POWHATAN – The gulf that has grown between members of the Powhatan County Board of Supervisors was in stark relief last week as three members voted to raise the county administrator’s salary while the other two lobbied to have him resign.
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Having students make hand gestures connected to what they’re learning can help them remember new information, including vocabulary. But there are some important caveats.
When I was researching a book on literacy instruction, I spent time at an elementary school that was using an innovative, content-rich curriculum. The school served many kids who were still learning English, and they had adopted certain techniques designed to help them. One was to have teachers introduce a new vocabulary word by matching it to a hand gesture and then have students repeat the word and the gesture.
An administrator at the school told me she’d observed something interesting. At the beginning of the school year, first-graders were learning about rock formation. When the word layer was introduced, their teacher coached them to make a corresponding gesture: both hands held out flat, with one hovering above the other. In the spring, during a unit on the rain forest, the word layer came up again. The administrator noticed that when the kids heard the word, they started making the hand gesture again, spontaneously. They’d remembered.
When I started following a second-grade class at the school, I noticed the teacher sometimes taught gestures even with abstract words—like enlightenment, which the class encountered in a unit on Buddhism. While saying the word and providing an age-appropriate definition (“a greater understanding of life”), the teacher held her hand at her forehead as though saluting and then swooped it upward and outward. The kids repeated the word and imitated the gesture.
Ever since then I’ve wondered if there was evidence to support that teaching technique, and whether it could help all learners absorb and retain new information—not just students learning a new language. It turns out there’s quite a bit, and it falls under the rubric of “embodied cognition.”
One example comes from the accurate book The Extended Mind, by science writer Annie Murphy Paul. When Kerry Ann Dickson, a professor of anatomy in Australia, teaches about body parts and systems, she has her students mime corresponding gestures. For the lacrimal gland and tear production, they pretend to cry; for the cochlea and hearing, they place their hands behind their ears. Dickson says that since she started using this approach, her students’ anatomy test scores have been 42% higher.
Similar results have been found with younger students. In a 2008 study, third- and fourth-graders were divided into three groups that received different kinds of math instruction. The instructors for one group provided a verbal explanation while solving a problem and had students repeat it. For the second group, instructors provided both a verbal explanation and accompanying hand gestures, and had students repeat the gestures but not the words. The third group repeated both the words and the gestures. On a test given immediately after the lesson, with math problems similar to those they’d been taught to solve, all three groups improved their performance by about the same amount. But on a test given four weeks later, only the second and third groups—the ones that had used gestures—performed significantly better.
There are lots of other examples of the power of gesture and movement, although most studies have focused on immediate learning rather than longer-term retention. It’s been found, for example, that children understand a story better when they act it out with objects, or even just imagine doing that, than when they read the story twice. Middle school students who learned about planetary motion by pretending to be an asteroid had significantly higher performance, as did elementary school students who learned geometry by forming shapes with their bodies on a playground. Children learning names for animals in a foreign language did better when they performed activities and gestures relevant to the words.
Why would gesture have these effects? There are several theories. One has to do with working memory, the aspect of our consciousness that takes in and tries to make sense of new information. If we try to juggle too many new things in working memory at the same time, we get overwhelmed, and comprehension and retention suffer. Bodily movements like gesture, which come naturally, may relieve some of the cognitive load associated with learning. It's also been suggested that movement leaves a more lasting impression in long-term memory than words alone, and that it’s helpful to link mental representations of ideas to the external environment.
Whatever the reasons (and more than one could be valid), there’s enough evidence that gesture is effective to justify incorporating it into instruction. That doesn’t mean, however, that any gesture—or any bodily representation of information—will be helpful. Here are some caveats to keep in mind.
Be judicious. “Gesturing on tasks that do not lend themselves to gesture,” one team of researchers has warned, “is likely to disrupt performance.” Even on tasks that do lend themselves to gesture, like learning vocabulary, there’s a limit to how many words should be paired with a gesture—because there’s a limit to how many new words kids will be able to remember, even with gestures attached. It makes sense to save gestures for what are sometimes called “Tier 2” vocabulary: words that are not so common that their meaning is likely to be picked up naturally, but common enough that they show up frequently in written text. Within that Tier 2 category, it’s probably best to pair gestures with words that seem particularly important or are likely to appear in future units of the curriculum.
