How is all of this helping students?
Written by Chris Silberman
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.
DOUGLAS COUNTY—I can imagine that my introduction to Douglas County School District six months ago was not unlike the experience many parents new to the District have. I found myself in a whirlwind of edu-vocabulary and acronyms: GVC (Guaranteed and Viable Curriculum), World Class Outcomes, and 4C’s (creativity, communication, collaboration, critical thinking).
At first it felt like I travelled to a foreign country and forgot to study up on the language first. Not only was everyone around me speaking this language, they were interacting and operating within this language, and I was the odd man out.
As I became naturalized—and began to speak and understand the language—I became extremely curious about what outcomes were being generated by DCSD students. If I were to get to the bottom of all of these labels and this language, how is all of this helping students?
I explored this question during my Douglas County school tour this week as I visited classrooms in District B—a large region on the western side of the County including Larkspur, Castle Pines, Sedalia and the southern tip of Highlands Ranch.
At Larkspur Elementary, Maryann Caterina’s and Terri Mole’s fifth grade classes have been creating a greenhouse made of water bottles—a prototype for their ultimate dream of a real glass greenhouse that future students will plan and build on school property.
The school’s environment-based education includes environmental and agricultural learning-- though it really stretches beyond those things into learning about the community civically, socially and economically outside the walls of the school, so that kids are getting real-life experiences to augment their learning inside the classroom.
“We saved 1,584 water bottles from going to the landfill,” Audrey, one of the fifth graders who participated in the planning process for the greenhouse proudly told me. She spearheaded promotional efforts for the greenhouse in the beginning stages, including collecting water bottles from students in the cafeteria and contacting Aquafina headquarters in New York herself to procure donated water bottles.
A student-led effort right from the start, the kids divided themselves into groups based on their thinking and communicating preferences. The social teams helped hang posters to promote the cause, went around the community to collect water bottles and contacted other schools. Construction teams coordinated design plans, problem solved together and facilitated building with school parents, who provided power tools.
“It was like a mini business with departments that had to report to each other and get word out to their teams,” said Caterina.
Their focus in fifth grade this year is science inquiry, so Caterina and Mole guided and pushed them to the associated World Class Outcomes in the process. But they do not have to push them hard to inspire them.
“The kids really inspire themselves, I just give them an avenue to do it,” Caterina said.
Students last year began the process of planning for the greenhouse. This involved writing grant applications to receive funds so that they could rent a 3D printer. They then did a cost analysis of materials and designed several different structures, before using Tinkercad, an easy-to-use 3D CAD design tool, to architect their designs and 3D print models. This year’s class picked it up where last year’s class left off, and planned, designed, and constructed the water bottle greenhouse to test the architecture.
“There has been so much learning that has come with this,” Caterina said. “They had to do their research and planning. The writing that’s been involved in this has been so enriching. And then the math, we converted everything in Tinkercad from metric to standard and that’s clicking for them. A textbook can provide that information, but it doesn’t provide the connection to the real world. And that’s where the kids really flourished with it.”
As eight of the students gave a formal presentation to me about the greenhouse, what I saw was an in-depth understanding of the concepts and learning processes involved, presented with passion, confidence and poise uncommon for 10- and 11-year olds, as well as a genuine caring about the footprint they are leaving for future classes.
“I hope future classes can use this for learning purposes. The first and second grade classes will plant plants in here too,” the students said. “It’s fun to think that next year we’re going to have a really big greenhouse to grow things in. And to think all of this just started with a picture!”
Shannon Tafoya, who teaches a combined fifth and sixth grade class at Sedalia Elementary opened her classroom to me, and what I saw there was a similar passion and motivation from her students.
Like Caterina’s class and many classrooms in Douglas County, students are in charge of their own learning. They set their own goals, choose their projects and track their own progress. Teaching occurs in a very personalized manner.
“The nice thing about how my room is structured is you can easily give students an opportunity to grow and excel in whatever area they are ready to do that in, so you can really personalize and push them forward,” Tafoya said.
As a result of this personalization, she is seeing students advance their writing and math skills by as much as two grade levels above where they are. The structure also allows her to go back and reinforce anything in which she notices a gap in knowledge.
“I can look at different students’ learning styles and I’m able to differentiate whether students are hands on or if somebody is very auditory,” Tafoya said. So I can then bring in those strategies that will best fit their needs.”
The result: her students love school.
“They don’t see it as ‘I have to come to school, and I have to do school work,’” she explained to me. “They say, ‘I can’t wait to get back in here and work on the bee project!’ They’re really seeing it as ‘I’m making a difference in the world.’ We always talk about ‘what can you take from here and use years from now?’ So they really genuinely care, they want to be here, they are excited to share what they are doing and accomplishing next on their projects. And they are thrilled to come in here and tell me things like ‘I found a new expert I can contact!’ It’s a whole different level of enthusiasm and excitement. Not just learning to learn and regurgitate, but ‘I’m really learning this life skill that I’m going to be able to use and I can’t wait to go and share it with my family!’”
