Katie Hearns’ fifth grade students gathered in a circle on the floor of her classroom at Apache Innovative School, notebooks in hand. The class has been learning about native Americans from the Pacific northwest, and Hearns has asked the students to imagine what challenges the people would have faced if they hadn’t lived near the ocean and its abundant food. The students scribble a few sentences on their papers.
Such an exercise is well within the normal range of classroom activities for fifth graders. What comes next, however, is a little out of the ordinary. Hearns asked the students to practice shaking hands and greeting one another. Around the room, the kids mingle, giving each other firm – but not too firm — handshakes. They make eye contact as they say good morning.
Practicing such “soft skills” is a part of nearly every morning for students at Apache IS. This year, as part of the transition to what the district calls an “Innovative School” model, Apache classes start with a “morning meeting” that feature exercises encouraging social interaction. Part of the idea behind the practice is to get students comfortable in their environs before delving into the most challenging work of the day.
“We don’t know what students bring into the class with them, whether they might have had a bad night’s sleep or a tough morning getting to school,” said Britt Pumphrey. “The morning meeting is a good way to get everybody eased into the day.”
But it also represents of a shift in the fundamental ideas about what, precisely, kids should be getting out of school. During the Shawnee Mission School District’s formative decades in the mid-1900s, elementary school programming across the country was geared toward rote memorization, providing kids with the general knowledge they would need to understand the world around them. In the digital age, where facts and figures on any subject are available in a matter of seconds, the value of such general knowledge has waned.
To prepare for the modern world, students need research and interpersonal skills common to the challenges of today’s workforce.
“Content is cheap and knowledge is ubiquitous,” said Apache IS Principal Britt Pumphrey. “People used to train for a career, they’d learn the skills, and then they’d be set. That’s not how things work any more in many, many fields. So, instead, you really need the ability to say, ‘I don’t know this, but I do know how to find out about it. And I know how to come together with you to work on a common product and a common goal.’”
Such a shift in focus — away from an emphasis on traditional lesson plans and toward a model that stresses critical thinking skills, interpersonal skills and collaboration — isn’t unique to the innovative school model. The Kansas State Department of Education’s Kansas CAN initiative identified such a transition as crucial to the success of the state’s schools in the coming years. But Apache IS and Rising Star, which had adopted an innovative school model this year for the first time, are among the first schools in Kansas to attempt to put the concepts into practice.
The morning meeting is just one of the changes Apache IS leaders have implemented since the innovative school program began in 2016-17. Others include:
- Project based learning: The school received a $20,000 grant through the Kauffman Foundation for training through the Buck Institute for Education on how to incorporate project-based units into lesson plans. The idea is to marry a particular topic to a deliverable product of some nature to both increase student engagement and to mimic the kinds of tasks students will face in the modern workforce.For example, as part of their social studies units, fifth graders explore what factors lead people to move to a particular area. Fifth grade teachers at Apache IS developed a unit where they assigned students to interview a relative about how their family ended up living in Johnson County and then produce a podcast about what they learned. In the process, the learned about interview techniques — how to ask questions and get their subject to share interesting information — as well as audio recording and podcast production.“With these project based learning units, the learning isn’t taking place in isolation,” said Alicia Allison, an innovation specialist at Apache IS. “That can correlate what they’re learning to a final product.”
- Genius hour: One of the first initiatives Apache IS leaders started working into the classroom was the “genius hour,” a dedicated time that allowed kids to choose any topic they’d like to research and present on. The genius hour approach has a number of potential benefits, officials say. First, it gives students some agency over their time. Letting them choose whatever topic interests them makes them feel empowered, and should make them excited about at least part of the school day — although the idea did seem foreign to some students at first. Pumphrey remembers introducing genius hour to students for the first time last year and being met with quizzical looks. “They said, ‘Wait, what do you mean pick a topic?’,” Pumphrey said. “They weren’t being defiant. It was just totally new to them that they would make a choice like that. The idea that I would choose a topic and then think through how to present it was kind of unsettling to a lot of them.”
- Vertical loops: Students in some upper grades spend part of their time each day with different teachers instead of the traditional model, which has grade schoolers with a homeroom teacher throughout the day. School leaders believe the approach has benefits to both students and teachers. Some elementary teachers are particularly adept at math instruction, while others tend to fare better relaying English language arts lessons. The loops give teachers the chance to spend more of their time in their strength areas.For students, vertical loops give them the chance to have a “change of scenery” that instructors say can help improve attention and reduce strain on relationships. For particularly energetic students or those with behavioral disorders, a change in the face at the front of the classroom can be helpful.
These initiatives have been piloted on a wide scale across Apache IS and Rising Star Elementary, but they aren’t limited to those schools. Other elementaries have taken up the genius hour method and well as the morning meeting and incorporated them into some classrooms.
That, says Pam Lewis, the district’s director of elementary services, was part of the idea for the innovative schools, to be a proving ground for new approaches to teaching and learning.
“Our teachers here are learning the best practices for these ideas, and then they can share them with other educators,” Lewis said.
Tomorrow we’ll take a look at the challenges Apache IS faced during its first year, how the transition to the IS model is working at Rising Star this year, and what effect, if any, the new model is having on student performance measures.