Educators Rising above the competition

Academy students attend state conference


Photo courtesy of Ali Bragg

Millard Education Academy students attend the Educators Rising State Conference at the University of Nebraska Lincoln. At the event, students competed, attended breakout sessions and networked with other students and vendors. “My favorite part was speaking at the opening ceremony,” senior Hope Belcastro said. “I got to use my gavel and that was really fun. I also loved just seeing all the members from different parts of the state.”

Morgan Weir, Editor-in-Chief

After a Zoom conference last year, the Millard Education Academy participated in their first in-person Educators Rising Nebraska State Conference since 2019 at the University of Nebraska Lincoln. During the event, which took place on March 24, students competed in various categories and learned from professionals in the field of education. 

To kick off the conference, Nebraska 2022 Teacher of the Year and Buffett Magnet Middle School teacher Lee Perez served as the keynote speaker. Perez spoke about the honor of being the Teacher of the Year, his experience as an English as a Second Language teacher and his advice for future educators. After the opening session, students spent the day competing and attending breakout sessions. These sessions included “History of Ni Bthaska” from Sicangu Lakota tribe member Steve Tamayo, “Allyship – We are in this Together” from Nebraska Early Childhood Collaborative Mental Health Specialist Shelina Williams and “Tools to Manage a Busy Student Life” from Educational Service Unit Six consultant Dr. Lynne Herr. Students also interacted with vendors, including many colleges in the Midwest, and networked with other future educators. 

The event was an opportunity for students to apply the knowledge they will need as educators and receive direct feedback on their work. 

“They are practicing skills that they will need in teaching,” Education Academy lead teacher Ali Bragg said. “It gives you a little glimmer of what teaching is like because some of it is lesson planning, some of it is actually executing those lessons, some of it is totally impromptu, some of it is creating teaching materials.”

Academy members have been preparing for this competition for around two months. Hours were spent both in and out of class brainstorming ideas, pulling together materials and bringing their projects to life. They displayed their work in the Millard West library for a week and asked staff and students to leave comments and criticism, which helped them make improvements and receive feedback from a neutral audience before they competed. 

Some members, including Nebraska Educators Rising President and senior Hope Belcastro, played a major role in preparing for the event. As an officer, Belcastro helped with choosing the conference’s theme, “Food for the Brain,” and setting up the event. She also spoke during the opening and closing ceremonies and held two breakout sessions along with welcoming Ed Rising members from across the state. All of this hard work resulted in an event that provided new experiences for attendees and reinforced the importance of education as a profession. 

“I think this event was beneficial to everyone involved,” Belcastro said. “When thinking about the current teacher shortage and attitudes towards the profession, it’s refreshing to meet people who still want to pursue the career. It also allows opportunities to make new friends and develop some more educational skills.”

The conference benefitted more than just the participants as students completed a community service project with Meals on Wheels, a program that delivers meals to people who are not able to make or buy their own food. They decorated the bags that meals are delivered in with art and uplifting quotes. This was the first service project ever done at the conference, and it was both a bonding opportunity at the event and a way to help the community. 

“We decided to do this so that whoever is receiving a meal will feel more joy as they look at the artwork on the bags,” junior Sidney Bahensky said. “I really liked knowing that the bags I decorated could light up someone’s day. While decorating, it was also an awesome time to socialize and get to know my classmates better.”

For the competition, students are judged on both their materials and their presentation. Many categories, such as Children’s Literature and Teacher Created Materials, require students to work on books, lessons or material beforehand and present it at the competition, while other categories are impromptu. Competitors must also complete a Q&A over their materials with the judges. Millard had several competitors who ranked among the top three in their category. Senior Allison Kunz placed third. Juniors Molly Kimmey and Lauren Linn placed second in Children’s Literature K-3, and senior Kaylee Phelps placed second in Impromptu Speaking. Seniors Abigail Friedland and Taylor Hendricks scored first in Teacher Created Materials.

For their category, Friedland and Hendricks made a book to help with speech, prepositions and following directions. The book, aimed at the kindergarten through fourth grade age group, is interactive and includes a small bear figure. Readers move the bear to different locations while explaining aloud his actions, such as going to the post office and mailing a letter.  

“I feel like we definitely put in the work to earn it, but I was kind of surprised because a lot of the other competitors made really amazing things,” Friedland said. “I definitely just spent a lot of time with Taylor making the book come to life. I did have to pull a few all-nighters to actually finish creating the book though. It gave me a chance to see how my creativity can potentially mix with my future which was super cool.”

At the conference, two Millard West students, juniors Annie DelSenno and Madelyn Saub, were elected as state officers. Saub will replace Millard North senior Jenna Hamilton as secretary and DelSenno will replace Belcastro as president as members of Educators Rising prepare for next year.