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Miller Enriches Lives of Pier School Students

The Narragansett Pier Middle School offers a cutting-edge enrichment program to students, headed by teacher Vanessa Miller.

The Narragansett Pier Middle School offers students a well-rounded curriculum of English-Language Arts, Math, Science and Social Studies as well as a broad range of Specials such as art, foreign language, music and much more. 

In addition, NPS also provides a cutting edge program to their students — Enrichment.  

Vanessa Miller became the NPS Enrichment teacher in September 2009 and in this short period of time, she has already seen exciting growth and development within the program.  

Miller explains that the philosophy of the enrichment program at NPS is based in the Renzulli Schoolwide Enrichment Program (SEM). The SEM was developed around a shared vision that "schools are places for talent development (Renzulli, 1994).”

The goal of SEM is "to allow each school to develop its own unique program based on local resources, student populations, school leadership dynamics, and faculty strengths and creativity."

When people first learn that NPS has an Enrichment program, they have questions as to how this applies to their student.  Miller gives an overview based on the Renzulli model:

Type I: General Exploratory Experiences (regular classroom setting, after-school programs)
General Exploratory Activities--Students learn about new topics and interests through guest speakers, Internet, field trips, video tapes, computer software, interviews, books, magazines, letter writings, etc.

Some Examples of Type 1 Enrichment provided at the Pier School:

  • Kettle Pond Field Trip (5th Grade), Salt Marsh Field Trip (6th Grade), Career Day (whole school), National History Day (7th and 8th grade), after school programming

Type II:Group Training Activities (regular classroom setting, after-school programming, and enrichment classroom)
How-To Training Activities--Students are trained in research skills, independent learning skills, thinking skills, communication skills, and methodological skills in various topics and fields.

Some Examples of Type 2 Enrichment provided at the Pier School:

  • After school programming such as photography, film-making, T-shirt printing and Lego league; MathCounts (students selected based on testing/whole school), Character Study (5th grade), Poetry (5th grade), The Stock Market Game (6th Grade), Grad-Point, Khan Academy

Type III: Individual & Small Group Investigations of Real Problems (classroom setting and enrichment classroom)
Individual and Small Group Investigations of Real Problems--Students become "experts" through hands-on activities that use research skills to solve real world problems. Creative products are shared with appropriate audiences.
Some Examples of Type 3 Enrichment provided at the Pier School:

  • Type 3 – First Lego League Robotics, Immersion Learning (Mystic Aquarium and the Institute for Exploration), Creative Problem Solving, Exchange City 2.0, The Stock Market Game, National History Day (7th and 8th grade), Socratic Seminar (8th grade)

Miller knew growing up that she wanted to be a teacher. 

“I think I was one of those kids who just always wanted to be a teacher. One of my earliest memories, much to the chagrin of my younger brother, sister, cousins, and whomever else was around, I used to take home papers from the "extra" file in 3rd grade to play school. When I progressed to High School I remember becoming disenchanted with the way the education system worked. I did what I had to do but was never inspired in any way or in any subject area.”

In undergraduate school at URI, students who are interested in the teaching program are all asked the same question when they interview for the school of education: "What teacher inspired you to become interested in education?  “I could never answer that question directly. The people I talked about were my swimming coaches. Throughout my life, I think they were the most influential in my choice of career. They were able to find my potential, push me to work harder when I needed it, and let me slack when I needed it. What made them good coaches was that they knew their kids so well individually and their daily focus wasn't about lecturing to us how much they knew about our sport or athleticism but to find each of our talent areas and develop them.”

As a freshman at URI, she got her first coaching gig with the private swim club, The Rams, working with the 8 and under kids, and she sometimes worked with the High School kids on other days.

“I loved it. I think this experience is what convinced me most to finish the portfolio entry application to the school of education at URI my sophomore year, and I feel my style of teaching most resembles that of a "coach" in the learning experiences of my students!”

Miller said she has had an untraditional journey in her educational career but each step of the way has contributed to who she is as a teacher and the person she is today. Immediately after completing URI she knew staying close to the beach was important to her so instead of returning to upstate New York she found a part-time job with Sylvan Learning Center in Wakefield. She was soon promoted to Associate Director of Education for the company.

“After a year in this position, I was less involved with teaching directly and curriculum development and more involved with the business end of things. I missed working directly with the kids so I started applying for teaching positions in schools.  I got the position as assistant Humanities instructor at the Sage School in Foxboro, MA. My experience at this school was a pivotal turning point in my career. I was blown away by how awesome the philosophy of education was at this school. Sage is an independent K-8 school for academically gifted boys and girls. Before my time at this school, I didn't know this field of education even existed. I literally fell in love with the entire field!” 

It was here that Miller started directing school plays.  Other teachers at the school had gotten their masters in Gifted Education and Talent Development at UConn so Miller followed suit. When she received her Masters she decided she wanted to bring her knowledge of gift and talent to a public school.  She found another part time position with a small non-profit theatre enrichment company in Providence called Traveling Theatre.  She earned the position of Director of Education for the company. 

“Here, I was able to start implementing what I learned in graduate school. We collaborated with classroom teachers in providence to infuse aspects of theater into the regular classroom, and offered after school enrichment courses through the PASA (Providence After School Alliance) program, among others, to students K-8. At this company, I was also building my love for and skills to teach, direct, and produce theatrical productions. When I left to come to the Pier School, I was able to bring these skills with me to Narragansett. I started Pier in the fall of 2009. I was, and still am, ecstatic that I have the opportunity to practice teaching in my field at a public school!”

