large crowds. 50+ EGMSTEM kids. No biggie, right?

The National World War II Museum, which was known as the D-Day Museum and was much smaller when I was child, is something I wish all students had access to for some pretty big reasons. Heading in to the museum, my students were tasked with a few basics – be respectful, take moments to absorb and live what you are seeing, and above all, if you see an elderly veteran volunteer, speak with them and allow them a few moments to connect with you.

Proud teacher moments can be few and far between. I was fortunate to experience many of them during our trip to New Orleans. Instead of walking by the volunteers and heading straight to the interactive exhibits, the EGMSTEM kids actively sought out the docents and engaged with them organically. Many of my students came back with stories, pictures, and even mementos from the docents they spoke with. My hope is that these moments will linger with them and leave a lasting impression.

Advice to Other Passionate Educators

Field trips aren’t for the faint of heart. They can be time consuming, a hard sell to many administrators, and expensive for schools and families. However, it’s my firm belief that it’s an obligation we have to our kids to offer them opportunities to experience culture and learning side by side with us in the places where history, science, and progress happens. If you’re a teacher and feel like you’d like to take on the challenge of planning an experience like this one for you and your students, I’d love to share any advice that I can to help enrich your classroom and your students. Reach out!

Thanks

A huge, public thanks to all of the chaperones that helped me wrangle this amazing group of students! It was thanks to all of you that our kids were able to experience such an amazing trip. If you’d like to see more from our Innovations of the Past STEM trip to New Orleans, click here!