The Van Meter Schools have long been an incubator for innovation. Van Meter was one of our earliest districts to implement a 1-to-1 student computing initiative and also was one of the first districts in Iowa to be named an Apple Distinguished School.
More recently, Van Meter has been diving deeply into project-based learning, standards-based grading, competency-based education, and flexible, modular schedules in which students can exercise some choice and determine how much time they need to spend on their various learning endeavors. Van Meter’s work in the area of student competencies is especially impressive. Eventually, the district hopes to identify a comprehensive, interdisciplinary set of standards that all high school students need – plus an additional 6 to 10 competencies or dispositions – and these will become the district’s graduation requirements. Students will be able to take multiple pathways to get there, including projects, traditional coursework, online classes, and anything else that feeds into the district’s profile of a graduate. The hope is that most students will be able to complete these by junior year and then will be able to spend their senior year taking college classes, getting professional certifications, diving deeper into areas of interest and passion, and engaging in internships and service learning projects.
Teachers are in on the action too and rarely participate in whole-school learning contexts. Instead, classroom educators take a competency-based approach to their own professional learning and, through identification of the skills that they have and need, are able to personalize their professional growth. A badging system to track teachers’ professional learning is in the works.
What I like about Van Meter is that, in the words of Superintendent Deron Durflinger, they “often have a willingness to take risks and try things that other districts wait for. If folks out there are doing cool stuff, we’re not going to hold back on trying it out.” This orientation toward risk-taking allows Van Meter to live at the cutting edge of leading educational innovation movements and to iterate quickly toward new opportunities. Initiatives that many other districts consider to be organizational stretches are thought of by Van Meter as just part of how it does business.
Van Meter also has framed its work appropriately. Instead of each initiative being a stand-alone, disconnected program within a traditional school setup, everything that Van Meter does is woven together and oriented toward the ultimate goal of personalizing student learning. For instance, when asked what they are most excited about, administrators will say that at the top of their list are the types of questions that teachers are asking about how to better help individual students and their educators’ willingness to reexamine and alter current practices as needed.
The district is in the process of building a new school that will create different and varied kinds of learning spaces for students. I am sure that this new building will be amazing. But the district’s long-term impacts on students will be a result of its ongoing willingness to reorient its instructional practices and its organizational support systems that facilitate more robust forms of learning and teaching.
Clear Lake Middle School (CLMS) knew where it wanted to go. It just needed to put some new structures in place to get there…
Teacher learning. Many organizations have ‘20 percent time’ initiatives, which give employees time and permission to learn and work on new topics of their choosing as long as they have potential benefit to the organization. CLMS took that idea and ran with it, substituting ‘teacher genius hour’ for some of its traditional professional development. Today teachers are investigating a variety of interest-based professional learning topics, including essential questions in the classroom, rethinking grading in math class, flipped classrooms, screencasting, and gamification. All of these filter back into educators’ classrooms and improve student learning experiences.
Student learning. Last year CLMS began implementing P3BL blocks, which emphasize passion, projects, and problems. Every day the 6th graders get a 42-minute block and the 7th and 8th graders get an 84-minute block. Sometimes teachers create the projects, sometimes students do. Example student projects include ‘upcycling’ and repurposing of old furniture, working with media and marketing companies to create an advertising campaign that sells Clear Lake to outsiders and airs on television stations and billboards, and a ‘Shark Tank’ initiative in which students pitch innovative product ideas that improve people’s lives and their community. Students also are involved in a number of projects with the local fire service, including an awareness campaign that teaches local citizens about fire and carbon monoxide safety, creating maps of rural water sources in the county that can be used to refill fire trucks, and mapping local business building layouts that then get uploaded to the fire department’s Active 911 app.
Makerspace. This year CLMS also has implemented a makerspace called the Sandbox. Different challenges are set up for the students, who have 10 days to complete them. Hours are flexible, supervision is minimal (as are discipline issues). Students work on projects when they can, often logging time as early as 6:45am and as late as 5:30pm. Nearly a third of the school signed up for Round 3 of the challenges. The school’s Sandy Awards in May will honor the best designs of the year. And in early February the school’s Sandbox specialists (students, of course) will be hosting visually- and hearing-impaired peers to introduce them to some making/tinkering projects.
As teachers and students drive more of their own learning, the impacts on CLMS have been substantial. Energy and enthusiasm are high. Students who previously struggled with the traditional school model are finding their niches of expertise and success. A school that used to work for a few students now gives all of its students a chance to shine and have a voice.
How could you shake up your school day to create time for student (and staff) inquiry?
