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Leveraging the Community to Broaden Students' Horizons

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7th grade science teacher Melissa Arellano has spent the last several years working to bring deeper learning experiences to students at Sedgefield Middle School in North Carolina's Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools system. Melissa participated in the inaugural teacher co-design cohort for Citizen Schools' new Catalyst initiative, an effort by Citizen Schools to bring its signature afterschool project-based learning approach into the traditional school day with classroom teachers. Melissa's approach to teaching core concepts and social and emotional skills incorporates professionals from the broader community who help her plan and deliver engaging projects that bring rigor, relevance, and joy to her classroom.

Amy Hoffmaster, Managing Director of Program Innovation at Citizen Schools, spoke with Melissa about her unique approach. Their conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

AH: How do you see volunteers as an asset in strengthening the deeper learning experiences you are facilitating with your students?

MA: One reason I was so excited to think about building relevant, authentic projects with real community connections is that it is particularly important to our school at this time as the demographics of our student population are changing considerably with redistricting and we want to ensure that we are meeting the diverse learning needs of all of our students. Bringing in community members from outside the building not only brings a whole lot of energy and fun to our lessons, but also creates opportunities to engage students in a dialogue about ways they can relate to and have agency within our broader community and vice versa.

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AH: One challenge I have wondered about is how to integrate volunteers meaningfully into lesson preparation. I imagine that meaningful co-planning, where possible, would support a better partnership when volunteers show up to work with students. What strategies would you recommend teachers employ as they look to integrate community volunteers in lesson preparation and delivery?

MA: Volunteers come in with subject matter expertise and so much passion for imparting that to students! We can help them hit the ground running in co-planning by sharing how our learning goals for a particular project aligns with the concepts we've built to that point in the year. Even teachers can struggle to manage their instruction, as they come up the curve on all the details of grade level standards--we certainly can't expect non-teaching professionals to know this stuff!

If we can set volunteers up for success, I see a lot of potential in volunteers collaborating in the planning process. Honestly, there are always those topics that teachers don't look forward to covering, either because they are more challenging concepts or they have limited resources to make learning engaging for students. Volunteers bring new energy and creativity to the planning process that can result in students really getting into these projects--and they can build that same energy for teachers.

AH: How are collaborative problem-solving skills supported through facilitating hands-on project learning with volunteers?

MA: These projects offer students agency in their own learning and opportunities to think critically and actively work through real world challenges collaboratively. For example, one of the volunteers in my class supported students who were preparing to share their science projects in the community science fair. Those students needed some extra support customizing the designs of their projects and preparing to share their work using effective communication. They practiced answering audience questions about their investigation with the volunteer and received specific, contextualized feedback on what they could do to improve their presentations and responses as they prepared to share their work with the community.

This approach to teaching reflects the culture of our school, our strengths, and the high bar we know students in our school can meet and exceed. For my students it starts with building self-awareness and the ability to think of themselves as scientists, not just kids sitting in a classroom. It sets up a pattern of the students having their own voice and making key decisions about the direction of the project. In some cases my students even challenged my initial ideas about what the projects would focus on by advocating for their particular interests.

AH: Your school serves a large English Language Learner (ELL) population. How do you see this approach to teaching and learning fitting with the unique needs and strengths of these students?

MA: All middle school students, given everything that is going on for them developmentally, struggle to engage at times. This is especially true if they are also learning a new language on top of the concepts we are covering in any subject area.. There are various ways for students to participate in projects based on their strengths and to support their growth, including verbal, visual, and experiential methods; offering students agency and choice in selecting their projects; and offering topics that are relevant to their interests and values.

I have seen my ELL students seem to come out of their shells after they have success in their projects. These projects are a catalyst for students to become more involved, as if they realize "if I can do what everyone else did on this project, I can be an active participant in other classes."  

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