Commentary - UVEI - Upper Valley Educators Institute

  • Project-Based Learning: Why it Matters

    Holland Elementary is a small K-6 school located in the heart of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. The five classroom teachers here serve forty-two students, so they get to know their kids well. After visiting the King Middle in Maine to see project based teaching practices and project-based learning in action, the Holland teachers began to implement the model in their school.  

    Project-based learning (PBL) allows students to work collaboratively in teams or independently to answer abstract questions and solve problems or design challenges that are authentic. An authentic unit is relevant to students’ lives, is realistic, or involves real-world tasks and processes. It meets a real need in the world beyond the classroom, or the products students create are used by real people. Inquiry is central in PBL classrooms. Project-based teaching involves carefully planned scaffolding (structure and modeling to help all students make progress towards the goal), coaching and assessment. Rather than content driving the curriculum, a project-based learning model is driven by student interest.

    Principal Kelli Dean, a UVEI Principal Intern Program alumni, shared her thoughts on why the North Country Supervisory Union, especially Holland Elementary, has taken on PBL as an approach to teaching and learning.

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  • Quit Your Job & Start a Teaching Career Without Fear

    You’ve always thought about teaching. You have a career right now that’s, well, fine, but teaching has always been in the back of your mind. The appeal of teaching is not hard to imagine: teaching makes a difference in kids’ lives. Sounds cliche? It’s not.  

    But it’s natural to worry about what such a career change can mean for you and your family. It can seem unrealistic or risky. If you want to quit your job to pursue teaching, but you’re afraid of the unknowns, here are a few pieces of advice.

    Acknowledge That Your Current Job Doesn’t Bring You Joy

    Although American workers are happier than they have been in years, many still struggle to find joy and meaning in work. It’s not uncommon to begin a career (or a second or third) and realize a few years later that it’s just not the kind of work that will sustain you over time. Although making a change can seem daunting and scary, the scarier choice is staying in a job that doesn’t bring you happiness.

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  • School/District Partnerships Reinvigorate Teaching Practices

    As a classroom teacher, one of my favorite pastimes was participating in professional development.  I visited other schools, attended workshops and took online courses.  I especially enjoyed workshops, since they were a chance to connect with professionals from all over the country.  The resources and excitement in those days, weeks or weekends were reinvigorating, especially in the middle of the New Hampshire winter. However after returning to my classroom, the afterglow soon wore off.  Although it was better to attend with a colleague (with whom I could bounce ideas off later), the lack of sustained focus and follow-up led to, more often than not, the materials and energy quickly fading from view.

    At UVEI, we approach professional education differently.  How is it different?  Through sustained coaching and inquiry cycles, educators immersed in their practice receive feedback and reflect with the help of a coach.  Cycles last several weeks, months or even a full year.  Instead of a “one and done” course, we spend time in each school to observe, model, debrief, plan and facilitate peer coaching and reflection.  We are currently partnering with several school districts, bringing coaching and inquiry cycles to a team or an entire school, where teachers and administrators engage in inquiries such as balanced literacy, differentiated instruction, and project based learning.

    One of our current partnerships is with Holland Elementary School, which is as close to the Canadian border as you can get without going through customs.  Each week, I make the drive north to work with the teachers and students at this tiny pre-K through sixth grade school.  Through weekly observations and coaching sessions, teachers aim to move their practice closer to “gold standard” project-based learning.  Principal Kelli Dean, a UVEI Principal Intern Program alum (and current UVEI Curriculum and Instruction candidate), helped bring our faculty into a district-wide partnership focused on project-based learning.  By the second meeting with teachers, I was already feeling new energy and momentum building as these educators brainstormed new units and approaches.  As we journey forward together, our shared goal is to reinvigorate teaching practices that are valuable and sustainable.  

    This photo of Kate Underwood and her K-1 class was taken by Becky at Holland Elementary School earlier this fall.

