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Arvada High leaps toward project-based learning

Elementary and middle schools in district already embrace learning style


The day before students returned to Arvada High for the new school year, teachers gathered to put a plan into motion to become the first high school in the Jefferson County school district to make a school-wide shift toward project based learning.

“We have several other schools that do it partially, but Arvada has chosen to try to dive in 100 percent,” said Grant Euler, STEM coordinator for the district.

Project based learning (PBL) is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging and complex question, problem or challenge.

J.P. Sampson, assistant principal at Arvada High, explains it as an approach in education where students are tackling real world issues and changing from a “sit and get” mentality to a 21st century learning environment.

The method involves collaborative skills, creativity, problem solving and encourages students to take the lead.

Debbie Bacon, who has taught math at Arvada High for the past 17 years, implemented project based learning in her classroom a couple years ago.

“I was a little nervous to start it, but I shared that with my students and they embraced it,” she said. “They let go of my hand ... they wanted to learn themselves and didn’t want me to be the giver of knowledge anymore.”

Bacon, who first came across the teaching style at an elementary school in Boulder, said she saw more student engagement with this method.

“The stand and deliver model, it no longer works in the 21st century,” Bacon said. “We’re trying to make students leaders of their own learning.”

Bacon is part of a PBL committee that is rolling out this teaching style to the entire school.

“I’m excited to bring it to the whole school,” Bacon said. “Partially because as an Arvada citizen I hear my neighbors talking about Arvada in a more positive light. My neighbors are excited for the good things they hear going on at Arvada.”

Sampson and the schools administration want Arvada High to be the leaders for high school PBL.

“Arvada and education in general was stuck in the mud about how do you be innovative and creative?,” Sampson said. “If we don’t do this right now, I think we will miss the opportunity and selfishly, we want Arvada to be the school for it. We want to be the leaders and put our stamp on it.”

For the past three years, elementary and middle schools in Jeffco have already been exploring and implementing this learning style.

At Witt Elementary in Westminster, the entire instructional focus of the school is project based. Every grade level creates its own projects based on curriculum standards.

“They approach it through different lenses but the goal is always that kids are doing hands-on activities, collaborating and communicating,” said Witt Elementary Principal Chalee McDougal, adding that although those skills don’t show up on test scores, they are ones that are crucial to student success.

In Jenny Cody’s fifth grade class at Witt, a PBL in her integrated social studies reading and writing classroom is about the colonization of Mars. They ask the question, “how can you develop a business plan to colonize Mars and attract investors?”

Within that, her students learn what it means to colonize — part of the fifth grade study on the history of America. They also learn science including natural resources, weather and elements of the planets Earth and Mars. From there, they combine what they learn about colonization, the planet Earth and how it applies to Mars. It finishes with a Shark Tank-like competition to attract investors in their business plans.

“PBL is the most engaging of a teaching style I’ve used over the years,” Cody said.

One of the most important aspects of using project based learning is integrating the content areas, according to third grade teacher Ali Graham.

In her classroom at Witt, students are learning about reading. They are asking the question of how people read around the world.

“What they will find out is how to bring literacy to a community,” Graham said, adding that she has observed her students have better understanding and become more engaged and goal setting through projects like this.

“I see kids take more control of their learning,” Graham said. “They understand that there’s a bigger picture.”

The challenge for Arvada, Euler says, is that this teaching style is easier to execute at the elementary level because one or two teachers are teaching all the subjects.

“In high school, if I’m a science teacher and trying to connect to English, I could have students with five different teachers and multiple levels,” Euler said. “But Arvada is trying to do it.”

Sampson believes that because most elementary and middle schools in Jeffco are exploring this teaching style, students coming to high school will be expecting it.

“We want give kids great instruction growing up and then when they get to high school, put them in rows and sit and get and regurgitate content,” Sampson said. “We’ve got to get away from that factory model. It’s hard to lead change, but we’re going to do it here.”


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