‘Redesigned’ classes empowering students, high school educators say

jjacobs@macon.comJune 2, 2009 

Teachers and administrators in Hawkinsville and Columbus say they are getting more comfortable with teaching students in a different way.

Mary Royal at Hawkinsville High School and Jim Arnold at Shaw High School say they look forward to continuing what’s called the high school redesign, a format that aims to better engage students in the learning process. Hawkinsville just wrapped up its first year while Shaw finished its second year.

The redesign initiative is backed by the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, and its goals include:

Ÿ Helping teachers design and invent engaging student work;

Ÿ Improving student achievement and high school graduation rates;

Ÿ Developing teachers as leaders, focused on the core business of the school;

Ÿ Providing educators with processes and strategies for systemic and continuous change.

The forces behind the initiative, according to Allene Magiill, the association’s executive director, were high school dropout and graduation rates, as well as a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Report, “High Schools That Work.”

The report called for a restructuring of the nation’s high schools, saying they weren’t properly preparing students for today’s workplace.

Ricky Clemmons, assistant director for the redesign initiative, said 14 schools in Georgia took part this school year. Next year, 19 more have signed up, including all of them in Gordon County in north Georgia.

‘UNAWARE THEY WERE LEARNING’

“Some of our teachers bought strongly into the idea,” Royal said. “I’m hoping their enthusiasm will help bring the others along.”

Teachers in many disciplines have incorporated redesign strategies into their classes.

For instance, in a world history class, students created a museum, with different groups creating an exhibit.

“The museum is like a timeline. Students did the research and chose the format,” Royal said. “It engaged them, and they all seem to be multitaskers.”

Such work plays into the interests of students today who, because of their lifetime familiarity with computers, are commonly called “digital natives.” Teachers are challenged to engage students, many of whom can jump easily from one topic to another, she said.

“Some learn better when they are engaged, while others do well enough in more traditional ways of listening to lectures and taking notes.”

One of the keys for educators, she said, is to find what learning styles students are successful with.

Teachers are gathered in cadres, and each group shares information on strategies used that seem to resonate with the students.

Social studies teacher Gary Andrews said teachers have to improvise a lot with lesson plans to find approaches that will engage the students in learning.

As an example, he used this past fall’s Pulaski County Bicentennial Cemetery Ramble at Orange Hill and Pine Bloom cemeteries. Students dressed in period costumes to portray Hawkinsville residents buried there and told their stories.

“The community was involved, and students had to research their characters and dress appropriately,” Andrews said. Student teams were graded.

“They weren’t bored, and most of them liked teamwork and the shared grades,” he said. “They learned more, had fun and sometimes it seemed they weren’t aware they were learning.”

For next year, Royal said, the school is looking for design teams to come up with engaging strategies across the curriculum. They’ll be tried, assessed and tweaked if necessary.

But before the next school year starts, Royal and others will give a presentation on their experiences this school year at PAGE’s summer conference June 19-21 in Atlanta.

RAISING EXCITEMENT LEVELS

Arnold, in Columbus, said at first he wasn’t completely convinced about the redesign, but “it had a relationship with reality” that soon pulled him in.

Of the 82 teachers on staff, 48 were participating in the redesign this past year, he said. The school plans to offer staff development opportunities again in the coming year.

He’s optimistic all of them will embrace redesign because students are now asking for it.

A mathematics class was discussing different polygon shapes, and the teacher decided to use cell phones to bring the lesson home.

“Students were out in the hall taking pictures of various shapes and designs, and they had to bring her a picture of a rhombus,” he said. “They got excited about that because the lesson used a familiar item coupled with their creativity.

The lesson helped students take responsibility for their learning and made them feel it was their education, he said.

“I do know after two years the excitement level in classes is up for teachers and students,” he said. “The redesign is worth it to me just for that.”

Another advocate, social studies department head Angie Jacobson, said one benefit she’s noticed is a decrease in discipline referrals.

“To see students enjoying class is very empowering to a teacher,” Jacobson said, adding another benefit she’s noticed is a growing camaraderie among teachers, who use each other for help and guidance more than in the past.

A springtime project in economics, “Promonomics,” was prominently displayed on the wall outside the class where Jacobson and Ruth Caton teach. Students used lessons in supply and demand, marketing and retail and cost management to construct a huge graph that showed the impact of the prom on the local economy. Students covered aspects such as prom dresses, hairstyles and nails, corsages, limousine rentals, cost of dinner and photos to gain a better understanding of their buying power, Jacobson said.

Senior Cortez Reeves said the project gave him more motivation to learn.

“We were able to express ourselves and use our personality in the work,” Cortez said. “Economics was fun, and for once I looked forward to coming to class.”

To contact writer Jake Jacobs, call 923-6199, extension 305.

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