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New from ASBJ: Teacher innovation in Decatur

Talk to teachers at Winnona Park Elementary School in Decatur, Georgia, and you get the impression that they’ve won the education lottery: a dream job.

Why? Years ago, the school implemented an innovative instructional model known as expeditionary learning—or EL Education—that emphasizes interactive, interdisciplinary, project-based teaching.

So, in an era when some teachers complain they must follow rushed, rigid lesson plans designed to cram information into kids’ heads, educators at Winnona Park actually get to design lessons designed to teach thinking, problem-solving, and how to learn.

Teachers get to be creative—and teach in a way that teachers are supposed to teach.

“What’s important to me as a teacher in an EL school is being able to have the autonomy to plan things that are really helpful and engaging,” notes one teacher. “It’s not rote memorization. It’s exploring. It’s thinking deeper. It’s moving deeper and delving deeper and being able to teach kids the way that you’re supposed to be teaching.”

“It’s not just textbook, textbook, worksheet,” another says. “We’re able to relay all of the information that we need for kids to learn real-life experiences—and that really keeps the kids engaged in their learning.”

That’s what teachers say they want to do in the classroom—why they entered the teaching profession. They want the opportunity to create lesson plans, to think carefully about how to convey lessons to their students.

Earlier this year at Winnona Park, first-grade teachers had the chance to create a multi-week lesson that taught the scientific methods by asking students to solve the challenges confronted by fairy tale characters.

For example, how could help Rapunzel, a beautiful girl imprisoned in a tower, escape using nothing but commonplace items found in the home?

Or what do you do with Humpty Dumpty after his “great fall?”

These are the kind of questions that young students are eager to sink their teeth into—and the kind of questions that offer teachers the opportunity to tap their creativity and professional knowledge.

Yet, what makes such instructional challenges all the more fun is that, unlike in many schools, teachers don’t work in isolation in their classrooms. In expeditionary learning, each multi-week lesson plan—called an “expedition”—requires teachers to collaborate as they bring together music, art, math, English, and Spanish, and other subjects into the instructional plan.

“We meet every week multiple times,” one teacher says. “We’re constantly in each other’s rooms.” It’s not uncommon, she adds, to say, “‘Hey, we need to tweak some things. Let’s have a meeting.’ It never ends, and we keep working on it, and we keep making it better.”

This approach is demanding, teachers admit. But they are more than happy to do the work if it means they can make a difference for their kids.

“Building that excitement for what we’re about to study … that’s why EL Education is special,” a teacher says. “Just being able to really create that excitement and plan that and get the kids really ready for what we’re about to study is great.”

Read about Decatur and other innovative district programs at ASBJ’s special multimedia feature.

 

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