Innovations in teaching methods seeing good results at middle school
by Mike Eldred
May 02, 2013 | 4215 views | 0 0 comments | 29 29 recommendations | email to a friend | print
WHITINGHAM- Innovative teaching methods at Twin Valley Middle School are making a difference in students’ enthusiasm for learning, and in their test scores, according to TVMS Principal Keith Lyman.

“I’m feeling really good about the way the teaching team has come together and in how they’re delivering the curriculum,” Lyman said. “And students are responding. They’re working hard in class and the teachers are bringing energy and excitement to the classrooms.”

Lyman was hired as TVMS principal in July 2010, following a period of high turnover in the critical administrative position as well as in teaching positions. After less than a year at the helm, and with disappointing results on the 2011 New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) tests, Lyman vowed to focus on improving test scores.

Since then, Lyman and TVMS teachers have implemented at least six new teaching methods – methods that may be the wave of the future in education.

One of the new teaching innovations was the implementation of a proficiency-based model. TVMS educators traveled to a school district in Maine to study their program, before introducing it at the middle school.

In a proficiency-based program, students must demonstrate that they can meet a standard before they can move ahead in the curriculum. But, although each student may progress at a different pace than other students, it isn’t like the “self-paced” programs of yesterday. If students fail to meet the standard, they spend more time practicing until they pass. All students receive instruction and support according to their level of completion. “You might have sixth-graders taking seventh-grade math,” says Twin Valley Middle School language arts teacher Ann Sulzmann. “You could have seventh-graders going to a sixth-grade classroom because they’re a little behind.”

Sulzmann says implementing the program was a daunting task, and meant a significant change in how teachers organize their time. Typically, teachers would plan classroom work throughout the year. Because students could progress at different rates under the new program, the entire year’s teaching materials had to be accessible to students at the beginning of the year. “We didn’t spend the summer preparing for this, we were trying to do it during the school year,” Sulzmann said. “But the planning will become easier. Now we know what we have to do during the summer.”

But Sulzmann says the result of their work was worth the effort. “Students were really motivated,” Sulzmann says. “They realized they were doing work to meet the standard, and when they could demonstrate they could do that, they could move on.”

Teachers are also making a fundamental change in how education is delivered. Rather than the traditional classroom lecture followed by practical application of the knowledge as part of homework, TVMS teachers are “flipping” their classrooms with the use of technology. “Flipping is when you video the direct instruction and put it on a website or CD,” Sulzman says. “Then students’ homework is to watch the lecture and come in the next day to do the work when there’s a teacher there to help them.”

Having the recorded classroom lectures also works well with the proficiency-based model – once lectures are recorded, they can be made available to any student who is ready for the lesson. They can be accessed more than once by students who may need to review the material. But students do have to learn that watching an instructional video isn’t like watching television. “It takes a philosophical shift, we have to teach them how to watch the videos.”

Another successful strategy was to introduce quarterly “FedEx days” to the school. The term refers to the global shipping company’s motto: “When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.”

“Students are allowed to choose something to work on, a new idea, a new invention, something innovative,” Sulzmann explains. “They have 24 hours to work on their project and put together a presentation. It hones 21st-century skills like problem solving, creative thinking, and critical thinking.”

There are no regular classes during the FedEx day. Teachers contribute to students’ projects based on their areas of expertise. “If students wanted to produce a book of poetry, I would be the person they’d go to for that,” Sulzmann says. “One group of kids designed their own company, complete with a website, selling “fingerboards,” little finger skateboards that they made.”

Like the standards-based program, FedEx day is a motivator for students. “They’re more motivated by standards-based learning, rather than rote memorization and recall. They’re interested in problem solving and being able to analyze.”

The school has also phased in a new proficiency-based middle school math program, soon to be introduced in the elementary school, that has proven to be successful and popular. One of the key elements of the Moby Math program is an online standardized test that gives teachers instant data about students’ skills. “It’s categorized by skills, so a teacher can look and see that a student needs works on these concepts. Students can’t move forward until they’re proficient.”

The school has also implemented an “intervention” period each day, during which teachers can work with students toward improving skills that have been identified through classroom testing. “Intervention can also be enrichment for kids that are excelling, a time when we can challenge them more,” Lyman says. “Or we may have data that says they need to work on a concept in math, or need to work on their writing skills.”

When it comes to statewide standardized testing in Vermont, some educators have noted that students aren’t invested in the outcome – a bad score doesn’t affect their grades, their school privileges, or their participation in extracurricular activities. One of the challenges for schools has been to motivate students to put their best effort into the test. “In the past we’ve had kids we know are capable of scoring well on the tests, but they haven’t put in the effort we know they could have because they don’t see the value in it,” says Lyman.

“We know what kids can do, and the frustrating thing has been to get them to do it,” agrees Sulzmann.

But TVMS teachers may have found a way to make the tests meaningful for students, by using the tests as an indicator in their proficiency-based education model. “We spent time talking to them about why we’d like them to do their best, and what it will mean for them,” Sulzman says. “For instance, in the eighth-grade writing test students either write a report or a persuasive essay. I tell them that if they can meet the standard on the NECAP, they don’t need to continue practicing it this year. I already know they can do it. It made sense to them – ‘spend an hour and a half on this test, and it will make my life easier for the rest of the year.’”

The result of the work and innovation at TVMS is evident in students’ scores, Sulzmann says. “We saw an awesome effort, and the scores reflect it,” she says. “NECAP scores in reading are up over 20%, and that’s comparing apples to apples, the same class. And 73% of students are proficient, which is above the state average.”

The atmosphere that Lyman has created at the school may have other benefits as well. “What we were doing as a country wasn’t working for us,” Sulzmann says. “We need the freedom to innovate, and administrators who back us up in that. I love the fact that I’m encouraged to try these things.”

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