    Commentary by Becky Wipfler

    Becky Wipfler is UVEI’s Elementary Education Coordinator and a member of the faculty.  You can follow her on Twitter @bmwipfler. Other commentaries by Becky can be found at http://uvei.edu/blog/318-project-based-learning-why-it-matters and http://uvei.edu/blog/287-my-evolution-as-a-literacy-coach

     

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  • Schools Need to Grow Their Own Coaches

     

    Commentary published in the Valley News on April 26, 2016:  With the passing of the new Every Student Succeeds Act, there has been much discussion about the end of the No Child Left Behind era and the shifting of policy prerogatives back towards state and local decision makers. This gives us the opportunity to ask ourselves a fundamental question anew: What might lead to the schools we hope for and want? In many ways, traditional arguments about the right state or national policy levers for improving schools fail to answer this question satisfactorily. State-driven accountability and top-down mandates have not (and are not likely to) lead to better schools for kids. In fact, a growing body of evidence indicates that while policies may aid or hinder improvement efforts, they are not the main event at all.

    It turns out that in the complex world of teaching and learning, school improvement is the result of building the capacity, skills, and judgement of teachers through ongoing and deliberate practice at the school level (to many of us working in schools, this is not exactly a shock). Improvement efforts that start with and are steered by the people in the building simultaneously respect the professionalism of teachers, and depend on it. Teachers, and particularly teacher leaders, are the key to success.

    One form of teacher leadership that is particularly promising is coaching. Many people think of coaching in terms of sports, and intuitively understand coaches importance for improvement. Outside of the realm of sports, coaching is usually understood as job-embedded support that aids in deliberate practice; providing suggestions and feedback for improvement. Drawing on his experience in the medical field, author and surgeon Atul Gawande has persuasively argued that “coaching done well may be the most effective intervention designed for human performance.” Many local educators agree, and apply this idea to teaching. Jeff Moreno, principal at Hartland Elementary School, views teacher leadership generally, and coaching specifically, as an important strategy for achieving his school’s goals. Following an extensive period of planning based on careful analysis of school data, Hartland Elementary has developed focused goals in the areas of math, literacy and positive student behavior. Jeff indicated that “creating the position and identifying coaches is a critical strategy for all three goals. Coaches are key to fostering the discussion of ‘how can I get better’ or ‘how can I reach more kids?’” Jeff went on to say that having coaches drawn from the ranks of the effective and respected teachers at his school “provides a safe framework for these important reflective conversations to happen.” Carefully selected coaches, particularly coaches who continue to teach, are able to “use what they are learning in their own classes, and that can serve as a lab setting” for testing new approaches and providing examples for other teachers to study. Coaches’ grounding in the real, local work and culture of the school also, as Jeff put it, “provides credibility for the teacher with whom the coach is working.”

    The good news is that many of our schools are already full of coaches or potential coaches (sometimes with that title, and other times in the form of mentors, department chairs, professional development coordinators, grade level leads, subject matter experts, and more). The challenge is that many people in coaching roles have little training or support. Being an effective teacher does not guarantee that someone will be an effective coach. To be good, coaches must match their knowledge of classroom teaching and subject matter with the skills required to be an adult educator. The Hartland effort, in Jeff’s view, requires at least a five year commitment, in part because “coaches need to develop into their role over time.”  Becky Wipfler, a reading specialist and literacy coordinator at Hanover’s Richmond Middle School, whose role includes literacy coaching, echoed this sentiment. “Coaching teachers is a complex undertaking which I hesitated to jump into until I more fully understood the many facets of coaching.” Skills like carefully observing instruction, questioning and listening techniques, and relationship building are particularly important. Coaches need to learn these skills through training, practice, and feedback. In other words, coaches need coaching. Specialized training  in these areas, including opportunities to practice and get feedback, helped Becky feel more comfortable working with colleagues to improve their teaching practice.

    Identifying and developing teacher leaders as coaches is a good investment, positively impacting teachers and their students. Amy Arnold, a second year teacher at Bradford Elementary School who received coaching as part of a district wide literacy initiative, said, “When you first start teaching, it's kind of like feeling your way through a darkened hallway. You bump into things, and you are never quite sure you're actually going in the right direction. Having a coach is like having a flashlight. Coaches come into your room and observe and model, reaffirming or correcting your teaching strategies. Not only does it benefit student learning by making you a more effective educator, it helps you feel more confident in what you are doing. I also think it is great for students to see that teachers are always learning, too. When your coach comes into the room, you take on a dual role: teacher and student- and the kids are fascinated by that. It really sends a message of lifelong learning.”

