• Employee Resources
  • Language

5 real world examples for student success

A One District, One Community series story

A road tour of schools across Douglas County

Miss a stop on the road tour? Visit the One District, One Community page for all past articles.

Written by Chris Silberman

PARKER- Last week while I was in Kristin Kinner’s classroom at Pioneer Elementary, one student pointed to the camera hanging around my neck and asked me, “are you a photographer?” I explained to the second grade boy that no, it’s just one of several jobs I have with the District.

“I want to be a scientist when I grow up,” the little boy said.

“Really? What kind of scientist?” I asked him.

“A physicist,” he answered.

I loved this, not only because he was in second grade, but it was also so specific!

His interests may or may not change as he grows older, but it got me thinking about how so many Douglas County schools-- and schools around the nation-- are more and more integrating real world scenarios and projects into instruction, aligned with the interest areas of the kids.

Can this go too far, though? Some parents have voiced concerns regarding whether students will get the broad skills needed through their current-day curiosities and concerns. And then what happens when their interests change?

I want for kids to be interested in school as much as the next person, but how do we ensure that they leave school with the understanding and abilities that will make them successful in the real world? Is the focus on real-world projects completely replacing reading, writing and arithmetic that we got in school?

This week, I visited with teachers and principals in District G, which includes the north and west regions of Parker.

Marj Wellen and Toby Molins have been combining their sixth grade classrooms at Pine Lane Elementary for the past three years. Mornings are spent focused on content. In the afternoons, they use a project based learning approach to instruction. Students spend an extended length of time exploring real world challenges-- such as forming a company, building a bridge, or creating and presenting a public service announcement (PSA) for an environmental or humanitarian issue-- and acquire problem solving and critical thinking skills in the process.

“We use a lot of analysis in literature, which is my focus area, but they can then use that same skill in a project of their choice for the PSA,” said Molins. “They are using and applying those skills, strategies, understandings, and critical thinking pieces. This works for math too because a lot of kids are really strong at showing their thinking through math, whether it’s a graph or chart.”

As I chatted with some of the kids in the classroom, they were in the early stages of developing a PSA for Earth Day. They each chose their own environmental or humanitarian topic and developed a step-by-step plan. As I walked around, they were creating rubrics of criteria that define success for them-- essentially an evaluation tool that, ultimately, their audience will use when the kids are presenting their PSA’s.

“This is technically helping me so I can make sure I’m hitting all the steps I need to hit and so I know what to work towards and what grade to expect,” said Savannah, a student in the class who is developing her PSA on the use of dolphins by the military.

A lightbulb went on for me in that moment.

Like in many places of work, DCSD had me set up performance goals that are ultimately used for my year-end evaluation. With guidance from my manager, I set up the criteria and define what success looks like at the end of the year through my goals, objectives and benchmarks. Through this process I am effectively creating a work plan that guides me through the year. By the time the end of the year comes, I should know how I am going to be evaluated because I set up the criteria for success.

So of course this real world model would work for students. I had to ask Savannah if she liked this way of working.

“I really do,” she said. “This way of working helps me a lot, versus a class where we might turn something in and have no idea what grade I’m going to get.”

Interestingly, some of the challenges the kids may face in the afternoons help inform the content that will be taught the next morning.

“When they built their own bridges they had to create their own companies and I would be running sales,” Wellen said. “They’d say ‘well I can’t purchase this, I don’t know how to take a percentage off of something.’ I’d say ‘okay, then I guess we need to talk about that skill.’ So sometimes it’s best letting them run into it so they realize the skills and tools they need.”

Wellen and Molins are finding that this is helping learning to stick.

“Before we were always having to re-teach and re-teach,” said Molins, who has taught in Douglas County schools for 20 years. “The skills we taught weren’t showing up for something else just because it looked a little bit different. Now, for the first time we’re seeing the transferability of these thinking processes.”

Molins and Wellen say that this way of learning is helping the kids feel successful and confident.

“I had a kid who sat hunched over with his head on the desk for the first two weeks of school,” said Molins. “I was thinking ‘oh my gosh how am I going to get that kid engaged?’ Now he’s like my shadow. He sits right next to me. And the growth in his writing and everything has come so far because now he sees a purpose to it.”

“A lot of times by sixth grade, students have labeled themselves,” said Wellen. “Approaching learning in this manner has allowed students to break out of that because there’s a lot of out of the box thinking that comes into play here. Students who were struggling before are really thriving with this. What I love to see is those students start to relabel themselves because now they are like ‘wait a minute, I’ve got this! I can be really successful!’ I’ve noticed it even adds a new dynamic to the social interactions and sense of community in the classroom.”

Down the road at Sierra Middle School, Social Studies teacher, Brian Hunt, is also integrating real world scenarios into his classroom. He wants to make sure students are connecting to the content.

