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What's really happening in Parker classrooms?

Written by Chris Silberman

PARKER—I’ve heard the phrase “innovative classroom” several times in the five months since I began working with Douglas County School District. I have to admit, I do get a little skeptical in general when I hear the word “innovative.” I think this is because, for the last couple of years, I have helped review grant applications for a local arts funder and observed an excessive use of the word “innovative” in applications to describe projects and collaborations— which when boiled down were really just two groups that created a wonderful one-off partnership, but following that it was back to business as usual and the outcome was hardly innovative.

The word “innovative” has become a buzzword—in the arts, in education and in business— which is a shame, because when true innovations come along, they can be overshadowed by the kind of doubt I have myself.

True innovation should result in positive and lasting change. It’s more about the outcome, if it’s sustainable and replicable, and less about the activity itself.

So I was excited to discover true innovations occurring on my classroom visits this week in Parker.

Last week, I committed to a road tour—traveling to all seven subdistricts of Douglas County over two months time, visiting with teachers, principals and students, and sharing the highlights of my experiences.

This week, I visited some classrooms in District F, which is the northeast region of Douglas County and includes a good portion of Parker. The District is bounded primarily by Parker Road to the west, Main Street/Parker Road to the north, ventures into Elbert county on the east and Bayou Gulch on the south.

Walking into Kristin Kinner’s second grade classroom at Pioneer Elementary school, I could immediately tell there was a different kind of thinking occurring here. Some students were at high tables standing, some were at lower tables sitting on rocking stools. Some students switched between working with others on the ottomans scattered around the room and moving to a more private area of the room. Some kids were gathered on bean bags and pillows in a corner of the room partitioned off by bookshelves, known to the class as the “cozy corner.”

I would have loved this in second grade. The cozy corner looked like a fort I would have created with my siblings. The entire classroom’s furniture design was imaginative. But is this what an innovative classroom is all about?

“It’s more than that,” Kinner explained. “It’s about having student voice and choice in the classroom. This includes the arrangement of our space, which has changed multiple times this year. We talk about what’s working and what’s not working, where they like to be, if the space can accommodate what they’d like to do, that kind of thing.”

She gives them things to consider in their decision making, such as the need for a table to remain clean and clutter-free if it is to be located near the door to make a more welcoming space for guests. But ultimately, Kinner explained to me, the student-directed design is a way to help the kids gain a sense of responsibility for the classroom.

“They have to have ownership of the space, and that’s just the first thing we do,” she said.

It was easy to see how this ownership was translating to the kids’ engagement and learning. The students were each engaged in different activities at once, but actively collaborating with one another. Some were reading to other kids, some were writing and sharing their work, some were working in a book club of their choosing. Posted low on the wall by the cozy corner was a student-directed bulletin board that tracked the books each student was reading or if other students wanted to join a particular book club.

It was a frenetic energy— after all, they are second graders— but each student was focused on learning.

Across the hall, Kim Betschart similarly emphasizes student ownership in her art studio. She inspires her students with an overarching theme, but the kids choose how to interpret that in a style and medium of their choosing.

“I expose the students to tons of examples of art, but no kid in here does the same project ever,” Betschart said. “Some kids might be using clay while others are making jewelry, some might be painting, so there’s no rule on the medium or material being used.”

“The outcome, what I’m getting from the students, is exceptional,” she said. “I’ve worked in all art forms, but what I love is water color. So why would I force a kid to pencil sketch if they are passionate about something else? They might feel ‘well mine never looks like the example you gave so why would I sit down and do it’ but I’ve found, over the last two years, that their confidence is increasing and they’re saying ‘hey, I’m pretty good at art!’ or ‘I actually like art!’ That’s our job, to expose them to it at this age.”

ABOVE TOP: First graders participate in a "gallery walk" in Kim Betschart's art studio at Pioneer Elementary. ABOVE BOTTOM: Students work on self portraits, help each other and share ideas.

Watching the young artists in action, there was a constant flow of creating and critiquing. A “critique wall” allows students to hang partially or fully completed projects for feedback. Using Post It Notes, other students posted feedback such as “love the colors.” At the end of the class, the kids participated in a “gallery walk” in which they walked around and viewed everyone else’s projects, and then shared as a group what they liked. Betschart is pushing her students to go beyond feedback like “I love this” to describe in more detail what it is they love.

“I really love Zach’s because he used a lot of color and a lot of detail, and he used up all of the space,” shared one student following the gallery walk.

Betschart also encourages peer to peer learning. After showing one student how to mix paints to create a skin tone color, another student asked for the same demonstration.

“You know who is an expert in creating a skin tone color now?” Betschart asked the student, as the first student proudly raised his hand and he and Betschart smiled.

