Branching out: different classroom styles cultivate new experiences
Many teachers, both at STA and other schools, are turning toward more non-traditional classroom styles. Some teachers have embraced flipped classrooms, collaborative or experiential learning or blocked schedules in an attempt to create meaningful learning experiences for students.
October 14, 2019
“I think [in Italy], the Palio was the biggest thing that just made me feel so connected to the Italians because they can tell if you’re into it, then they’ll accept you,” senior Avery Owens said. “It made you feel like an Italian, loving something that much.”
Owens participated in the Italy pilgrimage based on Dante Alighieri’s Inferno this summer led by STA experiential learning director Kelly Fast. She especially places importance on her experiences at Siena’s Palio, the bi-annual horse race which allowed her to invest herself into Italian culture.
“I think the biggest thing was I was able to feel so comfortable all the way across the world because I felt like I had such a connection with Siena and the Palio,” Owens said.
Fast defines experiential learning as authentic real-world educational experiences that usually happen off-campus. Fast is focusing on bringing more experiential learning to STA. This year, STA’s interim week will have 55 classes and there will be nine trips overall.
“Hopefully [experiential learning experiences] inspire students to be more self-directed in their education,” Fast said. “To find things that they care more specifically about or are more interested in. Expose them to all kinds of opportunities that they wouldn’t get in that normal classroom at STA, either through travelling or a mission trip, academic trips, internships, interim courses.”
STA English classes are evolving into a mix of traditional and research-based learning, as capstone projects are being implemented for all grades. These capstones are student-driven research projects comparable to thesis projects. The first three quarters of English classes at STA will be traditional learning, while fourth quarter will be dedicated to capstones.
Fast hopes that capstones can help students develop researching and writing skills that are important in college.
“When you apply to college, [it is important] that you have something that you as a student have taken interest in, developed, you can really show yourself as a student,” Fast said. “Teaching students those skills freshman year and scaffolding them, building on them, until junior or senior year, that’s a great skill for students to learn.”
Fast believes that recently experiential learning opportunities have improved at STA.
“The things we’ve done in the last five years, with STEAM certificate, capstone projects in the English department, interim week, all of these things are new to STA, and I think we’ll continue to grow,” Fast said.
Science teacher Renee Blake laughed as she reflected on her days as a college student.
“I hated lecture,” Blake said. “I had this professor in college who would lecture half the time, and then we would take a quiz over the reading that we did over the week — over 50 pages. He could pull the most random thing and it was awful. I swore I would never ever teach like that.”
Blake now has two flipped classrooms, in which she records videos for her students to watch on their own time. She uses class time for labs, hands-on work and questions.
“When I first started teaching I would be like ‘oh, I forgot to tell this one class something,’” Blake said. “And we didn’t have email, we didn’t even have computers at that time, so it was a little stressful. So now, being flipped, the content is consistent and if someone’s gone, they’re getting the correct information rather than relying on a student to give the notes which can be sketchy sometimes.”
After attending FlipCon seven years ago with two other teachers, Blake became an advocate for the flipped style and reasons that it could work for any class subject, although admits she was initially suspicious about their claims.
“They say, in these workshops, [flipped] can be for any class, even P.E.,” Blake said. “I rarely, and I mean rarely, have anyone get under an 80% in my class. And those that would get in the 70s, I mean it might be one every few years, she never turned anything in.”
According to the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), flipped classrooms can often be more beneficial than traditional classrooms. In a survey out of 453 teachers on their experiences with flipped classrooms, 80% reported better student attitudes and 67% reported higher test scores.
There was resistance to the change in Blake’s teaching style before the method was proven successful.
“At first [students] hated it — even some of the parents,” Blake said. “I actually had a student on one of the end of the course surveys: ‘[Blake] does flipped class because she doesn’t want to do anything.’”
The reactions of parents and students have shifted over time from adverse to intrigued.
“Now, parents when I tell them, they’ve heard about it,” Blake said. “It’s been around for a long time, and they like that idea because students are doing so many extracurricular activities, they’re gone for sports, they’re gone for whatever, and now they’re not missing the content.”
In addition to the high school effort, colleges have turned toward flipped classrooms. As of 2013, 27% of classes in United States colleges used flipped classrooms, according to Faculty Focus.
“They’re responsible for their learning which I think they need to know how to do and manage their time before they get to college,” Blake said. “It does no good to spoon-feed them.”
Sophomore Ellie Bolch chose to take Blake’s forensics class this year because of her positive experience with flipped advanced biology.
“I knew her teaching style,” Bolch said. “I think that it’s really helpful, especially in a subject that you excel in — for science, I really like it and so when I’m doing worksheets, projects and even tests at home, it can be a lot easier to plan that on my own time and have a time schedule for it.”
STA math teachers also faced adverse reactions when they began their collaborative-learning geometry class (students working together to solve problems) four years ago. Now the department holds shortened geometry classes for parents, where they can experience it firsthand.