“When I think about real life skills, just when they are composing an email or a formal letter of request to somebody, we can then confer about that and then bring in all of the curricular pieces that go with that, the reading and the writing, editing and proofing. It’s so much more authentic and they are going to remember that and be able to use that versus some worksheet,” she said.
As I chatted with some of the kids in Tafoya’s classroom, I asked them if they liked this approach and if they felt like they were learning more effectively as a result.
“This class is awesome, this is one of the best schools I’ve ever been to,” said one of Tafoya’s students. “In my old school, all they would do is give every student the same assignment and give the same due date to everybody. In here we get to choose what we’re working on.”
“Students run this class,” another student told me with pride. All of the students agreed that this format was feeding their interest and passion, and allowed them to explore ideas and solutions.
I asked another group of students about their experience working with World Class Outcomes and planning their work through rubrics. Is it creating a lot of work? Is it worth it?
“It’s all really helpful, actually,” they told me. “It’s giving us a deeper learning experience. And we are able to break things into parts in our group. So some people will be the editors, some people will be the reporters, some people will be the researchers, there’s just a bunch of different jobs. You never get bored, and we always switch up jobs.”
Students had similar reactions at Coyote Creek Elementary, located in Highlands Ranch.
Coyote Creek as a whole is a personalized learning school.
“What this does is allow the kids more voice and choice,” explained Holly Lehr, who has been teaching at the school for 15 years. “So they get more choice as far as their product, maybe something different about what they want to study.”
Looking around the room and chatting with students, one student was studying genetics, another student was studying paleontology, another student was learning about veterinary studies. But they are not just studying the way we did as children-- they are contacting experts on their respective areas of study to gain a global view and human component that cannot be found in books.
For example, one girl connected with a professional veterinarian to learn what it feels like to be able to save or lose an animal.
Lehr explained to me that this helps tie in the World Class Outcomes related to global awareness, as well as other 21st century skills they focus on in sixth grade. They are not just interviewing experts just to do it, but they are actually going several steps further to find out the how and why on their topic.
“A lot of questions that we have they can research and find out, but I push them to ask the questions that aren’t being answered. Ask those questions of those people. Like what am I not finding out? What part of this do I not know?”
Like the other classrooms I visited, allowing students to learn through their passions has allowed them to dig as deep as they want to go.
“They’re not limited by certain criteria,” Lehr told me. “For other kids, just that voice and choice has gotten them reading. You can’t beat that. You throw them a textbook and say ‘okay I want you to read 125 to 129 and answer the questions’-- they’re not going to remember that two years from now, but they’ll remember this.”
On the other side of the wall from Lehr’s classroom is Teresa Hamilton’s class. While newer to the school-- this is her second year at Coyote Creek-- she is employing choice and freedom in her classroom and seeing some kids go above and beyond the basic assignment.
It’s also tying in to safety issues at the school, like bullying.
Gwen and Jazzy, two students in Hamilton’s class built a project around bullying. But then went a step beyond to create a video and shared it on social media, in which they began receiving feedback not only from people in their own school community, but other students and even college-aged students.
“We’ve been bullied before, and we’ve had the urge to do it back, but we don’t want to be that kind of person,” Jazzy told me. “So we thought if other people are getting bullied and they don’t know how to handle it, then we can help them.”
They are also working to build a “friendship bench” at the school to help build bonds between students, and they are working with Home Depot to get the supplies donated for the bench.
“We have kids with Down syndrome and Autism at our school, and they are judged by how they look or how they talk. Our idea was to help kids to get to know people that they never talked to before,” Gwen said.
Hamilton explained to me that the foundational skills kids are building as they pursue their research projects, like this one, are indeed carrying over to future projects, but more importantly, how they learn, absorb information and problem solve.
“With the research projects we’ve done since then, those two girls have been quick, sure with the directions and they’ve caught on quickly to what the intent of the research was, whereas before it was the kind of feeling of ‘am I doing this right? I don’t get this. What’s next? What do you mean?’ But now they’re super confident and neither one of them has really needed guidance because they just have had a real sense of how to go get the information and create something off of it,” Hamilton said.
I’ve had the opportunity to talk to a lot of fifth and sixth graders this week and observe how voice and choice, personalization, and learning 21st Century skills and World Class Outcomes is benefitting their education, advancing their knowledge to a deeper level and creating well-rounded human beings. By the time students reach high school, however, there is-- almost universally-- a heavy pressure to maintain a high GPA and achieve high test scores so that they can get accepted into a good college. It’s easy to see how actual deep learning-- like what I observed with the fifth and sixth graders-- can take a backseat to simply “what’s the minimum I need to do to get an A?”
