- Associated Press - Saturday, October 29, 2016

WASHINGTON, Pa. (AP) - From “gamifying” popular works of literature, to pitching invention ideas in “Shark Tank” productions, area school districts are rethinking how to get beyond homework and traditional lectures to engage students.

Teachers at Avella, Burgettstown, Canon-McMillan and Carmichaels have offered up how they’re reworking class time to help young pupils value their education and take it beyond the classroom. Though it all can’t be fun and games, even the nuts and bolts of mathematics can be made more captivating.

Joelle Cooper is right at home teaching geometry and calculus at Avella. A district graduate, the math teacher has been facilitating innovative team-building lessons through a “blended learning” model the district is piloting this year through Carnegie Learning.

“In the past, it was drill and skill. It wasn’t very engaging. Now, it’s word problems and applications of those problems in real-world contexts,” Cooper said, explaining her classes conduct book work in class three days a week and online work the remaining two.

“I’m not in front of the class much anymore. The students have to talk to each other and work in groups, and they’re learning better than they ever would with me through a lecture. I walk around listening to the ideas they’re working on, and it’s positive encouragement for them to figure out their own solutions to problems,” Cooper said.

Superintendent Cyril Walther said the model prevents cheating because while the online course work focuses on a central concept, it provides different problems for each group or individual.

“And instead of a textbook that could become obsolete every few years, (the online) program allows us to keep the curriculum relevant,” Walther said.

The students work at their own pace and aren’t embarrassed by a traditional call and response led by a teacher. The curriculum style is also gaining traction with districts because it’s finally catching up to how standardized tests like the Keystone and PSSA exams are structured, mirroring the questions and logical analysis demanded of the time-crunch tests, according to Cooper and Walther.

At Burgettstown, first-year technology teacher Laura Wells is piloting the district’s partnership with Invention Land in Pittsburgh for her science, technology, engineering, arts and math course in the high school. The difference between STEAM and STEM courses is the former’s addition of art. That will be fleshed out in the STEAM course’s main objective for students to come up with, design, pitch and market invention ideas like on the TV show “Shark Tank.”

“I want the kids to find an idea they are really passionate about and defend it through revisions and design changes, not just abandon it when they hit a wall,” Wells said after a tour of Invention Land, a Willy Wonka-styled creation workshop. The district has a four-year agreement to host tours at the Pittsburgh idea incubator every semester to jump-start students’ imaginations for the course.

Superintendent James Walsh said the project-based class grounds lessons in reality, and the district will examine it as a case study of how to bring interdisciplinary elements to other courses.

“When you connect the disciplines - science, math and public speaking skills and so on - students retain information better and are able to implement the lessons in their own lives. It’s not just having art in science class or math in art class. It’s a holistic, organic integration of critical thinking. These kids could even see their ideas hit the market,” Walsh said.

Almost all work will be done online, meaning there’s practically no homework in a traditional sense.

“It’s collaborative, so they can be texting their buddies outside of class and posting to the web their ideas. Students can use the brainstorming and planning materials online and access it from their phone, so when they have an idea they can upload it at that exact moment they have an epiphany,” Wells said, “and then they use the class time as they see fit to see their idea through.”

When it comes to finally producing the ideas, students will utilize laser engravers, 3-D printing machines and other high-tech drafting and design platforms. And then the students will have to pitch their ideas in a presentation scenario akin to the TV show “Shark Tank.” Invention Land Vice President Sam Sandora said during a tour that the stakes and pressure are high in a real-world market, so the class will be a good introduction for prospective entrepreneurs.

“Eight to 10 prototypes are developed a day. We pitch to a company, and we have 30 seconds to stick the landing. Most licensing companies hear 50 pitches a day, so you have to know your product’s story and why it would be important to people,” Sandora said.

Before students can tell a good story, they have to recognize a good story. Canon-McMillan Middle School English teachers Lauren Paddick and Jennifer Ford have taken on a novel approach for students to comprehend the mechanics of solid storytelling as the two have been collaborating on “gamifying” classic and contemporary literature. Instead of poring over “Lord of the Flies” with every student at the same pace, chapters and sections are made into levels akin to objectives in role-playing video games.

“Each level is focused on a character, as ‘Lord of the Flies’ is so character-driven, and once they’ve mastered their tests and quizzes, they advance,” Ford said.

Mastery is the key concept. And not dungeon mastery or control of a game board, but genuine understanding of the narrative and characters at play.

“Mastery as a grading scheme is counterintuitive for students and parents,” Paddick said. “So instead of lowering a student’s grade, they start out with a zero at the beginning of the semester and keep working on class materials until they’ve reached ideally the 90 or 100 percentile range. So they keep trying until they’ve mastered a concept or module.”

Just in time for Halloween, Paddick is further gamifying classic literature - this time Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” - by way of the recently popular “breakout” games, in which teams try to escape a panic room. Only this time, it’ll be the namesake heart locked in a box.

“The box is locked with up to eight locks, each to be unlocked with a word or number clue, or tracking down invisible ink with a black light - and it’s their job to break it out of the box,” Paddick said.

But managing the classroom still has the educators leaning on basic internet technology. Through the content-management system Schoolology, Ford monitors her students’ collaborations and writings in real time.

“I can work with students without singling them out and leave a comment or two in the margins of the document as they’re working on it,” Ford said.

And the online portions cut down on tall tales of dogs eating homework.

“It used to be a common excuse, ‘Oh, I left my thumb drive at home.’ Now that all the documents and work they’re collaborating on are online through Google Docs or our system, they can access it through any internet device - at home or at school,” Paddick said.

Canon-McMillan also is proceeding with the Invention Land curriculum, as is Carmichaels Area School District. Principals at Carmichaels said they’re in the process of a building a STEM-based makerspace to complement the class, so in the meantime they’re focusing on providing holistic classes for standardized tests and career prep by combining English arts and offering college classes in science and math.

“In sixth grade, they’re reading ‘The Lightning Thief,’ and all assignments are structured around the novel - the culture, the point of view - it combines the formerly separate reading and writing classes into one unit and gives the students a unified sense of purpose that leads to greater comprehension, retention and enthusiasm for the material,” said elementary Principal Ron Gallagher.

When students arrive at the high school, Principal Lisa Zdravecky said juniors and seniors have the opportunity to go beyond advanced-placement courses to prepare them for a career in science or technology. “This is our second year offering college credit classes from Westmoreland County Community College, and the first year we’re offering medical terminology and micro-computer concepts classes,” Zdravecky said, “because we know the focus on career skills is important to employers. This will offer real experience of the level of readiness and comprehension expected of students once they get into one of those fields.”

Carmichaels, a smaller, rural district like Avella and Burgettstown, is doing well in English language arts, Gallagher said, but the district is like its bigger, richer counterparts - math is still the greatest challenge for students.

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Online:

https://bit.ly/2d4RmLf

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Information from: Observer-Reporter, https://www.observer-reporter.com

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