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Port Huron Schools academies take new approach to teaching.
STEAM Academy at Woodrow Wilson third grade teacher Emily Hall works with a group of students to help them use their knowledge of simple machines to build a complex machine Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019 in the STEAM portion of their class. (Photo: Brian Wells/Times Herald)
Sitting in a huddle of their second grade classroom, Harrison Rome, 8, and Izzayuh Pulliam, 9, worked with some fellow students. They had a task to accomplish together — use simple machines to create something that could lift up a toy car tire.
Spread on the floor of their STEAM Academy at Woodrow Wilson classroom, they used Chromebooks to view images of the machines they were learning about. They wrote and drew in packets called launch logs, which helps them organize their thoughts and reflect on them after the project is over.
“We have to equip an incline plane and a lever together, or a pulley, to lift a tire,” Harrison said. “The incline plane makes it easier to lift it up. Pulleyes do the same.
“Simple machines make it easier instead of you just lifting by yourself.”
But students learn about more than machines through the project.
“Teamwork, and all that kind of stuff,” Izzayuh said.
The project is typical of the approach being taken at Port Huron Area School District’s STEAM Academy at Woodrow Wilson, formally Woodrow Wilson Elementary School. The 2018-19 school year is the first year for district’s re-dubbed STEAM Academy at Woodrow Wilson and Literacy Academy at Cleveland.
In the past, both schools had been identified as priority schools by the Michigan Department of Education, meaning they had performed in the bottom five percent in the state based on assessments. The state released Wilson from the list in 2017, and Cleveland from the list in 2018.
As part of the $105.9 million bond program passed in 2016, both schools transitioned to a new approach, splitting up grades and having each school focus on STEAM programming and literacy respectively.
READ:Literacy, STEM initiatives debut in new Port Huron school year
With the new names come different approaches to teaching age-old skills and lessons.
Catherine Woolman, the district’s executive director of instructional services, said the approach is more like what students will find in the workforce when they graduate years down the road. Traditional models of schooling often do not reflect the student’s future working environment, she said.
“We did our work alone, there was not a lot of talking, we sat in rows,” Woolman said, referring to the way many previous generations of students were taught. “If you think about the workplace today, it’s very rare that anyone works alone, sits in isolation.”
Students need to learn how to work in groups and collaborate on big ideas and goals, Woolman said. Because of this, the approach seeks to teach social skills in addition to the science, math and technology skills.
“You can’t be part of a team if you can’t communicate,” Woolman said.
The teaching approach at the STEAM Academy at Woodrow Wilson follows an idea titled APB, which stands for activity, project and problem-based.
Kit Hard, the district’s supervisor for instruction services/professional development, said the traditional approach to education mostly centers more around exposing students to information, having them memorize it and evaluating their ability to retain the information.
In APB, the initial activity exposes students to the information, then they are tasked with carrying out a hands-on project that requires them to practice using the demonstrated knowledge. From there, they go on to a problem-based activity, which requires them to develop a solution to a problem without a defined solution, Hard said.
“In an environment like this, it’s really about learning for the purpose of applying and reflecting, and then taking it one step further to actually use that information to do something new, innovative, creative,” Hard said.
The approach also follows an inquiry-based method, which introduces students to the material through questions or curiosity they may have about a topic, Hard said.
“It tends to solidify the information a little bit more than saying ‘here is something you need to know and memorize,'” Hard said. “If you’ve already got a curiosity about what makes something happen, then when you discover the answer, it’s more of a lasting learning.
“It’s a very powerful way of learning, that reaches more learners I think.”
While the STEAM Academy at Woodrow Wilson seeks to prepare students for contemporary uses of science and technology related topics, the Literacy Academy at Cleveland seeks to prepare students for the rest of the learning they will do in their lives.
Sharon McComb, an intervention specialist at Literacy Academy at Cleveland Elementary, works with a student Monday, Jan. 4, 2019 in the school’s transitional kindergarten class. (Photo: Brian Wells/Times Herald)
The Literacy Academy at Cleveland is intended for younger students, housing kindergarten through second grade verses the STEAM Academy’s third through fifth grades.
The reason for the early focus on literacy is because much future learning hinges on strong reading and writing skills. Students who perform poorly in reading need to get help as soon as possible, before they start to fall behind, said Dr. Mary Lose, professor in Oakland University’s department of reading and language arts and director of the Reading Recovery Center of Michigan at Oakland University.
Port Huron’s teachers receive training based out of her center.
“If children aren’t readers and successful readers by the end of first grade, research has shown there’s a strong probability that they will continue to struggle throughout the elementary grades,” Lose said.
Third grade is also an important benchmark for kids when it comes to literacy, she said.
“If children are struggling in third grade, it’s highly likely they will continue to struggle thereafter,” Lose said. “The emphasis is on getting in early to help children before the achievement gap in literacy widens.”
Lose compared the value of early literacy intervention to that of preventative care in medicine, in the sense that early, preventative attention is more efficient and effective than waiting for something to get bad before intervening.
Kindergartners are assessed on their literacy skills as they come into the Literacy Academy at Cleveland. The school meets with their parents to make a joint decision as to whether the student will do one or two years of kindergarten.
“Usually the parents are right, they know their kids,” said Michelle Kristick, Cleveland’s principal.
The first year of the transitional kindergarten program covers a lot of the same ground as the second year of transitional kindergarten, only with the material paced to benefit students who need extra help, Kristick said.
The school’s transitional kindergarten program provides extra hands to help students who need additional reading help. Specially trained reading recovery teachers are present throughout the district, but the Literacy Academy at Cleveland has extra, Kristick said.
Seven of the school’s 11 teachers have also completed the same training as the reading recovery teachers, allowing them to address the same issues as the reading recovery specialists, Kristick said. This allows them to both meet with students after school and incorporate literacy skills throughout the other subjects they teach in their regular classes, Kristick said.
Lose said the biggest factor in getting kids to read well is instruction by quality teachers, ongoing professional development for those teachers and helping the lowest performing students as early as possible.
“We know the number one investment that a school can make if they want to affect children’s literacy growth and development is to invest in high quality teachers,” Lose said.
Parents can help within the home as well. Tell them stories about regular everyday daily things, like doing the laundry, family members or things they see in the car on the way to school, Lose said. Reading to one’s child is also important.
“Talk to your child, read to your child, make it enjoyable,” Lose said. “Very young children love to have their favorite stories read over and over and over again to them.”
Woolman said the academies seem to be working.
“It is early to measure progress toward the overall goal, but at the Literacy Academy we are seeing students’ abilities to analyze and compare information steadily increasing over the first half of the year,” she said. “Students at the STEAM Academy are engaged in the new STEAM curriculum, which has resulted in a higher percentage of students attending school regularly than in years past and has translated into an increase in students meeting their winter academic goals in math and reading based on NWEA testing.”
Contact education reporter Jeremy Ervin at (810) 989-6276 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ErvinJeremy.
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