By: Leslie Trahan
Photo Credit: Jean Schlitzkus
It’s Tuesday morning at Lake Dallas Elementary. School doesn’t start for almost an hour, but students are already pouring through the doors, eager to begin their day.
Some kids race to the playground for a soccer lesson with two high school students. Others head to the kitchen to make cookies with the school counselor. And a third group files into the technology classroom, where a chemistry teacher is waiting to teach them guitar.
What’s going on before the bell? These students are part of an innovative extracurricular program that allows them to explore their interests and exposes them to new hobbies and skills. Community members and school staff work together to develop, plan, coordinate, and host these weekly morning workshops.
If this sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is. An idea like this takes the time and dedication of a committed volunteer corps—along with a lot of community involvement. And winning the support of Dan Rather and his grandson Martin doesn’t hurt either.
A Winning Idea
More than 200 ideas were submitted for the Rather Prize in 2016-17, the year Lake Dallas Elementary’s Katie Landaverde won. Her idea was simple—teachers, community members, and high school students would teach short morning workshops designed to help students explore a new hobby or interest.
Landaverde, the school’s technology integration specialist since 2015, had the idea when she was brainstorming ways to make her students’ mornings more productive. At the same time, she noticed that many of her colleagues had hidden talents they never shared with students. The two thoughts seemed to be natural answers to one another.
Landaverde took the idea straight to her principal, Dr. Jennifer Perry. Perry loved the concept because it both created an opportunity for students to explore new interests and gave teachers a creative way to connect with students and share their skills. “Even if it’s for a week within the school year, if you can do something you enjoy and bring that to everyone else, it makes your time and work a little more positive,” says Perry.
The two knew they had a great idea on their hands, but they also knew implementation would be challenging and costly. When they heard about the Rather Prize, they decided to submit their plan.
When their idea was selected by the Rather Prize advisory board as one of the top 10 finalists and moved into the public voting round, Landaverde and Perry, along with the rest of Lake Dallas ISD, celebrated. “Lake Dallas ISD has five campuses, and all five rallied around the idea, which meant the whole community rallied around it,” Perry recalls.
The community’s enthusiasm paid off. Approximately 35,000 public votes were cast in the final round, and in March of 2017, the Rathers announced Landaverde’s idea as the winner. Landaverde and Perry, along with their district administrators, joined Dan and Martin Rather on stage at SXSW EDU in Austin to accept their award.
Making the Idea a Reality
Even though they had the vigorous support of their community during voting, Landaverde and Perry knew they needed more than enthusiasm to make the project a success. They needed staff members from Lake Dallas Elementary to help coordinate the program, volunteers to commit to teaching a class, and parents to support their children and the school during this new endeavor.
They didn’t struggle for long. “It’s amazing to see so many people rally around an idea,” says Landaverde.
But it wasn’t just the Lake Dallas community that stepped up to support them. Dan and Martin Rather, along with a team from Rice University, helped implement and promote the project and provided logistical support. They also helped Landaverde find additional financial backing so Lake Dallas could continue to offer the program in future years.
After collaborating with the rest of their campus and the Rather Prize team, Landaverde and Perry took a few key steps. First, they created a volunteer committee made up of 10 staff members to run the program. Committee members were assigned to help with the daily operations of the workshops, including getting students to the correct classrooms and helping volunteers develop their lessons. Second, they solicited the help of Lake Dallas High School students who were studying to be teachers. They hoped these students would be willing to run workshops and teach their peers how to plan a class. Third, they promoted the program in every school in their district and throughout the community. They issued challenges to other schools to encourage involvement and actively sought volunteers from the local community college as well.
After a summer of hard work, Landaverde and Perry eagerly unveiled their program to the community and the students.
Teaching the Right Chords
Gerardo Castillo is a high school chemistry teacher in Lake Dallas. He never thought he’d be teaching guitar to elementary students, but after hearing Landaverde’s speech about the Rather Project at a professional development workshop, he felt inspired to volunteer.
Castillo submitted his proposal to the Rather Project team and was eagerly accepted as a mentor. The Rather Project bought guitars and set up a time and space for the workshop.
