By Crystal Wylie
Register News Writer
MADISON COUNTY —
If you walk into Farristown Middle School on any given day, you might find students sticking an excessive amount of duct tape to the walls. In the next room, students may be huddled around an iPad. Outside, they might be searching for dead birds and live spiders.
This is what 21st century learning looks like, said Alicia Hunter, Farristown principal.
“I never know what I’m going to see when I walk by a classroom,” she said.
This teaching model is a far cry from the traditional “sit and get,” said Madison County Schools superintendent Tommy Floyd.
“(Today’s students’) learning looks a lot different than what (older generations) experienced in school,” Floyd said. “We sat in a row, we listen to somebody do all the talking, we took some kind of a written test and then we went out the door. Why does learning have to stop at 3 o’ clock? Why does it have to stop at the door?”
The new role of teachers is to facilitate learning by spending time interacting with students, rather than lecturing and asking students to regurgitate the information, he said.
“Our end game is college and career readiness – higher-level thinking, so students can function in a society that requires them to think on their feet and communicate with people that are different than them.”
Many of initiatives occurring in Madison County are inspired through a partnership with the Kentucky P20 Innovation Lab at the University of Kentucky College of Education.
The P20 Lab was designed to connect university resources and school districts to impact transformation of “P20,” or preschool through graduate school, said Mary O’Hair, dean of the UK College of Education.
In 2009, Kentucky was one of the seven states chosen to participate in the Innovation Lab Network to strategically work together to design new systems for learning to more fully prepare all students for college and career, O’Hair said.
Kentucky was chosen because of “our history of reform since the early 1990s,” said Linda France, co-director of the P20 Lab. “Progressive superintendents were selected to participate across the state — superintendents who had the courage to stand up and not only talk about the future of education, but actually start to grow some model schools, to produce some prototypes so others can see what that looks like.”
These Learning Innovation Zones (or iZones) are popping up all over the state, including in Jessamine and Fayette counties.
O’Hair said the idea is to send UK’s future educators to be trained in iZones “so they can actually see the practice taking place.”
The partnership with school districts over the past few years “has really transformed our programs in teacher education,” she said.
During its first year, 60 superintendents, principals and central office teams representing 12 school districts, attended the P20 Lab’s Next Generation Leadership Academy. The Academy is yearlong professional development that involves training, collaboration and planning.
This year, 16 districts and 78 educators will participate, France said.
“We haven’t had anybody go to a P20 activity that hasn’t come back with an idea that they’ve expressed and wanted to expand on in our school system,” Floyd said.
What 21st century learning looks like
Thursday, students in Ray Burns’ gifted and talented class were trying to get a golf ball from one side of the room to the other using a Rube Goldberg machine, or a complex machine to do the simplest of tasks.
Through “thinking on the fly and a lot of trial-and-error,” Burns said students created a system of cardboard and duct-tape ramps, triggers, tubes and levers to accomplish their tasks.
Students have been practicing for a worldwide Rube Goldberg contest since last year, Burns said. This is the first time Farristown Middle will enter.
Burns begins by giving his students a problem: “I need five steps to turn off the lights.”
Students then come up with their own questions that might lead them to a solution to their problem. They do research, collaborate and come up with “physics and engineering-based solutions,” Burns said.
Down the hall, language arts teacher Doug Wilson and social studies teacher Glenna Carter integrated their lesson plans covering the Civil War and the Underground Railroad.
Students broke off in groups and began doing their own research using multiple sources. Each group came up with different ways to exhibit their understanding of the topic.
One group created an animated video in which they recorded 40 minutes of themselves drawing pictures and information on a whiteboard. They sped up the video and recorded a voiceover to present the information.
Another group conducted research on the relationship between the North and South during the Civil War. They wrote a fictional story to show their understanding of the subject.
“Instead of giving students the information, they come up with the questions they want answered. Then they find their own ways of figuring out that information,” Wilson said.
His students also shared research with their classmates through Twitter, a website called Kidblog.org and a social learning platform called Edmodo (like Facebook for schools).
“There are so many cool ways to share information,” he said. “I’ve seen kids posting at 10 p.m. Learning never stops. I’ve never seen that before.”
Several of the ideas implemented in his classroom come from his participation in the Next Generation Leadership Academy, said Wilson, who has been teaching for more than 16 years.
“This is the best year I’ve had in education,” he said. “I see my students’ faces while using new ways of learning – keeping them engaged is not a problem. They don’t even realize they’re doing ‘school stuff.’”
One door down, eighth-grade science teacher Amy Poynter just got back from some “field work” with her students.
Using the diversity of life on Farristown’s campus, students collected several species of organism to classify, both living and dead.
Among the variety of organism, students collected two decaying bird specimens, some live worms and at least four different species of spiders, Poynter said while sifting through their discoveries in a plastic container.
These are all examples of project-based learning, which help students learn key academic content and practice 21st century skills such as collaboration, communication and critical thinking.
“Everybody is working toward the same goal, but getting to it a different way,” said Principal Hunter.
Teachers must stick to a common core curriculum, Hunter said, but how they introduce that curriculum is up to the teachers, and the students.
All middle and high schools use “Student Voice,” she said, to collect feedback on topics on everything from instruction to technology to food service.
“What’s more powerful than what the students say?” said Hunter, who uses a random sampling of around 70 students to collect feedback.
School and district administrators have used feedback to make decisions about moving the district forward in several areas, including adding Chinese as a world language course and adding courses that allow students to become a certified nursing assistant or licensed real estate agent, all while still in high school.
“The most important aspect of developing the student voice is to show students their suggestions are taken seriously by following through,” Floyd said.
Crystal Wylie can be reached at email@example.com or 623-1669, Ext. 6696.