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Shifting Mindsets in Nevada

What the 2024 Nevada Teacher of the Year has to say about student voice, project-based learning and the power of the network

Article
October 18, 2023

By: Jillian Kuhlmann

KEY TAKEAWAYS:

  • Students have voices of their own and are very capable of expressing their needs – but must be encouraged to develop critical voice and academic independence.
  • The community has to be invested in the skills learners acquire and must move education forward, together.
  • Competency-based education doesn鈥檛 mean we鈥檙e not holding kids accountable. We just have to be comfortable with flexibility in exploration.

image of Laura Jeanne Penrod in a cobalt blue t-shirt
Laura Jeanne Penrod at the Nevada Future of Learning Network's kickoff convening, October 2023

Laura Jeanne Penrod, a high school English teacher at in Las Vegas, Nevada, was . She鈥檚 deeply invested in her students and the future of teaching and learning not just in Nevada, but across the country. Formerly a competency fellow with , she鈥檚 now an ambassador for the work.

When you joined the Nevada Future of Learning Network, you brought students and their families with you to the first convening. Why did you think that was important?

As much as I know, there鈥檚 a lot I don鈥檛 know. I don鈥檛 know what it鈥檚 like to be a student anymore. I鈥檓 quite tired of having conversations for people who have a voice of their own. We can鈥檛 just ask educators and administrators and people who are making the decisions when students have voices of their own and are very capable of expressing what they think are great things, or what might not benefit them. When we鈥檙e not asking students what they need, we鈥檙e doing them a disservice.

And for their families to hear the direction the state of Nevada is moving in, and be able to consider if this is something they also want? It’s going to take a lot of people to shift the mindset around what education looks like. It鈥檚 difficult when you鈥檙e in a system that鈥檚 as old as education is; it has to be rolled out in such a way that anyone can understand. Families need to be very clear on what grading will look like and what options their students have.

What role does advocacy play in your work? In your students鈥 experiences?

Advocacy is my thing. I鈥檝e been an advocate my whole life. I lived in an immigrant house and I was advocating for my mom鈥檚 needs, my needs and our family鈥檚 needs from a young age. What it鈥檚 taught me is that if I don鈥檛 use my voice, nobody鈥檚 going to ask me for it.

Advocacy is not always to benefit ourselves but to benefit the greater good of humanity. I teach my students to leave places better than they found them. What do you wish you would have had as a senior? What do you want for a younger sibling? What are the things you really enjoyed that you hope others also receive?

I worked with seniors on a project-based learning advocacy unit last year, and I still am in awe of what my students did. Project-based learning is design-focused; I鈥檓 giving you a problem to solve. I asked, how do we make education more progressive for every learner in Nevada? They had to figure out their solutions. One of their big-ticket items was financial literacy. It was something they directly felt was important and they got behind it alongside other bills, including having cultural and religious regalia at graduation. They got that signed into law.

At 17 years old, they were meeting with legislators, using their voices, setting up meetings, collaborating. I had no doubt that when they left my room, they knew how to contact someone in a position of power. They might not get the answer they wanted, but they had to work through that, too.

How does your role as Nevada Teacher of the Year align with your involvement in the Nevada Future of Learning Network?

Ambassadorship fits with my role as Nevada Teacher of the Year because it gives me a much broader reach. I鈥檓 in a fellowship with colleagues in other states who are already doing this work and I can learn from them, I can share what Nevada is doing. Are we on target? Are we looking at competencies in ways that are meaningful for students? In ways that work for colleges? How can we move education forward as a country?

Too frequently in this country we work in isolation and think, this is education鈥檚 problem. But how our students are educated impacts everybody. If learners don鈥檛 have basic skills, if they don鈥檛 know how to solve problems, think critically, communicate or advocate for themselves or others? We have to be invested in learners acquiring those skills. The community has to be invested in it.

I have to do a fair job of representing everyone in education 鈥 not just teachers but counselors, my colleagues, my students. I feel like I need to absorb their concerns and take that in with me so that we are moving education in Nevada in a positive direction.

Why is it important to make changes to education now?

With the rise of AI, we have to ask ourselves as educators: How do we teach students to be critical thinkers and writers and have their own voice that a computer can鈥檛 duplicate? How do we teach them how to have a positive interaction with an AI? Whether the machine is a factory line 100 years ago or an AI today, we have to teach them to use these tools as tools 鈥 not as a replacement. If AI can write a paper, then I鈥檓 not going to have you do a paper. I鈥檓 going to have you do a presentation or teach us something that utilizes your creativity, your humanity.

We are not creating factory workers. We have to have conversations about teaching children to be irreplaceable.

We are not creating factory workers. We have to have conversations about teaching children to be irreplaceable.
Laura Jeanne Penrod Southwest Career and Technical Academy, Las Vegas, Nevada

What do you believe the Nevada Future of Learning Network will impact education in Nevada?

I hope that the network can dispel some of the ideas that competency-based education doesn鈥檛 hold kids accountable. We have to be clear on what competency means, and what it looks like, in student- and family-friendly language. With a skill like being able to communicate, what does it mean to be competent as a kindergartener? As a first grader? In middle or high school? How do these skills build on each other? That鈥檚 what the competency fellows are working on.

Competency-based education doesn鈥檛 mean we鈥檙e not holding kids accountable. As we explore this more, we have to get comfortable with students exploring more. Hopefully there鈥檚 more leeway to have students reach competency. Not in the leeway in accountability, but leeway in flexibility in how they learn and how they express that learning. It鈥檚 not always tied to a test.

We have to start thinking about how we鈥檙e creating great people 鈥 not great test takers, not really compliant students. We鈥檝e got to move away from things that don鈥檛 serve kids.

THE AUTHOR

Jillian Kuhlmann
Senior Manager of Communications

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