    The solution to developing our schools lies in investing in the people on whom effective schooling depends. Policy should be directed at supporting and developing teachers as learners and leaders at the local level.

    By R Page Tompkins, EdD

    Page is UVEI's Executive Director.  For more information about Page, see:  http://uvei.edu/about-uvei/staff-and-faculty?id=294

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  • Seek First to Understand

    I was fortunate to visit the opening days of school for two 2017 UVEI Principal Intern Program graduates last week. These schools are quite different: one a middle/high school and one a small rural elementary school. Demographics aside, I was struck by the feeling of hope coming from the administrators, teachers and students. I stood near to Laurie Greenberg, now the assistant principal at Mt. Abraham, as she and her colleagues greeted incoming seventh graders for their first day of orientation. The energy from all parties was palpable. The start of the new school year is the start of a new chapter where you can, as an educator and as a student, take what you learned last year and build on it. In a sense, you have the opportunity to become a better you just from the opportunity that a clearly delineated beginning and end of a school year offers.

    In spending time with Laurie, I reflected on her ability to connect with her colleagues and students and her practices to cultivate these relationships. Her goals for the year are to focus on building trust by deliberately creating opportunities to know and understand those she will be working with. Here are a few of the ways Laurie plans to make meaningful connections this school year:

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  • The Adventure of a Teacher Intern

    If you are thinking about becoming a teacher there must be something special inside of you that desires to share, inspire, give and empower.  You must be wondering how you can make a difference in a community, in the life of a youth or see discover more about yourself.  If this holds true, then becoming a teacher, an educator, an advisor and a role model, is the path for you.

    Whether you are naive about the challenges of teaching or are nervous and overwhelmed, the Upper Valley Educators Institute will be there to guide and support your journey.  Along the way you will be tested by rigorous academic performance, challenged by teaching in the classroom and overwhelmed when learning with your cohort.  By the end, however, you will emerge with a teaching identity of your own that is harnessed by a preparedness to go out into the world and not only be the teacher you envisioned yourself to be, but have the necessary toolkit to do so.    

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  • The Art of Taking Risks

    As the Fine Arts Teacher and Drama Director at Fall Mountain Regional High School, Dakota Benedetto has, during her 16-year career in the classroom, sought to create opportunities for her students -- opportunities to explore, to create, to think for themselves and to learn from failure. Dakota believes that real learning requires getting out of our comfort zones, and that schools should strive to create an environment of intellectual risk-taking.  

    This year, while Dakota completes the Principal Intern Program at UVEI, she is working with a group of educators and local community members to open the LEAF Charter School in the fall of 2017 in Alstead, NH. They envision a small charter high school with an interdisciplinary curriculum, emphasizing flexibility and hands-on experiences. “The opportunity to shape this new learning community has been wonderful - a chance to help ‘change the educational paradigm,’ as Ken Robinson puts it. How cool is that?” Dakota exclaims. 

    If you ever have the good fortune to meet Dakota, you will discover that her interests outside school range from acting to dancing to carpentry. She is proficient in French, is CPR certified, studied architecture at RISD and loves social dancing. Dakota’s inspiration for living a full and varied life comes from words by Albert Einstein:  Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new. “I believe that it is the challenge, the putting your hopes and heart on the line, that makes the difference in having successes. After all, how can I ask my students to take chances if I don’t do the same?” Dakota asks.

    Dakota, who is a resident of Marlow, NH, is a graduate of Plymouth State College, where she received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Art Education.  She went on to receive a Master in Education from Harvard University. 

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  • The Learning by Doing Advantage

    Over the past decade, I have had the privilege of working with the Upper Valley Educators Institute’s (UVEI) administration, faculty, and students and, as a result, I have learned first-hand the impact of their philosophy: learning by doing. UVEI is a place where the art of teaching and leadership is learned through practice, and its programs heavily engage candidates with colleagues and mentors in real-life situations over extended periods of time.

