Exploring new subjects

Middle school students try new concepts with program

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— Steamboat Springs Middle School Principal Tim Bishop said the new middle school concept does not measure students' potential, but rather empowers students to explore new subject areas.

"I'm trying to look at the whole student," Bishop said. "It's making students who may not feel strong feel like they are capable of solving the problems."

The opportunity for students to explore all subject areas and electives is a primary goal of the middle school concept.

Middle school teacher Johnny Walker said many students are discovering they enjoy industrial arts, singing, drama or art because they are required to take them as yearly encore classes.

The electives were renamed encore classes because all students are required to take them.

"My whole classroom has changed because everyone takes shop," Walker said. "I hope to turn on kids who wouldn't have normally taken shop."

He said he expects to see more girls pursue shop class in their high school years, and potentially engineering in college, because they are required to take industrial arts during their middle school years.

"I only got to know the shop kids," Walker said about the former middle school schedule.

Now encore teachers get to know all kids in the school.

Walker said getting each student for a six- to 12-week period a year is exciting. He said it is easier to know what particular students need when they are in his class.

Encore art teacher Ceci Shikles said some students would choose not to take certain encore courses because they are intimidated. She said students are now exposed to all electives and will know firsthand if they want to pursue an encore classes during their high school years.

"I think it is a real wonderful opportunity for all kids to learn how to draw," she said. "It's wonderful to see."

To expand students' experiences, all eighth-graders are required to take drama and seventh- and eighth-graders are required to take a place on the high school stage at some point.

Walker said with the new schedule, all encore teachers could work together and switch certain students from one class to another for the learning benefit of all students.

Finding the most conducive "grouping" of students helps students focus in class, Walker said.

The changes to a student's schedule include more than the encore classes and also involve integrating the core academic subjects.

Guidance counselor Margi Briggs-Casson said there are many examples of integrative learning. She said the eighth-grade students did a study on electricity that threaded through all of their classes while the seventh-graders went to Perry-Mansfield for place-based learning projects that included all core subject areas.

The "flexible" nature of the middle school schedule allows teachers to work in teams and decide the time needed to teach a topic.

"The teachers are in control of the day instead of the clock," Briggs-Casson said.

She said each student has a team of core academic teachers.

The teachers can do a lot more in terms of planning curriculum for the students as well as recognizing personal situations in which the students need help, she said.

"I think the feeling of teamwork as a staff was improved this year," she said.

The middle school schedule does not separate students into different classes based on ability.

Bishop said students perform better when they are not labeled as a low- to high-achieving student. He said teachers have worked hard to develop differentiated instruction that is challenging to all students in the class.

He said by keeping students together, the goal is to get the entire student body to the advanced level.

Both Briggs-Casson and Bishop said they have seen fewer students this year for discipline reasons.

Briggs-Casson said the two main reasons are that students have less idle time in the hallways and teachers are also more observant of students' social behavior.

"The bottom line is kids are enjoying a varied experience in the encore classes," she said.

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