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Back-to-School Project – Corridor Class 5

ITE BACK TO SCHOOL LOGOWhat is the Back To School Project?

We place community and business members back into high school as students to:

  • provide them a new and fresh perspective by “walking in the shoes” of real students
  • better understand the opportunities and challenges facing schools, teachers, and students
  • add their voice to the education conversation in the Corridor
  • better connect business/community with Corridor educators
  • provide a stronger platform from which they can speak to educational issues

The rules are simple: Participants commit to a 1/2 day as a student and a 1/2 day to debrief and agree to not publicly divulge which school they attended. In turn, the schools agree to place them in some core classes and give them unfettered access to the student experience.

Picture 6The Experience:

This class represented the fifth group of community members to be a part of our Back To School Project. This group brought a diverse set of experiences and perspectives to the Project and each had a different classroom experience. The class included:

  • Nicole Forsythe, Librarian- Kirkwood Community College
  • Mary Morrisey, Retired, former United States Post Office employee
  • Sandra Fancher, Managing Partner, MedTouch
  • Amber O’Connor, Business Developer, Options of Linn County
  • Brett Faine, Pharmacist, University of Iowa
  • Chuck Swore, Former City Council member

Facilitators: Shawn Cornally and Carly McClary

Debrief Question #1:  Talk about your experience as a “student” in the Back-to-School Project. How did you feel, what did you see?

After each participant shared their experience, the group identified the recurring themes and comments that stood out in their conversation together.

  • Wide range of engagement. Depending on the class, teacher and student, there were many different levels of engagement that our team noticed. Some said that teachers had students engaged with games and flying markers or offering students snacks. Others saw a more traditional lecture style environment with relatively low engagement or interest on the behalf of both students and the teacher. Our team said for both the highly engaging and the low, it was a pretty instantaneous read on the engagement when walking into the class. Some students would actively engage and some would remain quietly in their seats. It was obvious to our team that the teachers who exuded the most passion for the subject generally had more kids engaged and interested.
  • Students are all at different levels. This class noticed a broad spectrum of student achievement. Some of the kids obviously understood the material while others were visibly struggling. They noticed it seemed difficult for the teachers to find the “right” amount of time to delegate to a certain topic before moving on. Some of our group mentioned that in a particular class one student clearly understood the material and engaged with the discussion, while the other students sat silently in frustration.
  • Technology. Technology played a big role in the day for our participants. An exceptional use one participant experienced a PE class with complete interactivity to an electronic board and hand-held devices for the students. Most, however, noted that technology was underutilized or malfunctioned at some point. In some schools, the students all had individual devices. Our team gathered they rarely used them or if they were used, it was in lieu of a traditional means such as an overhead. “Faculty warned me that I may see some students playing games on them, and that the discipline for this was still being debated,” one participant mentioned upon receiving a device for the day. Another facet of technology we discussed was cell phone usage of students. Many of our participants felt the students had no issues using their cell phones and took their own initiative in using them whenever they wanted with no punishment. Others saw the students they shadowed use them minimally at only at their lockers, while some had bans on cell phones entirely. The group all acknowledged the importance of technology as a means of accessing information, but felt that using cell phones for personal use in the middle of class was a distraction.

  • School pride. The allegiance of the students to their school was striking. Some of our group noted that the students identified their school as a community in itself, and generalized their entire student body as a particular group of society. “They all seemed very proud of their school and acted as a united student body. I was impressed that they were so self-aware of their unique school culture and really respected the other students and teachers as part of their team.” The students talked about their school with a sense of pride, and a large portion of them wore school attire. When referencing their school, their comments radiate positivity, contrasting the less than enthusiastic comments regarding particular “boring” classes.

  • Structure. Our group noticed a profound lack of change to the structure of schools. “It’s very quick. I sometimes wonder how you grasp that at 16 years old. One of the teachers said to me, ‘sometimes we forget as teachers that students don’t have time to regroup or reset.’” Our participants came to the conclusion that the rigid formality of 8 periods a day isn’t exactly the most conducive to high levels of critical thinking and discovery. They felt that the students were corralled and required to “turn on” and “turn off” a particular subject with high frequency. With this, they mentioned the exhaustion they felt even as a shadow. They recognized that for both the teachers and students, it seemed the day was rushed to fill all of the requirements at the expense of exploring a particular interest further or interaction. They also drew few correlations between this type of structure and the real world job market.

Debrief Question #2:  Compare/contrast similarities/differences to your personal high school experience.

  • Teacher-Student relationships. A majority of our participants noted that the relationship between the student and the faculty in many instances was more casual than in their experience. One team member had nuns as instructors and was pleasantly surprised to see teachers interacting with students more as mentors than tyrants. “It was obvious the staff took the time to get to know the students. They treated them more from the perspective of a mentor than a dictator, but still held the students’ respect. It was a great balance.”

  • Grading systems the same. The majority of our team mentioned that there has been little changed to the system of grades and ranking of students.

