Windsor High School English teachers work with researchers to develop project-based curriculum for ninth grade language arts | MyWindsorNow.com

Windsor High School English teachers work with researchers to develop project-based curriculum for ninth grade language arts

James Redmond
jredmond@mywindsornow.com

A group of Windsor High School teachers hopes to find a way to engage disinterested students in ninth grade English languishing under the tedious laws of grammar.

The group —which includes teachers from the St. Vrain Valley School District and researchers from the University of Colorado and Colorado State University— has operated for almost two years under a grant from Lucas Education Research to develop a new project-based curriculum for teachers around the country.

Bud Hunt, one of the research group's leaders, explains project-based education as letting students learn by participating in real-life exercises and challenges, not just reading a book and writing an essay.

The hope is by posing a question to students and getting them invested in finding a real and applicable answer, they get more involved in their education and maybe even have fun while learning.

“We’re still attacking texts, we’re still reading, but I think we’re coming about it from a bunch of different angles that help get more people engaged and involved.”Janelle DuvallWHS teacher

They finish the curriculum, as much as it can be finished, this spring. Researchers will take the curriculum to a group of test classes and see what teachers think of it.

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When the process started the concept felt different enough to be confusing and overwhelming, said Windsor High School teacher Janelle Duvall, one of the Windsor teachers working on the project.

She admits she still battles with the instinct to focus on the classic reading and writing her career as an English teacher instilled in her. But as she figured out how to get her students involved in the projects she helped create in the new curriculum, she started seeing encouraging results.

Her hardest struggle was making the projects matter to her students in real-world terms. The group wants students to work on projects and assignments that mean more than just a grade. It wants students to care.

Duvall's moment came when her students undertook a project to solve traffic problems on Windsor's Main Street. Students spent hours and numerous class periods researching the traffic situation, interviewing local officials and processing the information gathered. In the end students presented their solution — evidence and all — to local officials.

They didn't get to change Main Street. But the conclusions they reached — which strongly favored traffic control methods such as roundabouts — were validated in a way because not long after, Windsor finished installing a roundabout in a different part of town.

It was validating for the students and amazing for Duvall to see, she said.

"They got to be a part of the process," she said.

Projects like these allow students with different strengths to shine. They can require students to work on technical, written, speaking and presentation aspects of the project.

"We try to make sure every student works on the writing piece," Duvall said.

And while involved in a real-life process the students learned same skills they would have if they'd been reading classics and writing essays, Duvall said.

"We're still accessing a lot of these skills in different areas, as well," she said..

Students must learn how to write effectively and persuasively, and a lot of times teachers think that means kids needs to write essays, Duvall said. Project-based learning addresses these skills, requiring students to write and communicate information in effective and compelling ways, with research and presentations. It's less traditional.

In student surveys Duvall's found comments including, "This doesn't feel like English class."

She admits she finds herself worrying when she realizes her students haven't been required to read a novel write a long essay in quite some time.

She's finding her students are still learning the required English skills through reflective writing, authoring arguments and completing smaller tasks. And they're enjoying those kinds of projects, Duvall said.

"We're still attacking texts, we're still reading, but I think we're coming about it from a bunch of different angles that help get more people engaged and involved," she said.

Alison Gould Boardman leads the Colorado University-based group. To do it right in her mind, that means a working partnership with teachers actually trying the suggested materials.

Far too often researchers at a university will develop their ideas in relative isolation, and the only interaction teachers get in the process is reading the books they publish, Hunt said.

"This isn't that," he said. "It's a lot messier."

Involving teachers the curriculum development means ideas bounce back and fourth and up and down between researchers and educators at different levels of the project, he said. Sometimes surveys bring in the voices and opinions of students too.

"It's rich cacophony of different voices involved," Hunt said. "The idea that teachers are involved and apart of this is really important. It's valuable. … It's quite a delightful mess."

Learn more

Windsor High School English teachers joined a team of teachers from the St. Vrain Valley School District and researchers from the University of Colorado and Colorado State University to develop a project-based learning curriculum for ninth grade English language arts.

Find out more about the team’s work online at: http://composeourworld.org/.

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