Some of the new programs and "changes" that have come about in the past few years at NPS are:

National History Day!

National History Day at the Pier School has grown consistently over the past four years. For the past two years, Pier students have scored 3rd place at the state competition in April at Providence College, nearly missing entry to the national level by one place. The 7th grade has already begun choosing their topics for this year's theme of Turning Points in History: People, Ideas, and Events. The 8th grade will begin shortly after the winter break. Miller is hopeful that through strong theses and comprehensive research, some of the students will progress all the way through to the National Contest in Washington D.C. this spring.

The Pier School Theatre Program!

The goal of the Pier School Theatre Program is to offer students a real-world theatre experience by employing professionals in the fields of theatre, dance, and music and exposing students to the process of auditioning, rehearsing, and performing multiple shows while exposing them to a professional theatre staff. “I am continuously blown away by the pure talent that exists in Narragansett. The combined efforts of our staff, students, and the tremendous help we get from our parent volunteers always results in a production that is nothing short of magical. This is not your typical Middle School play. This year, we have tackled The WIZ, book by William F. Brown, Music and Lyrics by Charlie Smalls adapted from "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" by L. Frank Baum. It's less like the movie, and more like the original play but the music is some of my absolute favorite - it's the music that I most enjoyed singing when I was in concert choir in High School. The "triple threat" of Jimmy's directing, Chelsea's choreography, and Jonathon's musical direction has given kids a well-rounded experience and it will surely be our best performance yet! The show will be performed at Narragansett High School in February,” she says with great enthusiasm!

More importantly, The pier school theatre program strives to incorporate the entire Narragansett school district into its performances. “We try and bring up kids from the elementary school who show exceptional theatrical or dance talent into our middle school shows and also offer students the opportunity to audition for spots in the high school shows. High School students come back to Pier to be Assistant Directors, Choreographers, work the sound board, lighting booth, and help out back stage during our shows.”

Some other programs that have come about are the Immersion Learning & the E/V Nautilus: students watch live broadcasts from Robert Ballard expeditions and engage in hands-on activities related to Ocean Exploration, Marine Mammals, The Titanic, and Ancient Explosions; The Stock Market Game, students learn how to read ticker symbols, trade stock based on the market and diversify their portfolio with $100,000 fictitious dollars while increasing their financial literacy; Exchange City 2.0 is an experiential learning program facilitated by Education in Action located in Providence that gives students a basic understanding of government, economics and financial literacy in addition to workforce skills. Students culminate this program by traveling to Providence to run an in-door kid-sized city for a day.

Lego League (Robotics) is one of the most fun and challenging programs offered for 6th grade enrichment as well as after school enrichment. This year, four teams attended the state qualifiers. One team won the "Project Award" for their outstanding research on the early stages of memory loss in alzheimer's patients. Three out of the four teams qualifies in all three categories, Project, Robot, and Core Values (First Lego League's teamwork challenge) for the state robotics competition held at Roger Williams University in January.

Those who know Miller from the Pier School know how contagious her enthusiasm is for all the projects she and the students are involved with.  Teaching is her passion which is quite evident when she answered what she loves best about teaching.

“Watching the kids solve an obstacle with their robots and get totally psyched that they did it on their own, hearing an incredibly in-depth conversation about human rights from my 8th grade socratic seminar students after they've learned how to ask the right questions, seeing kids pull off a creative problem solving challenge that completely depends on how well they work together as a team, its the moment students finally become independent learners and thinkers and I know that all the hard work, late nights, and the chaos of open-ended assignments has paid off.” 

Miller feels that if kids want to tap into their creative side, it is helpful if they get involved with the community early. “If kids have an interest, that they should be allowed to explore it - no matter how silly it might seem. Most importantly, kids should be allowed fail - especially our higher-achieving kids. Where I grew up, every kid on my soccer team got a trophy for "participation". Personally, I'm not a believer in this - I feel it falsifies expectations for kids when they grow up. Striving for perfection is important and at the same time, kids need to know that it’s ok to fail, and know how to act when they fail - it lets them know that they can take chances in life and sometimes it will work, and sometimes it won't. But either way, they have learned something they will persevere, and I believe as a result, be more creative thinkers. (Also - programs like Odyssey of the Mind or the Destination Imagination program that we have at Pier is awesome at boosting creative thinking!) 

When not in the classroom, Miller has a few creative interests of her own—one recent new hobby is mud racing!  This trendy way of racing started out in a kick-boxing gym where her trainer urged the class to sign up for a race.  Now she’s hooked and has participated in several races in Mass.  She also went zip lining for the first time this past year and loved that as well.  Miller also just became the beautiful bride of Guy Shaffer when they married on September 1, 2012 at Pt. Judith Light House. 

Miller stressed that all students in some way are exposed to enrichment at the Pier School. It is not limited to the enrichment room itself. Enrichment happens in the regular classroom every day. Some students are pulled-out for programming, and for other programs, she collaborates with teachers in the regular classroom. 

“We have a plethora of after-school activities for students to be involved in. Sign them up!” she encourages. 

For more information, you can contact Miller at vmiller@narragansett.k12.ri.us.

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