Success Story: Mr. Toliver

Mr. Toliver is championing the Vocabulary Bowl at Margate Middle School to motivate students to strive for academic success. We visited Margate on the day of their Vocabulary Bowl pep rally and sat down afterward to talk shop.
Position:Principal, Margate Middle School
Grades:6th - 8th
Enrollment:1,253 Students
Location:Margate, FL
  • Vocabulary.com: Tell us a little about the changes here at Margate Middle School.
    Mr. Toliver: Well, we're in the process of reimaging our school and it kind of started when I got here. We didn't really have an identity and then we added a magnet program which is our STEM magnet program, and with that we also added an innovative program which is our college prep program. So the connection of those two programs and then adding the right software and programs and academics to connect with those two pieces, I think that allows us to continue to grow and improve.
  • Vocabulary.com allows us to now connect with our students and this is something they want to do.
    V: Speaking of improvements, we understand that Margate Middle School’s rating was upgraded by the Florida State Department of Education. Congratulations!
    T:T: I believe last year was a testimony to everything coming together, where you take a school from a C and you move it to a B, when in Broward County only two schools moved up. To be one of the two, it shows you that hand-in-hand with teachers and students, you can do it if you listen and if you try to provide what they need at the right time.

    When I first got here several years ago, vocabulary was one of our biggest concerns. There was a test called FCAT and they had a section on vocabulary, and we always scored low. So I was looking for different books, different activities, supplemental material to help, and I came across Vocabulary.com. I think you play a major role in our improvement. There are a lot of programs out there. If a teacher can relate to the program, and the students can relate to the program, it can work.

    So to have a program that helps kids build their vocabulary and now to have teachers and students buy into the program, it's amazing. It's what we need. And I think it helped because our teachers do it with fidelity. Any program that you buy, no matter the cost, if you're not doing it consistently, if you don't have a plan, if you're just doing it every now and then, it's not gonna work. But when you truly train your teachers, you truly monitor what's happening and you connect with the teachers and the students, it works. Vocabulary.com allows us to now connect with our students and this is something they want to do. Before school, after school, during school, and it's helping them learn how to digest the words that are presented to them.
  • I think this is a program that we all believe in. It works for Margate.
    V: Your school really has embraced Vocabulary.com, from the integration with curriculum, to supporting your STEM and college prep academic programs, to embracing competition. You’ve created what we think of as a “culture of word learning.”
    T: I think this is a program that we all believe in. It works for Margate. I believe it works for many of the schools in our district because I've watched this year as Broward County has rolled it out for all middle schools and all high schools.
  • We talk about the rigor and relevance, but also celebrating at certain moments to allow students to have the confidence and the motivation to believe in themselves...
    V: We’re so glad to hear that things are really taking off here. It often does start small and kind of build, both in terms of adoption of the platform but also the competition aspect. Now another side of competition is celebration, which is really important here too.
    T: Well, we found in reading Marzano [thought leader in education] that you should celebrate success, and Broward County kind of models some of Marzano's strategies with students. We talk about the rigor and relevance, but also celebrating at certain moments to allow students to have the confidence and the motivation to believe in themselves and to know that your teachers are with you and your administration believes in you. I'm a former basketball coach, so this takes me back to when you're rooting for the team and you're rooting for your kids and they do well.
  • So now within the class I have students competing to be the daily leader for Vocabulary.com, or the monthly leader, or the weekly leader.
    V: And there was a lot of rooting and cheering today! Margate just won its first Vocabulary Bowl champions banner. You beat every other middle and high school out there. It was such a thrill to be at the pep rally. How did it feel? How did you get to this point?
    T: We had an amazing day today, so I'm really happy. It just built, starting first with a day challenge and recognizing some of the kids who perform well on the morning announcements. Then we had March Madness and continued. And you’d see classes competing against classes with the leaderboards, as well as now within the class who is the top student. So now within the class I have students competing to be the daily leader for Vocabulary.com, or the monthly leader, or the weekly leader. And to watch the leaderboard move up and down, and the kids are motivated — that's been great. It's also great to see how teachers are using the program. In science, we're going into “Ocean Week.” Now we're picking the words from the ocean that the kids will need to know for this program.
  • V: Yes, we saw them working on that. One thing that really stands out here at Margate is how teachers across content areas are integrating vocabulary instruction with their curriculum, and working together across disciplines to do some innovative and substantive instruction.
    T: Again, with the program it’s really nice to see how in every subject, whether it's debate as they're getting ready to argue one of their messages or learn a speech for speech class, they highlight and learn the words.
  • ... it gives you a moment of, 'I can do this, I can compete, I can do my speech, I can read my poem that I wrote myself,' and be confident.
    V: Yes, you and your staff have made word learning a top priority. When it comes right down to it, how is vocabulary improvement helpful for students?
    T: You know confidence is a key to success. We offer debate and speech, and one of the concerns is standing in front of an audience and worrying about the words that you choose and to make sure that you're saying things accurately. But when you build the confidence, when you understand the words that you're using, it gives you a moment of, "I can do this, I can compete, I can do my speech, I can read my poem that I wrote myself," and be confident. And that confidence is something you will take into your career. I think fear hinders a lot of us from moving forward. When you have confidence through your words and through your speech you'll be fine, and this program helps us.
  • I think the students identify with the program. It provides competition but it also provides rewards.
    V: In addition to supporting your curriculum and supporting teachers, can you talk more about why you think your students have embraced Vocabulary.com? You spend a lot of time in and out of classrooms and talk with a lot of kids throughout the day.
    T: I think the students identify with the program. It provides competition but it also provides rewards. They can earn some points here, now they have more points, now they can watch their points compared to their neighbor and their points. Then they can see that they are progressing. I think the kids like the medals, the stars, the 10 in a row, the perfect round, all of the motivational moments that they receive throughout round one and round two. And to see your progress, that you're at 50% mastery, or now you're at 75%, and that feeling of, “I'm almost there, and now I'm at 100% mastery, and I've mastered the word, and DING!” That's exciting for students. It really connects with them.
  • I think learning the words supports their growth because the more words you know, the more that you understand what you're reading. It opens the door for more opportunities.
    V: Which students are getting the most out of it?
    T: I find it very helpful for all students. And to see the program evolve — beyond just the definitions of a word, but now we're doing pictures, were doing spelling, we can hear the word. All of this connects with your learners, your auditory learners, the visual learner. Just yesterday I saw one of my [ESOL] students working on Vocabulary.com in the library using Google to translate to his language and then work back to Vocabulary.com. It's great to see that the program works for all students, and that and they're doing it on their own. And the most amazing part is they grow so fast — within a year, within two years — they're speaking English very well.

