The task was clear: find materials that would work best for the next big innovation at Apple. This would require identifying and classifying metals, non-metals and metalloids based on their properties.
It would require collaboration in teams and the presentation of their findings.
While this might sound like the work of engineers employed by one of the biggest technology companies in the world, it was actually an example of a recent project-based learning lesson in the sixth-grade classroom of McCarroll Middle School science teacher Jessica Murphy.
The scene in the classroom is similar to those in classrooms across the Decatur school district. Students are grouped together, working as a team to come up with solutions to a problem. They use laptops or iPads to research and create presentations.
It’s a long way from sitting in rows of desks, listening to a teacher, taking notes, memorizing facts and taking a test on those facts. The lessons are designed to engage students and teach them skills that will help them succeed in the future.
In many cases, students watch videos of a lecture on a computer at home, then participate in projects at school so they can apply what they’ve learned.
This dramatic change and the increasing use of technology can sometimes create challenges for teachers who want to embrace these new types of teaching methods – but don’t always know the best way to do it.
But this school year, teachers at the middle and high schools have a resource with three “Future Ready specialists.” These curriculum assistants are available to help teachers carry out the district’s mission of “providing a quality education where students will learn digitally, think creatively, and compete globally.”
“Maybe you want to incorporate a brand-new app, but you don’t know exactly how it works. We can come in and show you that,” explained Future Ready math specialist Kaci Cook. “We will co-teach with you. If there is a hard-to-teach or hard-to-learn lesson … and they just really want help planning it and maybe even co-teaching it, sure, that’s what we’ll do.”
Decatur ISD trustees approved the strategic plan that outlined the district’s “Future Ready Project” in April 2012. Since that time, groups of teachers have received “Future Ready training.” The Future Ready specialists work with teachers to expand on that training and be a resource.
“The biggest thing is just helping them,” Cook said. “When they go through the Future Ready training for three days, they leave and then there’s no support. So our role is to step in after they’ve gone through this. … After they are trained, we’re there to touch base with them, to say, ‘Hey what do you want to try? Let us help you make it work.’ Because it can be an endeavor.”
Teachers and administrators from other area schools recently spent the morning in Decatur seeing how the Future Ready Project was being implemented. In the classroom of sixth grade math teacher Angee Morton, students were learning about unit rates and ratios. A real-life scenario was used to help the students grasp the concept.
Their task was to determine the best deal for a group of students taking a long trip. The students looked at the number of people who would be going on the trip, and the possible number of days for the trip, then tried to determine the most cost-efficient way of traveling. They researched the different costs of flying the group to various destinations and calculated other relevant information such as miles per gallon.
Students were learning the required skills as set forth in the state standards, but at the same time, they were applying those skills in a real-life situation.
“They know they are figuring miles per gallon, but they don’t realize they are learning unit rates until they apply that vocabulary term on it. And then they say, ‘I can do that!'” Cook said.
That was a lesson Cook had helped Morton with a few days earlier. It was Morton’s first experience creating a project-based learning lesson from the ground up.
Morton said Cook had been a great help in planning the lesson.
“She helped me create the documents the kids would actually use and then the first day, she helped start it with the ‘knows’ and ‘need to knows,’ because that drives the rest of the project,” Morton said. “So she helped that first day. She came in a couple of times while it was going. The biggest help was just getting it off the ground, getting it started.”
Cook said many teachers have utilized their services. The specialists will often get emails from teachers who talk about an upcoming lesson and ask for ideas. Others haven’t reached out to them yet, and that’s fine, Cook said.
“You just have to be there for when they do come around and they say, ‘You know, I see you’re helping them. I’d like some of that help, too,'” Cook said.
“It’s one of those things as a coach, you can’t force the help. I often say, ‘Hey, check out this resource,’ or ‘I saw this the other day, and I thought about you.’ But I won’t do anything other than that because it really has to be them saying ‘OK, I’m ready to reach out and try something new.'”
Alan Bonner, a Future Ready science specialist, said activities like the one where students imagine they are Apple engineers are designed to allow the kids to have fun – and be engaged – in a lesson.
“The TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) that they have to teach, yes (students) are learning that, but in a way that drives them,” he said. “They think they are just learning about making a cell phone because they are Apple engineers. It’s not the teacher tricking them into learning, but they get what they want, and the kid gets something entertaining out of it, too.”
Cook and Bonner’s positions, as well as Future Ready program specialist Lori Cole’s position, were funded by a grant from the Miles Foundation.
For more information on the district’s Future Ready Project, visit www.wcmess.com/future.