8 ways this middle school innovates for its students


Teaching | Monday, January 25, 2016

8 ways this middle school innovates for its students

What students need from school is changing, and schools need to keep up. Here are eight ways this middle school is changing to make school more relevant. (Wikimedia / U.S. Navy)

What students need from school is changing, and schools need to keep up. Here are eight ways this middle school is changing to make school more relevant. (Wikimedia / U.S. Navy)

Some schools are really ditching that “textbook” view of education and finding creative ways to reach their students and meet their needs.

I was fortunate to visit one of those recently.

I got to check out New Fairfield Middle School in New Fairfield, CT, the 2014-15 Connecticut Middle School of the Year. After a tour where I heard some of the initiatives the school has taken on, it made me realize something.

This is the kind of school where I’d like to teach.

Principal Christine Baldelli (baldelli.christine@newfairfieldschools.org) and assistant principal Cheryl Milo (milo.cheryl@newfairfieldschools.org) discussed some ways their school is innovating to meet the needs of their students. You can see our conversation in the video embedded in this post or by clicking the subtitle links in each section to go directly to the part of the video you’re reading about. (Note: The audio is fairly quiet, so you may need to turn up your speakers to hear everything.)

Here are eight things the school has undertaken that could be adopted at other schools:

Bring your own device — As I walked around New Fairfield Middle School, it was evident that collaborative learning was a priority. Students worked together in groups in classrooms, in the hallways, in stairwells … pretty much everywhere.

And almost every student was using a digital device of some kind. New Fairfield lets students access the school’s network from their own laptops, Chromebooks, tablets and smartphones. Any student who doesn’t have access to a device during school can use one of the schools, creating equal access for everyone.

The school embraces Google Apps for Education and Google Classroom, and classes can often be seen branching out to Kahoot!, Prezi, GoNoodle and more.

“It’s actually transformed the school,” Christine said. “Students are actually working harder than their teachers.”

How can they tell? For one, there’s no more “deli line.”

A veteran English/language arts teacher told Christine that students used to line up at her desk to have their writing critiqued. Now, with Google Documents, students share the document with the teacher.

When there are corrections to be made, students work on them. When there aren’t, students have learning menus and can choose their next project and get started with it without waiting or permission.

Furniture — Christine and Cheryl were intentional about what they filled their learning spaces with from the beginning. As they selected furniture for the school, they asked, “What furniture works for what we want to do?”

Their media center is the prime example. It’s not called “the library” … it’s called “Cyber Space.” They wanted it to be futuristic, where students are comfortable to work on their devices, do puzzles and collaborate.

In Cyber Space, you’ll find enormous Yogibo bean bags. (They’re huge … I saw three students sitting on one while working together.) There are balance ball chairs, rolling foldable tables, white board tables and kidney-shaped tables.

The new furniture made an instant change to the atmosphere of the school, Christine said.

“The kids feel like it’s kid friendly,” she said. “They feel like it’s more grown up, like they’re part of the learning that’s going on.”

PLCs (personalized learning community) — In some schools, students sit quietly in homerooms or tutorials, working on homework or reading quietly. At New Fairfield, they’ve turned that concept on its head.

It’s purposefully not a quiet time. During this 75-minute period every other day, students make appointments with each other to work on class projects and other school activities. They schedule appointments with teachers, or teachers schedule appointments with them.

During PLC time, students can get band lessons, connect with a counselor, practice coding or Minecraft, or create in the makerspace in Cyber Space (the media center).

“There’s a lot of movement back and forth,” Cheryl said.

Christine and Cheryl wanted to help students become self-driven learners and to prepare them for high school. Lots of time can be wasted in a high school study hall if students don’t know how to use it properly — or have practice using it effectively.

“Our original goal was to teach kids to be in charge of their learning, to go home and not have a ton of work to do,” Christine said.