    I think the students that are struggling, that's kind of where your heart goes, that's where you want to make sure that you are providing opportunities for them. You know sometimes they may feel overlooked, or sometimes they may feel as their behavior is slowing them down, but really they may not understand what's happening or what they're reading. And that’s our opportunity as educators to connect. And I'll tell you they are the hardest working students, in a year or two you see so much growth, so much dedication and motivation. It's worth it, it's definitely something to invest in. And as I saw today in the library, there were kids practicing with Vocabulary.com and it wasn’t just the list that the teacher assigned, no! It's me [the student] wanting to do better, wanting to learn. They're self-motivated. To be able to have that kind of resource for them, that’s amazing. I think learning the words supports their growth because the more words you know, the more that you understand what you're reading. It opens the door for more opportunities.
  • V: Let’s get back to today, and to what this victory in a national academic competition means for for Margate.
    T: It was really amazing to see the love for the event. I think the highlight was to see sixth grade out of all grades to beat seventh and eighth grade. And having my school board member there, that was amazing — someone who believes in what we're doing as a school. Her daughter went to our school and for her to come back and see that we're still thriving as a school and making a difference with kids. I took a lot of deep breaths. I felt energized. I felt like I made a difference. I felt like this was our identity.
  • That tells me that it's a program that the community loves and we're all apart of. So it was exciting to see energy for academics.
    V: Yes! We heard you talking about that. What did you mean?
    T: Right after the event my band director — he's been here for several years — he said, “You know Mr. Toliver, we found our identity.” And I looked at him and he said, “I'm proud of you because you helped us find our identity and we connect with this program. We believe in this program.” So to hear from the band director, not only the reading teacher or science teacher, to really say we're making a difference, that was great.

    You know, some schools are excellent at sports, some schools are excellent in other programs. And in the Vocabulary Bowl we we've done well at a state level, but to see just a year later doubling our score and doing so well to compete on a national level — that really is amazing to me. That tells me that it's a program that the community loves and we're all apart of. So it was exciting to see energy for academics. We love our energy for sports and we love our favorite teams, but to now see energy for academics at all levels, that was amazing. I think to celebrate academics, to celebrate student achievement, was really a great moment for me and it was a great moment for the staff. I think this will just propel us to do more, to try harder. I think it connected the teachers closer to the students, and the students to the teachers. Not only in vocabulary but also in math and science, and all other classes where now we feel even more like a family. We're already a family, but I think when you celebrate with each other, it connects you even more.
  • V: So what’s next for Margate?
    T: This school doesn't stop moving. I see now we can add more daily challenges, we can add more monthly challenges. You know the March Madness was just in the the month of March. I could have a January challenge! So this has helped me to understand other ways I can help my kids learn and be successful.