Stepping out of the box

October 23, 2012 Kim Desmarais, Judy Gaudet and Jim Parsons

Deprogrammed learning at Evergreen Elementary School

The 1988 movie Stand and Deliver portrayed how one teacher influenced and motivated students. The movie told the story of Jaime Escalante, a high school teacher who inspired dropout-prone students to learn calculus. Perhaps Grade 4 students in Drayton Valley’s Evergreen Elementary School are not planning to drop out physically from school, but when two teachers set out to motivate and inspire children the results are just as powerful.

Evergreen Elementary School Grade   4 teachers Kim Desmarais and Judy Gaudet figured it was time to step outside of the box. Their goal was to create an educational environment that allowed all students to feel hope, dignity and purpose. They combined all their Grade   4 students into a working community built around principles of project-based learning and, as a teaching team, they organized curriculum around practices that they believed would ground and foster students’ deeper understanding. Desmarais and Gaudet believed that project-based teaching would help their Grade   4 ­students use authentic and rigorous tasks grounded in the research of effective assessment for learning.

Desmarais and Gaudet have seen students show their learning in many ways. By asking children to experience and show their learning, the teachers believe they can ground a classroom in 21st-century literacy and numeracy. The original idea to pull together two classes of Grade   4 students was supported by Wild Rose Division superintendent Brian Celli and Evergreen School principal Scott Kupsch, who proposed the project in early 2011. The combined class worked together during the 2011/12 school year—it was an immediate success.

For Desmarais and Gaudet, an added benefit has been the partnership formed by working together. For teachers and students, combining Grade   4 students was a different learning design—total team teaching. This new pedagogy used the environment (a larger physical class size) and sought to use technology wisely. All students are involved in team teaching and team learning. Discipline and planning are shared and the class is a true cohort.

How did parents respond?

What wasn’t known was how parents would react. At first, parents’ questions were “Will the Grade   4 curriculum still be covered?” “Will my child learn less using project-based inquiry learning?” “What about the basics?” “Won’t 50  students in the classroom be too loud?” “How can my child have a good relationship with the teacher?” “Will the teacher be able to understand my child’s needs or strengths?”

To better involve parents in the cohort, and with the support of Evergreen School’s administrators, Desmarais and Gaudet built a website to foster community and inform parents about their children’s experiences. The website also became an example for teaching colleagues how ­educational change happens and how to apply new pedagogies with their own learners. Perhaps most important, the website helps Grade   4 learners feel empowered to communicate, celebrate and reflect on their learning with parents, who Desmarais and Gaudet believe are the most authentic audience for children’s learning. The classroom webpage is updated regularly and includes comments, much to the enjoyment of students. The teachers note, “Our classroom blog and webpage are there for all to see, and the group is on Gmail, which is great for quick updates or links to help with homework.”

The successes of the project are obvious. Project-based teaching, differentiated instruction and assessment for learning have reshaped how children see themselves in the classroom. Children have become more metacognitive about their learning, asking questions such as “Where are we strong?” “Where are we weak?” and “How can we help each other?”

And the class has become close. Desmarais and Gaudet suggest that the class ethos is “We are a family.” Gaudet notes: “We respect and demand good behaviour from children and they deliver. But good behaviour doesn’t mean the class is quiet—far from it. Children are talking to each other constantly.” But this talk is not off-topic, and the teachers model how people can work together and talk to each other. Even their own teacher conversations are models for how students can engage each other.

Knowledge is no longer fractured

Children experience other benefits. For example, because the curriculum is based on inquiry learning, all project-based teaching is connected to the real world. The Drayton Valley community has responded well. Desmarais and Gaudet bring in experts from the community. As Desmarais suggests, “We don’t have to know everything ourselves. There is no stand and deliver.”

Teaching for Desmarais and Gaudet has shifted radically. The class is noisy and the children are not afraid to talk and to listen. Children feel confident. The teachers note, “[The students] feel good. They believe they can make a difference. And they have embraced the changes.” Success has “turned kids around” and “they are empowered. They used to say, ‘I can’t do that.’ Now they say, ‘I can!’ They are critical without being hurtful.”

Gaudet says, “Children learn, understand and come to feed off each other’s ideas. They have no fear of failure.” The learning is innovative and lessons are designed differently. The big message is a change from “I can’t” to “I can!” She adds: “We are working differently, not harder. We work on success.” Clearly, Grade 4 at Evergreen School is an empowered place to be.

Teachers and students are designing learning. “We are stepping in it together.” What are the results? Children are gaining a sense of power as they engage experts from the community. Desmarais says the support is “enriching” and “children are flourishing!” Students are more empowered with their learning and more insightful and mature (these are 21st-century knowledge and work habits). All math and language arts skills are built in and not fractured.

Building good citizens in a technological era

Technology fits in when needed, but relying upon technology also carries concerns. What is the appropriate focus? Does the use of technology threaten children’s security? Both teachers have addressed these concerns by working to build good citizens in a technological era. Students and teachers come to technology with varying levels of comfort and expertise; yet, again, such differences are positive because they allow the class to work closely together to ensure they are on the same page. Security in a technological age is a focus of attention and is a key to learning. Students are growing to understand how to use technology properly and safely.

Desmarais and Gaudet believe that project-based learning has helped students use technology more effectively. Classroom projects are designed to ensure that success is not based upon what students can access at home but upon what they can do in their work. They have found that an open classroom allows learners to communicate their understandings in different ways. Sometimes technology simply isn’t the answer and, because the classroom environment and space are flexible, children engage in myriad choices.

Conclusion

The project’s success is clear. Desmarais and Gaudet found that two teachers are better than one—both for teachers and learners. Having two teachers allows on-the-spot intervention, assessment and modelling. Added attention helped students to grow more collaborative and social. Divides between teachers and children morphed into community. Children developed good academic relationships with their peers and teachers and learned the importance of giving and taking feedback (again modelled by the teachers). Combining two classes into one allowed a bigger pool of expertise (skills, ideas and knowledge) in which students and teachers could exchange ideas.

Parental concerns about space or management disappeared. Space is fluid, and the larger classroom allowed room for students to break out and work where they needed to. Children were more organized and came to understand the impact of their space on others as well as themselves. They learned to model patience and focus in a classroom environment that is a creative space.

Students developed lifelong skills that matter everywhere. These skills include collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving and the effective use of ­technology. For them, the innovation has happened. They have seen changes in teaching, practice, expectations, schedule, design and goals.

Both teachers believe that “the classroom is for the kids.” There are new tools, new passions and new ways of looking. Their classroom is truly an open space unrestricted by walls. And the entire school is benefitting because Evergreen staff members are focusing on best practices that teachers are learning from each other.

Kim Desmarais and Judy Gaudet are teachers at Evergreen Elementary School, in Drayton Valley.

Jim Parsons is professor of Education in the Faculty of Education, University of Alberta.

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