One wall of William VanWie’s classroom at Draper Middle School was being transformed by students into a timeline of American wars. The seventh- and eighth-grade alternative education students were busy painting in the images of the burning White House from the War of 1812, the nuclear missiles poised at the ready from the Cold War and the Twin Towers that fell during the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The images were painstakingly traced from books or done freestyle and added a visual history lesson to the room. VanWie said he believes students learn better when they are touching and experiencing history. He uses video clips and plays songs from the time period in his teaching. He also uses food and even had the students make hard tack, which is a kind of cracker made from flour and water that soldiers ate during the Civil War.
“I try to get all the senses involved,” said VanWie, who runs the school’s alternative education program for 12 seventh- and eighth-grade students who have not been successful in a traditional classroom. He meets with them separately during the school day in addition to helping out in their regular classrooms. He also teaches one section of middle school social studies.
VanWie believes teachers should do less of the “drill and practice” method of instruction where they stand in front of the classroom and lecture.
“Students should be players in the class — not like an audience,” he said.
This method seems to be effective at reaching these students who have not been interested in school up to this point — like 13-year-old eighth-grader Brittney Vadney.
“I could basically care less before I came into his program,” she said.
Her attitude turned around with VanWie’s teaching, according to Vadney. “I’m basically a straight-A student because of him,” she said. “He’ll come over and help us a lot. He is just an all-around great teacher and he makes everything a lot more clearer and easier to understand.”
She says the timeline project really helps her visualize all the wars that have happened in American history.
Other hands-on projects the students have done include building an information kiosk at the Mabee Farm in Rotterdam Junction and working on the Onrust, the replica of the first European-style sailing vessel built in New York state. VanWie said he incorporates a variety of subjects like math and science into these projects.
For example, students had to use the Pythagorean Theorem to calculate the length of one leg of a triangular-shaped section of drywall.
Next up is building a storage cart for the school store and a project to add a map of the farm to the kiosk.
Students even come in to work on the timeline after school and during their free periods. Eighth-grader Guy Garmer, 13, said he likes VanWie’s teaching style. “It’s not just sitting there being lectured to all day.”
VanWie’s teaching methods have also won high praise from school officials.
“Mr. VanWie totally connects with the students on their level but commands respect,” said Draper Middle School Principal Debra Male. “I’ve never heard him yell. He treats them with respect. They’d do anything for him.”
Male said the school’s seventh-graders were not successful academically, perhaps because of issues at home. She agrees that a lot of them are “kinetic learners” and need the hands-on instruction that VanWie provides.
This is VanWie’s third year and he will be receiving tenure, according to Male.
VanWie, 27, who has a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s degree in adolescent education, said he became interested in teaching because of a professor at the College of Saint Rose who made a connection to each of his students and taught history as a story. He wanted to emulate that and help students improve their critical thinking skills and achieve their goals.
“I just like seeing kids use their talents and want to be successful,” VanWie said.