Turning the corner on education

There is a lot of good news in education-and it is happening right in our own backyard. Schools big and small, urban and suburban, are not only evolving their academic and learning processes to keep up with the ever-changing needs of our students, but they are leading the way with some of today’s most innovative new educational strategies.

Technology is King

Like many schools, Pope John XXIII School in Evanston has embraced technology as a way to help their students become more efficient learners. “Technology is the future, it is not going away,” says Rosalie Musiala. “If we want to prepare our students we need to incorporate technology into the overall learning process.” This integration has included numerous upgrades to their computer systems and other in-classroom technology, but it also includes getting teachers more comfortable with using the technical tools that are available. “Our entire staff is reading Brain-Based Teaching in a Digital Age where we have learned how the changes in technology-computers, iPads, iPods, etc.-have significantly changed the makeup of the brain, ” says Musiala. “As educators, we need to not only understand those changes but embrace them.”

Toward that goal, teachers at Pope John XXIII are trained on how to incorporate numerous multimedia tools into their classroom experience such as podcasts, animation and wikis. And, just so they can feel as comfortable as possible, teachers are given a membership to the Apple Store so they can have one on one learning with experts. “It’s not just about upgrading your technology, it is also about upgrading the teacher expertise in using these new tools,” adds Musiala.

Even for the littlest of learners, technology is playing a key role in the education process. “Little kids are very hands-on learners, ” says Patty Crylen, Early Childhood Program Director for Avery Coonley School in Downers Grove. “They are great at observing the world around them and you see it come out in their play. Technology just enhances that hands-on learning experience.”

The numerous learning apps available through products such as the iPad have become educational tools. “We have access to hundreds of great apps for our students,” says Crylen. Teachers can actually connect their iPads through a projector so its content is shown on the classroom’s Smart Board. This allows students to fully participate in the activities such as counting objects or finding letters. “Although the teacher is manipulating the screen, it feels like the student is the one that is doing it,” adds Crylen.

For both schools, technology has become the cornerstone for improving parent/teacher communication. At Pope John XXIII, teachers are required to fully utilize an online communication system and are creating individual web pages that are connected to the school’s site while parents at Avery Coonley look inside their student’s “Smart Folder” to see a slide show of their child’s daily classroom experience. “This really opens the door for better parent/teacher communication because it immediately shows parents that the teacher really does know their child,” says Crylen.

Creating Lifelong Skills

In addition to changes with technology, schools are also looking at making changes to the way schools and curriculum are designed. For many schools, moving toward a more holistic way of teaching students is key to their future success outside of the classroom. “Since regular participation in the types of programs that emphasize increased use of visual and hands-on learning, our students develop self-confidence, self-discipline and persistence,” says Carla Burford of St. Dorothy School in Chicago. Some of the programs that are having a big impact on students at St. Dorothy School include OWL (Opening the World to Learning) Program from the University of Illinois and the JiJi Mind Institute Program. Both programs are based on scientific research into how students of various ages learn best and have allowed students to not only grow in their educational knowledge, but strengthen their problem-solving and critical thinking skills.

In addition, students actively participate in programs such as art, jazz and liturgical dance. “The skills and experience that students develop by learning to perform and create provide a foundation for the kind of literacy students must have to communicate and work successfully in our ever-changing technological society,” says Burford. “Our children need to be able to compete with others who have had the exposure to all of these elements of education.”

Teachers at Luther North College Prep are not only preparing students academically, but are making sure they are career-ready as well. Beginning next year, the school will be moving to an academy model where everything students do in their classroom work will be connected and grounded in one of three academy themes: Fine Arts, Business and Health Sciences. “This new model integrates standards-based academic and career technical curriculum,” says Shari Meyer, Executive Director of Luther North College Prep. “While kids are still in high school we will be helping them develop the skills they will actually use during their future careers.”

The academy model helps answer the question “why do I have to learn this?” before the student even asks. “It really helps students see how to apply what they are learning academically to how they will use it in the real world,” adds Meyer. While students will still be required to take core classes such as English, Math and History, they view all those subjects through the context of their academy theme. “It adds relevance to the core information they are receiving,” says Meyer. That relevance is already showing signs of improving a student’s education. Although Luther North College Prep will not officially begin their new academy model until next year, the National Academy Foundation has completed numerous studies to find that this type of educational balance results in more kids staying in school and, more importantly, more kids staying interested in being in school. “Today’s students don’t want to just know the information, they want to know why they even need it,” says Meyer, who will be creating an advisory board of local employers and post-secondary leaders to help advise and mentor students and teachers. “It’s project-based learning with lots of different ways for students to be engaged inside and outside of the classroom-all tying back to their core academics,” adds Meyer.

Regardless of the methods used to help our students succeed inside and outside of the classroom, educators all agree that change is often necessary. “You kind of have to live in a little chaos in order for learning to happen,” adds Meyer.

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