Core Practice 2 in a Performance-based, Student-Centered School

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The following post was written by Bill Zima, principal of Mt. Ararat Middle School in MSAD #75, Topsham. Bill started at Mt. Ararat after working as the assistant principal at Massabesic Middle School in RSU #57, Waterboro, during their beginning transformation to a “standards based system”. Bill has contributed earlier to the Bright Futures blog. He serves on the Maine Association for Middle Level Education board.

It is still dark as the students begin to enter the school following their long, insipid ride on the bus. It is November in Maine. Our students get up before the sun and head to school. As they enter the team hallway, there is a sense of excitement similar to one seen just before a marathon, or an Olympic swimming heat. Although, with far less jiggling of the quadriceps. Students are ready, with visible signs of excitement, to begin the final week of their current project. They are working to design a consumer product based on an adaptation of their chosen animal. They have spent the last few weeks working in their English-Language Arts class on persuasive techniques they will use to sell convince others to fund the production of their invention. In math, they have been studying graphs. In the final project, they will be asked to use and interpret graphs that would support the question, why buy my product? In science they have been studying animal adaptations and how they support an animal’s ability to survive in a given biome. When completed, they will create a display, to include a model of the product, either digitally or real, and reasons as to why their product should be manufactured. Their audience will include students, parents, business and community members and the media who are all invited to The Invention Fair. This is a great example of a performance-based, student-centered project. It is also how teachers can meet Core Practice 2: Teachers use research-based instructional practices in their classrooms that are effective in increasing the learning and achievement of young adolescents.

As middle level educators, we know once the young adolescent becomes engaged, there is little that can stop them, for better or for worse. Research has shown that students are more likely to engage if an activity centers on their interests, is at their level of challenge readiness and involves some level of choice on how the outcome can be demonstrated. As educators we are often worried about how the material will be understood. Spending upwards of 90 % of our planning time making sure the students comprehend the material. A factor receiving far less time, but shown to increase student engagement, is the relevance of the material. What does it mean for them. How does it connect to what they already believe and find interesting? We need to locate the hook and then bring them in. In many cases, hands-on experiences, group discussions, workshops and project-based learning can be that hook.

For students to take academic risks, researchers have shown that the environment needs to be supportive and safe. It takes time to establish such a culture with students. But to feel safe, one must feel valued. Giving students voice on how the classroom operates and choice in how to best demonstrate their learning, are steps that can go a long way to appreciating and accepting your students as individuals. In the words of a student who appeared recently on the NBC program Education Nation. “Tell me something good that I’m doing so that I can keep growing in that.” Students want to feel accepted. Respect what they value and their desire to learn will increase.

Designing a project in a performance-based system requires that the teachers begin with the end in mind. The end, in this case, is not the invention fair. Instead, the end is the specific learning targets, that when grouped together, build an effective unit. Once it is clear what the students need to know or be able to do, the teacher can begin to identify the steps to get to the targets associated with their discipline. Theses steps will be assessed in a formative way, helping the students prepare for the final, or summative assessment, which, in this case, will be judged when applied during the Invention Fair.

Instruction in a student-centered, performance-based classroom, if done correctly, is deeply rooted in best practices. Once we give our students more voice and choice and we redesign our system to reflect a model that supports the statement all students learn in different rates and in different ways, our teachers will be free to create units that will increase the learning and achievement of young adolescents.

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