One district, one community
Written by Chris Silberman
CASTLE ROCK— Over the past five months since joining the Douglas County School District staff, I have had the opportunity to visit several of our 86 schools we have here in our community. One thing that consistently impresses me is the overwhelming intelligence, talent and enthusiasm of our students.
There are the student athletes across the district, some who play multiple sports, while carrying GPA’s near the top of their class— and also organizing community fundraisers. There are the Biotech students at Rock Canyon High School working to cure diseases. There are the sixth graders at Meadow View Elementary eloquently describing how diversity influences global communities and environments and showcasing an art project to highlight this. Teens at D.C. Oakes that have not only overcome adversity academically and in their lives, but have also worked to help others-- organizing a canned food drive and fully stocking the pantry of a women’s crisis center.
Just this week I gained a great amount of history knowledge from 7th and 8th graders at Sierra Middle School as part of their National History Day project presentations.
These students are certainly more advanced than I was at their age, which is not surprising considering that— growing up in the 80’s— there was more emphasis in my school placed on being able to look up something in a library card catalog and perfecting my D’Nealian cursive than on developing creativity, critical thinking, or problem solving skills. Obviously my card catalog education became completely useless by the early 90’s, and, well, I’m typing this article, not writing it by hand.
The schools, teachers, and principals are equally impressive, each carving out specialties that make school choice in Douglas County a great opportunity for students looking for the best fit for their learning style and interests. There is a strong focus on sustainability and environmental learning at Heritage Elementary, Pioneer Elementary, and Larkspur Elementary. An impressive news media center at Mountain Vista. Artful Learning at Meadow View Elementary. An academy model at Castle View High School that enables students to learn through their interests.
The offerings are as diverse as the geological landscape of Douglas County.
Over the next two months, I will be hitting the road, going on a tour of classrooms in Douglas County, visiting with teachers, principals and students from each subdistrict, learning about the World Class Education taking place and sharing the highlights of my experiences. My goal is to celebrate our community, our students, our teachers and our school district’s diversity of offerings, all of which contribute to Douglas County being a pretty great place to be.
Before I turn the key on my scratched up and a little too well-traveled sedan— don’t worry, I promise to be a safe driver during my road tour— I needed to gather some information from DCSD’s curriculum team. After all, things like the “Guaranteed and Viable Curriculum (GVC), “World Class Outcomes” and “21st Century Learning” can all sound a bit like jargon, right?
Is all of this just part of another education fad, like the “Whole-Language” classes my school had in the 80’s?
“You get that sometimes with education— the ‘what’s the flavor of the week?’” World Class Education Coordinator Sandra Barrett told me. “I think that’s because educators are innovative and looking for ways to have sustainable learning and engaged students. But if I were to look back at 1992 when I started teaching, there were several initiatives that came and left in the years that followed. With this way of teaching and learning here in Douglas County, this is a research-based initiative that has been put forth, tested, and has stuck. This is clear based on the wonderful and exciting things we see students accomplishing in our district."
“The beauty of the whole GVC and integration, innovation and student centered learning—it’s not a program,” added Amy Corr, another World Class Education Coordinator. “It’s not one way to teach X. It’s more of a philosophy. There are all these things we can do and how you approach them can be very different based on your style, your preference and your students. A lot of times, with things like Whole-Language or the basals, it was a program and you had to follow the program in order to be ‘successful.’ What we are doing is more of an approach to teaching. Instead of relying on things somebody else wrote for me, I’m going to take my professional expertise, my knowledge of my students, and my creativity, and I’m going to create this experience for them in the classroom that is going to hit all the things these kids are going to need to know and be able to do when they leave school. That’s the biggest difference, it’s not a fad of, ‘Here’s this new program or here’s a new way to teach this,’ it’s just good teaching practices.”
While this makes sense, looking from the outside it’s easy to have the perception that there was a giant switch that was activated five years ago in Douglas County, as if everything before was “bad” and now everything is “good.”
