(TNS) — It’s after lunch in a combined fourth- and fifth-grade class at Walker Elementary School, and students are working on equivalent fractions.
Students cluster around teachers in one of three small-group “seminars,” then scatter to work independently in the large room, which was once the library. That was before the staff moved out all the books to combine two grade levels in one room — part of an experimental model of instruction now deeply rooted at Walker and hailed by many as the future of education.
Children here are grouped by ability rather than grade level. They set their own academic goals, constantly reflect on why they’re learning the material, and conduct much of their work on various types of computers.
In its fourth year of implementation, the new model of elementary education has put a spotlight on the West Allis-West Milwaukee School District, but also led to internal tension about how far and wide to apply the methods at the district’s other schools.
“This is far more challenging than one teacher to one classroom,” said teacher Cathy Chandler, who co-teaches a combined class of first- through third-graders at Walker.
The district has seen a higher-than-average number of staff resignations in the past few years, and some say a contributing factor was concern over how the Walker model would be implemented at other schools, especially high schools.
With a major emphasis on personalized learning, student choice and technology, it’s not a style of instruction that’s comfortable for everyone.
While those issues get sorted out, Walker continues to thrive.
Recently the school was highlighted in a national report that drew attention to five districts around the country where digital strategies have reshaped teaching and learning.
Getting a sense of the model is best seen in one of the school’s first- through third-grade classes. Teachers who once taught individual classes of 18 students now share teaching responsibilities on a team; the rooms are connected by double doors cut into what were once solid walls.
Blocks of time for core subjects such as reading, writing and math are often characterized by kids meeting with teachers in small groups or working on their own or in their own small groups.
Walker never really had desks; it used small tables instead. But today all the multigrade-level classrooms feature various learning areas: couches and side tables, carpets and lounge chairs, standing desks and clusters of desktop computers.
Everyone has an iPad, too, which are easy to carry around.
Chandler and co-teacher Bridget Halverson were some of the first teachers at Walker to try this new style of teaching four years ago. Today they describe their relationship as a professional marriage. Some colleagues call them “Chalverson.”
During a recent lesson, the teachers gave students a variety of factual material about St. Patrick’s Day. The students were instructed to choose their own groups but to select peers who complemented their strengths (rather than choosing their friends). They were to assess the value of the material and organize it into a visual presentation they would make to the school’s kindergarten classes.
Kids huddled around the iPads and debated what information to include. Some took the lead on writing, others on designing iMovies. Occasionally kids would walk up to the teachers to ask a question; other times the teachers would roam and work one-on-one or with small groups of kids.
“It looks unstructured, but it’s really not,” said Halverson.
At the end, as they do after most lessons, children discussed what worked and what didn’t. It’s common for children at Walker, especially in the older grades, to be able to tell you what academic standard they’re trying to master, and how the exercise they’re working on will help them get there.
Behind the scenes, teachers spend a lot of time planning and collaborating together. They also develop close relationships with students and their families, because the children stay in the multi-age classes for up to three years in a row.
The first full cohort under Halverson and Chandler advanced to fourth grade last year.
“It was really emotional,” Halverson said.
The changes at Walker weren’t driven by technology. But technology supports the changes the school has made. For the most part, teachers still give quick tests at the beginning of a unit to assess children’s skill levels, then make grouping decisions based on the results of those tests.
Tablets and computers are the portal to everything from video lessons, research materials and shared documents, to tools that communicate with students and track their progress.
When Halverson tapped her iPad late in the day one afternoon, children reading silently in various rooms started putting away their computers and moving to the same corner of one room. The reason? Halverson’s text at 3:16 p.m. had gone to every student’s device: “Place iPads on table and meet at carpet.”
Tricks aside, those who have followed the changes at Walker say the biggest difference is that children are engaged in meaningful conversations about what they’re learning and why, and are given meaningful choices to shape their own education. That’s according to Jim Rickabaugh, director of an initiative housed at Cooperative Educational Service Agency in Pewaukee, Wis., that promotes efforts to personalize learning in schools.
Rickabaugh, the former superintendent of Whitefish Bay, Wis., schools, has led the initiative for five years. Just a few districts were on board in the beginning; now Rickabaugh works officially or informally with 38 districts in Wisconsin and Illinois.
“The core set of concepts that Walker is using are pretty consistently shared,” Rickabaugh said.
“Learners are setting challenging learning goals. They’re actively engaged in constructing that path. There are consistent and ongoing discussions about the purpose of what they’re learning. There are efforts to give children choice and voice. But they look different when applied in different settings at different schools.”
The changes have paid off in significant ways at Walker.
Enrollment climbed almost 20 percent in the past four years to about 425 students. Many families live in other districts and use the state’s open enrollment program to send their children to the school.
Walker’s average reading scores on the annual state achievement test have jumped, though math has taken a slight dip. A different assessment used by many districts nationwide shows Walker children making faster-than-average learning gains this year.
Hundreds of visitors have come to see the model in action. That trend shows no signs of abating, especially because the school projects a sense of optimism: Children and staff appear challenged, self-driven to improve, and readily adapting to the expectations of a fast-evolving world.
It’s still not totally clear to what extent the strategies at Walker will become commonplace in the district’s other schools. Officially the district’s position is that the Walker model is not the expectation for all.
“We all have different beliefs, and learning and good instruction looks different in different environments,” said Johnna Noll, director of instructional services. “One model is not necessarily better than another.”
But teachers outside Walker say there is some tension — especially as Walker students start to flow into the district’s middle and high schools, where conventional styles of instruction are more common.
An effort last year to apply some of the methods at Walker to Central High School, some teachers there said, was a flop.
Noll said she wasn’t aware of what those teachers were talking about. She said all teachers in the district continue to work on integrating digital learning in classrooms.
Walker teachers, for their part, recently started traveling to the district middle schools to better understand the environments to which their kids will transition.
Back in the fourth-fifth classroom at Walker, Breyanna Rudig, a fifth-grader, said she’s not really sure what to expect next year but she likes the freedom she has now.
After the math seminar on equivalent fractions, she was working from a tall stool behind a stand-up desk.
Asked why she chose to sit there, she replied:
“I try to figure out how I learn best. I learn best here, so I always choose this spot.”
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