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  • The Sine Qua Non: Thinking Like an Assessor

    Throughout my ten years as a teacher educator, I have continually wondered about the work we do: What are the conditions, structured opportunities, and practice preservice teachers need now in order to become effective educators in the future?

    In a way, seeking an answer to this question is like pushing a boulder up a hill, because the greatest impact on a new teacher’s practice, and a factor largely out of our control, is their teaching context--their students, colleagues, the school’s values and routines, mentoring. On the other hand, we also know that creating the conditions for teacher candidates to develop some basic repertoires of practice--such as participation strategies--and an inspired vision of their work is crucial to set the stage for their future practice.

    With this in mind, my colleagues from University of New Hampshire and Southern New Hampshire University and I were particularly interested in how new teachers learn what’s been recognized “as a sine qua non for today's competent educator” (Popham, 2009, p. 4) and is one of the most challenging elements of teaching for new teachers to understand and practice successfully: assessment literacy. Assessment literacy is broadly defined as the knowledge and skills teachers need to effectively develop assessments, and interpret and use their results, for a variety of educational purposes, and to communicate those results to a variety of educational shareholders (Brookhart, 2011). In our study, we focused on a particular aspect of assessment literacy, the formative assessment process, which includes:

    • Creating opportunities for students to demonstrate their understanding of standards and objectives

    • Analyzing evidence of student thinking and learning in order to

      • Uncover the patterns of understanding across a group of students

      • Provide helpful and specific feedback  to individual and groups of students that are aligned with standards and objectives and

      • Design next steps for instruction that are informed by this analysis  

    Specifically, we were interested in the relationship between beginning teachers’ assessment literacy while they were in their teacher preparation program and during their first year of teaching. To study this relationship, we analyzed six recently graduated teachers’ performance on the New Hampshire Teacher Candidate Assessment of Performance (NH TCAP), a robust performance assessment completed during their student teaching; and interviews with and observations of these same teachers during their first year of teaching. Collecting these qualitative data on individual teachers’ experiences and learning that span the preservice and induction years is essential for understanding what really impacts beginning teacher learning.   

    Here’s what we found: Across our cases, the teachers’ assessment literacy on their TCAP was strongly related to their assessment literacy during their first year of teaching. For example, teachers whose feedback to students in their TCAP assessments focused on correct and incorrect responses tended to continue using this kind of feedback during their first year, and teachers who aligned their assessments on the TCAP with key outcomes tended to do the same one year later. However, when there was growth in teachers’ assessment literacy, we attributed it to the collaboration and collective practices the teachers were engaged in their schools (e.g., collectively analyzing student work).

    Another key finding related to the importance of alignment. When there was alignment among teachers’ assessments, outcomes, and instruction, teachers saw students’ performance as evidence of true understanding, and consequently gave students relevant feedback to further their progress. When there was misalignment, teachers’ understanding of student performance tended to be surface-level, and their feedback was vague and did not guide students’ progress toward learning objectives.

    What did we learn from this study about beginning teacher learning of assessment? First, thinking--and teaching--like an assessor is hard, but important. I’m grateful that at UVEI we emphasize backward design and teaching for understanding throughout our program. Second (and this is not new learning, but important to reestablish), learning to teach is a complex journey, shaped by individual proclivities and motivations and contextual practices and values. It has always been fascinating to witness and take part in the journey with those inspiring individuals who choose teaching.

    I want to leave you with a quote from Deborah Ball that captures the importance helping beginning teachers develop both a mindset and the skills to think about student thinking, to think like an assessor:

    “What you do when you’re teaching is you think about other people’s thinking...You don’t think about your own thinking; you think what other people think. That’s really hard.”

    Commentary by Christopher Ward, PhD

    Chris Wardis the Graduate Studies Coordinator and member of the Program Faculty.  Along with colleagues at the University of Washington and Vanderbilt University, he received the Best Article of the Year award for the article, Situated Motivation, published in the journal, Educational Psychologist.

