Tuesday, May 14, 2019

TEACHER FEATURE: Bennett County teacher dives into special education alternative certification

When Bennett County School District teacher Sunny Pierson noticed about two years ago that her district had a need for more special education teachers, she wanted to know how she might be able to help.

Pierson likes to gain new perspectives in her teaching, having taught kindergarten, first grade and social studies at the middle school level over the course of her 10-year career.

Her superintendent told her about the special education alternative certification option that had recently become available through South Dakota’s 2017 overhaul of educator certification rules.

Pierson jumped at the opportunity and is wrapping up a year-long practicum facilitated by Deb Zebill with the University of Sioux Falls. The practicum has allowed Pierson to get hands-on special education experience while maintaining her regular full-time responsibilities in the district.

“It [practicum] brings teachers together who are all going through the same process,” Pierson says. “Deb will do observations to give us insight. We look at research to help with curriculum and strategies, work on writing IEPs, make sure we’re meeting all the standards, understanding the legal issues, those day-to-day kinds of things.”

Last summer, Pierson took a course in special education law, and after completing two more courses this summer, she will be ready to take the appropriate exam to earn her certification.

"Special education teachers are hard to find for any district in the state, and being rural, it is even harder,” said Bennett County Junior High Principal Belinda Ready. “Given this opportunity for our own teachers to go through the alternative process enables us to keep good quality teachers in our district to work with students with whom they already have background knowledge, relationships and history. It is positive for everyone."

“I wish I could go back in time because this knowledge is so valuable,” Pierson says. “As a [general education] teacher, you always see some kids who struggle, but I just didn’t really have a great understanding of the different disabilities kids have and how they impact their learning. Even if you are not in a special education position, the perspective is amazing.”

“USF has established criteria allowing for teachers to gain first-hand experiences with the many demands placed upon special education teachers, including paperwork, evaluations, research-aligned practices, identifying students’ individual strengths and needs, and so forth,” says Deb Zebill. “They have the opportunity to feel supported as they learn on the job from the resources through USF, mentors in their schools, and their colleagues taking the class with them.”

Pierson is enjoying adding yet another kind of teaching to her repertoire.

“I love the relationships I get to build with students, because in special education we spend a lot of one-on-one time together,” she says. “At the middle school level, building confidence is a big part, letting them know it’s okay that maybe something is a little harder for you, but you have these other areas that are your strengths—owning that, taking responsibility, and advocating for yourself.”

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Pierre students experience history, a guest blog by teacher Taylor Hamblin

In March 2019, I hosted a regional History Day competition and award ceremony. The competition and the celebration that followed were part of my incorporation of the History Day program into my 8th grade U.S. History curriculum. All of my 8th grade U.S. History students had to complete a project which began in August and ended in March. We started with student identity reflection and skills assessment, and then finished with a project that was meant to show students’ social studies abilities and the other skills they sought to learn.

For a bit of context, when completing History Day projects, students can choose to present their historical work within the media of a documentary, exhibit, paper, performance, or website. These different types of projects give students the chance to explore a variety of sources. More details can be found at the National History Day website.

The competition and award ceremony gave me a chance to behold the power of my students; from the morning of the competition to the award ceremony the next day, I cannot recall how many times I laughed, smiled, cried, and stood in disbelief at the strength, growth, and knowledge of my students. Due to my emotional experience, I thought I would reflect on what I felt.

In the end, three of my students even qualified for the national competition in College Park, Maryland: Emma Reitzel, Kate Mullett, and Dani Devaney.

The students worked harder and were more determined to turn in good work. The project has a minimum that students must reach, but at a certain point the students do not have to work. I had students who stayed after school on several occasions, including weekends, to put more time into their project when they had already met the class standards. Students went above and beyond because of competition, but also because they had some agency in what they could learn. Due to my experience teaching through history projects, I firmly believe young people are not lazy, they are merely bored in classes that do not do anything to connect the material to their interests, especially modern-day issues.

