A few days ago, there was a speakeasy in the gym of Winterboro High School.
If you were cool enough to know about it, that is.
It happened Friday, when the school’s 11th-graders set up a temporary “museum” designed to educate people about America in the 1920s. In groups of four or five, students operated displays on the stock market crash, the Harlem Renaissance and the rise of the flapper. And in the corner, there was a dull-looking display labeled as a “pharmacy.”
Say the secret word –- “hideout” –- and you could slip behind the display and enjoy a root beer.
Winterboro is the first of several Talladega County schools that have adopted a “project-based” approach to learning, which asks students to make things that demonstrate real-world knowledge of the subjects they’re learning – instead of memorizing dates and filling in bubbles on an answer sheet.
Some say the entire nation could replace the annual tests of No Child Left Behind with project-based assessments like the ones at Winterboro. And teachers at Winterboro say the project-based approach has made a major difference in this rural school.
“I don’t see any reason why this couldn’t be done at every school,” said Winterboro principal Craig Bates. “It’s a lot of work, but the effects are impressive.”
Not pretty, but realistic
It’s not easy to explain the difference between Winterboro’s approach and the teaching you’ll see at other schools. There’s more here than meets the eye.
Put simply, project-based assessment is based on the idea that multiple-choice tests don’t really do justice to the many things a person is supposed to learn in school. Instead of just repeating facts, the theory goes, a well-rounded student should be able to work on a team, show some creativity and genuinely understand how things work in the real world.
So students at Winterboro do projects. First, teachers ask them to come up with big questions about the material they’re studying. How did people party during Prohibition? Why were so many young black men lynched during the 1920s? How did the “flapper” movement come about?
Then students work in teams to find answers for their questions – and they build something to show what they know. Students get to grade their classmates on their teamwork, and from the beginning, teachers let them know exactly what criteria they’ll be graded on – so they’ll know what to aim for.
Take a walk through Winterboro’s gym and you can see the results. Winterboro junior Anthony Ashley can show you a video of “Birth of a Nation” – the 1915 film that popularized the Ku Klux Klan – and hand you an iPad, so you can take an online test designed to tell you whether you’re a racist. It’s all part of his group’s inquiry into the sources of racial tensions in the 1920s.
At another table across the room, Amanda Peoples and Dekelia Whiteside can tell you how World War I led to the “flapper” trend of women wearing shorter skirts, and drinking and smoking in public the way men did.
“When the men were gone off to war, women took over their roles in factories and other places,” said Peoples, who dressed like a flapper for the occasion. “When the men came back, they didn’t have as much say-so as they’d like.”
While the juniors presented their projects in the gym, seniors Kalie Porch and Kendall Holmes were in a classroom, learning about laissez-faire economics by planning a fundraiser. Last semester, they studied the electoral system by managing the campaign of a fictional candidate for public office.
Their teacher wanted the campaign to be as much like the real world as possible – so he gave them a nasty October surprise.
“It turned out that our guy got caught growing pot,” Porch said. “We had to decide whether we should acknowledge it, and whether we should go on the attack against the other candidate.”
Porch went on the attack, producing an ad with “liar” stamped across the opposing candidate’s forehead. It seems the opponent wasn’t quite truthful in his claim to have been a lifelong registered Republican. Holmes put out an ad claiming the opponent was a deadbeat dad.
No, it isn’t pretty. It’s not the idealized version of democracy you got from your high school civics textbook. But students say they remember more – including more of the basic civics-book stuff – when they learn this way.
Holmes said her ACT score has gone up 6 points since last year, from 22 to 28. And she says class is more fun now.
“You get to decide your own grade,” she said. “You know what needs to be done, and you just have to decide to do it.”
An alternative to NCLB?
The Star paid a visit to Winterboro on the advice of Tommy Bice, assistant superintendent of the state school system. Like a lot of people these days, Bice isn’t at all happy with the way we test kids today. He said that in China, where test scores are through the roof, many teachers are worried that their students aren’t really learning 21st century skills.
Bice said he’d like to replace our current tests with a project-based grading system – and he called out Winterboro by name, as a perfect example of that system in action.
But Talladega County Schools Superintendent Suzanne Lacey wasn’t seeking an alternative to NCLB when she turned to the project-based approach a few years ago. She just wanted to find a way to keep kids from dropping out.
“We’ve seen a trend toward dropouts, and with many of the students, the problem is that they’re just bored,” she said. Lacey said some students were dropping out because they didn’t see the connection between sitting in class and the life that would come afterward.
Lacey talked to local business leaders -– including Honda, a major employer here –- and asked what they needed out of high school graduates.
“They wanted collaboration and teamwork, and people who could think critically,” she said.
After seeing the project-based approach at work in other systems, Lacey decided to promote it in her system. Winterboro, so far, has taken the lead.
Teachers say the only real problem with the system is that it requires them to re-learn some things.
“It’s different,” said science teacher Brian Young, who did his teacher prep at Montevallo in the 1990s. “It’s a lot more work, but the payoff is worth it.”
Instead of handing out worksheets and making kids memorize terms, Young might spend a few class periods putting together a giant model of a cell with his students.
“Most teachers are, to a certain degree, the center of the classroom,” he said. “With this approach, you’re the guide on the side. It’s hard to stand back like that, but it works.”
Tina Wheeler spent several years at the front of a classroom, teaching English to kids sitting in neat rows. Now she works as Winterboro’s media specialist, setting kids up with the technology they need to do their projects.
“Our kids are so technologically focused,” she said. “They grow up playing games, and finding things on the Internet. When they come to school, we’re asking them to shut down.”
Wheeler says discipline problems are down sharply at Winterboro since the school took the project-based route. Like other teachers here, she notes that “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”
Bates, the principal, agrees that discipline problems are down sharply. He said he's seen academic improvement, though it will take another year of data before he can say firmly that standardized test scores are up.
“I can see only one drawback to this approach,” he said. “And that’s the fact that when they get to college, some of these students are going to be sitting in desks with teachers who just give the old, dry lecture.”
But to get to college, you’ve got to finish high school. Bates thinks more students will be doing that now.
“Learning should be fun,” he said. “Learning is fun. As long as you’re focused on the content standards, there’s no reason students can’t enjoy learning what they need to know.”
A Teachable Moment is assistant metro editor Tim Lockette’s weekly look at schools.
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