SUNDAY EDITION | JCPS dives into ‘Deeper Learning’

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Sariena Sampson’s classroom at Doss High School hardly resembles the one she knew when she started teaching a decade ago.

Days once filled with lectures and students sitting at desks, taking quizzes and quickly moving on to a new topic have been replaced with lessons involving students who move at their own pace to solve problems and complete projects.

A year after installing the “Deeper Learning” techniques now underway in Jefferson County Public Schools, Sampson said she’s noticed a “huge change in student achievement and engagement.”

“This has been a complete game-changer for me,” Sampson said.  “I’ve been able to implement different strategies to help get kids thinking critically and applying the standards to real-world scenarios.”

As a result, she said, students became excited about coming to class. Sampson recalls hearing them in the Doss hallways and cafeteria talking about projects they were working on.

“It was a great feeling and made me remember why I became a teacher in the first place,” she said

The initiative has been at the forefront of the district’s strategic plan since last June, when the school board adopted the Deeper Learning framework as a way to encourage students to be more independent and take a more active role in their learning process.

“This is about a whole new way of thinking about learning, and thinking about what school needs to be,” says Carmen Coleman, who took over as the district’s new chief academic officer last week. “In an environment where deeper learning is really valued and intentional, the kids are doing the thinking, the learning and the growing.”

And Doss is not alone.

Last month, more than 1,000 JCPS employees attended the district’s inaugural Deeper Learning Symposium, where teachers who have brought the strategy to their classrooms shared their experiences.

During the last year, Kathy Ames’ sixth graders at Noe Middle designed and created roller coasters, then presented them to officials from Kentucky Kingdom.

Across town at Klondike Lane Elementary, fifth grade teacher Jordan Royse and kindergarten teacher Rebecca Reynolds collaborated throughout the year, having their students read to each other and work on hands-on projects together.

“Last winter, they built boats out of various household materials and had a contest to see whose boat could float the longest and hold the most gingerbread men,” Royse said.

“When teaching westward expansion (in the United States), I turned the classroom into the Oregon Trail, and students’ desks were turned into wagons,” Royse added. “They each had a role and simulated the journey on the Oregon Trail. They had to make choices about supplies and travel arrangements. Each student reflected on their journey and how they worked as a group.”

“With deeper learning, it just has to transcend,” says Alice Stevenson, a social studies teacher at the J. Graham Brown School. “It’s not day to day, week to week or even month to month – this is a teaching style that will stick with them their entire life.”

But in a world filled with hundreds of acronyms and educational buzzwords, district officials are trying to make “Deeper Learning” more than just the latest fad.

“This has to be a multi-year process that we get better and better at every single year, and not just that this is something we are trying this year,” says Marty Pollio, the district’s acting superintendent and the former Doss principal.

Whether test scores will be immediately affected is hard to know, Pollio said, but over the long term he said he believes the program will help boost student achievement and in turn, “kids will become more passionate and invested in the things they are learning.”

Coleman – considered one of the state's leading experts on ”Deeper Learning” – says the ultimate goal is to “develop agency” in students.

“When you talk to college admissions officers and employers, they will tell you it’s not that our high school graduates can’t handle the work, very often, they can’t handle the free time,” she said. “They can't handle being independent and making choices on their own.”

Coleman adds that the current education system is “producing exactly what it is designed to produce.”

“We say we want kids who take initiative, kids who can manage time, yet when you look at our actions in schools, we aren’t giving kids many opportunities to manage their time or to have choices,” she said.

Sampson said ”Deeper Learning” teaches students important “soft” skills they will need in order to be successful in life.

“They have to learn how to research, how to question and how to compromise,” she said. “It also exposes them to other right ways to do things – that there is often not just one solution to a problem.”

According to recent results from a Pew Research Center study, experts say curiosity, creativity, adaptability, resilience, emotional intelligence and critical thinking will be among the most-valued skills among job seekers in coming years.

"We will expect to see each and every school in this district move deeper learning forward in their school, starting with the 2017-18 year," Pollio said.

"These initiatives will have students create more and give teachers opportunities to be more creative, to have students write more, give opinion more, to develop things like business plans," he said. "Those are the opportunities that are our community and business people want -- for a more well-rounded student when they graduate."

Coleman admits for some teachers, implementing deeper learning in classrooms may not be an easy shift.

“That is why exposure is so important,” she said. “Most of us create classrooms based on our own experiences. We need to show our teachers, this is what's possible. We have to think much bigger than we've thought in the past.”

“I want to encourage all of our teachers to start small,” she said. “Start somewhere. Let kids have some choices. We all like choices.”

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