“These kids need to see the importance of what we’re doing now and how it ties to them in the future,” Hunt explained. “They are very Parker-focused right now, they don’t know the broad world as much as they could, so we try to expand their minds and take them into those real world places.”

Last quarter, Hunt’s students looked at a country that is in need. They researched what those needs were, defined the problem and brainstormed three different ways they could help with that issue.

“A lot of them picked hunger as the problem they were solving, a lot of them picked water scarcity and then they designed and prototyped solutions,” Hunt explained. “Some generated 3D printed models, some created tri-folds. They got a lot of background information on the problem and then they tested it for an audience. We had some people walk through here, museum style. That was a lot of fun.”

Right now at Sierra, Social Studies and Language Arts are teaming up for human rights.  Students are reading books on human rights issues. Hunt is pulling real world examples of those human rights issues and creating a project in which students will connect the two and explain the similarities and differences. In language arts they will focus on the literature piece and conduct mock trials, pretending they are a governing body trying to solve a problem.

Sierra Assistant Principal, Chris Stairs, sees additional benefits for students with this kind of role playing.

“Sometimes when they speak just for themselves they’re hesitant, they’re nervous, they’re scared, but role playing brings down their inhibitions,” Stairs said. “They’re able to better communicate because they’re not speaking their own mind, they’re speaking what they think that other person would be saying.”

Hunt is additionally going a step further to help demonstrate to students how lessons taught in the classroom will help benefit their futures. Every Friday the class has a career expo. Students research jobs, create pictocharts on average salaries and look at how many years of schooling a given job requires and what personality qualities are a good fit for that job.

“They see that you need communication skills, you need to have good critical thinking skills, you need to be able to organize your thoughts,” Hunt said. “They thought that was really interesting how that tied back to DCSD’s 21st century learning and World Class Outcomes.”

Sierra’s World Language program is also thriving thanks to an approach that immerses kids in the foreign language, while relating learning to things relevant to the kids.

In Brent Sheffield’s Spanish 1A class, the students were actively speaking Spanish and understanding the Spanish being spoken by their teacher. Sheffield was using different forms of the verb “comprar”-- to buy-- but not simply by having them conjugate it in different forms, they were conversing about what they bought, what a friend bought, and so on.

On a side note, I do speak Spanish, and I am a little concerned about how many kids seem to be buying cookies for lunch based on the class’ conversations!

Sheffield, along with French and World Cultures teacher, Dori Vittetoe, place an emphasis on fluency of conversation and the use of the language rather than conjugation or going over vocabulary lists. They heavily use words in the classroom that have a higher-frequency use for a native speaker of the language, so that the kids gain the capacity for conversational skills more quickly, and gain confidence in their abilities in the process. The kids then gain vocabulary through practical use in conversation.

“When they go into the real culture, people are going to be asking them about who they are and they are going to need to interact with them on a variety of things,” Vittetoe explained. “So this preps them for those journeys we hope they take as exchange students, tourists, or something else.”

Sheffield tries to keep conversations relevant to students so they remain engaged.

“The more I can talk to them about their life, the more interested they are in the conversation,” he said.

It seems to be working. Students are overall reading, writing, and speaking at a level far advanced for beginners. In fact, some students are receiving perfect scores on pre-tests for the Spanish 2 class.

“There are very few kids who take Spanish 1A who don’t want to take Spanish 1B because they really enjoy that class and they’ve come a long way in their understanding of the language,” added Assistant Principal Stairs. “It’s really focused on that fluency piece.”

Students additionally have the option of going on annual international trips led by Sheffield where they can practice their Spanish. This year a group is traveling to Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Next year they will be traveling to Peru.

“It’s a fun way to keep the language alive and real for those kids, but also a way for them to see the world with a new set of eyes and understand their life here in Parker more after they’ve been somewhere else.”

Spanish immersion is handled very uniquely at Northstar Academy, a K-8 charter school in Parker. At Northstar, kids are learning content both in English and Spanish. There isn’t a Spanish class, rather, the Spanish teacher roams to the different classrooms and augments the content taught in Spanish. Through this integrated learning, the students are really getting the instruction twice.

“They use a combination of visuals, storytelling, and hand movements so that the kids can understand the gist of it without having a Spanish background,” explained Kendra Hossfeld, a founding member of the charter school and current Principal. “By the time our kids go to high school, many go on to learn third language or take AP classes.”

Character and good citizenship are important values at Northstar. As Hossfeld was developing the school’s curriculum 12 years ago, she wanted to integrate service learning.

“I started thinking, how do people really learn?” Hossfeld said. “Service learning is really the application of character. It’s the experiential piece that kids need in order to understand what good character is.”

She was inspired to found the school by her own kids.

“When I started, I wanted my kids to have a good education, but I also wanted them to be good citizens, and I wanted them to understand not everybody is as fortunate as they are,” she explained. “I wanted them to be compassionate.”