“These practices have been out there,” Barrett said, who admitted that she was resistant herself at first to the shift. “But they became a priority rather than left on the back burner. The more I looked into it myself 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.”
“It’s not like this is an isolated thing,” Corr added. “Schools like High Tech High have been around way longer than we’ve been shifting our practices. There are pockets of it all over the nation. In some instances, Douglas County hasn’t been practicing these things as long as some of these other schools or districts. It’s a misconception that there was this big switch, or that everything was bad before and now everything is better. That’s not how it is. It’s been a gradual thing but the timing was right to start the shift.”
Chatting with students at Sierra Middle School this week, there was an excitement from the students to share their months of hard work. They were eager to present to me not only the historical content on their given subject, but also why they chose the subject, what it means to them, how they researched it, why they chose their particular medium in which to present their subject, and how their collaborations went if they worked with another student.
When I was in fifth-grade, I had to give a presentation on Edwin Drake. He was the first person to successfully drill for oil. I did it because I was told to. Each of us in the class took a turn, presenting our assigned historical figures. We gave our presentations to our classmates, not a gymnasium full of adults that we’ve never met before. In fact, my first outside-of-the-classroom public presentation didn’t come until I was a working adult in my early 20’s. The way I remember it, I was fumbling and intimidated by the expertise of the people to whom I was presenting. I’m pretty sure I accidentally mispronounced a few words. It was a great learning experience— but the problem is I didn’t have this experience until I was an adult.
This is why it is exciting for me to see the fantastic work of our teachers and students across the county, and the impact this work is having for our students. I wonder if I had the ability to choose my presentation topic in fifth grade based on my interests, had the opportunity to collaborate with someone, present it to the public, and document my learning process so that I could utilize that knowledge for the future, how that would have benefitted me by the time I had to give that work presentation.
Former DCSD science teacher and current World Class Education Coordinator, Eric Sonnentag, saw the advantage of giving his students ownership and relating content through their own personal interests.
“It was important for me to understand what their passions were,” Sonnentag said. For instance, if a kid was into skateboarding or BMX biking, it was important for me to know that so I could relate content better instead of just teaching it through my own lens and my own passions to give them some value into why we’re doing it.”
In his role, he helps DCSD teachers adopt this kind of practice.
“Teachers are giving a voice and ownership to the students, and allowing them to pursue outcomes through the passions the students have. In this way, the students can navigate the material in a way that has meaning versus something they don’t have a care about or weren’t interested in pursuing because it wasn’t a passion of theirs.”
Corr began shifting her teaching philosophy in 2006 upon receiving her Master's degree in curriculum instruction, integrating more creative arts into her sixth grade language arts classroom. One of the ways she did this was building a weekly poetry writing event, in which students were encouraged to focus on expressing themselves— free of worry about following a defined poetry structure or perfect grammar.
“The mother of one of my students totally attributed her child’s growth in writing to the fact that we did poetry every Friday and letting him express himself through poetry,” Corr said. “Just by allowing him to be creative, it allowed him to start taking chances with his own writing. I ran into his mom when he was attending Rock Canyon High School and she said he was in AP English, he was involved in the newspaper and doing all of these great things.”
Barrett, who taught math for 22 years at Ponderosa High School, began seeking ways to make sure the teens who come from more troubled backgrounds were engaged in her classroom.
“There’s usually a lot of direct teaching from a math teacher, defining for the students the steps to solve a problem, and showing them the tricks that make solving the problem easier,” Barrett said. “Then the word problems come. Well, the word problems are contrived and the kids think they’re dumb because they have no practical application for future use. So I started doing it backwards. I had a lot of auto shop kids in my class—so I started giving them the problem first, putting it in an auto shop context. Then we would determine what they need to solve that problem. That gave me an idea of what they remembered and what they didn’t, and areas in which I needed to go back and give them the components they might need to reach their goal of solving that.”
Barrett had kids tell her that her class was the only good part of their day.
“When they said that math was the good part of their day, that was a huge accomplishment and that made me excited to continue to try this way of teaching.”
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.