To Arlene Simpelo, "innovation" isn't just an educational buzz word to throw around.
It's something to constantly embed in the classroom, thread into the curriculum. In Simpelo's case, innovation means teaching her first-grade Lydiksen Elementary School students how to code.
And this focus on innovation is one of the qualities that earned the teacher of 26 years the Pleasanton Unified School District's annual Teacher of the Year award.
"You're not doing innovation just to integrate technology," she said. "There's a purpose to it."
"Arlene is one of the most positive and professional people I have ever worked with," said Lydiksen principal Jacob Berg, who nominated her for the honor. "As a 20-year member of the Lydiksen staff, she always goes above and beyond to serve the school community."
Simpelo's teaching career has family roots.
Her mother taught in Vallejo, where Simpelo grew up, and her maternal grandfather was a teacher and principal in the Philippines.
"During the summers, while I was on summer break from college, I would do summer school with my mom," she said. "And that's where I fell in love with the whole aspect of teaching, and the kids learning and helping them grow."
Before joining Pleasanton Unified, she taught in Los Angeles, Vallejo and at Travis Air Force Base. In 1998, she started teaching at Lydiksen and moved to Pleasanton, where she now lives. Her son is a freshman at Foothill High School.
About three years ago, Simpelo began Hour of Code in her class with a few other staff members. Hour of Code is an online, international event in which people around the world take part in coding activities for one hour.
Simpelo's coding focus grew, expanding to include a lunchtime coding club and an after-school club with "Dash and Dot robots," after they received a few grants from Pleasanton Partnerships in Education (PPIE) for a cart, iPads and the robots, which are designed to be used and programmed by children through the Wonder Workshop platform.
In her after-school robots club, which she runs alongside third-grade teacher Linda Wu (her coding partner-in-crime), a handful of Lydiksen first- through third-graders gather in the school multipurpose room, a bright blue cluster of 20 bug-eyed, palm-sized robots on one of the tables. They need to advance through various levels, coding their way through a series of fictitious challenges.
"The kids like it because it's a game, it's gamified," Simpelo said of these types of computer science programs. "But embedded in all that is learning 21st-century skills, right? So collaboration, critical-thinking, cooperation, persistence, not giving up, learning from your mistakes. All of that is built into coding."
And the skills translate to other arenas as well, she said.
She recalls doing a STEM project requiring students to build "Creature Catchers," and then adjust and refit their devices as needed through a trial and error process.
"I didn't see any of that frustration, 'Oh my gosh, this isn't working, we're not getting it right.' They translated all of those skills from computer science, and of course all of the growth mindset stuff that we've been talking about all year. And I see it now at the end of the year how it's transformed their thinking," she said.
Simpelo said the goal is now to train staff on Dash and Dot, so that other students outside of the club can have access to the robots.
Though teaching coding is an obvious passion, it's not Simpelo's only extracurricular involvement at the school. She is a facilitator at Lydiksen's School Smarts Parent Academy, a group that helps situate parents who are new to California or to the country, helping teach them about their new school system and "how to be advocates for their children," she said.
Simpelo also works on the elementary school's fundraising efforts to support the Wheelchair Foundation, a Danville-based nonprofit that brings wheelchairs to Central and South American countries. This summer, she will be headed to Nicaragua for two weeks in July on her sixth distribution trip -- she has gone on all of the trips since Lydiksen first got involved in the project six years ago.
"It's life-changing," she said of the experience. When she talks to her students about the fundraising, she calls it a "ripple effect" -- a wheelchair that offers a child mobility can free up parents from extreme childcare demands, and allow them to provide a better life for their family, she says.
Her Teacher of the Year win was a complete surprise and it's still sinking in, Simpelo said. She was quick to commend her fellow staff members and supportive administration, saying that innovation doesn't happen in a vacuum.
"The stuff that I'm doing, you don't do it as a teacher for recognition, you kind of just do it instinctively, right?" said Simpelo, who was recognized at Tuesday night's school board meeting. "Because you know it's good for the kids, you know it's good for the school community. I just do these extras because I know it's what's best."