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"A Whole New World of Friends"

When Kimberly Bender first applied to VISTA, she also signed up her fellow 5th grade team teacher Ashley Carneal. “I signed her up and told her later she had to come,” Bender said, laughing. “We’ve all heard the buzz about problem-based learning, and I was excited to find out what it was about. Get ahead of it a bit.

“I didn’t have any expectations. I’m one that just sort of goes with the flow, but it’s changed the way I teach,” Bender said. “It teaches critical thinking skills, which helps build students’ brains.”

Bender, who teaches at Bellwood Elementary in Chesterfield County, was recently profiled in a story by John Ramsey in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Her class is the first classroom in Virginia to adopt a baby loggerhead turtle from the Virginia Aquarium’s AquaPALS project.

Just before spring break, the class traveled to Virginia Beach to visit their hatchling at the aquarium.

“I was so proud of my students,” Bender says. “They did the adoption project all on their own. No input from me.”

The students kept a running tally of donations on their classroom board, deducting amounts given from their goal of the $150 adoption fee.

Classes can track the hatchling’s growth by noting changes in its weight each week and can follow, via satellite transmitter, their turtle when it is released into the Gulf Stream, according to April Strickland of the aquarium.

Learning about the Chesapeake water shed has gotten Bender on an “environmental kick,” she says. “I’ve changed my thinking about a lot of things, even small things like household products, like detergent. Now I’m telling my friends: ‘don’t buy that! It goes straight out into the bay and affects the water shed!’

“It’s exciting for me and for the kids,” she said. “It makes science come alive. I’ve always been interested in science, but the hands-on part is really fun. Reading about it is not doing it – it’s too abstract. And watching something is not the same as doing it themselves either.”

Doing it themselves is how they learn,” says Bender. “They see it doesn’t always work or go perfectly. How many times did it take Thomas Edison to perfect the light bulb? I think it was about 1,000 times. It didn’t work as expected, so he tried it again. That’s how you learn critical thinking.”

And critical thinking is hard to measure on standardized tests, according to Bender. “I don’t see how it’s possible for SOL testing to measure the real results of problem-based learning,” she says. “Maybe if they gave them a problem to solve, but it’s mostly multiple choice questions, so it’s not really a valid way to measure what they’ve learned.”

Working with other teachers is also a huge part of the appeal of VISTA. “It’s put me in contact with a whole group of like-minded teachers to collaborate with – and we do. Teachers like Kara Collins (of Ettrick Elementary in Chesterfield County), Ricky Bain (of Fairfield Elementary in Rockbridge County), and Alicia Broughton, Rachel Martin and Kimberly Bauer (of Laurel Meadow in Hanover County), as well as Ashley here at Bellwood. We talk about what we’re doing. What worked – or didn’t. Maybe put a twist on what someone else did.

“I’ve gotten a whole new world of friends to collaborate with -- all over the state of the Virginia.” 

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