A teacher in Vilonia School District was among 36 selected individuals recently recognized by state officials for their participation in year four of the Arkansas Declaration of Learning program.

Susan Jobe, an English language arts and theater teacher, has been teaching at Vilonia High School for six years.

Last summer, she got involved in the learning program, which gives educators the opportunity to "create innovative units and lesson plans" using historical objects and art from state and national museums, she said.

"There is no better way to instill the importance of civic engagement than by using history to lay the foundation for our future," Jobe said. "Not only are we shaping the future of our students, we are making Arkansas a better place to live."

According to the Arkansas Department of Education, our state is the first in the U.S. to participate in the program, which also incorporates a civic engagement project that "extends the learning for students beyond classroom walls."

"It empowers teachers to impart not only academic knowledge to their students but the importance of serving others," Jobe told the LCD.

At Vilonia High School, Jobe's students took on the issue of social isolation and started the We Dine Together program through an affiliation with Be Strong, a non profit, national organization that empowers youth to prevent bullying, social isolation and suicide by stirring up change in peer behavior through student-led approach to:

• Encourage all students to reveal challenges they are facing.

• Train and equip students to become more resilient.

• Arm them with the Be Strong App to access real time and local resources that can help.

• Unite them to change their families, schools, communities, states and country.

"My students were so invested and passionate in their mission of kindness and inclusion," she said. "They worked together to form the VHS Welcome Team, whose mission is to make sure that all students who are new or move into our district immediately feel welcome and connected."

Jobe said they created systematical approach through forming community partnerships that donated items for new student "welcome" goodie bags, inviting these kids to eat with them at lunch, sporting events and more, developed social media hashtags — #youcansitwithus and #vhskindnessrocks — that have gone viral and created a Facebook page to raise awareness.

The group took it beyond the classroom too, connecting with the local veterans, a population Jobe said they felt often goes unrecognized, interviewing them one class period a week at the Vilonia Veterans Museum as a way to bring them to the forefront and preserve the "stories of America's finest."

Jobe said not only did students develop their interpersonal communication skills through face-to-face interviews, but also gained a new perspective and better understanding of the nation’s history, were able to improve their skills in asking open-ended questions and employed active listening strategies, speaking, writing, and proofreading.

"However, the most important thing that I feel resulted from our time spent with our local veterans was a fostering of respect and empathy for others," she said. "These interviews are very special because they are recordings telling these stories of service to country in the veteran’s own words and voices."

The project, "The War Room Diaries," has been archived using Story Corps, shared with the veterans museum and also in the Folk Center at the Library of Congress.

"The inter-generational relationships and friendships that were formed between my students and the veterans have been one of those things many educators would refer to as a paycheck of the heart," Jobe said. "It has just all been so rewarding to be a part of."

Working with the learning program over the past year, she said, has been both challenging and rewarding in effort and time but worth it because of the results she has seen, increasing student learning through deep levels of engagement, developing higher order thinking practices and challenging students to use their voice and become active community participants.

"These students are our future [and] It is vital that they understand they don’t have to wait until they are adults to make a difference," Jobe said. "Empowering them to realize they can make a positive difference in the world and that their voice matters has been a game changer for me and for them."

Gov. Hutchinson, the ADE and other state and national partners including the Clinton Foundation, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and the U.S. Department of State's Diplomatic Reception Rooms, honored the group of 36 — 28 teachers, six mentors and two super mentors — June 13 in the Choctaw Building on the Clinton Presidential Center Campus and a reception and dinner at the governor's mansion after.

“I continue to be amazed at the exceptional ability our teachers have to impart not only academic knowledge to their students but the importance of serving others,” Hutchinson said. “There is no better way to instill the importance of civic engagement than by using history to lay the foundation for our future. Not only are you shaping the future of your students, you are making Arkansas a better place to live.”

In addition, Jobe was also one of four educators to receive the "Best of the Best" award for their outstanding lesson plans, which she said, was an honor.

"The work that I have seen this past year has been just incredible," the Vilonia teacher told the LCD. "I know that it was very difficult for the committee to make their selections, but I am so thrilled to have my work taken seriously and to feel valued and validated for how I spend my time in the classroom to help my students succeed in every area of their lives whether that is in regard to academics to just being a decent human being who improves their space in the world."

She said the program has "forever changed" the way she approaches classroom instruction and has "reignited" her passion for teaching.

"[It] helped me to make the most of the opportunity I have been given to make a difference in the lives of my students each day," Jobe said.

Moving forward, the high school teacher said she has a goal to see the We Dine Together program instituted at each district campus.

"Kindness and compassion are two things our world needs a lot more of," she said. "I think our mission has resonated with a lot of people."

Jobe said she was thankful for the opportunity and was incredibly proud of the way her students "stepped up to the plate" to make a change for good in both the school and community.

"They are going to change the world in significant ways," she said.

In the program's four-year existence, 110 educators across Arkansas have participated, reaching over 8,000 students with their lesson plans.

For year five, 40 more educators were recently selected from fourth through 12th grade. The training for that began last week.

To learn more about the program or to hear testimonials from past participants, visit www.arkansased.gov/divisions/learning-services/curriculum-support/humanities/library-media-services/arkansas-declaration-of-learning-program.

Applications for the sixth year of the program will open in January 2020.