Latexo ISD looks to future with project-based learning
Houston County Courier
By Jenna Duncan Reporter Since Latexo ISD began upgrading its technology three years ago, in the back of Superintendent Don Elsom's head has been a question - how do we best utilize the new technology to help our students learn? As more students in the school district have gained access to technology such as Google ChromeBooks, these new tools will be part of a larger educational shift at the district to begin implementation of projectbased learning. "Basically what project based learning is, a new way of running a classroom where the teachers design projects that are based on the standards and around authentic questions that challenge the students to produce something new or to solve a problem or to ask questions and think critically, rather than just lectures and worksheets and quizzes," Sandy Simpson, instructional technologist for Latexo, explained. "It's challenging them to create something and apply their knowledge." By the end of next academic year, every student in the district will have access to an electronic device at all times so new programs like project-based curriculum are practical avenues of teaching. With students using ChromeBooks instead of textbooks, any information they want or need for a project can be in their hands at any time of day, enabling students to use the technology for projects. "Our students at the high school are able to take their devices home, so learning doesn't stop when the dismissal bell rings," Simpson said. "They're able to continue and collaborate and work in their groups at home, on the weekends. It enhances their 24/7 access to learning." Some teachers in the district already began implementing more projects into their curriculum after teachers and administrators toured Manor New Tech High School, a high school focused on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), that is supported with projectbased learning. At the high school in Manor, different teachers collaborate with each other on projects that encompass multiple subjects to encourage learning. These projects become the emphasis of the school year instead of tests and lectures, with the average student completing about 60 projects a year. At the April board meeting, Simpson presented the idea to the Board of Trustees as well as information on the success of Manor New Tech. That night, the board voted to change the school day schedules to allow conference time between teachers to create project ideas. Elsom said he began understanding how project-based learning could be implemented in Latexo after touring other high schools that have successful programs in place. Since taking over three years ago, changing the way students learn has been a goal and this is the best practical avenue, he said. As standardized testing has increased in rigor and use over the last 15 years, Elsom said he has tried to get away from its importance and focus in the classroom. By shifting to project-based learning instead of lesson plans directed for STAAR, he hopes to take away the importance of the test and get back to the core of teaching children how to learn. "The idea of wanted to do it is a straight out rebellion against the test. I'll be perfectly honest with you, I am sick to death of hearing about the test," he said. "I'm sick to death of telling kids they have to learn this because it's going to be on the test. And I'm sick to death of teachers being so stressed out because of the test that they're not teaching kids - I knew there had to be something better. There had to be a better way to do this." "That's where it came from for me - to change the culture of how we do things," he continued. "To get it back to where the test is simply a basic indicator that shows us we're doing a good job, and it's not the end all to everything." By giving students concrete projects thatutilize different subject matter and critical thinking, Simpson said she thinks it will only help their performance on testing. She addressed this concern with students at Manor, and said despite not having lectures about the test they knew the material from hands on learning rather than a textbook. "That's where those higher level thinking skills that the projects naturally lend themselves to, those are what stick," she said. "Those are what make a difference for the kids, so they remember it when it comes time to the test rather than the recall memorization, short-term memory that the learning has an impact and the students then can be successful on those tests." Over the summer, teachers will continue learning about the technology their students use every day so next fall, teachers will be able to design projects for the students. While some are excited, others are skeptical, Elsom said, and he hopes that once teachers begin to see results they will realize how helpful the project-based learning will be for their classrooms. For some teachers though, the implementation has already started. A few educators from Latexo also toured Manor New Tech, and Simpson said she has already seen the results of those teachers bringing what they learned back to the classroom during a recent presentation day, a sign of what is to come for Latexo ISD. "The students who have traditionally struggled in the classroom, they're not good test takers, they have difficulty in school, those were the kids who were really excelling," she said of her observations. "They are natural speakers, or they really enjoy sharing what they have learned with others, and that was such an amazing thing to see as an educator to see these students who will struggle in certain traditional school settings just really blossom and thrive in this environment".