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Seeing is Believing Tour, Part IV

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By Christine Smith, Principal, Walt Clark Middle School

Our earlier posts took you to Bill Reed Middle School and Mountain View High School; in this post, we cover a recent visit to another Thompson School District destination in Loveland, Colorado. 

In the language arts class at Walt Clark Middle School (WCMS), a student rolls out a wide sheet of paper and sketches her plans for an amusement park based on 'The Hunger Games.' In the science room, students choose a 'mystery river' and dive in to figure out why the ecosystem isn't thriving.

As part of their math class, groups of students design restaurants. They analyze recipes, ponder food safety issues, create menus, set budgets, develop catchy names, and cook sample dishes. Featured items include spicy cheeseburgers and Oreo milkshakes. Sliced spuds sizzle in the bottom of a pan for a team developing an eatery that will be known as The Potato Parlor. The twist on the potato concoction? A special brown gravy.

How is it that a math class is being held in a room that might be more suitable for teaching home economics? Math teacher Christine Tabor explains that the students calculated all their costs, tracked the per-unit price of each item, and decided what to charge for the whole meal before printing up the menu. Soon the students will create advertisements for their restaurant.

Math, language arts, teamwork, problem-solving, creative thinking--all in one project. 

"Engagement levels are high," says Tabor. The proof of her assertion can be seen in the excited huddles around the stove as dishes come together--and the excited students peppering her with questions. "They are really invested in this, because they're creating this restaurant and they will own it."

The multi-disciplinary projects at WCMS, says Assistant Principal Christine Manzanares, are part of the school's effort to provide as many opportunities as possible for kids to seek out and personalize their learning. The more such projects and classrooms incorporate the personalized touch, she adds, "the more likely we're going to hit the mark about helping them reach their own individual goals."

WCMS recently (Thursday, March 8) hosted the tenth stop in Thompson School District's ongoing 'Seeing is Believing' tour, which is giving district- and school-based leadership a chance to observe the district's push toward personalized learning in all schools. 

Walt Clark incorporates a focus on STEM and critical 21st-century skills through inquiry-based lessons and projects. Teachers collaborate on instruction and share data to ensure students reach grade-level expectations. A lack of growth, even in students who've reached proficient and advanced levels, is not tolerated. 

A special 'Plus' model gives teachers release time from their teaching duties for a full day every six weeks to work with the school's Plus facilitator who provides the needed professional development for each instructional team.

The Plus team's work always starts with student academic performance. Grade-level teams of teachers use a variety of educational performance data to determine what specific skill levels need shoring up and also decide on what kinds of project-based, interdisciplinary options to offer students. Each grade level's journey takes a slightly different shape, says Manzanares.

More and more, the school is emphasizing hands-on, project-based learning. The school celebrates and supports as much as possible those students who engage in the science fair, from projects ranging from hydrodynamics to improving identity theft protection in mobile phones.

In one class, students organized an anti-smoking campaign, complete with informational posters, social media messaging, videos, and an active pledge campaign that they presented to the whole student body based on their newfound understandings about the dangers of nicotine. Another group developed plans for a water filtration project. Other students are studying human anatomy in the context of sports medicine. Budding journalists publish a student newsletter called The Cougar Connect. And a pair of students produced a stop-action Lego movie about adventurers headed to outer space.

The hands-on, STEM-based, project-based learning "pushes me to be creative in different ways," says sixth-grader Caislee Hull. 

"It's really fun to have choices," says eighth-grader Catherin Schadegg, "And you get to train those 21st-century skills we are going to need." 

More and more, students enter class knowing they have a role in selecting what they want to read or study. "I really like it," says seventh-grader Jacob Aldrich between hiccups. He is working on the book-to-amusement park project and chose R.L. Stine's 'Beast From the East.' "It's really fun. We get to pick one of these (books) and then we get to build our park out of it so it's really fun. I'm more of a hands-on learner ... you think more about the subject. That's how it feels to me."

Personalized learning is not yet thoroughly embedded in every classroom or in every minute of learning at WCMS, but it's getting there. "I won't say it's full-on personalized learning yet," says Kelly Parks, the school's Coordinator for Gifted & Talented Students. "But we now have people that are feeling brave enough and confident that once they hear other people doing it, they try something too. We know it's not always going to go perfectly, but that that's okay; we adjust and reflect."

She noted that other teachers are starting to see it's not something to be afraid of. "Try it--you might like it," Parks said. "If it doesn't work the first time, there's another opportunity to do it again later, and there's a lot of communication between the teams to do that."

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