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Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 8/1/16. Michael Stone leads a breakout session titled Making Work in Education, during the I.C.E. Institute (Innovate Create Engage) held at Red Bank Middle School on Monday, August 1, 2016.
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Fostering creativityEvent encourages educators to be innovative in the classroom

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More than 250 principals and teachers from across Hamilton County gathered Monday to learn innovative ways to engage students this upcoming school year.

With school starting next week, the educators dedicated one of their last summer days to learning from each other.

"We engage kids by engaging teachers," said Keri Randolph, director of innovation for the Hamilton County Department of Education.

Randolph told educators the district's leadership wants to foster a climate this year that encourages teacher voices and leadership in schools systemwide.

During Monday's Innovate, Create and Engage Institute, educators bounced among seminars and presentations learning about the creative approaches taking place in classrooms across the district.

Three teachers from the STEM School shared ways they incorporate yoga and mindfulness exercises into their classes.

Andrew Browning-Couch, a math teacher at the school, said he does mindfulness exercises with his students for five minutes every Monday morning to help them start the week.

"Mindfulness, as I explain to my students, is the ability to think about and focus on one thing," he said. "I tell them to just focus on their breathing."

Browning-Couch had the educators sit in chairs in the gym and practice clearing their minds for just three minutes, and later he and the other teachers presented studies stating the academic benefits of incorporating such activities.

In a classroom down the hall, Cristol Kapp, the librarian at Red Bank Elementary, and Jill Blackmon, the Creative Design Thinking Studio leader at Normal Park, taught educators how to implement design-thinking activities into their lessons.

As if those attending the seminar were students, Kapp and Blackmon had them work through a scenario where City X was experiencing a food shortage. Through different interactive activities, those at the seminar discussed and acted out what a food shortage would look like, and also worked to develop solutions with the resources said to be available.

Next door, Arielle Garcia Hayes, newly appointed principal of Dalewood Middle School, demonstrated ways to use the "total participation technique" to engage all learners in the classroom.

Placing letters "A" through "D" in different corners of the room, Hayes quizzed those attending on what she had covered by asking a question and having them move to the corner that represented what they thought was the correct answer.

"See how I got you up and moving," she said. "And this gives me a visual so I know who's getting the information and who's struggling."

In a classroom upstairs, East Lake Elementary School teachers April Gregorcich and Justin Payne discussed ways to manage classroom behavior with love and logic.

They talked to teachers about delaying discipline and not making threats that can't be backed up, and advised against managing a classroom by fear and public humiliation.

"Remember you're the adult in the room and you've got to model empathy for [the students,]" Gregorcich said.

In the school's cafeteria during lunch, Claire Stockman, a music teacher at Red Bank Elementary, said she decided to attend the professional development event because of the theme of creativity and innovation.

"I was really interested to see what the district's new leadership thought of that," she said.

Stockman said she is encouraged that the district is promoting innovation in the classroom, and appreciated that all the seminar presenters were from within the school system. She said this shows the talent that exists here and allows opportunity for networking and collaboration.

Melanie Covert, a fifth grade teacher at the new Middle Valley Elementary, said she also came because of the event's emphasis on innovation.

For years, Covert taught in another school district that she said encouraged teachers to be creative. During the last two years of teaching in Hamilton County, she said, she's been discouraged that there hasn't been a push to teach this way, and she's excited that the tide seems to be changing.

"This is how teaching used to be," Covert said. "This is how it should be."

After lunch, the teachers filled rows of chairs in the gym as the Institute's keynote address was given by Amy Vreeland of True School, an organization that partners with schools to help inspire educators to take action and lead change.

Vreeland talked about the work True School has done in 95 high-needs schools in New Orleans, Los Angeles and Chicago to improve educational outcomes for students through creative approaches.

Teachers have unique knowledge about what their students need, Vreeland said, and True School works to empower educators to transform schools.

She said she's seen innovative ideas immediately impact student achievement and outcomes.

"We think innovation is crucial to equity," Vreeland said.

Contact staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater at 423-757-6592 or krainwater@timesfreepress.com. Follow on Twitter @kendi_and.

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