    For more, see http://tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00461520.2015.1075399

    For more commentary by Chris, see http://uvei.edu/blog/320-being-metacognitive-about-metacognition

     

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  • The UVEI Coach: Your Personal Guide

     

    An internship at UVEI is a lot like the long distance thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail. Both have an exciting, though somewhat apprehensive outset into the unknown, followed by an arduous journey of several months, leading to a clear and lofty goal at the end.  But the novice hiker on the UVEI trek has a priceless asset in the services of a highly experienced, trail-wise personal guide:  the UVEI Faculty Coach.

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  • Three Things I Wish I'd Known

    I’m a graduate of UVEI’s teaching program, and was a middle school English teacher. I now work with aspiring teachers, and I’m often asked, “What do you wish you had known before taking your first teaching job?” Since I don’t have a DeLorean equipped with a flux capacitor, I can’t change what my 25-year-old self knew before accepting my first position. But I can share what I’ve learned with new and aspiring teachers.

    Here are my top three pieces of advice that I share with new teachers – and wish I could have told myself.

    1. Seek feedback - Most schools will assign you a mentor teacher. But these people are often seen by new teachers as the go-to for information like how to use the copier, and what forms to fill out when registering for professional development. Invite that person to watch you teach. Ask for feedback. Schedule a time to sit down with him/her and plan lessons or look at student work together. If your mentor teacher isn’t receptive or available, find someone in the building who is. Some schools even have instructional coaches. Reach out to those individuals early and often.

    2. Beware the faculty room - My first principal asked me if I knew why he liked that the faculty room was windowless, stuffy, and uninviting. Because you’re cheap? I wondered. He wasn’t, so I knew that wasn’t the answer. “So the teachers don’t sit in here too long and complain or gossip.” Genius. But the truth is that some teachers will congregate wherever they can to complain-- about administrators, colleagues, parents, and, most horrifying, students. Don’t engage in this behavior. And know that some teachers will rope you into these conversations wherever they can-- the parking lot, hallway, your own classroom.  

    3. Immerse yourself in the culture of your students - You should, of course, bring your own passions and interests to the classroom. But to earn trust and understanding with your students, the foundation of effective teaching, you need to make their interests your interests. Noticing quite a few #88 shirts in your third period English lit class? Then it’s time to learn some basics about NASCAR racing. Is your second grade class obsessed with cats? Learn about several unusual breeds and bring this information into lessons when possible. It wasn’t until my fifth year of teaching that I finally immersed myself in YA literature. That year, with my principal's blessing, we took a school bus to the nearest movie theater (35 miles away) to see the premier of Twilight. Yes, I even read the Twilight series. Full disclosure: I was kind of enthralled! Students brought up this trip years later as one of their fondest memories of 8th grade.

    There’s simply no way to be fully prepared for every challenge that teaching will bring, but a little advice can’t hurt. Any tips veteran teachers want to share? Visit our Facebook and Twitter pages and post your best nuggets of wisdom for new teachers!

    Commentary by Kristen Downey

    Kristen Downey is UVEI’s Associate Director for Teacher Education.  Her other blogs can be found at:

    http://uvei.edu/blog/324-why-we-forget-and-why-it-matters-to-teachers
    http://uvei.edu/blog/333-get-that-job
    http://uvei.edu/blog/345-inspired-teaching-5-reasons-we-belong-in-the-classroom
    http://uvei.edu/blog/346-quit-your-job-start-a-teaching-career-without-fear
    http://uvei.edu/blog/348-worryi-about-praxis-here-s-help
    http://uvei.edu/blog/350-teaching-keeps-this-career-changer-in-the-moment

    You can follow Kristen on Twitter @UVEIconnect

     

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  • Trending: Competency-Based Education

