Are these new ideas? Not really
A One District, One Community series story (written by Chris Silberman)
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.
HIGHLANDS RANCH-- For the last six weeks I have been visiting with teacher after teacher, observing classroom after classroom and interviewing student after student across Douglas County in order to get a peek at what’s really going on in Douglas County School District (DCSD) classrooms.
There has been a shift in DCSD curriculum-- what is known as the Guaranteed and Viable Curriculum (GVC)-- in the last six years. The focus is not just on content, but also on 21st century skills, the 4C’s and World Class Outcomes.
But are these really new ideas?
“These practices have been out there,” Secondary World Class Curriculum Coordinator, Sandra Barrett, told me. “But they became a priority rather than left on the back burner. The more I looked into it myself [as a math teacher at the time] I realized that these initiatives are research-based. This isn’t somebody’s wild and crazy dream. There is fact behind why these practices work.”
In fact, I’m learning on my visits with teachers that several of them were already practicing the ideas that are now being emphasized by the district, such as elements of the GVC, personalized learning, student voice and choice in the classroom and authentic learning experiences, to name a few.
DCSD is essentially now fanning the flames of these practices and providing structure for teachers to implement these practices.
How, then, does a teacher incorporate these practices into their teaching style? What’s the process? Is it a lot of work? What effect is it having on students?
I had the opportunity to visit with teachers in District C this week, which includes much of Highlands Ranch, and discussed this with them.
“I didn’t really start out my teaching career very traditional. I’ve always tried to incorporate some of these elements,” said Jacklyn Van Ooyik, who has been teaching seventh grade math at Mountain Ridge Middle School for four years. “While I was studying at the University of Oklahoma I had the opportunity to student teach with the Oklahoma Teacher of the Year from 2009 so I think a lot of my philosophies of teaching and the activities that I do are inspired from what I learned in that experience.”
VanOoyik told me it has taken a lot of trial and error over the last six years, but she’s feeling really positively about how engaged her kids are in their learning in which the kids aren’t just solving a problem, they’re actually learning something from it, reflecting on their learning and applying their learning.
“I think the biggest change is the way students think about math,” she said. “I’m really trying to change the mindset where math is not just about finding a solution or following a formula to get there, but really focusing on the process. So for me, focusing on problem solving and resilience as World Class Outcomes are two really big things for me. I think that’s shifting the way kids are learning.”
Her students are playing a more active role in their learning, instead of just taking notes.
“The motivation to participate in their learning is a lot greater than it would normally be in a more traditional classroom,” she said.
Veteran teacher, Michele Renfrow, who teaches forensics science at Highlands Ranch High School and has taught almost every area of science for the last 23 years, similarly has already been incorporating much of what the District has been asking for in relation to incorporating World Class Outcomes, 21st century skills and 4C’s.
“I think forensics science lends itself easily to what the District is wanting us to do,” Renfrow said. “For me, what things looked like before versus after is putting it down on paper, so to speak. A lot of the skills are already built in to forensics.”
Renfrow built much of the forensics course from the ground up. She was teaching a genetics course, which included forensics, and realized that this could be a course on its own.
“I went with what I wanted this class to look like. What are kids coming in wanting to know and needing to know? There’s the content piece and then there’s the skill acquisition piece. They do need to be good critical thinkers, they need to be problem solvers and they need to be able to take in what multiple viewpoints are saying and critique their reasoning of that.”
For Renfrow, the district’s prioritization of the GVC helped bring structure to what was already in her teaching style.
“It was all in my head and I knew what I wanted to do, I just wasn’t quite sure of what the different pieces were,” she said. “It was a matter of defining those and getting it on paper without it turning into a 20 page document.”
After working with Barrett, she was able to develop a World Class Outcome rubric, which is just a two-page document.
“For me, what it helps me to do is make sure I have a focus in mind when I’m doing something. I’m pretty focused and analytical anyway but I think it just makes me more aware of the various pieces students will gain from the pieces that I’m focused on. This also gives me a springboard to have engaging conversations with students.”
Kelly Paulson, who teaches World Literature at Mountain Vista High School, likewise sees the benefit of incorporating skills into content in the classroom. Prior to joining Mountain Vista four years ago, she taught at Hinkley High School in Aurora, a school with a high population of Spanish speaking students and a high incidence of impoverished students.
“I feel like I’ve always been more prone to having a skills-based classroom as opposed to just teaching content,” Paulson said. “Even my work at Hinkley, I knew these kids needed skills. It doesn’t matter that they read MacBeth. They needed skills. So I think from the very beginning I felt skills were so important, more important than any content we use.”
“I realized at Hinkley that if something isn’t interesting to the students, then they’re done-- they won’t ever learn those skills,” she added. “If students are interested in the topics, they care, and they feel like they’re learning skills that they’re always going to use, then they will definitely be more engaged and more willing to do the assignments and get involved.”
