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Element of Surprise Helps Chandler Woods Teacher Bond With Students

Chandler Woods Charter Academy scholars don’t know what awaits them each time they enter sixth- to eighth-grade English Language Arts Teacher Kristin Helmbold’s classroom.

Helmbold, an original teacher at Chandler Woods when it opened in 1999, keeps a relaxed atmosphere in the classroom built on trust and community.

There is no seating chart.

She makes sure to devote the last five minutes of class to a “launch” to connect with students in a non-academic way (be it a video, question-and-answer game, or a heartfelt discussion) to send them to their next class on a positive note.

And there are surprises waiting for students in the form of “sneaks” and an elective class that Helmbold has taken the definition of quite literally, albeit she is the one choosing the subjects. It’s all part of forming a connection that enables her to establish a high bar for students.

“I pride myself in being different,” she said. “The beginning of the year is like make it or break it with me. Because if I don’t build that trust, I can't teach, and so I really base my whole classroom on trust and community. And then I can push them to do anything.”

The first surprise forges those lasting relationships with the eighth-grade sneak on the first Friday of the school year. Neither parents nor students know where the scholars are going from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Helmbold plans the event, which changes location every year and has included roller skating and Mac Wood’s Dune Rides and typically ends with a sunset talk at P.J. Hoffmaster State Park.

“We've covered the whole state of Michigan, pretty much,” Helmbold said. “The first couple years, the parents really, really wanted to know (where the students were going) but now nobody even asks. Once we leave, the parents can call and find out where we're going.”

Helmbold’s surprise elective class came about when she wanted to teach real-world lessons that didn’t fit under a label to scholars. They don’t know what they’ll be learning until they show up; subjects have included team trivia, clay crafts, a “friend date” to learn how to communicate, and a trip to Anna’s House that focused on rules, manners, and conversation when dining out.

“I love doing crafts and teaching about random topics,” she said. “I love doing team trivia and making all the electives into one and then adding whatever I want to do with it.”

It’s all part of establishing that lasting connection for Helmbold, who was named Outstanding Teacher of the Year by the Grand Valley State University Charter School Office in 2016 and was recognized by National Heritage Academies twice. Helmbold attributes her success to setting a high bar for scholars that makes them not even realize the heights they can reach over a period of time.

One such exercise culminated with students writing college-level papers, starting with a five-paragraph essay and working their way up to a final 11-paragraph essay. As her class finished the writing unit, the scholars circled up to reflect on and celebrate the progress they had made, including one girl who was out sick but still wanted to attend the ceremony virtually.

“It’s incredible seeing their faces and how proud they are. That’s a big, shiny moment for me just to watch kids grow so much in their writing from first to last,” she said. “It’s really awesome.”

Keep up the excellent work, Ms. Helmbold!

Chandler Woods Charter Academy is a free public charter school in Belmont, Michigan, serving students in Young 5s through eighth grade. National Heritage Academies (NHA), a charter school management company in Grand Rapids, Mich. has 98 tuition-free, public charter schools across nine states, serving more than 60,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. For more information, visit