Steve Jenkins and Sally Collins, math teachers at Castle View High School and both of whom have been teaching for nearly 30 years each, have been challenging this the last couple of years.
“My evolution as a teacher-- and this sounds awful-- was realizing what little impact I actually have on the students,” Collins explained. “So I started to rearrange my thinking: maybe the impact isn’t the mathematics I teach them, maybe the impact comes in the way they do their business through mathematics.”
Students in their classrooms make a choice about what they work on, they work in groups and ask questions of each other.
“The premise is our basic core of human nature is to shine. So no matter what, it’s to do our best,” Jenkins said.
“I become a resource when they find something that is beyond what they think they can do. I then ask them questions to help push them forward. It’s not even so that they take responsibility because that sounds to me like they’re being complacent to a set of expectations. I would say students set up expectations of what they want to get out of class and then they choose to meet those or don’t. Very seldom are they doing the work for me or someone else, they’re doing the work for themselves.”
They explained that this freedom can often be misperceived as a lack of structure or a lack of math content actually being taught.
“The more freedom you allow in your classroom actually requires a lot more upfront structure in your thinking,” Jenkins said. “It sounds counterintuitive-- oftentimes people say ‘there’s Steve, he’s all about this free-wheeling classroom.’ But there are really a lot of specific designs and structures.”
“We actually teach much deeper level math than I ever, ever have before because I’m not so consumed anymore about getting them to perform skills on a certain day or on a certain test so I can justify a certain grade,” explained Collins. “Now what they have is the freedom to learn, and we’re seeing this really in-depth learning happening. So they’re actually getting way, way more mathematics, but that’s not my focus. My focus is more about how they operate as learners, which is really what the World Class Outcomes are. How do you operate as a learner? How do you carry yourself as a learner? How, at the end of the day, do you feel about how you navigated the day, the effort you put in, the product you produced. If we can get them to be really reflective about that, that to me has much more lasting staying-power than anything mathematically we teach them.”
To help achieve this deeper-level learning in their classrooms, both Jenkins and Collins remove the grade students will receive as a threat. Both this and the structure of their classes caught many students by surprise.
“When I first started I thought ‘I don’t like this at all,’” said Jordan, a student in Jenkins’ class. I actually thought about switching out of the class, but after a month or so I realized this is going to benefit me a lot because his classroom is set up so that you make your own decisions about what you do. Anything you do is for yourself, it’s not for a grade. He makes it so we don’t have to worry about that, all we have to worry about is our own learning and making sure that we’re doing everything we can to get as much out of our work and activities as we can.”
“He’s completely changed my perspective on school-- I hated school. But this has helped me realize that it’s not for the teachers, it’s not for the grade, it’s for me. I love his classroom and he’s my absolute favorite teacher of all time,” Jordan said.
“Oftentimes when I’m in a class and I’m worried about a grade, I will do the homework or assignments, but I do them just to get them done. I don’t really go deeper and make sure that I truly understand what I’m doing and I don’t really remember the content in those assignments afterwards. In his class, I know I can take my time to really understand something that I’m working on, and I don’t have to feel pressure to be where everyone else is in the class because it’s not about everybody else, it’s about me. And I know that if I’m working as hard as I can and I’m doing everything to my one-hundred percent capability, then I deserve that A.”
Jordan was holding back tears at this point.
“Not having to stress about the grade has helped not only me but everyone else to step out of the box a little bit and become a student who truly wants to learn and understand what they’re doing,” she said.
Jordan is now taking AP Calculus.
“We work for ourselves, we know it benefits ourselves and it’s for our own learning,” said Evan, a student in Collins’ class. “Even if sometimes kids can get off track, they eventually get back on track and start working again because they are invested in their learning and they know that what they’re doing is for themselves.”
“It’s cool to see how I’ve changed as a learner,” he continued. “School was always hard for me and I was always concerned about getting good grades, getting a 4.0 and being the best. But I feel like in each one of my classes I’ve applied what I’ve learned in Ms. Collins’ class in that I need to learn for myself and not just go through the motions. I really need to get an understanding. Her way of teaching has given me that.”
“Mr. Jenkins is using math as a vessel to teach us skills to become leaders in today’s society-- discovering things on our own, seeking out new ideas and persevering through challenges,” said Megan, another student in Jenkins’ class. “We’re not going to have people telling us ‘follow this step, then follow this step’, you have to struggle through until you understand it.”
“I feel like in today’s society, everyone is a sheep because of how we were brought up in our education system,” Megan said. “One of the biggest things, I think, is we’ve had this education system for so long and we are having a ton of changes, and teachers are still teaching us things we can Google. So something needs to change there.”
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.