Every student, every teacher, every person has a story.
When an educator knows a student’s story, says Ben Gilpin, principal of Warner Elementary School in Spring Arbor, Michigan, everything begins to change.
Gilpin has been in education for 22 years. Before serving as a principal, he taught for nine years in a fifth grade classroom.
Today, he knows the name of each and every student at his school. All 400 of them. Even with masks on, he says, he can tell you the name of every student who walks through the front door as he greets them in the morning.
Because he wants students to start out their day feeling seen, acknowledged, and welcomed into the school building.
“It’s not about all the checkboxes and the benchmarks,” Gilpin says, “It’s about the people. Relationships have to come first.”
“It’s not about all the checkboxes and the benchmarks. It’s about the people. Relationships have to come first.”
At Warner Elementary, staff and leadership have worked hard to make kids feel safe, comfortable, and like they’re at home.
When you enter someone’s home, what are the first things you usually see? Perhaps pictures of their family or pets.
Similarly, Gipin says when you walk the halls at Warner, you won’t see trophies and accolades, but rather pictures of and by students.
You see inspirational signs, soft colors, and mosaics on the wall. They even have a gigantic Lego board where kids exercise their creativity between classes.
This design is highly intentional.
Gilpin and his staff strive to create a family atmosphere at his elementary school because they believe that in order to learn, students need to first feel safe.
“We want them to feel like this is their school,” says Gilpin, “We want them to be proud of it.”
A kid who didn’t love school becomes a principal
Many educators report that they thoroughly enjoyed school when they were children.
Gilpin was not one of these children.
“There were some classes that I really connected with the teacher, and there were some classes that I stared out that window and could not wait for the bell to ring,” Gilpin says.
These experiences shaped the way he thinks about education today. When he was a fifth grade teacher, he always strived to make his lessons engaging and fun for students.
“Rarely did we sit there at the desk and get out the book,” he reflects. “That was not my style. I loved to take online games — Jeopardy Wheel of Fortune, you name it — and make them into lessons.”
As a principal, Gilpin’s first focus has been cultivating a safe atmosphere. His next major goal became engaging students.
“It was about letting them show off what they know in a lot of different ways,” he says. “Not just a one-size-fits-all option.”
“It was about letting them show off what they know in a lot of different ways. Not just a one-size-fits-all option.”
When it comes to observations and evaluations, he tells teachers that student engagement is one of his top concerns.
“I’m not even looking at you teaching,” he tells his staff. “I’m looking at the students. How involved are they in what’s going on in the classroom? That’s the first thing I noticed every single time.”
What is engagement, anyway?
The word “engagement” is thrown around often in the education space.
But this term can mean a lot of different things.
“To me, it’s about involvement,” says Gilpin. “Not every student is going to be extroverted by raising their hand and trying to get involved. But there are ways to get students involved.”
What does this look like in practice?
Gilpin says it comes down to making learning student-centered, not teacher-driven.
“There can be parts of your lesson that maybe are more teacher-driven,” he explains. “But then at some point, it has to become more student-driven. Are we providing choices? Are we providing different avenues for students to demonstrate their learning?”
As a teacher, Gilpin worked hard to offer students multiple options for how to submit their work. Usually, he says, he’d offer four to six different options. For example, students could create a podcast, video, song, essay, or PowerPoint.
“It was about putting students in charge,” he says. “How can they show me what they know? That’s when you really start to see engagement.”
“It was about putting students in charge. How can they show me what they know? That’s when you really start to see engagement.”
When students are engaged, you can tell because they want to show you what they’re working on. “That’s when you know that there’s something absolutely golden happening in this classroom,” Gilpin says.
The role of technology in offering choice
In the modern classroom, technology plays a large role in offering students choices for how to demonstrate their learning.
But there are effective and ineffective ways to leverage this technology in the classroom.
“When technology is just a substitute,” says Gilpin, “it becomes a digital worksheet. I don’t think that’s engagement.”
Rather, he’s seen the best student engagement when teachers use fun apps to offer students choices.
For example, he recalls that he has been completely floored by how some of his teachers incorporated the music-making app GarageBand into their curriculum. green-screen technology has also allowed for some really fun, student-driven projects at Warner Elementary.
Of course, this philosophy works best if the teacher has some degree of comfort with the technology the student is using.
To allow teachers more options for technology-based differentiation, Gilpin has instituted what he calls “choose-your-own-adventure-style” PD sessions, in which teachers can learn different tools to bring into their classrooms.
There’s always a risk of failure when a teacher tries something new in their classroom, but Gilpin says that’s OK.
“I hope that every single teacher at our school knows that they have the green light to try and fail,” he says. “Learning is messy, and that’s okay. That’s oftentimes where the magic happens.”
“I hope that every single teacher at our school knows that they have the green light to try and fail. Learning is messy, and that’s okay. That’s oftentimes where the magic happens.”
The tremendous value of knowing someone’s story
One of the topics Gilpin is most passionate about is educating the “whole child.”
It all goes back to safety.
Being “safe” has many criteria, including: Has the student had enough to eat? Do they have clean clothes? Are they safe at home? Are their medical needs met? Do they have someone at school who is their champion and cares about them?
Another aspect of safety, however, is feeling safe enough to speak up.
“As a former student way back in the day,” says Gilpin, “there were certain classrooms where I wasn’t ever going to raise my hand, where I basically tried to fly under the radar. To me, that’s not a safe environment.”
At Warner Elementary School, they strive to create a family-like environment for students, but Gilpin clarifies that this doesn’t mean that everybody has to be best friends.
“Even in a family setting, you just have to treat one another with respect. We don’t want to have an environment where a kid feels afraid to speak up and speak out.”
Another aspect of educating the whole child is knowing their whole story.
“Every single kid, every single person has a story,” says Gilpin. “That, to me, is the whole child.”
“Every single kid, every single person has a story. That, to me, is the whole child.”
Part of learning these stories, however, is realizing the limitations of your own empathy and that you may never be able to fully understand someone else’s experiences and challenges. When it comes to racial equity, this is particularly important.
When it comes to equity in education, part of the job of the educator is to listen even more closely to those stories that may vary significantly from their own.
“If I’m going to learn the story of my students,” he says, “I’m going to learn ALL of the stories of my students. If I’m going to learn the names of my students, I’m going to learn ALL their names.”
There’s a tremendous value in learning a person’s story, Gilpin says. When we know another person’s story, we interact with them differently. We work with them differently. We educate them differently.
This is where real learning begins. This is where real engagement begins. This is where real change begins.
Gilpin has some advice for fellow educators and leaders.
“We should do more listening than talking right now,” he says. “I think it’s as simple as that.”
“We should do more listening than talking right now. I think it’s as simple as that.”