These values can be seen throughout the school. Not only are the kids participating in fundraisers for disability, environmental and other causes, classes are also taught through the lens of building character. This includes Physical Education classes.

I had the chance to catch the beginning of PE teacher Gene Macias’ class. He started the class off by showing a short video called “Fail Harder.” The message was that everyone makes mistakes but through practice everyone can improve. Macias begins each class with this kind of lesson-- creating a safe space where the kids feel comfortable to try new things, gain confidence and play with freedom.

“That character education is in everything so that the kids are getting a consistent message throughout the day,” said Hossfeld.

Angie Bennett, Spanish teacher at Chaparral High School, is likewise helping to build character and service opportunities for her students-- values that are extremely important to the school that emphasizes the message “take care of one another.”

Bennett has found that through immersing the kids in music, reading, and speaking the language, some of her kids are taking an interest in ways they can help others in lesser fortunate Spanish-speaking parts of the world.

Chaparral senior and athlete, Emily Moore, was inspired to collect donations of baseball equipment and donate them to youth in the Dominican Republic. Bennett has not only spent time in several parts of Central America and the Caribbean, she served in the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic. She uses personal experiences like this to inspire her students.

“Emily was in my class the first year I started teaching here and I was telling them how I worked in the Dominican Republic,” Bennett said. “We have done a few group trips with the baseball team. My husband is a baseball coach so we’d go down, play sports and do some service projects, and the kids would learn about the culture and poverty that’s there. But she asked, ‘well what about the girls?’ That’s how she started her whole project and she spearheaded everything.”

“Every team that came here from all over the state was donating stuff. I happen to give English lessons at Digicomm for the guy in charge of shipping. I was able to work it out with him to get the stuff shipped to Miami, and then Major League Baseball got it all shipped to the Dominican. It’s pretty awesome. Over Thanksgiving, we were able to travel down there with her and her mom so she could see them play down there.”

Bennett wanted to try some new things in her classroom this year, as she told me, “to push the boundaries and see what’s possible.”

The classroom’s seating is arranged in groups and collaboration is constantly occurring. Students are encouraged to take risks, such as creating original writing in Spanish and sharing this with the class. She also looks for opportunities for student ownership of the class. On some days for example, rather than assigning a piece for the kids to translate, the students will collaborate in groups to pick a song in Spanish of their choosing that they want to listen to, and then set up a way to demonstrate an understanding of the song’s lyrics and grammar.

“I think when they have more buy in they are more active and want to do it,” Bennett said.

She’s finding this year the students are more willing to dive in because of the change in environment and risk taking.

“They know that we’re learning from our mistakes, and we’re doing it as a group.”

She’s currently setting up an authentic learning experience for the class in which the goal is for them to meet a Spanish speaking community partner, find out who they are and what their impact is or was on the community. Additionally, the students will have the option to collaborate with photography students at the school to do a photo essay on the relationship that they form with their community partner.

“I’m hoping with this project that they’ll see the applications of work and community. We talk about travel, college, global jobs and how something like this really expands your possibilities.”

Schools in District G
Challenge To Excellence
Chaparral High School
Cherokee Trail
Gold Rush
Mammoth Heights
Northstar Academy
Parker Core Knowledge
Pine Grove
Pine Lane
Prairie Crossing
Sierra Middle School

This past week was extremely impressive and educational for me. It was interesting to see how injecting a real world perspective into learning-- whether it is foreign language immersion, project based learning or service learning opportunities-- all have two outcomes in common, besides the practical instructional piece: on the individual student level, they remove barriers resulting in increased poise, confidence and willingness for to take risks. On the classroom level, these classes are building a stronger community.


NEXT WEEK: Follow me down to District D, a large region stretching from Castle Rock to the southern border of Douglas County, where I will spend time with teachers at Renaissance Magnet School, Sage Canyon Middle School, Cherry Valley Elementary, and more.

Chris Silberman joined the DCSD Communications team in September 2015. He grew up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and moved to Colorado in 1999. He is a graduate of the University of Colorado at Denver and served as Executive Director of a local music education nonprofit, as well as a local disability nonprofit prior to joining DCSD. 


February 26, 2016 | By CSilberman | Category: World Class Education

District News

The Douglas County School District Board of Education welcomes Dr. Thomas S. Tucker into the role of Superintendent of Douglas County School District. Dr. Tucker officially leads the 68,000 student district as of July 1, 2018.


Nearly 1,500 Colorado students applied for the prestigious Boettcher Foundation Scholarship this year, with 42 being named recipients. Of those, the Douglas County School District (DCSD) is proudly home to four recipients.


When it comes to mental health services, communities traditionally focus on supporting kids as needs arise. This work is crucial for the safety of our students. Equally important, though, is prevention-based programming that can help, early on, prevent the social-emotional challenges our kids may be experiencing from escalating.