    I attended UVTI (before we became UVEI) from 2006 to 2007 as a teacher intern, taught math in Seattle for five years, then returned to the Upper Valley and began working at UVEI in 2014. Quite a bit has changed here in ten years, but one constant has been our commitment to competency-based education.  In my capacity as Registrar, I prepare transcripts -- the documents that describe to employers, licensing bureaus, etc. what our graduates have achieved.  Because our graduates are assessed as to whether they are competent as a beginning teacher, one of my challenges is to find a way to write those descriptions so that they can be understood by a wider audience, including those only familiar with a traditional grading system. I must admit that there are days when I catch myself thinking “if only we gave grades…”

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  • Jim Nourse

    Why I Hired UVEI Graduates

    During my ten years as principal in area schools, the UVEI graduates I hired were all exceptional, and they enjoyed a significant competitive advantage in the application process over other teachers with less than five years of experience.  UVEI graduates stand out because:

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  • Why We Forget and Why It Matters to Teachers

    It’s early in the morning and not many people have managed to get a second cup of much-needed coffee. But that’s not why people’s brains are a little fuzzy. This is the third of the four-part series, Perspectives on Teaching, Learning, and the Brain and Dr. Christian Jernstedt, Professor Emeritus of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth College, has just asked these aspiring teachers to recall a meaningful portion of the content of his last session. Everyone is clearly struggling. Dr. Jernstedt is looking at one young man in the back row and waiting patiently for an answer.

    “Can I use a lifeline?” Ethan, an aspiring English teacher, asks playfully, and many in the room chuckle.

    Dr. Jernstedt specializes in human learning. And he knows exactly why everyone is struggling and furiously flipping through notebooks, searching for their notes from the last class.

    “It’s disappointing,” he said later, that people can’t remember a very crucial point from the last session. But Dr. Jernstedt knows a teachable moment when one presents itself. He tells the room that the disappointment he feels is a reality that teachers need to grapple with. Teachers can deliver what they think is a good lesson, but students will not necessarily learn or remember.

    The reason we forget, he tells us, is not that the idea or answer has gone from our minds. Interference is why we forget. New information interferes with previously stored information. Our brains are very smart, and crammed with an enormous amount of information. Forgetting happens when we can’t retrieve a memory. And trying to retrieve memories is not analogous to searching in a file cabinet for the information. “It's more like an archeological dig,” says Jernstedt.

    Have you ever tried to remember something, been frustrated at the inability to recall, and then the memory comes to you at another time, such as when you’re in the shower? That’s the amazing power of the brain -- to continue to work in the background to retrieve a memory, even when you think you’re not working on the problem.

    So what does this all mean for teachers? Well, the answer is complicated. Learning often depends on the ability of a student's brain to retrieve information. Research, Dr. Jernstedt says, tells us that when subjects take a nap immediately after learning new information, they can recall more than those who remain awake. Since most of our students won’t be napping after our lessons, we’ll have to try a different approach.

    There are many things teachers can do to minimize interference. Teachers can use structure, elaboration and imagery to maximize meaningfulness. Teachers can chunk information into the small, meaningful bits. And teachers can help students rehearse and remember.

    But at the moment, the fuzzy brains in the room are still working on the problem at hand: What was the important information Dr. Jernstedt said at the last session that we should have remembered?

    Perhaps we all need to sleep in it. Or get that second cup of coffee.

    Commentary by Kristen Downey

    Kristen Downey is UVEI’s Associate Director for Teacher Education and a member of the program faculty. Kristen’s commentary on participation strategies can be found here. You can follow her on Twitter @UVEIDowney

     

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  • Worrying About Praxis? Here's Help

    Becoming a teacher isn’t as simple as passing a test (and we’re glad it’s not!), but there is one test you simply have to pass: the Praxis Core. People ask us a lot of questions about this infamous standardized test: What is it? Why do I have to take it? What do I do if I don’t pass? Although nothing but studying can help you pass the test, there are a few basics that are good to understand.

    What is the Praxis Core?

    The Praxis Core (formerly known as simply “ Praxis I”) is a basic skills test all aspiring teachers in New Hampshire and most other states in the U.S., including the territories of Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Northern Mariana Islands and American Samoa (fun fact!), must pass in order to earn certification. There are three components: Reading, writing and math. You must pass all three in order to be fully admitted to UVEI’s teacher certification program.

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