At Rebel U, Focus is On ‘the Who’

Teacher Lindsay Blume, at right, discusses innovation with colleagues

When students choose to learn about a topic they care about, Godfrey-Lee Early Childhood Center teacher Lindsay Blume sees the potential for genius to emerge.

Her English-language learner first- and second-grade students last school year researched topics ranging from a dog’s life cycle to how studios make movies, how to make a pizza and how to take care of cats. Why? Because they wanted to — and were given the chance.

Blume set aside time for Genius Hour to create a product from research, like a board game where you collect ingredients for pizza and a how-to book on cat care. It was up to the students to create what they wanted. Genius Hour is a simple concept that allots time for students to choose something they want to learn and work on a “pet project” about their subject.

She shared the process, which she hopes will expand to more classrooms and grade levels, at Rebel U. It was the district’s sixth annual professional development day that provides teachers with opportunities to learn how teaching and learning can be transformed through the use of technology.

Rebel U traditionally has focused on technology integration, but now is tied to a broader theme: human-centered design, an approach to problem solving that incorporates the wants and needs of end users of a product or service in every stage of the design process. (Conversely, think of a service that doesn’t consider its recipients’ true needs, like a winter coat drive for Costa Rican children. No matter how well-meaning, the service is likely not helpful.)

The district received a $250,000 grant from the Steelcase Foundation to re-imagine schools for the small, mostly Hispanic, low-income district over a two-year span using the human-centered design process. It focuses on the real needs of Godfrey-Lee students. Teachers said they’ve been challenged by the program, now in its second year, to be innovative and take risks. Genius Hour is an example of an idea that sprung from human-centered design thinking, Blume said. Instead of telling students what they need to learn about, student get to choose. That leads to more passion and innovation.

At Rebel U, teachers embraced new ideas as they headed into the school year. Questions discussed during a brainstorming question were: How can we use podcasts to connect with community members? How might we connect families with Kent District Library resources? How can we use virtual reality to enhance lessons?

Godfrey-Lee Early Childhood Center Principal Peter Geerling adds ideas on sticky notes about serving students best
Godfrey-Lee Early Childhood Center Principal Peter Geerling adds ideas on sticky notes about serving students best

Learning the ‘Who’ of It

The focus is on the “who,” said Superintendent David Britten.”That changes the outlook of the classroom instead of just focusing on what someone told you your kids should be learning. It’s what you think as an adult they should be learning. You focus on who they are and design learning around that.

“School’s got to be different than it was for the benefit of our kids, and technology is one tool.”

Genius Hour shows the possibilities of both technology and human-centered design in the classroom, and Blume said she wouldn’t be doing it without the opportunities available through human-centered design.

“It has helped me to step outside the box and know that I have the administrators’ and the whole district staff’s support to try new things. I’m encouraging my students to do the same thing,” Blume said. “We don’t have to adhere to the rigid ‘sit and let me give you information.’ The students are discovering it for themselves and that makes it a lot more meaningful.”

Kelsey Koetje, a first-and second- grade special education teacher, introduced Green Screen at Rebel U. The video-making program puts students in front of a green poster that comes to life behind them, integrating images into a topic they are presenting on. When it comes to how her students learn best, Koetje said human-centered design has given her the confidence to “figure it out.”

“Our district is very supportive of trying new things and figuring out what your specific students needs and going from there,” Koetje said. “We do have those high standards they want us to meet, but also encourage us to take risks and try it and if it doesn’t work you try something new.”

As part of the human-centered design process last year, a 19-member district team interviewed Godfrey-Lee families about their hopes and dreams. Hearing from those families impacted the thinking of Godfrey Elementary School Principal Andrew Steketee about how to involve them even more at school.

“It’s been all about opening up communication with our families,” Steketee said. “It has really opened my eyes. We can do so much more to invite them in, to get on the same level as each other.”

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What is human-centered design?

SNN article on Human Centered Design grant

Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2013. Read Erin's full bio

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