Innovate 54 teams helping to ensure student success
Addams Junior High School students were given an assignment last spring: Come up with ways to make the transition from elementary to middle school easier for incoming seventh-graders.
They talked about reasons students might be nervous about coming to junior high, such as getting lost and following a schedule, and developed solutions. Some students created videos. Some devised maps. Some interviewed teachers. One group devised temporary tattoos of schedules that students could affix to their arms and refer to as they moved through their day.
“They were so motivated to complete the work, and so proud of what they created,” said Stefanie Veit, a language arts teacher at Addams Junior High and a member of the school’s Innovate 54 team.
The Addams project was a deep learning task, in which students explore real-world challenges and create projects that address solutions to those problems. District 54 students will be participating in more deep learning tasks, also known as Project-Based Learning, as the district’s new Innovate 54 teams explore the District 54 Strategic Plan’s focus on “Cultivating Innovation in Learning Space and Instructional Design.”
The Innovate 54 teams were formed at the recommendation of the district’s 70-member Instructional Innovation Task Force. The teams include 10 to 12 teachers and administrators at each elementary and junior high school, including the school’s Learning Resource Teacher.
This fall, the Innovate 54 teams began an intensive, ongoing professional development around the core principles of 21st century learning and innovative teaching practices emphasizing student development of communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking skills (often called the 4C’s). Innovate 54 teams also have been charged with writing and reflecting on the implementation of Project-Based Learning lessons.
In addition to deep learning tasks, the Innovate 54 teams are also exploring technology as an accelerator to learning, and focusing on teachers acting as facilitators or guides to student learning.
“The ultimate goal of all of this is for our students to function as autonomous, individual learners that can manage the learning process for themselves,” said District 54 Associate Superintendent Dr. Nicholas Myers, who is leading the district’s work with the Innovate 54 teams.
Hale Literacy Coach and Innovate 54 team member Jennifer Clark noted that everyone is excited about trying new tools and techniques and integrating them into their classrooms.
“The Innovate 54 task force is really answering the question of why we’re doing what we’re doing,” said John Siemieniec, Hale’s Learning Resource Teacher and a member of the school’s Innovate 54 team.
Technology as enhancement
At their October meeting, Innovate 54 team members from across District 54 spent the morning trying out innovative teaching and learning tools.
They donned virtual reality goggles to explore various environments, including the landscape surrounding Dorothea Lange’s well-known photograph of a mother and her children during the Great Depression. In the augmented reality environment they took apart a car and examined details of its design, and they solved math problems and annotated texts on the interactive touch screens.
According to Learning Transformed, by Eric C. Sheninger and Thomas C. Murray, when implemented well, technology can close achievement gaps and dramatically improve learning outcomes. Well-trained and supported teachers equipped with powerful technology can revolutionize teaching and learning, they note.
“We lead with learning and the learning goals. The technology simply exists as an accelerator to that process,” Myers told the teams prior to their exploration of the new tools. “Let’s dig deeper to find different ways to use it to truly bring learning to life. We know kids can be highly collaborative with technology they have at their fingertips — we need to be very intentional with that.”
Technology makes the creative process more feasible for more students, allowing them to demonstrate their learning in a variety of ways such as through video, multimedia presentations, visual displays, podcasts and artistic creations, Myers said.
The teams spent the afternoon at their October meeting discussing Future Ready Classrooms, which is the redesign of learning environments to engage students and enable enhanced delivery of the curriculum. They also worked in teams to design their ideal learning space.
On November 9 the teams worked with Learning Transformed co-author Thomas C. Murray. At the end of November the district will launch its STEM Leader Corps partnership with Discovery Education. Administrators and instructional coaches will be trained in December, and Innovate 54 team members will begin their three-year training in spring 2019.
Impact of innovation
Members of the Innovate 54 teams say they are already seeing the results of the work to redefine education in District 54. For example, students are collaborating and persisting at deep learning tasks.
Hale students are incredibly excited about the deep learning tasks, Siemieniec said.
“They’re really dreaming so big — we guide them into what’s attainable at this point,” he said. “The kids are highly motivated, I’m highly motivated.”
When Hale students were tasked with creating an item out of cardboard in their Makerspace (a dedicated area in each elementary school where students can engage in the engineering design process) two students told him they wanted to make a Tic-Tac-Toe game. When Siemieniec asked them to tell him more about what they had in mind, they explained that they wanted to make a version of the game featuring hearts and kidneys to give to a friend who was in the hospital with cancer.
“That’s why you become a teacher — to get to work with kids like that,” he said.
Blackwell School art teacher Melissa Gluskin, a member of the school’s Innovate 54 team, said she has seen student collaboration skyrocket as they explore more open-ended questions and engage in creative work, such as building construction paper habitats and constructing cardboard creations. As the students work together, they are teaching one another and refining their ideas.
“It’s a new take on learning in that students are able to have unique ideas and collaborate and think critically,” she said. “All of those elements are being brought together through project-based learning. The students have the free space to talk and to share and know it’s accepted. I feel like (this approach) really empowers all learners so they can take ownership of their work in a way that’s meaningful to them.”
Gluskin said that after the students created paper habitats in art, one student responded to his teacher’s writing prompt about how they shine that week by talking about the project. At first his team didn’t agree, he wrote, but they came together as a group and were successful.
Blackwell Principal Jillian Sagan noted that deep learning tasks give students who might struggle in math or reading a chance to shine, and they also provide staff an opportunity to look at their students in a different light.
“Before, we were looking at getting them ready for the next grade or for high school,” she said. “Now it’s about how we get them to be people who will contribute to society and be successful in life. That’s how we’re approaching our instruction.”
Earlier this year students were given paper and tape and worked in teams to build and test a bookshelf.
“Some failed — but our philosophy is failure leads to success, and they tried again and again. At the end of it the whole room was working together,” said Blackwell Learning Resource Teacher and Innovate 54 team member Karen Buzek. “It was this huge collaborative activity.”
Exciting developments are ahead as the district seeks to cultivate innovation in learning space and instructional design. Innovate 54 team members said it’s an exciting time to be an educator — and a student — in District 54.
“Everyone is so excited about the work — when we bring that energy into our classrooms, our kids will pick up on that energy and feel the same,” said Lauren Patano, an Addams P.E. teacher and Innovate 54 team member.
“Instilling these life skills in my students is going to help them be lifelong learners,” said Blackwell third-grade teacher and Innovate 54 team member Marissa Hopkins. “Those concepts, those ideas, those traits help students be successful, and that’s ultimately what we’re helping them to be.”