Learning By Doing

Students at a Northwest Chicago magnet school are getting unique lessons in building everything from robots in the first grade to websites in the eighth grade.

It's all part of a blended learning model that merges technology with education, and it’s helping students get the most of out of a longer school day.

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“We invented them, we were the first ones,” said 6-year-old David Somers.

The 6-year-olds at Wildwood World Magnet School may not have actually invented robots, but their teachers say they're glad they think they did.

“Then you put the battery on. Tape it on with electric tape,” Somers said. “You’ll need wires. Clip those on battery.”

Taking ownership of their learning is central to the experience at this kindergarten through eighth grade school in Chicago's Forest Glen neighborhood.



“We're really trying to adopt the stance of self-directed learning, student-driven inquiry, student-driven learning, and student ownership of learning,” said Wildwood Principal Mary Beth Cunat.

For the first-graders, that means building robots and lights. Eighth-graders are buried in their laptops building websites.

And fourth-graders are studying billionaires.

Fourth-graders Carley Creeth and Ben Williams said they didn’t know who Warren Buffett was before they were assigned to study him.

“I just thought he was a normal guy,” Williams said. “Now I know he's an investor. He’s very important. He gives a lot of money to charity.”

“He gives like about $20 billion,” Creeth said.

“More than Bill Gates does,” Williams added.

But it's not enough just to learn it. They have to prove it, by presenting what they know at the school's Inquiry Fair.

“We’ve given them like a menu of items to choose from, so you can present with a board; they can present with an iPad,” said fourth-grade teacher Georgia Melidis. “We always encourage the use of technology here at Wildwood, especially in fourth grade.”

Students are rarely found at their desks.

View a slideshow from Wildwood World Magnet School.

Rather than subjects being siloed, the content is mixed together.

In the case of the fourth-grade billionaires, students are learning both math and social studies; research and collaboration; speaking and listening.

“Because he’s a role model, and he helped a lot of people,” Creeth said. “And we can do that when we get older. We don’t even have to be rich. We can just help the world and be great role models.”

“So they have to demonstrate that they have an understanding of responsible financial management, so spending and saving wisely,” Melidis said. “What I really want to see from them is what they’re learning from these people, not just because they have a lot of money but how are they looking at them as role models for the kids, and what they’re going to do with their learning.”

View graphs of student growth, which measures the change in NWEA MAP® standardized scores between Spring 2013 and Spring 2014. The growth is compared to the national average for schools that had similar 2013 scores. A 50th percentile score means the school grew at the same rate as the national average.



And technology plays a big part. Williams said they found the photos of Warren Buffett using Google Images.

It's called blended learning, and it's why Principal Cunat sought out the help of the Chicago Public Education Fund.

“And if we want students to be able to meet those kinds of expectations, we have to give them and their teachers’ new kinds of tools to be able to meet them. And technology is just one of those great and available tools out there for us,” said Chicago Public Education Fund President and CEO Heather Anichini. “And by blending learning the teachers are able to take a classroom of 30 students all at very different levels and begin to meet their individual needs. So using technology smartly, they can see where each individual student is against a particular topic, and they can put those students in different kinds of groups to help advance them at the pace that makes sense for them.”

By receiving a total of $110,000, the school is working through how to best use its overcrowded space and how to help students tie technology to what they learn in class.

Some of that funding arrived just as the longer school day was being implemented across Chicago Public Schools.

“So we opened up the schedule and had time in the schedule every day for either this blended learning or project-based learning in the upper grades. And then in the lower grades, we built in what we called mirtl time, which is media, inquiry, research, technology, and library,” Cunat said. “So that was a chance for them to work on projects that they're getting exposed to in their content areas. Also opening up time for more reading, and obviously, the biggest thing you wanted with the longer school day is to support your learners who’re struggling.”

View graphs of student attainment, which measures how Wildwood students performed on the NWEA MAP® standardized test in Spring 2014. The national average for student attainment in both reading and math is the 50th percentile.



Cunat explains that technology allows for more project-based, hands-on learning because it allows students to work at their own levels.

“We know what people need in this economy, in this global economy. We’re competing against people who have master’s degrees, who speak multiple languages, who will work for much cheaper than what our workforce will work for,” Cunat said. “We’ve got to be equipping kids with the capacity of competing in a global economy and competing in jobs that matter to them, where they feel like their lives are making a difference.”

And it fits right in with what students are required to demonstrate under the Common Core State Standards, and eventually the state's new PARCC standardized tests.

“We're really putting out there what's expected, not of the Common Core, but in the real world,” Anichini said. “I spend most of my day having to figure out how to take lots of different ideas and communicate them to other people, defend them in some cases, and we're giving students now the opportunity to learn to do that in a very safe environment of school.”

The hope is that these students will be better prepared in high school and whatever else comes their way.

View graphs showing the percentage of Wildwood students meeting or exceeding state standards for ISAT composite scores in 2014, and how Wildwood compares to similar schools, whose NWEA MAP®test scores were similar to those at Wildwood in 2013. 

Wildwood is grossly overcrowded at more than 170 percent of its capacity.

An annex to alleviate the overcrowding should be completed in time for the 2015-2016 school year, where Principal Mary Beth Cunat hopes the school can continue its innovative learning methods.

Wildwood eighth-grade students, Cynthia Flores, MacKenzie York, and Tatum Thompson explain the themes they chose for their website in this web extra video. The class is following the Next Generation Curriculum, similar to the Common Core standards, but for science. Students chose topics in each literacy, science and social science. The websites will eventually be turned in and graded by teachers.



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