“Instead of lecture, students are given lessons — they’re mainly worksheet based,” math teacher Renee Fietsam said. “It’s not like I would go to a traditional textbook and just copy out problems and say ‘here you go kids, good luck, teach it yourselves.’ Instead, we try to scaffold things and build on their previous knowledge.”
Fietsam claims that geometry performance on the math section of the ACT is now more “on par with the other areas,” as it had been relatively lower than the other assessed math skills.
Bolch is also enrolled in Fietsam’s collaborative geometry class. She describes her learning style as dependent on the content.
“For the strong skills, [I prefer] flipped classroom and maybe more individual-based learning, which I guess goes with advanced classes — [they] should maybe be more hands-on and less teacher-reliant,” Bolch said. “And then the regular [classes] I think should be more lecture. I’d say it depends on the subject.”
Because of her personal learning style, she finds some struggle in the collaborative learning environment.
“I’m not super strong in math so I’d rather have lecture… but when you understand the content I feel like it’s a lot easier to get it done [with collaborative learning],” Bolch said. “When you don’t know and your whole group doesn’t know, then it’s hard to figure it out. But it does help with problem-solving and trying to figure it out.”
Fietsam agrees that certain aspects of geometry especially lend themselves to this style of teaching and prefers moderating collaborative classrooms to teaching lecture-style classes.
“It allows me to get to know students better and give them quicker feedback,” Fietsam said. “I think teaching geometry is a whole lot of fun now, whereas I used to love geometry but hate lecturing it on it — it kind of sucked the fun out. But now I think it’s great.”
Many students agree with Fietsam. In an optional activity where her students gave anonymous advice to future geometry students, one wrote, “I love the style of learning in this class because it’s not a lecture-class more of a collaborative note-taking class.”
Fietsam believes that working in collaborative classes in high school can help students be more successful in real life situations.
“We work on a lot of soft skills — communication, how to work in a group, how to check in with other group members, monitoring their own pace,” Fietsam said. “We’re not only teaching geometry but we’re teaching all of this whole other skillset. It’s not for everyone but I think the kids who don’t enjoy it, they still gets something out of it, especially as far as how to work with a team.”
According to the School Superintendents Association, about 30% of secondary schools utilize block scheduling, a schedule in which students do not attend every class each day and class periods are longer. The STA Student Leadership Team, a student group concerned with academic affairs, has been discussing scheduling with administration, according to Bolch.
“We’ve kind of been talking about [block scheduling],” Bolch said. “I think it would be hard for some people, including me, to change from the current schedule… A lot of people have said since we’re a college prep school, we should do block scheduling to prepare for college.”
Other local schools, such as the Pembroke Hill School, utilize block schedules. Pembroke created a schedule in which two out of every eight days are blocked. According to upper school academic dean David Burke, it is a good balance between a normal schedule and a completely blocked schedule.
“An 80-minute class is fine when it’s not every day,” Burke said. “But when it’s every day, that’s just a long time to fill. Plus, there’s real school of thought, particularly in math and languages, that they really like to see their students every day. The repetition is important for them, so this is kind of a compromise.”
At Pembroke, “red weeks” consist of normal classes, while “blue weeks” have block days on Wednesday and Thursday. There is also a late start on Wednesday. Burke thinks that having these block days can create a more relaxed environment on campus.
“[Blue weeks] really are just a great breather for everybody,” Burke said. “The pace is just a little slower, a little more relaxed. Red weeks tend to be a little higher paced and stressful, and blue weeks tend to be a little more relaxed, so we think that’s good for students.”
According to Burke, the slower pace is also helpful for teachers.
“Every single thing that students experience, faculty experience,” Burke said. “So when [students] take a test, the faculty have to grade that test, they have to write that test. So [block scheduling] gives faculty a little bit better pace during blue weeks as well.”
When Pembroke modified their schedule about seven years ago, their main focus was creating a rotating schedule. This allows students to attend their classes at a different time every day.
“We were more motivated by the rotating part,” Burke said. “No offense to freshman boys, but if you had the same group of freshman boys before lunch everyday, the idea [is] that you’re not seeing them at their best.”
Although he acknowledges that no schedule can be flawless, Burke is satisfied with Pembroke’s schedule.
“Every high school is always in search of the perfect schedule,” Burke said. “Bluntly, we’re never going to find it because there’s too many things that we’re all trying to fit into a school day. We’re never going to quite satisfy everyone, but right now, we’re very happy with this, overall.”
Fietsam advocates for the importance of experimenting with and implementing different classroom styles.
“The classroom style should fit the content you’re teaching,” Fietsam said. “If the classroom style you have isn’t really helping your students learn the content then that’s when things need to change. I think variety for the sake of variety is not the purpose, but variety because that’s what the subject really caters itself to.”