Waitsfield Elementary School fifth- and sixth-grade teacher Lee Van Dine took time last week to talk about retiring after 32 years at the school and his students carved out time to showcase some of this year’s projects.
The interview started with Van Dine and I discussion his decision to become a teacher. The Connecticut native went to St. Michael’s College for his undergraduate and graduate school. During classroom observations and practical teaching, he found the work exhausting in a way no other previous job (including a stint doing construction). He was intrigued by a job that was stimulating and exciting while also being exhausting physically, mentally, and sometimes emotionally.
NEVER LOOKED BACK
He was hired at Waitsfield Elementary School and never looked back.
Statistically, he said, educators generally have some 1,200 to 1,400 interactions with their students each day and they have to be done well.
“You can’t just brush things off because you never know the needs of your students. So when they come in here in seven minutes you’ll hear ‘Hey, Van, Hey, Van, Hey, Van, Hey, Van -- it might be overwhelming, I’m used to it,” he said.
He’s been teaching more than half his life and says there’s an artistry to teaching.
“I think artists, whether it’s a painter or musician, what have you, sometimes you reach that place where you feel great about the paint on the pallet. It’s got to be similar for reporters. You write a ton of stories and then there’s that one that stands out and keeps you going. It’s the same in the classroom. You taste and visit that place if you’re lucky every once in a while, and it’s a magical thing,” he said.
ANALOG VS DIGITAL
A lot has changed since he began teaching. In 1991, teaching was analog. Now students work on Chromebooks. They upload and download pictures for digital Personalized Learning Portfolios.
Technology changed his teaching.
“Right now, for me, where I’ve evolved with these guys. I’m just the little guy here. These guys are the ones that run the show a bit and they know it but in a good way, respectfully. These are sixth graders. I feel really good about coming to work every single day and it’s partly because of this class. I always wanted to step away from the profession feeling great about the profession. And I do and it’s a real credit to this group and the fifth graders,” he explained.
HEY, VAN, HEY, VAN, HEY, VAN!
“Hey, Van, Hey, Van, Hey, Van!” a chorus of voices filled the room like a swarm of bees, circling around, laser focused on Van Dine.
He’d asked the kids what they wanted to share with The Valley Reporter. They started with the shields they’d constructed in a unit about advocacy and what it means to be an advocate. Each student picked something they felt strongly about such as vaping, stopping inhuman testing, child abuse, ocean pollution, homelessness, coral reefs, addiction and more. Each shield is different and each student researched their own topics and presented the reasons for their advocacy to their peers.
They recently made their own newspapers, creating content and datelines and then made them look like old newspapers, combining history, writing and science as one student explained.
WHO AM I POSTERS
The students tea in the afternoons this winter while learning about the Boston Tea Party and creating “Who Am I” posters with eight clues about a famous person who helped shape American history. Students dressed up in character and took their pictures in front of a green screen before selecting a scene from American history to insert their picture into it, giving the impression that they were actually there. Each poster had a flap revealing the famous character for those who couldn’t guess the identity.
The fifth graders left for art class leaving a handful of sixth graders who’d lost none of their enthusiasm for showcasing their work.
After studying science and physics, the sixth graders were challenged to make a pull toy with at least one moving part, an exercise that Van Dine said was STEAM learning including science, technology, engineering, art and math. Their cardboard creations included a penguin that raised its arms, an oven with an opening door and a light that lit up while baking a cake, a robot with boxing arms, a platypus with moving wings, a tail that flaps and another pull that caused it to poop Skittles into a bowl!
As part of this exercise, students diagrammed their toy, presented their toy to their classmates, did anonymous peer reviews of the toys of their peers, did a self-assessment, and met one on one with Van Dine who gave them their grade.
The discussion shifted to an iPad loaded up with folders showing multiple other project-based learning initiatives including creating cars, working on chemistry, cataloging sand samples as well as macro and micro invertebrates collected from the Mad River during river learning sessions when they take their outdoor learning backpacks down to the river.
GROUND UP VS TOP DOWN
As the older students filtered out, Van Dine said education is from the ground up, not the top down.
“You take the learners where they are when you receive them and you build upon their given strengths. I’ve been fortunate enough to have the freedom and validity to do that. I’ve been thankful and grateful for that and that’s the community, that’s the parents and my colleagues here and my administration, giving us the ability and breadth and width to do these type of dynamic, project-based learning units and run with that,” he said.
When this school year ends, he’s going to take some time to catch his breath and think about how to reinvent himself.
“I have some trepidation leaving this job, I do love Waitsfield and the community and the kids first and foremost, but I think that’s healthy. It’s an important evolution for me to open the aperture,” Van Dine said.
Van Dine and his wife Nancy (who reinvented herself as a realtor after 28 years as a nurse) have two daughters, Anna and Georgia. Anna is a reporter with Vermont Public and Georgia is graduating in a little over a week from Western Washington University with a double major in fine arts and herbalism. They raised their daughters in Moretown where they live.