As the 2023 Kentucky Teacher of the Year, I was interested in the idea of evolving traditional libraries into innovative campus hubs for schools. Little did I know that several Kentucky schools already have this idea in place, including one school that was brought to my attention on more than one occasion. I was soon on my way to visit the Eminence Independent School District.
While the intention of my visit was to look at how this school transformed its library space, the school also captured my attention by how it had reimagined education. I cannot describe for you the sheer amount of joy I saw that day on students’ faces.
I was immediately taken back by a book vending machine and arcade machine in the school’s front office. Then, while waiting to meet Eminence Independent Superintendent Buddy Berry, I was in awe of everything happening in the EDhub center. I watched a class collaborating on what appeared to be robotic sets, attempting to connect all their individual pieces together into one large formation. They were intentional and focused.
Berry approached me, noticed my gaze, leaned in and said, “Would you believe that they take the state test tomorrow and they don’t even know it yet?” I looked over at him, a bit surprised, and replied, “There’s positivity in that, sir. At least they won’t be stressed.” We both laughed. His next statement was powerful. He said, “We are not creating test takers here. We are creating future leaders and bosses.”
The EDhub is everything I imagined when I started my Teacher of the Year journey. It had a large interactive touchscreen that brings student work to life, flexible seating arrangements, individualized pods with charging stations, an area classes can come for presentations or demonstrations, an upper level to accommodate for extra space and a slide – yes, a slide – as another mode of travel. Seeing this in person was exhilarating, yet heartbreaking, as this school has had this setup for years. I know students in rural western Kentucky where I teach would be ecstatic to have a space like this. Why can’t this be the reality for all schools?
We made our way into the open space library, and it was everything I’ve been dreaming of: reading nooks scattered throughout, a selfless book checkout center, classrooms built into the library area – one included a Lego wall – and a room for creating, with options including 3D printing, vinyl printing, button making, laser engraving and all the accessories. It was the land of creation and innovation! A student walked by during the tour, and I noticed a light flash as he suddenly stopped. I turned, and to my surprise, the student was playing a race car game on the floor which I later learned was motion activated from a MagixFloor ceiling display. MagixFloor is an all-in-one integrated unit that turns any floor into an interactive playground for kids with games. What a great way for a child to take a quick brain break!
It is said that if the purpose of learning is to score well on a test, we’ve lost sight of the real reason for learning. Eminence Independent Schools has figured that out. The district’s teachers use teacher-created curriculum. There is freedom to design lessons that spark and engage student interests. Student work is showcased in a vending machine! I can’t begin to imagine the amount of pride and ownership a child must feel knowing that their work is on display and worthy of being purchased.
During my visit, I learned that students are assessed by preparing exemplars and earning micro-credentials. I love everything about this concept, and this was probably the most unexpected, yet greatest takeaway from my visit. Assessment exemplars allow students to develop self-monitoring and encourage ownership of their learning. While speaking to the high school principal and one of the EDhub integration specialists, a middle school student approached us seeking advice. She explained that she was using her break to work on her exemplar and earn a micro-credential. This child was committed to using break time to achieve a goal for success. As the principal walked away to assist the student, I learned that this was a huge breakthrough moment for this child and not the typical behavior she normally displays. I responded with, “That’s the power of what goes on here, and it makes the story behind what I just witnessed even more beautiful.”
I also had the opportunity to engage with a 7th- and 8th-grade elective class using the EDhub for their passion project presentations. Students shared that the project was either pass or fail, as listed on their exemplar. This gives students the opportunity to focus on a project that they are interested in and not stress out about multiple assessments. They had close to one month to create their passion projects, which included researching, interviewing experts and providing evidence of their weekly plans/schedule. I saw many unique projects, including one featuring “Sci-Fi Makeup Effects.” The student came off a bit timid at first, but when the teacher volunteered to be her model instead of the student using a mannequin head, the student quickly put her sci-fi makeup effect learning skills to work. It was fantastic, and a small crowd gathered to watch her perform. The teacher was her biggest supporter. That’s what it’s all about. The connection and strong relationship between the student and the teacher made all the difference.
Another student project had a display with a mannequin hand with beautifully painted nails that caught my attention. I joked with the student that I never paint my nails or have them professionally done, even showing her my terrible-looking nails. Much to my surprise, the student pulled her hands out of hooded sweatshirt sleeves and showed me hers. I was taken back for a moment as the student hardly had any fingernails. Then it hit me like a ton of bricks that this was a true passion project for her. This project wasn’t something she did for fun – it was something that held meaning because it impacted her personally. I was so proud of the student for being brave, teaching herself through this process how to do her own nails and, at the same time, save money. This passion project was a win-win for her as she gained deeper self-awareness and also found a possible career path to pursue as a nail technician.
While I continued my walkthrough of presentations, a teacher approached me and struck up a conversation. It turns out this teacher was eligible for retirement seven years ago but continues to travel over an hour’s distance from Louisville every day because she enjoys working at Eminence so much. That is a true testament to the great things happening in this school system.
There was so much that I observed that day visiting Eminence Independent Schools that I cannot adequately put into words. The school delivers an innovating atmosphere, high level of learning and collaborative culture. Superintendent Berry says that he wants Eminence to be the “Disney World of schools”. After my visit, Eminence without a doubt won the title! If you have never been, schedule a visit. I promise you will walk away inspired and motivated by what you see.