learning at high levels

A Schoolhouse for Today’s Learners

Guest post by Dwight Carter:

In most cases, one of the last places affected by school reform is the schoolhouse itself. It’s expensive to completely redesign an entire school, and we are used to school looking a certain way: long corridors, square classrooms, rows of lockers, trophy cases lining the walls of the lobby, a large bland cafeteria, narrow stairways, and little natural light.

Today’s learners–Millennials and the “iGeneration”–need a new kind of school. They are wired differently than any generation that has come before them, due in part to the integration of technology in everyday life. Millennials include those born between 1977 and 1998 or by some definitions 1982 to 2000.

According to The Learning Café and American Demographics, today’s generation of students are creative and collaborative by nature; they don’t know life without connectivity; they multitask; they want positive relationships with their teacher, administrator, or boss; they want things personalized to their interests; and they want to rewrite the rules. They see institutions as irrelevant, and schools are often seen as institutions to them. Understandably, traditional school design hinders how today’s learner want to interact and engage in school.

At Gahanna Lincoln High School, we were facing a challenge: With 2400 students, we were at capacity and had the opportunity to do something creative to provide more space and, at the same time, meet the needs of today’s learner.

With the vision of former Superintendents Gregg Morris and Mark White, along with a team of curriculum coordinators, business directors, and highly qualified teachers, we built Clark Hall. Clark Hall is a 51,000-square-foot, three-story work of art. It doesn’t resemble a typical American high school at all; rather it’s more like an innovative office building. The goal was to create an open, modern, bright space that evokes creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, choice and fun. It houses fourteen classrooms, each with its own conference room, enterprise strength connectivity, natural light, laptops for every student, and collaborative spaces in hallways so students are able to use the entire space for learning.

We traded in the traditional rows of desks and chairs for soft, brightly colored modular furniture, some exercise balls, a few rocking chairs, and a couple of Adirondack chairs. We created two large commons areas that can be used for just about anything we want: smaller classroom space or large presentation space. A few of the classrooms have colorful carpet squares that make up a soft seating area of the sort you might find in a modern coffee house or redesigned university student union. We abandoned the “bargain-basement beige” paint for splashes of primary colors and bright white. We worked with the architects to include as much natural light as possible to evoke energy and creativity.

With flexibility built into the daily schedule, teachers have more time to interact with students on an individual basis, students feel more relaxed and are more compelled to engage in the learning process, and collaboration among students is the norm. Additionally, collaboration among teachers of different content areas has become a natural part of the day because they are not separated by department. We have an art teacher next to AP psychology and personal finance teachers, for example.

Because today’s learners like and need structure, we work with them at the beginning of each school year to develop expectations for the space; as a result, we have few discipline problems. Teachers no longer hover over students to make sure they are on task. Students appreciate the freedom and understand this freedom is a byproduct of responsible behavior.

Clark Hall has inspired change on our main campus as well. One of the main hubs of most schools and universities is the library. We wanted our library to have the same feel as Clark Hall, so our Librarian, Ann Gleek, dreamt big and made some significant improvements. Changes like removing some of the book shelves, painting the walls, and removing some of the traditional furniture have made for a more social, collaborative and inviting environment for students. There is still a quiet room for study, but the largest part of the space is open and collaborative.

Educational reform must include reforming or transforming the physical learning environment. According to Daniel Pink, design is one of the elements of the right brain that we must tap into. We have to look differently at the space we have now and spruce things up… a lot… for the sake of learning.

I will discuss this in more detail as well as its impact on student learning during my presentation at Ignite 2014!

Be great,
Dwight

Dwight Carter (@Dwight_Carter) is principal of Gahanna Lincoln High School in Ohio. Dwight was named an NASSP Digital Principal in 2013. He will be presenting Digitally Creative Learning Environments on Friday, February 7 at Ignite ’14 in Dallas. For more information and to register visit www.nasspconference.org.

