By Susan Riddell
Growing up, Ryan Williams wanted one of three careers: teacher, NBA star or game show host.
“I really thought I’d be 6-foot-9 and 240 pounds,” Williams joked. “But it didn’t quite work out that way.”
Luckily, Williams has not only been an educator the past 14 years, but he has found a way to incorporate the two professions he never achieved into his classroom at Mary Lee Cravens Elementary School (Owensboro Independent).
“He’s definitely a risk taker,” said Cravens Elementary Principal James Lyddane said. “But the risks he takes are all about engaging the kids.”
Those risks have paid off, and Williams, who taught 1st grade for 11 years before switching to 3rd grade three years ago, was recently named Kentucky’s latest Milken Family Foundation Educator Award recipient.
“He’s a cornerstone to this school,” Lyddane said of Williams, who teaches mathematics. “He creates a strong culture at this school based on challenging lessons, problem-solving and true critical thinking.”
Williams agreed with Lyddane’s description of him as a teacher willing to take chances.
“I don’t like spoon-feeding the kids,” he said. “I try to get to know them and cater lessons to who students are and what they like.”
For Camron Ritter, that’s basketball.
“I like when Mr. Williams takes math and turns it into a game,” Ritter said. “He’s a fun teacher, and he cares about us, too.”
Williams will challenge students to mathematics competitions with the winners receiving a chance to shoot a foam basketball into a classroom net.
“If the kids like football, I make it a football game,” Williams said. “It’s about taking what they know and using real-life experiences to make it meaningful.”
When Williams taught 1st grade, he routinely used a game show format to create learning opportunities. “I was the host, Mr. Proveit, and the students participated in a phonics game show,” he said.
Williams also had a WWE wrestling contest called “Tag Team Reading” involving a five-point scale. When students reached the fifth point, they got to wear a celebratory wrestling belt around the school.
He recently had a project-based mathematics lesson that involved his 3rd graders developing ticket sales for a Justin Bieber concert.
Embracing lessons rich in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) components is a key element in his teaching, and a recent lesson involving circuits was a big hit with students.
“Instead of just studying simple circuits, the students had to apply their knowledge and design working models (using household items),” he said.
Williams gave students everything they needed to make simple circuits, and students added household items to create popsicle cars with electric motors and bottle tops for the wheels.
They also created homemade flashlights with rulers, and electric fans out of rulers, popsicle sticks and straws.
Williams said it was an ideal lesson because he offered no directions, and students had to work in cooperative groups to design their creations.
“This is what learning should be like,” he said.
Owensboro Independent administrators, particularly Lyddane, are very supportive of the risks Williams takes in his classroom.
“It’s vital to have a principal who lets teachers take risks,” Williams added. “Mr. Lyddane sets that example for us.”
Williams, one of many educators in his family, also credited his fellow teachers at Cravens Elementary, saying that the collaboration they do vertically and across grade levels has really influenced his teaching practices, too.
When a district staff member at Estes Elementary faced a medical leave recently, district administrators called on Williams to step into that role, and he’s currently “on loan” at Estes Elementary School as a curriculum coordinator.
Eventually, he said, he’d like to pursue administration.
“I’m always trying to grow,” he said. “I haven’t arrived yet, but the sky’s the limit.”
MORE INFO …
Ryan Williams, firstname.lastname@example.org, (270) 686-1030