Don’t get carried away. It’s possible to focus so much on an elaborate bodily representation of information that the information itself gets lost. I once heard an educator describe how she used embodied cognition to help students connect sounds to the letters that represent them. To help a child grasp one of the sounds made by the letters ow, for example, she had him dress up as a clown. That might work. But it also might take 15 minutes or more to put on clown makeup, a wig, etc. And the child might focus so much on the fun of getting dressed as a clown that he remembers that experience more than the sound the letters ow can make.
Use a curriculum that is rich in content. The children at the school where I did research for my book didn’t remember the word layer just because of the hand gesture. The curriculum the school used, called Core Knowledge Language Arts, provided them with rich context for the meaning of that word. The kids spent two or three weeks learning about rock formation, encountering the word in different engaging contexts (I observed one of those lessons, and the children were rapt). The fact that the curriculum brought the word back months later in another engaging context, the rain forest, also helped.
Most elementary schools, unfortunately, aren’t using that kind of curriculum. Rather than spending two or more weeks diving deeply into a topic, they focus on supposed memorizing comprehension skills like “finding the main idea” and jump from one course to another, treating each of them superficially. If children don’t have rich context for a new vocabulary word—even one that is taught with a gesture—they might be able to parrot back a definition, but they’re unlikely to truly understand what it means.
If teachers use gesture judiciously, however, in conjunction with a content-rich, engaging curriculum, the technique can help students remember key vocabulary and concepts, laying the groundwork for further learning.
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POWHATAN – The gulf that has grown between members of the Powhatan County Board of Supervisors was in stark relief last week as three members voted to raise the county administrator’s salary while the other two lobbied to have him resign.
Following a relatively low-key regular agenda on Monday, July 25, the supervisors came back from an hour-plus closed session and took a number of unanimous votes addressing retroactive action on the salaries of constitutional officers without giving any context to the public.
But when those votes were followed with one to supply a raise to county administrator Ned Smither and make changes to his contract that would be more favorable to him, two board members not only pushed back but went the opposite direction, submitting a substitute motion that would have the board ask for Smither’s resignation effective that night.
The salary increase would take Smither from his current salary of $173,250 to $190,000. The other two amendments were to eliminate the clause in Smither’s contract requiring him to relocate to the county and adjust the severance package amounts in the contract, depending on how many votes such an action would receive – five votes would see six months of severance; four votes, seven months, and three votes, eight months.
David Williams, who represents District 1, made the substitute motion asking for the resignation and was supported by Bill Cox, District 4. The motion failed in a 2-3 vote.
Chair Mike Byerly, District 3; Steve McClung, District 2, and Karin Carmack, District 5 then prevailed in the original vote, which passed 3-2, to authorize the reworking of Smither’s contract and the raise, although the revised contract has to be signed by the board members before the changes become official.
Though it was only touched on briefly in a lengthy speech Cox gave about why Smither should be asked to resign, two of the three votes the board took immediately after the closed session addressed actions taken in 2021.
At last week’s meeting, the board voted unanimously to approve 5% cost of living adjustments (COLA) for all five constitutional officers – commissioner of the revenue, commonwealth’s attorney, treasurer, clerk of the circuit court and sheriff – effective as of July 1, 2021.
According to Melissa Lowe, human resources manager, this brought the constitutional officers to the following salaries last year: commissioner of the revenue Jamie Timberlake, $99,206; commonwealth’s attorney Richard “Dickie” Cox, $147,130; treasurer Becky Nunnally, $84,093 (she assumed this salary when she became interim treasurer and kept it when she officially took office), and clerk of the circuit court Teresa Hash Dobbins, $133,625.
The board voted unanimously in a separate vote to supply sheriff Brad Nunnally a 5% cost of living increase, but Lowe explained that his salary actually increased by more than that last year. After a salary study comparison to other localities with similar sheriff’s experience and size, Nunnally was increased from $100,811 to $110,862 effective July 1, 2021, but he also received the 5% COLA on top of that, making his final salary at the time $116,405.