Paulson said the World Class Outcomes, 21st Century Skills and 4C’s are things that feel naturally embedded to her.
“It was just a matter of naming them and naming them for the students and allowing students to see ‘this is how I’m learning, this is how I’m progressing, this is how I can grow,’ as opposed to ‘take a test, you did poorly on the test, move on.’”
Even though the skills that come with the GVC have been in practice with many teachers for a while now, teachers still need to start somewhere to incorporate the World Class Outcomes, 21st Century Skills and 4Cs into their teaching. For some, it can be jarring and confusing at first, to figure out how to incorporate these things into their teaching style.
“I have been through all the growing pains of just trying to learn how to do all the things we’re being asked to do. It has required a ton of training,” said Linda Cunningham, who teaches Spanish at Rock Canyon High School. “When I looked at the World Class Outcomes, I couldn’t understand how would you even begin to do that. Like, don’t we just open up the book and start teaching Spanish to the kids? Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? I just could not mentally grasp it. So it has taken me tons and tons of training and working one-on-one with people to begin to figure that out.”
Cunningham has been incorporating the Outcomes into her teaching over the last few years, but didn’t feel like she had the organizational structure behind them like she does this year. She had an a-ha moment with the way the World Class Outcome Camp she participated in color codes elements of the GVC. She brought this into her classroom and is overt in using color cards with her class to demonstrate why each component is important, and what happens if one is missing.
“On the unit we are starting right now, I actually did a performance for the kids, something they might do for the class, and I deliberately did it badly,” Cunningham explained. “I gave them a rubric, and I let them score me on the rubric, and then we went through the color cards. So we have a World Class Outcome, which is creating and presenting spoken Spanish for an audience. We have our content, it’s all about family and the grammar that supports that. And then here’s the red card, that’s the 4C, creativity-- did I forget that? Was that absent in my performance? So I deliberately did the performance dry, and I asked them ‘do you see why that red card is important?’”
“Doing things like that makes it come to life for them, instead of just saying ‘guys, we have to do the 4C’s.’ We have to do these things to show them it’s not just a sign we put up on the wall, you can actually see the void when we take something out of my presentation.”
“I’m just noticing that you really have to meet your students where they’re at with the GVC’s,” she said. These kids are still getting used to this language too. They still need lots of structure. They also need to know the reason behind the GVCs. I feel like I am getting better at communicating this.”
“They also need structure and peace of mind around how they will be assessed,” she added. What I’ve done is provide a points system, but I provide lots of opportunities for them to get to the highest amount of points they want to get to. Instead of just saying ‘you failed that, too bad we’re moving on,’ they can try it again and again. For example, I might correct a draft for a writing project 3 or 4 times. I believe in that kind of model of mastery.”
Sophomore Mikaela Fullerton has had Cunningham as a teacher for two years and has experienced the transformation in her learning as Cunningham has implemented the WCO’s more confidently this year in the classroom.
“For me, Señora Cunningham will teach us the information and then you can take the information and kind of do with it what you want. She’ll give us guidelines on the minimum number of sentences, the vocabulary, and sentence structure we need to have to get a certain grade. But with the creativity, there’s a lot of leeway there, like last year we made a book and this year we made a website. So you can take it and put your own personal spin on it so that you can get the most out of it for you, because obviously every student learns differently.”
This type of voice and choice, as well as authentic learning, in which students have the flexibility to create differing projects that are connected to the world outside of school, are cornerstones of sustainable learning.
“I think it’s really cool to do stuff with World Class Outcomes because you’re not only learning the subject you’re in but you’re also learning stuff about the world,” Fullerton added. “It’s cross-curricular, you’re learning about more than one thing without having to do the work for more than one thing. It’s really nice because you are getting a lot more out of the work you put into your assignments.”
VanOoyik also is experiencing her students push her with WCO’s and personalized learning, since that is what they experienced in elementary school. There is less of a need to teach them about these skills and elements because they’ve already been immersed in it in the last few years.
“There’s definitely been a change in the last couple of years, especially with students who had teachers who really effectively incorporated personalized learning in their elementary schools,” VanOoyik said. “I’m noticing that even if I don’t give them enough opportunities to make their learning personalized, they’ll push me on it.”
Barrett believes teachers will encounter this nudging more and more as students are immersed in an atmosphere that promotes personalization, as well as higher level thinking skills.
“As students develop these habits that the World Class Outcomes promote, they’ll be able to approach their learning in middle school and high school with an increased rigor and greater understanding of content,” Barrett said. “I think we are going to continue to see an increased desire by students to have greater ownership, engagement, and curiosity. We don’t want to strip that from them.”