News from the Arizona Daily Sun

Veronica Villegas empowering students

Michelle McManimon Sun Staff Reporter, Arizona Daily Sun, December 3, 2013

Second of a three-part series

Veronica Villegas got hooked on history when she studied the Civil Rights Movement in sixth grade.

Now that she is a teacher, she works hard to empower her students at Sinagua Middle School to fall in love with history, too.

“I just try to make my kids feel how I felt,” Villegas said.

Villegas worked in hotel and restaurant management for 14 years before she found her calling as a teacher.

“I just feel like this is my purpose,” Villegas said. “When I was working in restaurants, I was making money but I wasn’t happy. I just knew I needed some more purpose in my life.”

AWARD OF $5,000

Villegas is one of three local middle school teachers being honored by the Rodel Foundation of Arizona.

Rodel decided to focus on elementary and middle school teachers this year. Out of 40 semifinalists, 11 were named this past week as Rodel Exemplary Teachers for 2014. Two winners and one finalist were selected from Flagstaff.

The winners were Christopher Hull, who teaches seventh- and eighth-grade science at Mount Elden Middle School, and Villegas, who teaches sixth-grade social studies at Sinagua. They will each receive $5,000 and be assigned student teachers to mentor for the next six semesters.

Jillian Worssam, who teaches eighth-grade science at Sinagua Middle School, was named a finalist for the Rodel Exemplary Teacher award and will receive a $500 prize.

All the candidates were from schools with high numbers of students from low-income families and were nominated by school principals or superintendents. These teachers must demonstrate excellence in student learning, effective communication and a willingness to share what they have learned with other aspiring teachers.

Following is the second of three profiles. Hull was profiled Sunday. Part 3 will run Wednesday.

INTERACTIVE LEARNING

Instead of asking students to simply memorize facts and dates, Villegas keeps her students engaged by allowing them to use their own creativity while they learn. Her classes create maps of ancient countries, make travel brochures and create historical markers commemorating important people and places. She asks the students just to do their best.

“It’s really interactive,” Villegas said. “We get the kids engaged, have them choose what they want to do and how they want to learn. We try to reach the different intelligences and different learning styles through these different types of activities.”

Villegas encourages students to not just find the correct answers, but to show the processes they used to come up with the answers.

It is not all fun and games. Students in Villegas’s classes have to learn how to structure research papers, cite concrete evidence, identify primary and secondary sources and use the Cornell note-taking system. Villegas said she focuses on making sure students have strong literacy skills.

“Once they get that foundation we (say), OK let’s create now. Let’s use that knowledge and produce something that we learned about,” Villegas said.

HIGH EXPECTATIONS

Personal responsibility is another essential part of Villegas’ teaching style.

“We don’t crack a book for about a month,” Villegas said. “We talk about building a classroom community that’s based on respect. I help them to understand that we’re part of a team and that we’re only as strong as our weakest link. We’re here to support each other, not tear each other down. I try to empower them so that I don’t have to remind them what the rules and procedures are because they’ll tell each other.”

Villegas has developed a reward system to reinforce good behavior. What makes the system unique is that the students are the ones who hand out the rewards — called “Classroom Bucks” — to one another. Villegas said students learn to follow the classroom rules, but also learn about the economy and what it means to be a leader.

“We spend so much time at the beginning talking about how we should not just follow rules and procedures because they’re there but because it’s the right thing to do,” Villegas said. “I want them to reach their full potential and be successful because they have a personal code of conduct, because they always do the right thing no matter what other people are doing.”

Students who forget the rules only have to look up to be reminded. Villegas has posted big lists of all the classroom expectations and procedures on her walls. She even has one called “Teacher Responsibilities,” so the students know she has to be accountable, as well.

“If I’m not doing my job, they can’t do theirs,” Villegas said.

NATIONAL HISTORY DAY

Villegas’ teaching style appears to be working. Despite high academic standards, her students boast a 95 percent homework completion rate and more than 80 percent of them are passing their tests.

Right now, Villegas’ students are getting ready for National History Day. Each student has to choose a topic to research, write a research paper with an annotated resource set and create a project that is related to the research topic. All the projects made by Villegas’ students this year will be on display in the Sinagua gym on National History Day, which falls on Dec. 17.

Villegas has 11 years of education experience. She also serves as a content area assessment specialist for middle school social studies and is a member of the Northern Arizona History Academy — Teaching American History cohort.

Michelle McManimon can be reached at 556-2261 or MMcManimon@azdailysun.com.