Editor’s note: A new, ongoing education feature “Slice of Life” will give a glimpse into Ector County schools on Mondays. To nominate a school, email reporter Lindsay Weaver at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jaycin Pruitt, 8, and Annabel Aguilar, 7, sat cross-legged in front of their laptops in the Gonzales Elementary School cafeteria on a recent Wednesday morning.
Jaycin popped up from behind his screen and leaned into Annabel lowering his voice. His eyebrows rose; it hit him.
“Sometimes we don’t even know we’re learning,” he said. A missing-toothed smile formed. “It’s creepy.”
Annabel whipped her head around to look at him, shocked at his description. That short staring contest quickly turned to giggles which quickly turned to getting back to work on their “model citizen” project.
Three of Gonzales’ second-grade classrooms are engrossed in project-based learning this year. They’re a pilot program for the district that is keeping a close eye on their progress and routines, Ector County Independent School District Chief Operations Officer David Finley said. The three new elementary schools ECISD is building will take on elements of project-based learning and incorporate some of the more tangible changes at Gonzales these days, like the furniture.
The three second-grade classes involved (of five total) were divided into small groupings of a few children some sitting on the ground next to long carpet-covered platforms while others read individually with teachers. Still other groups of about 10 children were going through a lesson on the smart board with a different second-grade teacher.
Project-based learning, which is the flagship system of New Tech Odessa, is an alternative way beyond rote memorization that goes through an extended inquiry process to understand a question or challenge. It requires problem solving, collaboration, communication and student independence in making decisions, along with several rounds of revision and reflection all focused to reflect 21st century skills necessary for college and the work place.
Like clockwork, the second-graders bopped into the cafeteria with their laptops inside their backpacks and got straight to work at their stations. Every station focused on this quarter’s project on profiling a famous model citizen, such as Thurgood Marshall and Abigail Adams, and what it means to be a good, American citizen.
Principal Alicia Press is thrilled with the use of one-to-one technology at Gonzales. Every project-based learner student has a laptop for use at school and following some training in digital literacy and digital citizenship the students will be allowed to take the computers home to use.
“They’re very good about it. They come in and get right to work,” Press said.
In 20-minute intervals the students focus on their particular assignment related to the citizen project and will go through two projects each quarter.
“It’s awesome isn’t it?” Assistant Principal Linda Subia said. “This is always what I wanted. It’s really exciting.”
Jaycin and Annabel, who now had to take off their child-size headphones to talk, were playing a vocabulary game “Spelling City.”
“You can write words and learn how to spell the words right,” Annabel explained.
The game is fun, and learning occurs when you least expect it for Jaycin.
“We like it … because… we like it. Each station helps you,” Jaycin said.
By the afternoon, students were back in their home classroom continuing the project-based learning lessons.
Fourth-year teacher Jaclyn Thomas’ class was engrossed in illustrating their model citizens and labeling the drawing with sentences describing their lives.
“They actually put themselves in groups. They drive their learning,” Thomas said, explaining how students come up with what they “need to know” and tell her “’I can’t do a project because I need to know what an American citizen is,’ for example,” Thomas said.
“It’s keeping the kids from learning things they already know,” she said.
Thomas’ classroom looks wildly different from say a Normal Rockwell painting of a traditional classroom. Tables topped with dry erase board material and large cutouts big enough for three children or so to meet fill Thomas’ classroom. There aren’t chairs, but purple stools with curved bases that let the children rock and wobble. Finley, backed by research, has said children need to be allowed to move and that it aids in the learning process.
“They’re more independent. They’re better at working together,” Thomas said. She paused to tell a student “let me have a hug” and assisted in helping the girl and another talk out their issue over the pencil sharpener.
“Go talk to her and y’all work it out,” Thomas said, which they did.
Thomas said Finley specially made the platforms in the cafeteria and she helped to pick out the furniture in her classroom that’s much more flexible in function. They can easily push it against the walls for more space. The stools are almost a revelation to Thomas in how it’s helped her students.
“It’s awesome. If you get a child with the wiggles now they can sit and wiggle and continue their learning. I love them,” Thomas said.
One of Press’ “incredible PTA” members Gina Holder who comes each day to volunteer said the changes at Gonzales have really energized her 7-year-old daughter Kieran.
“She is really excelling. She was getting a little restless already, losing steam. You still have awhile!” Holder said. She said from Press, to the classroom teachers, everyone is focused on the 620 kids at Gonzales.
“The atmosphere is great,” Holder said, adding that having parents on campus helps to put kids at ease. “It’s rewarding every day.”
Follow reporter Lindsay Weaver on Twitter @OAschools.
>> Contact Lindsay Weaver on twitter at @OAschools, on Facebook at OA Lindsay Weaver or call 432-333-7781.