(Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series on the transformation process at Glenwood Springs Elementary School).
By Debbie Bruell
Sopris Sun Correspondent
The Re-1 school district’s visioning meetings earlier this fall opened the door for people to start dreaming. A strong consensus emerged at the Carbondale meetings around the idea of including more real world, project-based learning in schools and putting a greater emphasis on character development.
However, given the continued pressure from the state to achieve high-standardized test scores, is it really possible for schools to make these kinds of changes? Are Re-1 teachers feeling too burnt out from all the changes of recent years to even consider yet another change?
While many people in Carbondale are feeling skeptical about the possibility of real change, Glenwood Springs Elementary School is undergoing a transformation toward some of the very ideas that emerged at the visioning meetings: project-based learning and character development.
Rather than feeling overwhelmed by yet another change at their school, GSES teachers are describing themselves as “energized,” “jazzed” and “rejuvenated.”
Last spring the Re-1 school district approved the transformation of GSES into an Expeditionary Learning (EL) school (see sidebar description of EL). First-year principal Audrey Hazleton explained that the EL “roll out” is a three-year process and GSES is in Phase 1 of their transformation, which means they’re focusing on the school “culture and climate.”
Hazleton appreciates the EL approach of building a strong school culture before the project-based learning, or “expeditions,” even begin. “If people have a sense of belonging to a community,” she told The Sopris Sun, “if everyone feels welcome and connected, if adults and children want to be here at the school … then you can tackle a whole lot more.”
GSES has implemented two key elements of EL so far: “crew” and “habits of scholarship.”
Every classroom begins each day with a 30-minute “crew” meeting: students and teachers greet each other individually, listen and respond to readings, do team-building exercises, share personal stories and take time for personal reflections.
According to the EL website, students are expected to act as “crew members, responsible for getting jobs done in order for the entire ship (class) to move forward.” Students are considered “crew, not passengers.”
Last week, the fourth graders in Ms. Allen’s class spent part of their crew meeting giving directions to a blindfolded classmate to help her walk successfully through a paper maze. The students then reflected on why their communication efforts were so much more effective this time compared to the first time they attempted this activity weeks ago.
The second element of EL that has been implemented so far is the creation of “habits of scholarship.” GSES staff decided upon five key goals, or “habits,” for the whole school: teamwork, compassion, determination, responsibility and wonder.
Hazleton explained that these goals are not just words that they post on the wall and hope to find time to address. Instead, these five goals are actively embedded into all aspects of the school program — from morning crew meetings to the academic lessons. Eventually students will be assessing their progress on each of these goals.
This focus on developing students’ sense of teamwork, belonging, compassion, wonder and other characteristics is clearly a shift from previous years’ focus on maximizing time for direct academic instruction. Nevertheless, staff does not seem concerned that this shift in focus will lead to lower scores on standardized tests. They point to recent research indicating that a strong school culture is just as important as strong academics in terms of raising test scores.
Just 10 weeks into the school year teachers are noting that the school culture at GSES is changing and the impact on kids is apparent. According to Vida Dillard, who transferred to GSES this year after teaching for four years at Crystal River Elementary School, crew is “making the school feel more friendly … more like a family.” She noted that it’s fostering a greater sense of trust among students and between teachers and students.
Dillard told The Sun that the welcoming environment they’re creating not only helps kids feel happier at school, it actually seems to be helping them learn more. Students are more willing to take on challenges and less fearful of making mistakes.
Teachers are also feeling stronger connections with their students this year. Kindergarten teacher Cathy Spence said that in previous years, when students moved around to various classrooms throughout the day, many of the younger students couldn’t even remember all of their teachers’ names. Now, Spence said, “if they leave for 20 minutes I get big hugs from them and they call to me as they leave, ‘Bye, we’ll be back soon!’”
Spence has found that her improved relationships with her students is motivating them to take more ownership of their learning and put forth their best effort each day. Fifteen-year veteran teacher Paul Ferguson said that his fifth graders are getting along better this year and seem much more accepting of each other.
Another essential aspect of EL is that the work teachers do with their students is modeled by the teachers themselves. The staff as a whole is also considered a “crew.” Staff meetings now begin as crew meetings with readings, discussions, personal stories, reflections and team-building exercises. Teachers are also expected to model the five habits of teamwork, compassion, determination, responsibility and wonder.
Ferguson said that staff this year is “seeing each other in a different light and understanding each other’s strengths and weaknesses … We are more focused and more cohesive.” He notes that there’s a “buzz” in the school that wasn’t there before.
Hazleton agrees with the EL philosophy that a strong and positive professional climate is essential for success. She said she is committed to seeking out teachers’ professional opinions, providing plenty of time for reflection and always allowing for multiple viewpoints at the table.
Referring to the school’s transformation to EL, Hazleton said, “We’re not expecting things to be perfect. We’re saying, ‘Let’s give it a go and we’ll learn along the way.’”
Making the change
Ferguson acknowledged that change is always a challenge. “It’s like deciding to have a kid,” Ferguson said. “There’s never a completely right time when you feel completely prepared. You just have to jump in and go for it.”
Teachers emphasized that the support they have received from the EL network has been critical to the smooth transition. EL has provided staff with extensive training and guidance, including a designated “EL school designer” who comes to the school a few times each month to coach the teachers.
Ferguson noted that becoming an EL school has not felt like an added layer of work: “It’s more like a philosophical change in how we approach our work.”
Similarly, Hazleton said that becoming an EL school has not felt like “one more thing” on top of all the other pressures on teachers these days. Instead, EL is “the one thing” that’s inspiring teachers to handle everything else; it keeps them continuously “circling back” to what they love about teaching and what they see as their true purpose as educators.
“Our district has gone through a lot of changes,” Spence said, “but when you’re excited about the change it’s different. You can go from feeling burnt out to feeling psyched.”
“Expeditionary Learning is an approach to education that makes information and skills come alive for students by connecting learning to the real world.” (GSES website,www.rfsd.k12.co.us).
Energizes student motivation and engagement through high-level tasks and active roles in the classroom.
Uses case studies and projects to connect students to real-world audiences and compels them to care and contribute.
Connects schools to community issues through project-based learning and service.
Employs professional development that is active and immediately useful in instruction.
Respects teachers as professionals and develops their growth as leaders.
Understands that the most important assessment practices occur daily in the classroom.
– Expeditionary Learning website, www.elschools.org