Creative teaching and learning? We’ve got that

Aim is to give students a head start on employability skills

Tom VanDeGriend, lead project architect for GMB, erases a whiteboard doodle by his son, Peyton, while daughter Cami looks on

Rick Laven is beginning his 25th year of teaching at Rockford, but this year he’s a bit more excited than usual, thanks to a new teaching tool: the Creative Teaching and Learning Center. 

The $3.2 million facility, built onto the west end of Rockford High School, is set up to foster the kind of group- and project-based learning Laven thinks will be excellent career preparation for his computer science students. 

Nikki Zupin, left, a paraprofessional who will provide technical support to teachers, with her son Jaxson and her mother, Cindy Blankenship

“This is going to be more like real-world,” said Laven, who will teach a beginning computer science class each day in the center. “You’ve got to work with other people. You’ve got to get along. You’ve got to tackle problems. You’ve got to think creatively to try to solve something.” 

Community members got a sneak peek at the 5,300-square-foot center during an open house last Saturday, prior to the start of school Aug. 26. They saw an airy, open classroom outfitted with a dozen tables that can hold up to nine students each, surrounded by wall-mounted screens linked to each pod. 

Ferris State University President David L. Eisler was wowed by its technology, learning theory and how many ways students can be engaged.

“When you look at what Superintendent Shibler has done here, it’s fantastic,” said Eisler, whose school offers an early college program and scholarships to Rockford students.  “Wouldn’t you like to learn in this facility? … It’s a spaceship of a classroom.” 

In this tech-rich space, students will work in groups of three and the teacher will be more facilitator than lecturer. Students’ work can be projected onto one or all screens while the teacher walks among them, sort of like a waiter serving tables. 

Its collaborative methodology will give Rockford graduates a head start on the skills employers want, Superintendent Michael Shibler said. 

“Our job is to prepare students for life after high school,” Shibler said. “If you talk to many businesses today, they’re working in teams to improve their product or service. What better way to have these kids coming out of high school, going into either higher ed or the job market, to have those skills?” 

Freshman Center Principal Tom Hosford, right, talks with ninth-grader Makayla Beckett and her parents, Mike and Becky, who said the center would suit Makayla’s hands-on learning style

Interactive and Student-centered 

Shibler spearheaded an effort to find an innovative program to develop those skills, using funds from the district’s $76.1 million bond issue in 2014. He found it at North Carolina State University, where physics professor Robert Beichner pioneered the SCALE-UP classroom and instruction model. Shibler said Beichner’s research has shown impressive improvements in student performance since he began the model in the early to mid-1990s.

Beichner developed it as a learning environment that looks “more like a restaurant than a lecture hall,” designed to encourage interaction among students focused on specific problems or tasks. It has been adopted by more than 500 schools that Beichner knows of, including Clemson University and Northern Michigan University. Rockford officials don’t know of another Michigan high school using it. 

Shibler and other district educators visited NCSU and other sites using the model, and GMB Architecture & Engineering designed the space. Students work in teams at pods around the room while from a central control board the teacher can display their work on the screens. The 7-foot-diameter tables double as whiteboards. 

‘It’s a spaceship of a classroom.’ – Ferris State University President David Eisler

The system will be ideal for tackling problem-solving projects each day and sharing students’ best ideas with each other, Laven said. He is one of seven teachers who have been trained on the system and visited Clemson to learn more. They will teach honors algebra, English 11 and health and wellness in addition to Laven’s class. 

One class period is open for other teachers to use the space, but they must first attend a 2 ½ hour training session, said Maggie Thelen, district director of instructional technology. Shibler said he would love to have all teachers use it eventually, saying the district has “just scratched the surface” of its potential.  The $174 million bond approved in May includes funds for a second center in the future, he noted.

“Kids are going to say, ‘Why aren’t we in this classroom?’” he added. “I hope the teacher will say, ‘What do I have to do?’” 

CONNECT 

Video: Rockford educators talk about Creative Teaching and Learning Center 

How to design a SCALE-UP classroom

Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles's full bio.

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