The third unanimous vote the board took saw them setting the salary of Rob Cerullo, the interim commonwealth’s attorney taking office on Aug. 1 after Dickie Cox retires, to the current rate of the commonwealth’s attorney.
There is still uncertainty over this action, as some of the constitutional officers mentioned confusion over a now-expired memorandum of understanding they signed several years ago with a previous board of supervisors and how this impacted the authority to supply them raises. This question, which hasn’t been discussed at a public meeting, has also stalled the constitutional officers’ 2022 raises.
A few of the constitutional officers said they received a letter from human resources stating they would receive a 5% effective July 1, 2022. Lowe confirmed that the constitutional officers did not have an authorized raise yet. However, a few of them said they had spoken with board of supervisors members who said they will be discussing the issue at an upcoming meeting, and there is always the possibility that the raises, if approved, could be made retroactive to July 1.
While Williams was the one to make the motion asking for Smither’s resignation in place of the raise, Bill Cox was the only one to outline his reasons for or against either action during the meeting.
None of the other board of supervisors spoke on the issues at the meeting, but the Powhatan Today reached out for comment afterward to make sure both sides of the issue were represented, and all four of the supervisors who didn’t speak responded.
A large part of what Cox talked about during the meeting revolved around the county’s salary and compensation system with a focus on how he said changes Smither made bypassed normal procedures, which meant the system does not live up to the mission of being “competitive and fair.”
“Salary ranges and job grades are an addendum to the employee handbook and can be modified only with the consent of the board of supervisors. Likewise, budget amendments can only be modified with the consent of the board of supervisors,” Cox said, before going on to supply several examples of where that did not happen.
Cox referenced 32 salary changes authorized by Smither and gave a few examples by job grade and salary, not giving the employees’ names. The changes he referenced included regrading, title changes, salary adjustments and promotions. The changes led to salary increases that ranged from 3% all the way up to 28%. After each example he shared, he pointed out there are “no provisions for a salary change of this order without board of supervisors approval.”
“I could go on, but hopefully you understand under Mr. Smither, we do not have a salary and compensation system which is competitive and fair,” Cox said. “New jobs without job descriptions, grades, fairness and equity are out the door. The concept of grades/salary ranges commensurate with responsibility, they are gone. Money for title changes, not changes in responsibility or new measure.”
Cox accused Byerly, McClung and Carmack of letting Smither operate with “no boundaries.” He pointed to several other reasons for him to call for Smither’s resignation: the “assessor’s office debacle” that saw it not functioning as promised; the earlier mentioned compensation issues; an incomplete comprehensive plan; staff competency issues; problems with the effective tax rate calculation, and continued issues with Keystone Information Systems.
But “the biggie,” as Cox described it was in Smither’s relationship with the board.
“I voted to fire the prior county administrator because he worked to divide the previous board as opposed to looking for ways to bring it together. Mr. Smither has done the same,” Cox said. “I voted to fire the prior county administrator because I did not trust him to work in the best interests of the citizens of Powhatan; it is the same with Mr. Smither.”
No other comments were made before the two votes were taking, first Williams’ failed motion to ask for Smither’s resignation and then Byerly’s motion for the raise and contract changes.
In a separate interview, Williams reiterated several of the comments Cox made, pointing out issues such as an incorrect tax rate initially; late billing; problems with Keystone; the drastic increase in expected personal property taxes because of an increase in vehicle valuations; the problems with recruitment and running of the assessor’s office, and, most recently, problems with irregularities in the compensation and salary increases in the last year.
“This has been the shared experience of the board, the staff, citizens in the county; they have all observed this over the last seven or eight months,” Williams said. “The question I get asked the most is why is he still here?”
In their separate statements, McClung, Byerly and Carmack all lambasted Cox’s speech during the meeting, saying the actions of Cox and Williams represent a “witch hunt” and a “consistent and targeted effort to destroy” Smither.
“I think if they would try to work with Mr. Smither instead of undermining everything he does, we could get a lot more done. Our county simply cannot afford to hire a new county administrator every two years. We really need some stability in that position,” McClung said.
