Meet an eMINTS Teacher: Sonja Yoder

Meet an eMINTS Teacher

Sonja Yoder, English Language Arts Grades 5 and 6, East Lynne 40 School District, East Lynne, MO


Sonja teaches English Language Art to students in grades 5 and 6 in East Lynne, MO. She has 21 years of teaching experience. Sonja completed the extended three-year eMINTS Comprehensive Professional Development program.

Sonja described how she crosses an emphasis on using data to inform instruction with the curriculum provided. “What I gained the most through my eMINTS professional development was how to assess students in ways that are engaging so that I get accurate data about my students’ strengths and weaknesses and can better meet their needs,” Sonja explained. She illustrated how she used the assessment strategies she learned about to set up a unit on various concepts related to equality for her 5th grade students. One portion of the unit focused on slavery, Civil Rights, and how the Underground Railroad helped slaves achieve freedom. Students read literature related to the Underground Railroad and then devised a plan to reenact how slaves would have used the Railroad if their school had been a stop on the Railroad. Students randomly drew roles to play from slave owner to slaves trying to escape to people along the way who helped them The unit was very engaging for students and combined elements of history, reading (fiction vs. non-fiction), and using graphic resources. The unit culminated with discussions about the types of inequalities that are present today and how people deal with those problems.

Sonja feels that she has grown the most in her ability to help students design their own learning. She illustrated her journey from being a teacher who held the traditional ideas that students were not really capable of designing their own learning to one who gradually released control to students by allowing them to select topics they wanted to research to a teacher who now gives students more choice. For example, she used classroom discussion to help her 6th grade students write a research essay. She asked her students to identify a research topic related to literature they had previously read about space exploration. She was concerned that their topics might all be rather simple such as researching various planets but her students surprised her by coming up with more complex topics such as properties of gravity, the future of the international space station and other galaxies. The experience really reinforced her belief that students can handle designing features

Sonja’s students have access to 1:1 laptop technology in the classroom. She uses technology extensively in the writing process with concept-mapping software and word processing to support students’ thinking. She invented a type of “speed editing” where students sit in a circle and use features of word processing software to quickly edit one another’s writing and finding examples of each other’s writing that they really like. She related that her students really like using the technology for editing since the editing process no longer requires that they completely rewrite their papers to include edits.

Sonja’s advice to other educators who are working towards higher levels of personalized learning is, “Take it slow. As educators we tend to see something that works and then we want to try it and we want it to work right away, she noted. “Sometimes we try to do new things that our students aren’t ready for. New ways need to be a more gradual expectation that we build with our students. Doing the small parts really well will work better in the long run,” she advised.

Follow Sonja on twitter: @syoder90

Check out Sonja’s classroom website:  www.syoder.weebly.com

This teacher profile was featured in the white paper Connections and Convergence: eMINTS and Personalized Learning by Monica Beglau and Christine Terry. To view this paper, click here.


Meet an eMINTS Teacher: Dustin Curtis

Meet an eMINTS Teacher

Dustin Curtis, Grade 4/5, Bayyari Elementary School, Springdale, AR

1509-curtis-newletter2Dustin Curtis is in his fifth year of teaching at Bayyari Elementary School in the Springdale Public School District in Springdale, Arkansas. This is his second year teaching students who are split between 4th and 5th grade levels. He also has three years experience teaching 4th grade students. Dustin served six years in the military and is a veteran of the Iraq War. He is in his first year of eMINTS Comprehensive professional development. [Note: Dustin was interviewed during the 2014-2015 school year. He is now in his sixth year of teaching at Bayyari Elementary and his second year of eMINTS Comprehensive professional development. 🙂 ]

 Dustin characterized his first year in eMINTS professional development as reinforcing his philosophy of teaching that includes “…real world relevance using technology to enhance the educational experience.” eMINTS helps him align all of the service learning projects that he has developed to relevant education standards.

Dustin described one of his favorite units that involved helping his students develop and operate an “espresso coffee shop.” He initially thought the unit would be centered on Arkansas state standards for social studies related to understanding economics concepts. After working through several eMINTS professional development sessions about aligning instruction to standards, Dustin and his grade level partner created a stronger framework for the project. They also revised the unit’s alignment to include additional standards related to cultural and geographic concepts.