Sources:

  • http://apps.americanbar.org/lpm/lpt/articles/mgt08044.html
  • http://fluency21.com/blog/

School Showcase Feature: Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School

For thirty years, the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES) has championed a skills-based approach to secondary education that emphasizes learning to use one’s mind well, solving real problems, and demonstrating mastery of a limited number of essential skills and areas of knowledge. One of the CES’s Ten Common Principles states that “the aphorism “less is more” should dominate: curricular decisions should be guided by the aim of thorough student mastery and achievement rather than by an effort to merely cover content…”

At the Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School, demonstration of student mastery and achievement happens daily as students work with their teacher-coaches to complete assessments and projects in interdisciplinary classes. These individual pieces of work are assessed using school-wide standards and rubrics in thirteen different skill areas. Often students engage in revision after receiving feedback; once their work meets standards, it becomes eligible for inclusion in the student’s portfolio. To advance through Parker’s six-year program of studies, students are required to meet the school’s standards for Divisions I, II, and III, though they may do so at the rate appropriate for their individual development. Students demonstrate mastery of curricular standards in each Division through “Gateway Exhibitions” in which they present and defend their academic portfolios. The final Gateway is graduation, for which students complete special Graduation Portfolios and present a year-long senior project.

Gateway Exhibitions are more than milestones—they’re also an opportunity for reflection and for recognizing that not all learning is captured within the portfolio itself. Here’s a Parker parent talking about her daughter’s Gateway Exhibition in Math/Science/Technology last spring:

“During A’s Gateway this spring, she spent time discussing one of her MST pieces that she failed. She said that she was glad that she had failed because she had learned more from failing than she would have learned if she had succeeded. Not only did she speak articulately about drag and flow and volume, she spoke about learning to ask questions, and that how now she asks questions not only to clarify and extend her learning, but because she is curious!”

Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School will be one of 22 schools featured at the Breaking Ranks School Showcase at Ignite 2014. The Parker team will be presenting Common Principles, Uncommon Results: Whole-School Approach to Authentic Assessment and Inquiry-Based on Thursday, February 6th.

School Showcase Feature: Fossil Ridge Intermediate School

Better. This simple word has characterized and driven the work of the members of the Fossil Ridge learning community. Through this desire to become better, Fossil Ridge has developed a collaborative culture focused on guaranteeing high levels of learning for every one of their students.

Opened in 2003, Fossil Ridge Intermediate has become increasingly diverse over the last several years, with 24% of its students representing minority groups and approximately 50% of its students enrolled in the free and reduced-price meals program.

The root of school improvement at Fossil Ridge lies in the school’s culture. A tremendous amount of work has been put in to aligning the beliefs, behaviors, and practices of the school. This focus on an effective culture has allowed subsequent structural change to flourish and enabled an entire learning community to focus on what matters: improving individualized student learning.

After its culture was firmly established, the work turned to focus on struggling students via a modified bell structure, a new pyramid of interventions, extended learning time for struggling math students, and additional interventions in reading.

Fossil Ridge’s school-wide intervention system provides immediate, specific intervention to identified students who require extra time or more individual assistance in meeting a particular standard or criterion. Students are required to attend specific interventions with other students considered deficient in the same concepts. Students who demonstrate competency for a given week are offered the choice of a variety of other classes designed to provide extra learning opportunities during the REAL Time block.

Over 5 years, Fossil Ridge has seen dramatic increases in student learning with increases of 18-30% on end-of-level assessments and individual subgroups. As a result of this work, Fossil Ridge was selected as a national model Professional Learning Community School by AllThingsPLC.info in 2011.

As further evidence of Fossil Ridge’s high levels of learning, they were recognized as a 2013 National Breakthrough School by the NASSP. Even with a change in leadership and varied personnel, the culture of learning combined with the inherent desire to get better continues to drive the work of this nationally recognized school.

Fossil Ridge Intermediate School will be one of 22 schools featured at the Breaking Ranks School Showcase at Ignite 2014. The Fossil Ridge team will be presenting Preparing for Take-Off: Specific Actions that Make a Difference in Student Learning on Thursday, February 6th.  For more on Fossil Ridge Intermediate, check out the article published in the May 2013 issue of Principal Leadership.