Anyone who works with children knows something that many others don’t: kids are thoughtful. They love to talk about their ideas, and those ideas are frequently really good. Stan Williams, an instructional coach and humanities teacher at Champlain Valley Union High School, recently received a $15,000 grant to support the school’s Think Tank, a program that exists specifically to hear what kids think about education, and then make their ideas a reality.
The grant comes from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation’s Lawrence W. O’Toole Leadership Awards, which, Nellie Mae writes, the organization gives to “public high school teachers who are advancing student-centered approaches to learning throughout New England.”
The Think Tank grew out of a student club at CVU that began as a general idea-sharing club, but quickly grew to focus on school issues. Williams said, “The purpose of this club was to get kids together to talk about a variety of issues—soon it became clear that they were most interested in talking about education.”
From this school club, Williams organized a district-wide Think Tank for middle school students. After the first one at Shelburne Community School, Williams said, “At the end, a 7th-grader said the following: ‘we [students] are a greatly underutilized resource…we have lots of great ideas and thoughts.’ We agreed, and that was where it really started.”
Think Tanks were started at each individual school in the former Champlain Valley South Supervisory Union, and eventually they all met together at the Pizzagalli Center at Shelburne Museum for a day to share their ideas. They came up with a mission statement: “We, the students, believe we can have more control of our learning, and in doing so, improve ourselves, our community, and the world.”
Williams said he hopes that the Think Tank continues to grow within the middle schools: the educational goals of the new Champlain Valley School District and a new push to focus on personalized learning plans and student-centered learning meshes well with the idea that students should be active participants in their own educations.
“We hope they become self-sustaining, and that student voice becomes an integral part of educational reform,” Williams said.
The money from the Nellie May grant will be used to start Think Tank clubs at each school within the school district, and to finance a student-led learning symposium in the spring.
“We have been amazed at the thoughtfulness and creativity of the ideas that the kids come up with,” Williams said.