The new unit framework gave Dustin and his students opportunities to explore a variety of cultures and their contributions while relating them to social studies standards about early American history. With a high percentage of Hispanic students in his classroom, Dustin capitalized on his students’ eagerness to learn more about Honduras, Mexico and other Central American countries that produce coffee. The work extended throughout the semester and helped his students learn about everything from fair trade to the development of slavery and the Civil War. Dustin believes “…anything that you want to learn about can be tied to the reading and writing standards. eMINTS has helped me to focus more on the content standards with the strategies that are taught in professional development sessions”

Dustin continued relating his example of the espresso shop unit to describe how he uses his students’ interests and talents in designing instruction. The real-world connections that the shop provided had students asking him for help with additional informational resources they might not otherwise have sought out. For example, when teachers who patronized the shop asked about the origin of the coffee and how it was harvested, students had a reason to research the topics and read associated informational texts so they were prepared to answer the questions. “Having a purpose for reading is so much more meaningful to students than just having them come in cold and read an article or something that the teacher has chosen,” Dustin noted.

Dustin described the authentic assessment techniques he used with the espresso shop project. Dustin has all students balance the daily receipts for the shop. He observes their presentations within and outside of their classroom to assess accuracy of information and specific writing and presentation skills. Dustin believes that it is very challenging to design assessments that truly assess what students know. He has found that the technology tools and strategies he has learned during his eMINTS professional development sessions have given him many more options for assessing his students. From PowerPoint to videos to apps that are available to students on their iPads, he has found that his students’ interest in technology has fueled their desire to not only be accurate in terms of content but also to attend to the appearance of their end products.

“Students are more like directors who are writing the scripts, which have to be accurate, and also making sure their production is attractive, “ he related, “I think this is how students begin to become directors of their own learning. If a teacher is truly invested in helping them with that, you have to start at the elementary level. The biggest role I play is that of motivation. I have to know what they want to learn, keep them motivated to learn, and yet tie the learning to the standards. If they are doing what they want to do, they are directing their own learning and will keep themselves going.”

Dustin is excited to have the high levels of technology, especially a computing device for every student, that eMINTS brings. He uses the technology to support his belief that textbooks are not really needed in classrooms where learning is truly personalized for students. Dustin has turned a large portion of the responsibility for locating information and researching topics over to his students. “I can do the research with them now instead of for them. I can now spend more time thinking about the group and then each individual and how I can best benefit and support them. I’m actually planning instruction as opposed to collecting materials. I’m analyzing the standards more and seeing where my students need more emphasis to accomplish them.”

Dustin has a strong network based on mutual support with his fellow grade level teachers, providing them with summaries of what he and a colleague are learning in eMINTS. Dustin also works closely with the middle school that his students attend when they move to grade six. He formed a close association with the teacher who is responsible for the Environmental and Spatial Technology (EAST®) program at the middle school. For more information see: http://www.eastinitiative.org/aboutcontact/

Middle school students who were involved in the EAST® program came to Dustin’s classroom to help his students understand geographic information system (GIS) needed to support mapping. The mapping provided a portion of the foundation for another service learning project that involved a fund raising effort for Heifer International. For more information see: http://www.heifer.org/about-heifer/index.html

Dustin’s students had researched the coffee industry in Central American countries for their espresso shop unit earlier in the school year and learned about the levels of poverty often found in those countries. The students wanted to have a fund-raising project to contribute to Heifer International so that they could make a difference for families who shared their cultural background.

Another interesting connection between the middle school and elementary school occurred when the EAST® middle school students learned more about the espresso shop project that Dustin’s students were engaged in. Dustin’s students were so enthusiastic about their espresso shop that the middle school students decided to “franchise” a similar shop for their school.

Advice that Dustin offers to others who are working to personalize learning for students is to accept that the teacher’s role has changed from being the giver of information to being another student. “I may have more background knowledge than they (students) have, but I have to use that to facilitate and guide their learning. With technology they can find out anything they want to know but they may not have the experience to know if what they have found is valid or not. That’s where I come in, to help them with that.”