It was impressive viewing the presentation by some of the administrative team about their experiences with High Tech High at Tuesday’s Radford City School Board meeting.
As you watched, you could feel their enthusiasm for the goals they have set and their love of students, teachers and instruction.
In an education world that seems to be hyper-focused on standardized testing, it is natural to question anything that deviates from a cookie-cutter approach to teaching skills that students need to regurgitate on a multiple-choice test to get so many VIP points toward accreditation, but Radford sees the need for that deviation.
No, they are not forgetting about the SOL’s; they are looking at better paths by which to achieve them.
They have committed to having students possess 21st-century skills that will prepare them for the jobs of the future, many of which do not exist today.
It is predicted that most people will have multiple careers over their working lives in the future, and they may vary as new technology comes into use.
Workers need to have those “soft skills” to be able to, for example, work as part of a team, communicate, adapt, compromise and solve problems.
They will need to evaluate independently as well as part of a team, be able to make connections based on prior knowledge and hypotheses, and they will need to be self-starters.
Everything the Radford educators discussed revolved around student-centered learning. Yes, there is a defined curriculum that covers the material needed to achieve local, state and federal achievement standards, but the approach and pacing might be different based on the student or groups of students.
They talked about observing problem based learning, which is described as “students working on a collaborative project over time that engages them in solving a real-world problem or answering a complex question. They demonstrate their knowledge and skills by developing a public exhibition or presentation for a real audience.”
Principal Tara Grant and Assistant Principal Ken Keister shared the methodology from the “launch” of the process to multiple opportunities to assess ideas and revise, right through the exhibition (sharing) and reflection on the project. Throughout the unit the students are interacting with others, evaluating, revising and assessing.
This is the type of thing adults do on the job all the time, and through the process, they are learning new information. Grant emphasized that the learning is “meaningful to them (students); it’s motivating. They care about it.”
Mike Brown, the principal at McHarg, noted that the students get basic instruction that the Problem Based Learning builds on later.
Jerry King, principal at Dalton Intermediate, said in math, students get direct instruction in formulas or algorithms that they may use later in a project.
Ellen Denny, Executive Director for Curriculum and Instruction, shared how skills in writing and text analysis are taught using “To Kill A Mockingbird” as an example.
They also talked about Performance Based Assessment. An important point is that assessment goes on throughout the learning process—it is not a one-time occurrence at the end.
They also looked at ideas like group tests, allowing students to retake tests, digital portfolios, one-on-one teacher check-ins and many others.
Exhibitions of Learning have specific steps for the sharing of projects. They include concepts such as marketing, technology, curation, presentation coaches, documentation, reflection, etc., which are all real-world skills.
Authentic, Real-World Learning focused on relevance, skills that can be applied to every area of life, student achievement measured in various ways, and students graduating prepared for continuing education and/or the world of work.
In the High Tech High program they visited, all juniors participate in internships. They work with mentors in off-campus professional organizations for four weeks (daily, 30 hrs/week).
Denny talked about how changing the high school schedule in Radford will allow students to access an internship and be able to work courses around that apprenticeship.
Student-Led Conferences have students lead rather than teachers, so they have a “better understanding of the correlation between their effort, progress, and quality of work. Students and teachers prepare together, and then the students lead the conference while teachers facilitate.” It is a powerful way for students to take ownership of their education. They are accountable and part of the team—student, parents and teachers—all working together.
They certainly brought back a lot of “food for thought” from High Tech High.
Problem or Project Based Learning requires the integration of subject areas. Denny pointed out that elementary students and teachers have been doing this through STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) units already. Integrative Education is going to be a significant professional development focus for all grade levels next year in Radford.
Integrating subject matter maximizes the instructional time students and teachers have. It helps students see the natural, real-world relationships between topics and makes all instruction more meaningful. Students retain information longer and learn to make connections.
The instructional synergy with integration is so much greater than teaching individual curriculum strands in isolation.
On the secondary level, Denny pointed out the concept of “smashing” English and history together to create a humanities course. Some teachers have done this in the past with research papers, for example. Just expand that idea by totally integrating American literature and U. S. history, for example.
Students learning about the colonial period might read “The Scarlet Letter.” They may study the “Declaration of Independence” during the revolutionary period. The Great Depression and “The Grapes of Wrath,” Jim Crow laws and segregation in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Common Sense,” the “Leatherstocking Tales,” “Walden,”—connections between history and literature are endless.
Reading analysis, writing, math, science—from environmental studies to constructing tiny houses—opportunities for integration abound throughout intermediate school and high school.
Two of the reasons why Radford is looking to change its high school schedule and professional development relate directly to providing that collaborative planning time for teachers and time for student-business apprenticeships.
In addition to integrative education on the elementary level, there will be a focus on math instruction with the new math text/program being introduced.
Radford is making student engagement in learning “relevant, relatable, and rigorous” by employing cutting-edge instructional practices that will help students have the best academic background possible with the ability to compete in the 21st-century economy.
It’s the best of both worlds, academic excellence and teacher creativity, integrated with a student-centered mindset.
Radford City is a place where “A Brave New World” meets “Great Expectations.”
Perhaps in a humanities class soon!
Steve Frey is a writer and CEO of Ascendant Educational Services in Radford.