Conference Center

Make learning fun again

Nov. 5, 1984, changed John Antonetti’s entire career.

He was in his first year teaching eighth grade science in his home state of Arkansas when he found out he was being evaluated by the principal, John Heath. The day of the evaluation, Antonetti forgot his materials at home, forcing him to come up with a two-hour lesson plan on the fly.

Armed with an eight-track tape of “The Planets,” a seven-movement orchestral suite by Gustav Holst that he’d never heard before in his life, Antonetti made up an activity piece by piece with the help of his students — all the while tricking Heath into believing he’d planned it all along.

Letting the students lead the lesson was an eye-opening experience. Engagement skyrocketed.

Even Kevin Miller, a special education student with a tragic home life, took something from the activity.

Out of 163 students, Miller was the only one to do the optional homework assignment: draw a picture of a planet using facts you’ve learned about it. As Miller presented his picture to the class, Antonetti was too amazed even to fill out the score sheet.

Almost 35 years later, he still has that picture hanging above his desk.

“At the end of the day, John Heath called me into his office, and he sat me down and he said, ‘More of that. How are we going to get more of that?’” Antonetti said. “He said, ‘You didn’t even know that was coming, did you?’ And I said, ‘I didn’t expect that kind of thing.’ He said, ‘How are we going to plan for that?’ So John Heath and I decided that for the first five to eight minutes of science class, from now on, I would not worry about my standards. … [He said], ‘John, just give the kids something to figure out.’”

When it came time for testing in February, 100 percent of Antonetti’s students passed. Miller scored 97 percent for accuracy, but Antonetti never saw him in class again.

It turned out to be Kevin Miller. He had grown up to be the No. 2 mechanic for Northwest Airlines in Tennessee — a job he’d been inspired to pursue by Antonetti’s class. The day he drew that picture, he said, was the first time he’d felt gifted.

“I don’t care what you teach, when a kid comes back and says, ‘Thank you,’ when a kid comes back and says, ‘Do you remember that day when I had that great thought?’ — that’s what we teach for,” Antonetti said. “My wife asked a question that has led to all of our research, and I still can’t answer it. How often do you think a kid leaves a school in America, in any grade, and says, ‘Today was the day I got to be gifted’?”

Teaching teachers

Alamance-Burlington Superintendent Bruce Benson wants to see more of those moments in Alamance County classrooms.

That’s why he invited Antonetti to be the keynote speaker for the first annual ABSS Summer Symposium, a three-day teaching boot camp funded by a $40,000 Impact Alamance grant.

From 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. July 9–11, 515 teachers attended breakout sessions, listened to lectures, did hands-on activities, and bonded in matching teal T-shirts. They even did the Cupid Shuffle.

“We’re trying to improve educational outcomes for our kids and ensure that we have nurturing classroom environments, and those are the two pieces we’ve been focused on the last three days,” Benson said.

He’s seen the summer symposium model significantly improve outcomes for students in other school systems, and part of that involves teaching teachers to engage them on a higher cognitive level.

For example, having students recite the five freedoms guaranteed by the first amendment of the constitution doesn’t go far enough, and certainly wouldn’t help them much on an AP test.

Instead, teachers should pose a question like this: “Choose two of those freedoms, and get rid of them. How would that have affected Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech on the Washington Mall?”

“It’s asking questions that engage kids cognitively and require them to think and not just recall a fact,” Benson said.

It isn’t just ABSS teachers that need to rethink the way they teach. Nationwide, public education has been barraged with “fix-it” initiatives that have gotten students nowhere and left teachers exhausted and lost.

Denise Wall, an 18-year veteran math teacher at Williams, has weathered plenty of top-down “fix-it” programs.

The symposium could very well have been another one, but as she sat in the Williams auditorium in her teal T-shirt on the final day of the event, Wall felt like she’d been given a gift.

“You know how teachers sometimes get another new initiative and then the initiative’s gone and you do another one and you get sort of jaded about that kind of stuff? That’s not what this is. … It’s not an initiative,” she said. “It’s educating us on how we should structure our classrooms to meet the needs of these individual kids because we are the ultimate melting pot. We’ve got kids from everywhere at all levels and we have to teach them all.”

Wall was talking about “personalized learning,” or creating lesson plans that satisfy individual students’ needs, interests and talents to increase engagement.

“I learned a lot about how the brain has to be engaged in the task for learning to happen,” she said. “They don’t care about the standard you’re teaching. They care about the task in front of them.”

Students confirmed that fact.

When asked what they want in a teacher, they said they want someone who gets to know them on a personal level and designs tasks that allow them to be creative and use their own talents rather than do the same thing as everyone else.

All grade levels agreed.

Kyleigh Allison, a rising second grader and the youngest member of the panel, said she liked that she could choose her own problems to work on in math.

Earl McBride, a rising senior, said he always learns better when he can be creative rather than simply filling out a worksheet.

“I hope you’re hearing the lived experiences theme because every single student that we’ve talked to has a different experience and they all have things that light them up that they’re interested in,” Grayzer said. “Whether it’s engineering or sports or the CTE program or going into sales, every single kid that we’ve talked to here has something different that fuels them and that is what this is all about.”

While it may seem impossible to create a lesson that checks all the boxes for 20 different kids, it’s possible so long as teachers have the right tools.

The band kids contributed their knowledge of Holst’s music, the boys in the class eagerly described the “dark and swirly and black” atmosphere of Mars, and Kevin Miller drew a beautiful picture that taught his classmates more about Uranus in one minute than Antonetti had the day before.

It’s that simple.

“I’m sure folks came in here a little bit skeptical about what this was going to be like, but I think we’ve had three very good days,” Benson said.

Reporter Jessica Williams can be reached at or at 336-506-3046. Follow her on Twitter at @jessicawtn.