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Wes Van Vuren uses a hands on approach for Colony Oak 8th graders

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The veteran Ripon teacher at Colony Oak Elementary School holds a stack of papers used by students to find words they questioned as they read through the papers in class. Wes Van Vuren said he fee...

GLENN KAHL/The Bulletin

POSTED January 21, 2012 2:25 a.m.

RIPON — One Ripon teacher has become an icon of sorts with his former students for what they learned in his classroom – absorbing “hands on” lessons he made sure they would never forget.

Colony Oak Elementary teacher Wes Van Vuren credits his teaching partner Terry Beam,  who teaches a second eighth grade at the rural Murphy Road campus, for much of his success where he sees students at a “tipping point” about their futures.

“She makes the job doable,” he said.  “I’m kinda the idea person and she makes everything work.”

Having grown up on his family’s Escalon dairy, Van Vuren was always early to rise and gets up every morning a 5:45 for the start in his typical day.  With a cup of coffee in hand he usually reads two or three newspapers on line before leaving for school at 6:45 and riding his bicycle to work some four miles.

Getting on campus about 7 – or a touch after – he uses the next hour to prepare for math and science with his students walking in the door about 8:15.

After taking roll and getting the lunch count out of the way, he has his students in the computer lab for their first 45 minutes in the morning for what he describes as “ hard core writing.”

“We spend pretty much that whole hour on writing,” he said. “I’m a big believer that you really don’t write well unless you write about something you are somewhat passionate about.  I want them to find their voice.”

The students spend a lot of their period looking at different websites and newspaper sites, he added. 

“Kids are so isolated these days they don’t have the freedoms we did when we were kids.  Because of that it’s hard for them to find passion in things to write about. ”

Makes use of daily

newspapers in class

to help build ‘Word Wall’

Van Vuren explained that the class spends time looking at and on their computers trying to find stories telling them what is going on in the world, that they can write about and to be passionate about. Currently the class is focusing on the Constitutional Amendments and anything to do with court cases.

“I try to tie all of that in and I think it has been really good and very successful,” he said. 

The veteran teacher also makes use of daily newspapers having the students find words that they see in print as intriguing or ones that they don’t understand or are otherwise confusing to them.  They spend 15 minutes each morning discussing those words and any story of interest they come across.

The words are added to the classroom “Word Wall” that extends around the perimeter of the room.  Each word is color coded indicating the categories of Science, History and Vocabulary.

“Our reading comprehension skyrockets with the use of newspapers,” Van Vuren said. “I don’t have to do anything but throw the papers out on the tables.  It’s all about that 15 minutes every day plus the current events you get to talk about.”

His science class is actually “wrapping their brains” around  experiments with students creating putt-putt boats, building door buzzers and electrical circuits as well as creating two liter bottle rockets.

Students will tear

apart a V-8 engine

Everything about Physical Science is on tap including a project that will see students learning everything they could want to know about a V-8 engine next month – tearing it apart and putting it back together again.  The engine came from one of the teacher’s hot rod projects at home.

Students are currently studying Science in a classroom next door with Van Vuren’s team teacher, Terry Beam, who has them during their second hour of the day thus providing him with a prep period. 

The 33 students will be back in Van Vuren’s room when the two trade off the Science class again.  He said the preparation and the cost of supplies for the classroom has been exorbitant with it costing him more than $1,500 this year of his own money.  He noted that the primary teachers at his school are spending even more than that out of their own pockets.

“If you want to become THAT TEACHER, it doesn’t come cheap,” he said of his peers at Colony Oak and many others throughout the Ripon district.

He further explained the importance of students learning to build a boat powered by thermal expansion and steam power.  The project ties students to the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century that started with the harnessing of steam.

“When you think about it, if you really want to be a good educator, you have to get outside the box.  With the internet today and the information available – if you are a poor teacher – it’s because you are lazy,” he opined.

In the case of the V-8 engine, students will be labeling every part as it is taken out of the block through a group dismantling program.  Small groups of students are being assigned to different components in the engine. They will all go on a field trip to a Modesto machine shop to learn more about just what makes it become such a power house.  They will witness how an engine is actually machined.

Van Vuren, who has taught at Colony Oak for some 11 years, was on staff at Sequoia Elementary School in Manteca before that and had also been an instructor at East Union High School for a total of more than 20 years in education.

He pointed out that from a teaching standpoint the one thing that has changed significantly is that teachers have lost their free time before and after school because of the testing pressures of today.

“There are literally a thousand more meetings on data,” Van Vuren said. “Everyone is all hung up on data assessment.  I think we really tend to forget about the individual child anymore.  As a profession, we tend to get way hung up on the data and on the numbers.  As a teacher, it is something I am very concerned about.”

Van Vuren noted that he understands there are bad teachers and they need to be found and weeded out, adding that the “data driven classroom” is not nearly the quality learning environment that it could be or used to be in education.

“I think it has begun to create a very shallow bubbling-the-answer child.  It’s one of the reasons I push the ‘hands on’ so much because I think we have gotten away from (what is important),” adding that schools have kids who can “bubble” the right answer on a test but can’t think critically or creatively.

Trying to live up to

standards his father set

“My greatest fear as a teacher is that we are creating a nation of shallow (people),” he argued.

He learned the value of work early on in life, growing up on his family’s dairy in Escalon where his dad Henry was his major mentor, he recalls.

“My dad, I thought was always the most honorable man I knew,” he said.  “He always tried to pay his bills first.  That was one of the things about him and until this day I have never heard anyone say one negative thing about him.  I’ve tried to live up to that the best I could.”

Van Vuren said his work ethic as a teacher came from the farm and from his dad. 

“On a farm things have to get done and they have to get done by a certain time.  There is no shirking of your duties at all.  He brought me up to believe that if someone is going to pay you, they better get a full day’s work for a full day’s pay,” he explained.

The eighth grade teacher said he learned that concept early and has always used it teaching adding that a lot of people seem to forget that rule as being so important.

Many a teacher will claim that they had taught a certain lesson, “but if they (the kids) didn’t learn it – you really didn’t do your job.”

He said he tries to look at his classroom in that way noting that teaching isn’t always easy in finding a way to reach the students.

“You can’t reach them all, but you’ve got to try – that’s the job – and it’s a really good job,” he said.

Van Vuren and his wife Trish – an RN at Memorial Hospital – have four children ages 19 through 25: Ben, Nattea, Abby and Sam.   Three are in college with Wes having several side jobs.

— Glenn Kahl

staff reporter

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