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New Connectivity Center Bridges Content Areas; Enhances Students’ Communication Skills

What started as an idea a few years ago, is now a helpful resource being utilized by every student in grades 7-12.

Just don’t call it a writing lab – because it’s so much more.  Mrs. Paratore with students

The district officially launched the “Connectivity Center” at the start of the 2021-22 school year. The center, located across from the library in the Jr./Sr. High School, is run by Mrs. Paratore. Before becoming coordinator of the center, Mrs. Paratore taught a variety of English courses at the high school level.

The Connectivity Center – a skills integration lab – is a “hub” for all of the Jr./Sr. High School’s nearly 450 students to take advantage of throughout the school year, regardless of ability. It’s specifically designed to enhance the communication skills of students across all disciplines. As the school year progresses, every student adds to his or her very own digital portfolio, which showcases graded assignments from all content areas, including English, social studies, science, math, music, art, physical education and business. Each completed assignment is reviewed and critiqued by Mrs. Paratore, with the hope students will use lessons learned to strengthen future assignments.

“All of the classes students are enrolled in have a New York State standard by which they have to write or respond,” Mrs. Paratore said. “So, the Connectivity Center is a place for students to begin to learn how to write across all content areas, which is not only important now, but in the future.”

“For any type of career, you need to know how to be able to communicate or articulate your ideas to other people in that vernacular,” Mrs. Paratore added.

The Connectivity Center compliments New York State’s Next Generation Learning Standards, which were adopted in 2017 and will be fully implemented in public schools across the state by the start of the 2022-23 school year. The standards include benchmarks for writing in all content areas.

“Even though they may look different, English, math, physical education, social studies, art, band, chorus… all have writing standards,” Mrs. Paratore explained. “Math may only require a short explanation to justify an answer, but it’s an explanation that a student must still be able to adequately communicate.”

Mrs. Paratore spent the first two weeks of the school year digitally building the Connectivity Center, one student at a time. Every student’s digital portfolio on Google Drive includes a main folder and sub folder for each content area. During the school year, and after receiving a grade, students in grades 7-12 are required to submit at least four writing assignments for English, three writing assignments for social studies and one writing assignment for each remaining content area. Once an assignment is submitted, students fill out a Google Form to set up an appointment with Mrs. Paratore to go over the assignment. Mrs. Paratore has access to teachers’ assignments, including directions and grading rubrics.

“I usually defy kids to bring me a 100… because we are still going to chat about it,” Mrs. Paratore joked. “The goal is for students to start seeing how something can always be better.”

Seniors Mary Muller and Madaleine Miller were two of the first students to utilize the Connectivity Center. Mary worked with Mrs. Paratore to broaden a summary for a Participation in Government assignment so it included more relevant information. Madeline sought assistance with a cover letter for a college application. Mrs. Paratore encouraged her to be more confident and not to be shy about including information that will make her “stand out.”

“I think the Connectivity Center is going to benefit a lot of kids because it’s kind of hard to always ask your teacher for help when they have 20 other students,” Madaleine explained. “At the Connectivity Center, you get to sit down one-on-one to talk about an assignment. Mrs. Paratore is very honest, gives very good feedback and listens. If she can’t help, she finds someone who can.”

Like Madaleine, Mary also thinks the Connectivity Center is helpful and will have a positive impact on every student.

“From what I hear, college can be difficult,” Mary said. “Having someone like Mrs. Paratore, who is super skilled in English, will make me better prepared for college.”

Despite its numerous challenges, the COVID-19 pandemic was the final catalyst that transformed the Connectivity Center from an idea to a reality. According to Mrs. Paratore, the pandemic has led to learning gaps and some students falling behind – and the Connectivity Center can help close those gaps. Yet, when it comes to writing, Mrs. Paratore says there were gaps in the ability of students to communicate across content areas long before COVID-19.

“One positive that came out of the pandemic is there was state and federal funding to create a resource like the Connectivity Center,” Mrs. Paratore said. “The Connectivity Center isn’t just for kids who are struggling, though. I think all kids struggle with writing at times and have gaps. All roads lead through English.”

However, while English may be at its core, the purpose of the Connectivity Center is to improve students’ communication skills in all classes – hence its name. Many of the same principles can be applied to every subject matter, content area and career.

“In elementary school, students are in the same room and everything melds together,” Mrs. Paratore said. “For example, students read a story about growing a plant and then actually grow one, watch it grow and experiment on it. With switching classes in high school, some of that correlation, or foundation, is lost. The Connectivity Center works to strengthen that foundation.”

Mrs. Paratore and her fellow teachers are looking forward to watching – and being part of – students’ growth and progress during the school year. Mrs. Paratore also hopes students will eventually utilize the Connectivity Center above and beyond what is required. She already has students who “pop in” for some quick guidance.

“Technology is a double edged sword,” Mrs. Paratore chimed. “It can make communication more convenient, but not necessarily better. Technology can hamper your ability to have a face-to-face conversation, think on your feet, express the correct tone and adequately explain something. The Connectivity Center brings back the art of conversation.”

It also gives students the tools to make themselves “heard” in all facets of life.

“If you have strong communication skills, people listen to you,” Mrs. Paratore pointed out. “You command attention, especially if you know your area of expertise… that’s power.”

A power more and more Westmoreland students are now becoming familiar with.