St. Timothy’s Magazine Excerpt: A Hands-On Approach to Learning

Disrupting the norm can lead to innovative ideas—and it has at St. Timothy’s. Middle school students are reaping the benefits from a change in schedule. While it sounds simple, the transition from a semester-based, five-day schedule to a trimester-based, seven-day rotation allows for greater flexibility with classes. The two additional days make it easier to spread out core classes, like math and science courses, and add engaging enrichment classes.

All sixth through eighth graders are now taking an additional enrichment course each trimester, and they will participate in three separate enrichment classes by the end of the year. Sixth graders take Community Connections, CREATE and STEM; seventh graders attend Life Skills, Debate and Make; and eighth graders have Genius Hour, Road Across the USA and Robotics. While some of these classes have existed in years past, students typically chose just one elective each year. Now, sixth through eighth graders attend one enrichment class per trimester.

During the summer, Head of Middle School Tim Coleman tasked middle school teachers with creating new classes focused on hands-on learning experiences.

Science teacher Chrissy Saunders took a page from Google’s book and created a Genius Hour for eighth graders. Google encourages its employees to spend 20 percent of their time working on passion projects. Giving employees time to explore their creative ideas led to an increase in productivity. Many aspects of Google, including Gmail and Google News, were developed when engineers created their 20-time projects. Saunders worked with Brandon Bogumil, Imagination Lab teacher, to develop a problem-based learning curriculum geared toward eighth grade students.

To begin, Saunders asked students to create brackets of their passions. They each started with four ideas, narrowed it down to two, then chose the subject they would focus on for the trimester. They watched episodes of Shark Tank to learn about elevator pitches and then had to pitch their winning idea to Saunders.

Students came up with a myriad of projects, including building a computer from scratch, developing ways to deal with stress, learning calligraphy and building a rabbit hutch. Twice a rotation, students meet to research, write about their progress and reflect on what worked and what did not.

When an idea fails, Saunders encourages her students to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it. She maintains that it is okay to fail and make mistakes because that is how you learn and improve.

Saunders said, “I wanted to create a class where students would use the skills they’ve learned throughout their time at St. Timothy’s. Students know how to research, write and solve problems from their experience in core classes, and this course is a culmination of those skills.”

Putting knowledge to use also inspired history teacher Peggy Todd, who created the Road Across the USA class for eighth graders. She wanted to teach geography in a different way and integrated math and critical thinking into the curriculum.

Todd started by grouping students together and assigning them different regions of the United States. She also gave students a large, medium or small budget and a timeline. Throughout the trimester, the students have to figure out a way to visit the cultural attractions in each state in the region within their budget and timeline.

Eighth graders start by researching historic locations, nature preserves and fun activities unique to their assigned states. They choose three options for each category, then determine the three most interesting places to visit in each state.

Based on their budget, students have to figure out how to get to those places—whether by flying, renting an RV, driving a car or using public transportation. The groups that are assigned Alaska and Hawaii do not have to include flights in their budgets—those costs are covered by “winning a surprise trip.” They also find places to stay along the way; students with higher budgets can stay at hotels while students who cannot afford a hotel room every night might decide to camp or rent a vacation house. At the end of the trimester, groups will present their route, transportation and places of interest in their region to the class. Todd said, “The goal is for students to learn a little bit about each state, while working within a specific timeline and budget.”

Colleen Camaione-Edmonston, who teaches language arts, also wanted her seventh graders

to understand how to budget. She designed a Life Skills class to give students an overview

of various subjects, including nutrition, woodworking and finances.

Students learn about the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s My Plate diagram, which shows the

five major food groups proportionally on a plate. The seventh graders will create their own healthy

plates and learn how to analyze ingredient lists. Camaione-Edmonston challenges the students

with real-world scenarios: shopping for healthy food on a tight budget and making meal plans

that work with their families’ busy schedules.

The seventh graders also learn basic woodworking skills by creating plyometric boxes for the

St. Timothy’s athletic department and black boxes for the drama department to use in flexible sets. The class practices safety first by watching videos on woodshop safety and wearing protective gloves and eyewear.

Camaione-Edmonston put the students into small groups to teach them how to use power tools. Once a group masters the pre-drilling technique, Camaione-Edmonston shows another group how to drill screws into the plywood. After construction is complete, the students will stain the plyometric boxes and paint the black boxes.

All three of the new enrichment classes help students learn in a different way. Kinesthetic learning—where students are actively involved— encourages students to engage in the lessons in a different way. This hands-on learning style allows students to explore their creativity while enhancing their critical thinking skills. With the additional enrichment classes, middle school students are definitely getting a well-rounded education.

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