Parents were exuberant and respectful of the History Day program. At the competition and celebration events, and well after, parents expressed happiness with how their students learned, and pride in their students’ work ethic.

Parents must be included in their child’s learning, not held at arm’s length. Teachers have the ability, and the technology, to share with parents what their child is learning and should do so. Parents in turn should make an effort to help teachers with the learning. When I asked for help, parents volunteered often and were consistently in support.

Students wanted to learn from their mistakes and make improvements. The same night of the awards ceremony, a student emailed me to ask how she could make her project better (this was also the night before our spring break). Two days later, a parent emailed me asking about the upcoming state competition for the history projects and informed me that her student worked on their documentary over the last two nights. I had several other emails and stories from parents, and they go to show how much students will put in when they believe in their work. More importantly, teachers should offer chances for students to improve their work and this should be reflected in their grade.

Community support must happen. Especially in the social studies, a teacher needs the support of their community. In our information-rich era, teachers, now more than ever, need community support. The community members I partnered with supplied resources and experience to help my students move forward with their topic selection and research. For example, a judge who was familiar with theater helped direct some of my performance category students. A museum director helped students find primary sources in the museum archives. Support beyond research and project creation was also helpful, like the parents who staffed our concession stand that helped fund our scholarship program. Support is out there, but teachers need to reach out for it.

Students went beyond the textbook and learned to critically analyze history. It is true, my students did not spend a lot of time memorizing facts and dates, and they did not spend their time learning the Declaration of Independence by heart. Instead, we examined important documents, like the Declaration of Independence, challenged commonly-held American myths, and learned a set of skills that will benefit their community and American society into the next generation. We did not remove memorization and learning of historical facts completely, but we did prioritize critical thinking in an American history classroom.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Celebrating Teacher Appreciation Week

A column by Interim Secretary of Education Dr. Ben Jones

In celebration of Teacher Appreciation Week, I want to thank South Dakota teachers for your hard work and devotion to students.

I’ve had the opportunity in recent weeks to visit several schools and classrooms across our state.

In a discussion with Mitchell students, a fifth grader defined leadership as “when you make the people around you better.

If that doesn’t define teaching, I don’t know what does. With our school system producing insightful fifth graders like that, you’re doing great things.

In South Dakota teachers, I see dedicated professionals pushing their students to achieve high standards in reading, writing, and math, so that they will learn how to think, not what to think.

You know that students must graduate from the K-12 system ready for college, career, and life. You know that a career is the means to a good life, but it won’t teach what a good life means, so you push your students to achieve high standards in civics, literature, fine arts, athletics, and in appreciating our environment.

You recognize that your students have different talents and skills and seek to develop all of them in the way they should go for South Dakota’s common good.

You value students’ many cultures and shared future.

I also had the opportunity recently to attend the first Educators Rising conference in South Dakota. Educators Rising is an organization for students interested in pursuing teaching careers.

The students in attendance got to hear from several speakers about the education field, and their enthusiasm was palpable.

Your profession is honorable, and the next generation of educators comes into your classroom every day. Encourage them to follow in your footsteps.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Gov. Noem proclaims Teacher Appreciation Week 2019

Executive Proclamation
Office of the Governor
State of South Dakota

Whereas, South Dakotans believe in the importance of education for our students; and

Whereas, South Dakota teachers are our state’s greatest assets for ensuring student success; and

Whereas, teachers are at the forefront of the effort to prepare South Dakota students to graduate from the K-12 system ready for college, careers, and life; and

Whereas, highly qualified teachers are trained professionals deserving of the utmost respect for the work they do, which often extends well beyond the regular school day, week, and year; and

Whereas, our state is dedicated to supporting new and current teachers as well as recruiting future teachers from among the ranks of today’s students by elevating the teaching profession:

Now, Therefore, I, Kristi Noem, Governor of the state of South Dakota, do hereby proclaim May 6-10, 2019, as


in South Dakota, and encourage school leaders, parents, students, and communities to take time to thank teachers who have made an impact in their lives and the lives of their children.