For both Kinner and Betschart, their innovative classrooms are really about giving students ownership of their learning, so that they become deeply engaged, feel empowered, gain confidence, learn content in the way that’s suited to their preferences and enjoy school.

“I went to school so long ago for education, and the rule was you are in charge as the teacher. This is what you do, this is how you manage, this is how it’s done,” Kinner said. “I feel like now that’s totally shifting where you have to be confident enough in what you are doing as a teacher that the kids are going to learn. And every year they do.”

I wondered, is this kind of shift in thinking applicable in a middle school or high school setting? Is it even possible to transform learning when you are dealing with a larger student population and more rigorous content standards?

Sydney Garvey’s classroom at Legend High School doesn’t look too dissimilar from Kinner’s classroom or even Betschart’s art room. She doesn’t have a cozy corner or anything like that—that might be a bit inappropriate at the high school level— but she did have all of the desks removed from her classroom and replaced them with tables where students can collaborate, something people don’t often think of in an algebra or geometry setting.

“I more or less wanted to shock the kids’ systems, and not let them have that safe desk to go to all the time,” Garvey said. “We collaborate all the time, I collaborate with the students, the students collaborate with each other, so tables just make more sense for how I run things.”

Additionally, students have ownership over the pace at which they learn. Garvey utilizes self-tracking sheets for each student, so they can gauge and evaluate their own progress. These sheets also serve as a checklist of all the things students will need to learn within a given unit. Students can spend extra time in a particular area if needed, or they can advance forward if they’d like.

“My feeling is that if you are teaching to the entire class, you are teaching to the middle third, because you have some kids that won’t catch up based on how you are teaching and some kids who feel ‘I’m done with this already,’” Garvey explained.

The students in Garvey’s geometry class are about to start designing clocks for their collaborating partners. Garvey’s thought was that the outcome, quality and learning will be better if they are designing it for someone else rather than themselves. The project incorporates much of the math skills they have been learning, as well as the values and preferences of their partners that must be considered in the design. Classroom projects like this help to connect classroom lessons to real world scenarios.

“When a student asks ‘why are we learning this?’ and a teacher answers ‘to create more pathways,’ that doesn’t make any sense to a student. They need to be able to see where it goes in the real world and how they’ll actually apply it.”

DCSD District F Schools
Cimarron Middle School
Frontier Valley Elementary
Iron Horse Elementary
Legacy Point Elementary
Legend High School
Mountain View Elementary
Northeast Elementary School
Pioneer Elementary
Ponderosa High School
Sagewood Middle School

Recently, Garvey’s algebra students brainstormed problems that they see in the world, wrote them down on Post It Notes, categorized them on the whiteboard and then identified the top three issues they wanted to work on. One group from each of her algebra classes looked at The Dumb Friends League.

“They had to look at their financials and graph them on a linear scale,” Garvey explained. “So if they were running a fundraiser like Furry Scurry, what are three things they get income from? What are three expenses they have? They graph it. And then there are systems as well. How do they interact? How do they end up making a profit?”

Garvey has seen how teaching in this way has increased the engagement of her students. She is hearing similar feedback from their parents, as well.

“A lot of parents are starting to see the benefits of the self-paced model,” she said. I often hear ‘my kids always struggled in math and now they’re doing well because you’re giving them the time that they need’ or they’ll ask ‘my kid’s goal is to double up next year with geometry and algebra 2, can they do that and be successful?.”

Deb Compton, who teaches AP Chemistry at Legend High School, is also seeing a huge increase in student engagement in her classroom by giving her students more ownership.

Compton uses POGILs—Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Lessons— in her classroom, which move the students from a baseline knowledge level to an in depth understanding of a given topic. Students work in self-led groups to gather that learning and apply that learning together.

With this, she said, she rarely lectures.

“The engagement has improved so much,” Compton said. “I used to look up and the kids would be yawning or on their phones. But now, the POGILs almost set up a peer pressure structure because the rule of the POGILs is that everyone has to be on the same question. So you can’t move on until you all agree and come to consensus. All of the students have a certain role in that process. I try to stay back until they need my help.”

Her students this year are earning the highest grades that she’s seen in her 32-year teaching career.

Compton admits that she was resistant to the World Class Outcomes when they were first introduced. But what she noticed is that it gave her an opportunity to elevate the knowledge and understanding of the content the students were learning.

“I’m setting up a lab this afternoon. In this lab it used to be that the students were to mix these chemicals, write down the chemical reactions and turn it in. But to demonstrate critical thinking and problem solving skills, it’s not enough anymore to tell me the chemical reaction, you need to tell me why that is the reaction, and what evidence there is that a chemical reaction took place. What did you see? How does the data point to that type of reaction and how do you know that it was actually a chemical reaction? So it’s more. It’s making them really have to evaluate. It’s turned things and made them so much deeper.”

