After the school board meeting was opened, and the agenda was approved, the board turned the discussion to representatives from the middle school for the Spencer Middle School (SMS) Lighthouse Session, held jointly with the school board and School Improvement Advisory Committee.
Pat Hamilton, SMS Principal, opened the session by introducing Tammy Delaney, Tessa Hemann and Becky Koenig, middle school teachers and Instructional Mentor Coaches (IMCs). He then shared that the emphasis of this year’s Lighthouse was based off data of what was already happening in the building and tying it together to make an impact with the students.
“Authentic Intellectual Work (AIW) is our professional development plan at Spencer. It is a template for how we write curriculum. We went through our AIW scores, and something that we saw consistently that wasn’t scored at all, was Value Beyond School (VBS),” said Hamilton. VBS is basically how to relate what is taught to real life. Hamilton added, “How do we connect the curriculum that we deliver to our students, and how can they connect that once they leave school? We set up our building goal based on VBS, AIW and trying to make an impact with our students.”
“Our first goal was that each of the grade level teams would do a Project Based Learning (PBL) project, and it would score a four on VBS, meaning the project impacted somebody outside of the classroom. The second part of our goal was that each teacher would revise something they currently have, such as an anchor task, to score a four on VBS. So, they are taking one thing that they are already doing and connecting that to students’ lives outside of school. We decided to implement PBL to accomplish the goals.” In preparation, a team of teachers visited New Tech High in Sioux Falls, a school that is solely based on PBL. Everything they do is wrapped around getting kids engaged in projects.
Koenig, the 8th grade IMC, shared about the planning and preparation that went into making PBL a reality at each grade level, and Hemann, the 7th grade IMC, shared about the 21st Century Skills gained by implementing PBL. The best-practice skills, including collaboration, communication, creativity, critical thinking, productivity and accountability, are used nationwide and adopted by the Common Core. “These skills need to be fostered or developed a bit more, and we thought this would be a great way to start improving the skills and getting students to start thinking about them early on,” said Hemann.
According to Delaney, the 6th grade IMC, each grade level looked at the different skills and determined those from which the students could benefit most. Each grade level also used a consistent rubric to assess the skills exemplified through the project and presentation, and the students evaluated themselves on areas of strength and areas of improvement. While there were some roadblocks and challenges like time management, getting students and teachers out of their comfort zone and collaboration issues, the overall impact of PBL was tremendously positive, felt both by the teachers and students. Students were motivated by their projects and topics, and they wanted to learn more.
The emphasis on 21st Century Skills is truly preparing students for the future and allowing them to do their own thinking. Teachers provided the framework, but the students were expected to work at their own pace and timing. They increased the content of what they were learning and were able to present to an authentic audience of other students, staff, parents and community members.
All middle school staff present were thankful for support from administration and the school board to allow this type of project to be launched successfully, and because of PBL, the goal of increasing scores relating to VBS tasks was accomplished. With high scores, the students are seeing the benefits too.