Do you know about Iowa BIG? Co-located with a corporate startup accelerator at a former brownfield site of Iowa Steel, Iowa BIG is a project-based learning option for Cedar Rapids area high school students. Students spend half of their day at their traditional, ‘mother ship’ high school and the other half at Iowa BIG. Local businesses, nonprofits, and city agencies pitch proposed projects to the students, hoping that talented youth will take up their challenges. Students pick from the project pool and then work with school and community mentors to accomplish the work, achieving curricular standards and other learning outcomes – like 21st century skills and Iowa’s Universal Constructs – along the way.
The work done by Iowa BIG students is quite impressive. Example student projects include transforming the Bever Park Zoo into an interactive and educational urban farm, co-researching the evolution of grapes with the University of Northern Iowa, creating a one-handed keyboard for amputees, and redesigning a local elementary into a STEAM magnet school. Other examples include development of a waterborne drone that measures plastic waste in oceans, designing arthritis-friendly utensils, creating a documentary of Linn County’s first medical examiner, designing and testing an aquaponics system in North Africa, developing a recycling bin that tweets to the Internet what gets recycled, and initiating a young women’s entrepreneurship community and conference.
Iowa BIG is up to nearly 100 high school students this year and its approach is expanding to other schools in the Cedar Rapids area. Recent data confirm what we would imagine: students are much more engaged in their learning and seem to be doing better academically than comparable peers. When students are voluntarily working on their projects over the summer and talking about coming back to the city to ‘keep doing this kind of work after we graduate from college,’ you know something is going right.
Are you underestimating the work that your students could do?
Summit. (noun) A day-long ’sit and get’ event designed to draw political and media attention to the powers-that-be at the top. Usually comprised of speeches, panel presentations, and non-interactive breakout sessions. Iowa antonyms:EdCampIowa, ISLI, StuCamp, EdCampDesMoines, school district unconferences, Iowa 1:1 Institute.
Summits are a great way to reinforce the passive, transmission-oriented model of learning.
Summits are a great way to get your own supportive talking heads on stage and not those of others.
Summits are a great way to talk at rather than with.
Summits are a great way to hammer home that certain people and perspectives get voices and others do not.
Many schools in Iowa are trying to find small chunks of time that allow students to engage in some inquiry- or project-based learning. These might be class-level projects, teacher-led exploratories, or student-led ‘genius hours.’ Several districts in Northwest Iowa are going beyond these smaller experiments, however. They’re carving out a couple of weeks for a ‘J Term’ in January after winter break, or a May Term at the end of the year, or even a mid-semester ‘MidMester Academy.’ These initiatives typically offer students an immersive, project-based experience of 30 to 50 hours, capped with a public exhibition / defense to the community.
Student projects are quite varied and create student learning opportunities that may not occur in schools’ typical core curricula. For example, at Spirit Lake High School, students learn about Yamazumi charts, Kaizen events, elemental spaghetti diagrams, and other lean engineering techniques with Polaris, the local snowmobile manufacturer. They gain real-world web development experience by designing a new website for their community. They explore law enforcement issues such as crime labs, use of force, drug policing, SWAT, and polygraphs with the local police department. They discover how to weld by creating a new sculpture for the community. They learn about the beauty industry and the local theatre through field trips and hands-on disciplinary work.
Down the road at Okoboji Middle School, students learn about coding, robotics, computer-aided drafting, and 3D design in their Designing for the Future and Robots: Let the Races Begin projects. They identify a business or charity, create promotional materials, organize fundraisers, and compete against other teams as part of their Pioneer Apprentice project. They make atlatls, duck boxes, and goose nesting structures – and learn how to process wild game – in their Outdoors in Iowa project. Other projects allow students to explore Native American history, investigate risk-taking through the lens of immigration, study and create American folktales, use their geography skills to survive a fictional viral outbreak, and participate in an ‘Amazing Race’ focused on the provinces and territories of Canada.
Over at Southeast Valley High School, students learn the strategies of medieval warfare and compete against each other with self-designed catapults. They study the Holocaust and its relevance to today. They examine the history of rock and roll and write their own rock anthems. They design their own video games, learn about project planning and the hospitality business, are introduced to landscape design, and go deep with Rube Goldberg machines. And in Newell-Fonda High School, students learn outdoor survival skills, create ‘life hacks,’ explore the financial and marketing aspects of running a sports franchise, and investigate the science behind real world objects through their own, local ‘How Stuff Works’ spinoff.
Where’s the technology in all of these projects? As Chris Lehmann would say, it’s ‘ubiquitous, necessary, and invisible.’ Digital learning tools are present in all of these activities, they’re necessary to accomplish the work, but they’re invisible in the sense that they’re just a means to an end, not the end itself. And that’s how they should be.
What could your students do in a 1- or 2-week immersive inquiry- or project-based learning experience?