All three said the numbers Cox gave regarding salary and compensation were inaccurate, adding they had been corrected with updated numbers on July 5 but Cox chose not to use those more accurate numbers.
“So, the info Mr. Cox put out was not the revised and accurate numbers as provided to us all by HR . He used the incorrect inflated numbers that were in the June 30th email which overstates raises during specified time limits. Why would any supervisor ..... or anyone present inaccurate info intentionally,” Byerly said.
Byerly added that for Cox to imply that Smither was the first and only county administrator to supply raises and regrades is not true as not every raise and reclassification was approved by the supervisors with the previous two county administrators.
“Those in the minority, as in the past two terms and including this one, has consistently fallen out of grace with (county administrators) and worked diligently to have them all terminated or pushed out. I will not participate in dragging this one down however; let’s work to build a team that will rise above the fray and work together to omit errors and mistakes,” he said.
Regarding the changes they voted on, all three said they voted to supply Smither the 5% raise given to county employees this year as well as an additional 4% meant to help Powhatan’s salaries stay competitive with surrounding counties. They said they decided not to make Smither leave a home he has lived in for more than 40 years and relocate to the county because, regardless of where he lives, he is still working hard to get his job done.
All three supervisors named numerous accomplishments achieved under Smither’s leadership: the implementation of a broadband strategy; an interactive 10-year CIP operating budget model; new radio 911 system install; reviewing and addressing compression issues; introducing a new permit center to address building delays; a bank loan refinance that saved the county $910,000; the work on Company 1 Fire Station design; successful handling of CARES and ARPA funding, and successfully converting social services from an administrative to an advisory board.
They also praised the way he has ultimately shouldered the blame for some mistakes that were made by staff.
“Personally, I find Ned to be a hard worker, engaged, collaborative and innovative in his perspective. He excels in overseeing the financial aspects of the county and is continually working to put together a unified team of employees. He has been an advocate for competitive pay and rewarding top performers,” Carmack said.
Carmack added it is difficult to put into words the discord and distress that is created by the “antics” of Cox and Williams. Powhatan’s citizens are the ones that ultimately suffer as hundreds of working hours are spent “reviewing past meetings, attempting to refute false accusations and purposeful slanted misinformation,” she said.
“We will never successfully recruit and retain a county administrator and, moreover, run a successful county until we shed light onto the cabal and deception that has plagued this county for many years,” she said.
Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.
Now in its fifth year, the Upward Bound Summer Institute has served 130 pre-college students in Ellijay's Gilmer High School and 119 at Johnson High School in Gainesville, Georgia, since its inception in 2017.
NASA on Tuesday released additional high-resolution images of space taken from the James Webb Space Telescope, offering some of the most detailed glimpses of large planets, nebulae and distant galaxies ever taken.
Tuesday’s set includes a high-resolution image of Stephan’s Quintet—a group of five galaxies—which is located 290 million light-years away from Earth and is the first such compact galaxy to be discovered by scientists back in 1877.
The James Webb telescope also offered a high-resolution look at the Southern Ring Nebula, which NASA describes as an expanding cloud of gas and dust expelled by a dying star located 2,000 light-years away from Earth.
NASA also showed off an image of WASP-96—a gas giant planet that is half the size of Jupiter and located just outside our solar system—and noted that the James Webb telescope detected evidence of water vapor in its atmosphere.
The final image shown on Tuesday was of the Carina Nebula which, according to NASA, is one of the largest and brightest nebulae in the sky and is also home to some of the the most luminous stars in the Milky Way galaxy.
Tuesday’s set of images comes after NASA revealed the first image during a White House event on Monday evening in the presence of President Joe Biden.
The image, which is the James Webb telescope’s first “deep field” shot, showed the cluster of galaxies known as SMACS 0723, located approximately 4.6 billion light-years away from the earth.
Speaking at the unveiling of the first image at the White House on Monday evening, President Joe Biden said: “As an international collaboration, this telescope embodies how America leads the world not by the example of our power, but the power of our example. A partnership with others, it symbolizes the relentless spirit of American ingenuity…These images are going to remind the world that America can do big things.”