  • Schedule the same. Our participants were a little surprised by the lack of change to the schedule of school. One mentioned of the schedule, “I could have walked my schedule the same way. The class experience and the time are very similar to the speed of the day when I went.” As mentioned earlier, the structure of the day was fairly rigid, with most of the teachers and subjects kept isolated from each other.
  • Teacher passion. Many of our participants felt that compared with their experiences in high school, teachers now have a more exciting class. Many comments were made with our group being impressed with how engaging the teachers were compared to what they remembered from their rigid and boring teachers in high school. “There was a lot more interaction than typical instruction than I had anticipated and remember from my own experience.”

Debrief – Question #3: Given your experiences, what are your recommendations for transforming education?

Comparing their school experience with the things they identified as critical for success, the group identified recommendations for transforming the current school systems they saw. These suggestions were drawn up through discussions of what a completely reconstructed school environment would look like. Our participants thought about creating the learning environments best for kids in the Creative Corridor and how to implement that in schools like the ones they visited. In no particular order, here are the main ideas they identified transforming school:

  • Real-world applications. The teachers do a good job of assessing the student’s work, but beyond the school walls, there is little concern for what the students are doing. If the community had a more vested interest in what the students were doing, our participants feel that the student achievement would be higher.

  • Sense of community. The relationship between staff, students and parents is critical. Our participants feel that if the parent role were to be bigger, the students and staff would have a better understanding of how to reach the highest student achievement possible. One said, “I think it would be awesome if at the beginning of the school year, every family could meet with the counselor and talk about the options for each individual student. Parents should be involved in what their kids are learning and kids should have a choice in the classes they take.”

  • Interest-driven learning. Individual students have a vast range of personal interests. The team noted that while it can be difficult to address and follow each individual passion every student has, it is important to embrace what the students are interested in learning. “There’s got to be a better combination of stuff students want to learn about and what they are required to learn about. You have to trim the fat on what’s not important, and let them learn what they’re interested in for their future.”
  • Student choice. Our participants noted that while there were more options for classes than their own high school experiences, the choices still seem limited. One of their recommendations is to have a more wide variety of options for the students to choose from beyond the required. “If you have a student with an interest in engineering or business, let’s have them do something with that! Engage the students.” Also, within the classroom, tangents should be welcomed, our team noted. Rather than sticking to what’s on a worksheet, if the students have a galvanized interest in a particular topic or subject, those interests should be able to be pursued.

  • Improved means of assessment. As many of us know, grades have changed little in the last few decades. If anything, they have become more rigidly defined and assessed. By the same token, AP classes and standardized tests seem to hold a significance that our team couldn’t quite understand. What does placing value on these figures do for the student’s achievement and future? What would happen if they were assessed on the content they learned and not how they scored on a single exam? Though our team couldn’t exactly articulate what a new grading system would look like, they came to the conclusion that the current system of evaluations doesn’t necessarily reward the skills needed in the current job markets. “How can you take a subject that might not pertain to your future ever again, but learn the tools that will help you no matter what? Learning those tools is more important than a letter grade,” one participant mentioned.

  • Block scheduling. Our participants noted that the time frames set by the rotating classes of the day at times became a hindrance to discovery. Many noted a lot of time wasted on topics, one saying, “in one class, I would say that 1/4 of the time was spent actively engaging.” Whether the time was used effectively or not, our team said students seem constricted into 45 minute increments per subject, then sent on to the next. On rushing students from class to class, one of our participants said, “I don’t know that slamming them with everything under the sun is the best way- it’s hard to know how they respond to that stress.” Our team suggested block scheduling in lieu of 8 periods a day.
  • Multi-sensory topics. Rarely does one subject actually stay within the confines of that single subject. Our participants noticed on many occasions throughout their experience that there was integration of multiple topics within just one class. English crossed into history, foreign languages into math, and gym class into technology. In lieu of keeping these all separate, our participants felt that embracing these multi-sensory topics and possibly allowing cross-credit would both broaden the scope of learning and allow discussions to “dig deeper.”

  • Different class integration. Much like with the integration of different subjects, our team noticed a strong segregation of classes. Rarely were there a sophomore and a senior paired in one class at one time. Our team recommended allowing different grades to integrated more. One participant noted, “they are all at different levels of achievement. If a younger student is ready for more difficult content, they should be encouraged to explore more advanced levels. Likewise if an older student is struggling with content. They shouldn’t be pigeon-holed into a certain class just because of their age.”

  • Job shadows/college mentors. The participants noted time and time again that to best prepare the students for their careers and secondary education, learning outside of the classroom would have immense benefits. Some suggestions for gaining real world experience were to allow students into work environments as a job shadow or have mentors in a particular career field of their interest. They noted that when entering college, most students don’t have a firm grasp of the career path they want or which major to choose. Allowing the students time to get a feel for their future career and to meet industry professionals gives them a better sense of what their future holds.

  • Focus on students, not the business of the school. An interesting point brought up by one of the participants was the view of students as monetary gain/loss into and out of a particular district. Choice should be a priority for parents and students in choosing the type of learning environment that best suites the child. Some of our group through personal experiences feel that students are not encouraged to actively pursue alternate or secondary forms of education for fear of reducing a district’s enrollment.

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