Compton’s students by nature have a healthy competitive spirit, and she likes to give the students projects that utilize this spirit while working on real life problem solving scenarios. To help the students further understand the relationships within chemical reactions, she had them build an airbag out of a snack bag and random materials.

“They were so creative with the materials I gave them. Even the things I was holding the materials in they used a different way. I wasn’t even thinking of that as something they could use, but the students were like, ‘but it worked!’ So it’s kind of a design thinking process. But I then took it one more step and asked them, ‘how would you really design this airbag?’ In the real world, we have issues with airbags all of the time when they go off when they shouldn’t, or what about children? How can we really redesign it. I had them go through the process of ideating and try to solve this problem.”

I was seeing that In Compton’s classroom, just like Garvey, as well as Kinner and Betschart at Pioneer Elementary, students collaborating, interacting together and giving each other feedback was key for success.

Just last year at Sagewood Middle School, Library Media Specialist, Graig MacHendrie, completely overhauled the design of the library and tools that classrooms now have available to use to augment lessons. He explained that it’s not only the space itself that has transformed, but also the way the kids and teachers at the school now interact with each other.

ABOVE LEFT: Sagewood Middle School's library now includes a 3D printer. ABOVE RIGHT: MacHendrie demonstrates the library's new dual touch-screen computer that is fostering more collaboration opportunities.

“I’ve always looked at the library as more of a language arts and social studies area, and those are usually the kind of teachers who would come in before,” MacHendrie said. “I really wanted to expand that so that it would also become an area where science teachers could come in, math teachers could come in. I’ve had the Home Ec. teacher come in to redesign their kitchens, health teachers come in, PE teachers come in, so we’ve done a variety of things.”

There are several new components to the library: a dual touch screen computer that enables shared thinking among students; a touch screen projector that also allows sharing amongst a smaller group or an entire class; there is even a presentation area where the table tops flip vertically so that students can use them for projections or to display thoughts.

The first thing I noticed was the 3D printer, new this year as part of the library transformation. It was actively printing a student’s space station model that was designed in Tinkercad—a user friendly 3D CAD design tool.

“The first thing that was created that was really useful [on the 3D printer] was this engine casing they needed for this solar car to keep the engine stabilized, and so this kid just sat down with Tinkercad, designed it, printed it and it was perfect,” MacHendrie said.

Some students that used the printer this year were designing wind turbines.

“They took it from development, to research, to final product and they had to present out as if they were talking to a business that was going to buy their design,” MacHendrie said. “So it’s not only the space itself, but the way the kids can interact is so different that they really can use real world tools to solve real world problems.”

MacHendrie is also seeing the Sagewood students lose their fear of failure and gain confidence to try new things.

“Sometimes it takes that failure to make a success,” MacHendrie explained. “That’s the coolest thing that has happened here, is that the kids aren’t afraid to fail because they know that it’s going to create a success or that it might help them be successful later on. That has been one of the most exciting takeaways from this year.”

This seems to be another common pattern I’ve noticed among students in the classrooms I’ve visited so far—a fearlessness to experiment and try new things and teachers encouraging that fearlessness, creating a safe space so that students push themselves harder.

At neighboring Ponderosa High School, Spanish teacher Benny Izquierdo is pushing his students to be fearless as they learn the language. For their midterm exam in December, he asked them to give a verbal presentation in Spanish describing how they learned Spanish in the past, how they currently learn Spanish, and how they foresee learning it in the future. He purposely left the format somewhat open ended and did not set a time requirement because he wanted to see how well they articulate themselves.

“They wanted a time limit and I told them, ‘there’s no time limit. If you feel comfortable explaining what you need to say in 2 minutes, that’s fine. If you need 10 minutes, that’s okay too,’” Izquierdo explained. “Everybody was freaking out, ‘does he expect 10 minutes?’ But the funny thing was, the shortest presentation ended up being eight minutes, and they were just elated at how they got there. When I did the final survey to ask how they would change it if I did this next year, they said ‘don’t tell them how long it is’ because when they figured out that they could actually speak in another language for eight minutes in front of a class, that was just a ‘wow’ feeling for them.”

Positive student outcomes like this have further encouraged Izquierdo to try more and more new things in the classroom. He’s about to start a Snapchat story project, in which the students capture and talk about their day in Spanish, structuring it however they would like.

“The more comfortable I feel with branching out the more things just keep evolving,” he said. “I can’t wait to see what happens in five years. It’s exciting!”

NEXT WEEK: Follow me as I move towards the west side of Parker and visit with teachers and students from Sierra Middle School, Pine Lane, Northstar Academy and Chaparral High School.

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 18, 2016 | By CSilberman | Category: Elementary Education, High School Education, Middle School Education, Schools, World Class Education

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