On the fourth week of the program, Castillo arrived at Lake Dallas Elementary ready to meet his new pupils. “I was a little anxious,” Castillo remembers, “but I was also excited to get out there and share some of the things I’d been working on.”
Mentors are required to specify what they’ll be teaching in each of their 30-minute sessions. Practiced teachers like Castillo know how to break each day into learning objectives, but community members who don’t have teaching experience sometimes need guidance on how to structure their lessons. “The volunteer vetting process is not as much about their talents as it is about making sure they have lessons planned out,” says Landaverde. “We ask to see a list of what they’re planning to do with kids each day before they go into the classroom.”
Castillo agrees that skill level isn’t the most important component for volunteer success. “It’s more important to have fun than to show off. After all, I’m doing this for the benefit of the kids and not for myself. And if the kids have fun, they will want to keep playing.”
What makes for a successful mentor is a willingness to teach, a solid plan, and the ability to relate to the students. Castillo knew he had the first two, but after years of working with teenagers, he was apprehensive about teaching elementary-age students. “I feared the worst,” says Castillo, “but I surprised myself by how well I connected with the kids.”
During the course of the week, the students learned to play three songs and Castillo gained a new perspective on himself in the classroom. When the workshop was over, Landaverde emailed Castillo to confirm that his classes had been a success. The kids were excited by what they had learned.
Castillo is excited, too. The workshops gave him a new appreciation of his own musical abilities. “After the week was over, I felt motivated to practice guitar a lot more,” says Castillo. “The kids inspired me to work harder as a musician.”
Would he consider teaching guitar for the Rather Project again? Absolutely. But, being a chemistry teacher, Castillo wants to inspire a love for science in younger students as well. “Next time,” says Castillo, “I think I’d like to do a slime lab.”
Teaching the Field
Landaverde also has future educators on her team. Gina Minassian runs Ready, Set, Teach!, a field-based program for future educators at Lake Dallas High School. When she heard about the Rather Project, she knew immediately how she could help.
Minassian approached her students about getting involved. “Right away I had volunteers,” Minassian recalls. The Ready, Set, Teach! students, along with Minassian, were invited to a planning meeting with Martin Rather in the spring before the program began.
Minassian’s future educators immediately signed up to teach classes on soccer, dance, and hockey and to host a healthy breakfast workshop. Students from Ready, Set, Teach! serve as mentors and help prepare their fellow high school students to teach and lead their own lessons.
Students develop their own workshop ideas, plan the activities, and submit their proposals to the Rather Project. “I am just there to help guide them through the process,” says Minassian. “The students step up to the challenge and coordinate the whole thing.”
The Rather Project exceeded Minassian’s expectations both for her students and for the community. “It’s great to see so many people willing to come in and do workshops—not only our high school students, but also teachers, professors, and community members,” she says. “There is a lot of teamwork and collaboration from the faculty and staff at Lake Dallas Elementary to make sure the workshops are successful for everyone involved.”
But Minassian is most impressed with how her students have handled the challenge. The skills and connections these future educators gain from being involved in the workshops and teaching their fellow students how to present to a class of younger kids has been invaluable.
“The students have a sense of pride and ownership in the workshops,” says Minassian. “It is theirs from the beginning, and they do everything to make it the best it can be for the participants.”
It’s a month into the program, and Landaverde and Perry are pleased with the results so far. They have coordinated three workshops and about 40 students per week. The excitement of students and volunteers is palpable.
And parents are enthusiastic, too. Perry is impressed by how many have shown interest in the program. The Rather Project has given them a new way to be involved in the school.
For Landaverde, the best part is seeing unexpected sides of her students. “Students have been surprised by the activities they enjoy and the things they have been able to create,” says Landaverde. “It’s incredible to see them in action doing what they love.”
To Perry, though, it’s the connections that make this program so special. “The Rather Project has brought a lot of positive conversations into places that are unexpected,” says Perry. “The positive unintended consequences continue to ripple out.”
A soccer game, a dash of cookies, and a few guitar lessons—an unexpected recipe for building a community.
Lake Dallas Elementary would like to recognize Dr. Gayle Stinson and Dr. Kristi Strickland for their support in helping the Rather Project get off the ground. Without their help, this program would not have been possible.