Core 21 class — Passion-driven learning is a hot topic in many schools. Instead of genius hour, where students get 20 percent of their time to pursue their passions, New Fairfield has created an entire class devoted to that.

Students choose from a database of project ideas or, once they’ve learned what makes a good project, propose their own.

They don’t jump right in with projects at first, though. The groundwork is laid by studying habits of mind. Student study Angela Maiers’s “Habitudes” to prepare themselves to be successful first.

Projects have taken many forms. A group of sixth graders were passionate about doing something about starvation. They created a presentation that they insisted on sharing with the school at lunch. These sixth graders presented first to a group of eighth graders — pretty daunting! — and then allowed them to make donations.

After a week of donations, the school had raised $920. The students presented to the district board of education, and a board member donated the remainder to make it an even $1,000.

Another student, whose mother suffered from multiple sclerosis, set out to cure MS in six weeks — something you would have heard about on the news if he had succeeded. His presentation at the end didn’t chronicle his failure, though.

The student presented in front of the district board of education and his mother, Cheryl said.

“He said, ‘I’ve learned that I can’t cure MS in six weeks, but what I have learned is that I understand my mom’s disease now,'” Cheryl said. “It was very powerful. Not a dry eye in the room.”

Entrepreneurship — These middle school students go to the “Shark Tank.”

In media class, students are encouraged to find a problem and solve it by creating a product. One student created comfort handles for video game controllers. Another created a hat with swappable emblems; that way, you don’t have to buy lots of hats, just different emblems.

Sometimes, students create prototypes of their products on the school’s 3D printer.

When they’re done, they’re thrown to the wolves, the school’s version of the entrepreneurial reality show “Shark Tank.” Students present to the wolves, adults who hear their presentations and decide on giving them hypothetical funding for their projects.

The Wingman Program — New Fairfield Middle School is just miles from Newtown, CT, the site of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012 where 20 children and six staff members lost their lives. Ian Hockley lost his son, six-year-old Dylan Hockley, in the shooting.

The father created Dylan’s Wings of Change, a foundation dedicated to helping students with autism and other related conditions reach their full potential.

New Fairfield’s students participate in the Wingman program, a positive behavior incentive program that rewards students for leadership, courage and compassion. Students are recognized by each other, teachers and coaches for demonstrating those traits. Students also have “take-over days,” where they plan and present lessons to each other about bullying, being an upstanding citizen and following their dreams.

Student news program — The morning doesn’t start with a dry reading of the day’s meetings and lunch menu at New Fairfield. Students create a professional-looking news presentation, complete with sophisticated cameras, a mixer board, video editing software and a green screen for special effects.

Students write scripts, shoot video around the school and create video segments for the broadcast. It’s shown in every class at the start of the day. Anyone can be involved in the program, and a beginner news program at the intermediate school prepares students for doing the news at the middle school.

Creative teacher professional development — Teachers aren’t used to doing “sit and get” learning at New Fairfield. In fact, when I visited and did a presentation to the whole faculty, they looked kind of unsure when I finished … kind of like, “What do we do now?”

They’re used to applying what they learn. Here are some ways they do that:

  • Teachers learned Google Classroom by receiving professional development there. It showed them the key features and helped them see how students would interact with the product.
  • Christine and Cheryl use instructional strategies to deliver professional development. Then, they talk about what they did afterward and ask teachers how it worked for them as learners. That metacognition activity shows teachers the instructional strategy from a whole different perspective.
  • PD has been organized in edcamp format, where teachers present to each other on topics where they’ve had some experience. They’ve also used genius hour, where teachers pursue a topic they’re passionate about and later present their findings to each other.
[reminder]Have you had any experience with anything like these? What are you doing (or what is your school doing) to innovate for students?[/reminder]

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  • Shelley Stedman says:

    Thanks for the mention! I keep trying to engage our kids in multiple ways. It is enormously satisfying to watch the creative process! I am amazed every day. @NFMS_cyberspace

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