The $10 billion James Webb Telescope is the most powerful, complex and expensive space telescope ever built. The telescope was designed by NASA in partnership with the European Space Agency and Canadian Space Agency and it was finally launched on December 25 after a string of delays. After launch, the telescope began orbiting the Sun and using its high-resolution infrared sensors to take photos of deep space. NASA administrator Bill Nelson said the telescope will take images as far as 13.5 billion light-years away, offering a glimpse into the early days of the universe. The high-resolution telescope may also offer fresh insights into the possibility of life in other parts of the universe.
NASA Releases Vivid First Image Of Space From James Webb Telescope (Forbes)
The $10 Billion James Web Space Telescope Is Our New Time Machine (Forbes)
When COVID-19 swept across Virginia in 2020, there was little question that to keep people safe, state and local government had to turn to virtual settings to conduct public meetings. Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Webex and other videoconfererencing platforms quickly replaced physical rooms at buildings across the commonwealth.
As Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, noted in June 2021, the decision to employ this technology actually enhanced public participation in two ways. Meetings were broadcast live and made available as on-demand videos via platforms such as Facebook and YouTube; and comments were accepted via phone, email or in writing.
But Rhyne also identified a trade-off: There was a “diminished quality of the deliberative process and compromised interactions among members and the public,” she wrote. To bridge our differences, we have to bring back the in-person moments.
Look at two local issues that are far less polarizing (and get far less attention) than guns, abortion, or Jan. 6, but still are critically important. Chesterfield County and Henrico County are in the process of informing voters about their respective bond referendums, which will appear on the upcoming 2022 election ballot. Absentee voting runs from Sept. 23 to Nov. 5, and Election Day is set for Nov. 8.
Chesterfield leaders recently detailed the county’s $540 million plan. Projects include $375 million for schools, $81.1 million for public safety, $45.7 million for libraries, and $38.2 million for parks and recreation. The referendum will appear as a single yes-or-no question.
Henrico recently did the same for its $511 million plan. The project categories are $340.5 million for schools, $83.85 million for public safety, $50 million for drainage and $37 million for recreation and parks. This referendum will appear as four separate yes-or-no questions, one for each issue.
As Chesterfield’s FAQ document explains, general obligation (GO) bonds support “capital investments” with a “public purpose”; and per Virginia law, voters are required to approve their issuance as a “future obligation for the locality to be paid through tax revenue.”
A Henrico video explainer by Deputy County Administrator Brandon Hinton added that GO bonds allow the county to issue debt “at the very lowest interest rate for our taxpayers, accomplishing significant projects.”
For example, one of Chesterfield’s FAQs is: Why doesn’t the county cut property taxes (more) instead of adding projects?
“The county and school division maintain more than 10 million square feet and have identified more than $1.3B in needed improvements and new facilities to meet demand for public services and programs,” Chesterfield explained. “The county is growing on average 1.8 percent per year, which is putting pressure on existing resources and creating the need for new facilities. If the county does not construct these projects, taxpayers could pay for increased maintenance costs and improvements may not be completed.”
Submitting that question in writing, memorizing the response in writing or watching a prerecorded video might answer a voter’s question. But getting in a real room together still is the best way to create clarity and build relationships.
“Meetings of public bodies are meetings of people with different agendas, different approaches, different ideologies,” Rhyne wrote 10 years ago, in a piece previewing an upcoming Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council work group on electronic meetings. “HOW they are saying something (or listening/reacting to something) can be as important as WHAT they say. Body language and attentiveness matter.”
“Meetings — still called Town Halls in some areas — have traditionally been the place where the people gather to discuss the issues that will affect them,” Rhyne added. “They want to know what their elected officials are doing, and they want to know who else in the community shares (or disagrees with) their beliefs. People can get together to hone their message, or to approach an opponent with a compromise, a new idea or additional information.”
Virtual flexibility undoubtedly was a silver lining of the pandemic, and more public participation is something government should strive for, regardless of platform. But the tried-and-tested method of meeting in person also can help us sort through key issues, and maybe even come together on them.