By Jim Boyle
Before 1,736 students showed up at Elk River High School for their first day of school, Elk River High School’s 95 teachers were in class with their colleagues.
It wasn’t a mass lecture in the Zabee Theater that many have come to witness. They were with small groups — some as small as two and others as big as four or five — huddled around computers to take in one of seven topical videos they could choose from.
These 60- to 90-minute videos were just the start of a journey where they were asked to discuss among themselves what they learned, what they could incorporate and what support they would need to make it possible. They not only talked about it but they wrote it down and will continue to talk about it.
“It was more personalized,” said Elk River High School Principal Terry Bizal, reflecting on the Elk River Area School District’s latest district-wide start of the school year approach to staff development.
These groups — Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) — will gather weekly the rest of the school year to discuss what’s working, what’s not and how to improve one another. PLCs are nothing new, but they are becoming more and more refined to meet the needs of individual students.
Individual teachers and PLCs will also have the opportunity to take in any or all of the other videos the colleagues in other grades or subject matter watched.
It’s one way in which District 728 is attempting to keep up with a rapidly changing world. Technology has become an increasing part of the mix, both for school staffs and students.
Teachers in the high school health program were the first to start using iPads in their classrooms last year as a pilot, and they are continuing to use a classroom set for the coming year. Middle school math programs in the district will start this year, with some help from health teachers.
Bizal admits he had his own questions about how successful the pilot would be. He said he worried the iPads would be lost or broken throughout the year. Zero were lost or stolen and zero were broken, he said.
Others wondered how much they would be used and thought it would mostly be for research on the Internet.
Mike Cross, an Elk River High School health teacher with a set of 42, said they use them 60 percent of the days he has class. They are used for online testing, research, podcasts on iTunes U and for WebQuest assignment sheets.
Cross says he uses them and likes them in his class more than he thought he would.
He says students who often get C’s and D’s benefit because they are often hands-on type learners. Gamers love them because they’re used to them. And they even accelerate learning. He sees students’ vocabularies increasing.
“My biggest worry is kids will suffer anxiety,” he said. “If someone comes in saying they don’t like taking a test this way, I tell them I will help them.”
Students have found podcasts to their liking, and he has weaned his students off of cumbersome textbooks that cost $72.
Professionals in his PLC work collaboratively to see what’s working in their classroom and what’s not. They have data instantaneously as students test. Test grades have the ability to show up on the district’s Parent Portal minutes after class is over.
“I like it,” Cross said. “A parent can call me and I can look at their test results and say your son or daughter did fine on everything but this one part or whatever it is. You know right away.”
Teachers review what they are teaching and what concepts are lost on their students. If another teacher had success teaching that concept, they compare notes. The district’s health teachers began developing common assessment several years ago to make this possible.
“I have no excuses for not being able to teach the subject matter, and students have no excuses for not being able to learn it,” Cross said, pointing out how on his website all of the work, assignments and tools to learn are listed.
Sometimes Cross and another teacher will work in tandem, too, with one working with a group that’s more advanced in an area to work on an enrichment while the other re-teaches a segment that students didn’t grasp.
Cross demonstrated test-taking to students during 10-minute segments of his class and then had students work in groups on their iPads to assemble collages on a health topic. Individual students also had to write down on paper why they selected the images they did. The assignments were turned in before class was over. Some students work off their personal phones, and most work off a classroom iPad. They are often working off of free apps students can download on their own devices.
Cross says some things are still done old-style and adds there has to be a balance. But the scales tip toward the new ways, and that’s OK, too, he said.
“I want to be helpful,” he said. “I don’t want to ‘catch’ kids.”