Crystal River Elementary embarks on its new Innovation Plan
By Debbie Bruell
Sopris Sun Correspondent
August 18, 2016
With the start of this school year, a new “Innovation Plan” will be set in motion at Crystal River Elementary School. A 34-page document outlining this plan was unanimously approved by the RE-1 School Board in June.
According to CRES principal Matt Koenigsknecht (or Mr. K as he is known at the school), nothing in the plan will be a big surprise for CRES teachers. It primarily outlines the key ideas that emerged from staff discussions during the 2015-16 school year about the mission, vision and identity of the school.
These discussions, according to Mr. K, revealed that the whole staff was passionate about moving the school toward more “authentic learning” — connecting students’ learning to the world outside the classroom — and developing more integration of students’ learning across the different subject areas. These ideas, Mr. K explained, led to the staff’s decision to implement project-based learning (PBL) at the school — a key element of the Innovation Plan.
One part of the Innovation Plan, which did not emerge until the very end of the school year, is a focus on creativity, paralleling the Carbondale Creative District (CCD) work spearheaded by Carbondale Arts (previously CCAH). Although no formal partnership has yet been established with the Carbondale Creative District, RE-1 administrators have met with Amy Kimberly, director of Carbondale Arts, about collaborating on a “creative district” of Carbondale’s RE-1 schools.
Other elements of the Innovation Plan include academic excellence, a systematic valuing of students’ first language, development of the student and staff culture through the “Crew” advisory program, and enhancing family and community engagement in the school.
Creative district of schools
A focus on creativity is “something everyone can get behind,” Mr. K told The Sopris Sun. “As the world has become more connected, more complex … with issues spanning so many different disciplines, we need to be equipping our kids with the creative and critical thinking skills they need to solve complex problems.”
He believes this focus on creativity is flexible enough that every school can draw on the assets that they have and “put their own stamp on it.” His hope is that Carbondale Middle School and Roaring Fork High School will join CRES in developing a focus on creativity and forming connections with various creative entities in the community.
The Carbondale Creative District has defined six main strands of creativity in the community: healing arts; design, media/innovation; visual arts; culinary arts; cultural heritage; and performing arts. Similarly, each school would identify the key strands of creativity on which their school projects would focus.
For example, Mr. K explained, kindergarteners might study the life cycle of bees by reading books about how bees help humans; creating a model of a bee and labeling its parts during science; during social studies, learning about the challenges bees face; and ultimately engaging in the performing arts strand of creativity by writing and performing a play that displays their learning across these disciplines.
According to Mr. K, school projects have traditionally functioned as fun, hands-on activities following the instruction of a certain topic. For example, a teacher may teach a lesson on plant respiration and then ask students to make a poster with images that demonstrate this process. Basically, students are asked to create something by applying what they learned from traditional instruction.
In contrast, he explained, with project-based learning (PBL), students learn the subject matter through the process of completing a project. Project-based-learning is not about adding another layer on top of what teachers are already doing; it’s about shifting the way teachers teach.
According to Mr. K, each project at CRES will last between three weeks and three months. Projects will be organized around an open-ended “Driving Question” with some connection to the world outside the classroom, such as “Why have people moved to the Roaring Fork Valley?”
The Buck Institute for Education (BIE), a non-profit organization focused on providing services and support for PBL instruction, presents PBL as a solution to the problem that, “Today’s students, more than ever, often find school to be boring and meaningless.” In contrast, according to the BIE website (bie.org), when students are working in teams on long-term projects with real-world relevance, they are active and engaged, learning how to take initiative and responsibility, and “doing high-quality, meaningful work.”
CRES staff agreed that they needed professional development to help them become a PBL school. During the 2015-16 school year, a committee of CRES staff members reviewed several organizations that provide training and support relating to PBL. They determined the Buck Institute and EL Schools (formerly Expeditionary Learning) would be the two best options for CRES.
CRES has contracted with BIE to provide a “whole staff kick-off” introduction to PBL at the start of this school year. Mr. K, Assistant Principal Sam Germain, and three CRES teachers also attended a PBL conference organized by BIE this summer.
While BIE is providing the introductory session on PBL, Mr. K is working on a contract with EL Education to provide ongoing professional development, support and coaching relating to PBL throughout the year.
Last December, the CRES staff was surveyed about the possibility of a partnership with EL Education. While 61 percent of staff supported this move, EL Education requires at least 80 percent of staff support before entering into a partnership with a school. However, given the work that EL Education has already done with CRES over the past couple of years, EL Education is open to the possibility of creating a unique relationship with CRES, providing training and support focused solely on PBL instruction, instead of its typical partnership with schools that entails a “whole school transformation” approach — including all aspects of a school’s culture, instructional programming and leadership.
Mr. K explained that, as organizations, BIE and EL Education work in concert with each other, sharing resources and expertise. CRES chose EL Education over BIE for the ongoing support of PBL because EL Education is more familiar with CRES, it has Colorado-based offices, and its services are more affordable than BIE.
CRES will begin a small-scale, phasing in of PBL this year, with the goal of full implementation in the next few years.
The Sopris Sun Volume 8, Number 28 | August 18, 2016