PIEDMONT — About 20 sixth-graders funneled into a technology lab at Piedmont Middle School Friday morning and experienced one of many firsts they can expect to encounter this year.
Given plastic bags filled with spaghetti noodles, tape, string and jumbo marshmallows, the students were divided into small groups and given 18 minutes to build towers from the materials. As a timer ticked backwards on a projector screen, the groups worked, some watching as their towers wobbled and gave way under the weight of the marshmallow on top.
“It’s very, very important to make sure you have a good foundation,” teacher Stephanie Steward said, speaking not only of the project, but of the students’ educations. “Every day, every year, you’re adding to that foundation.”
This school year, Piedmont Middle is building its own foundation, one that local educators say will change the way students experience school in the middle grades. Under this emerging model, the educators say, teachers will further shift the focus from whole-group learning to a style of learning that allows each to progress at his or her own rate.
Called a mastery model, it’s one that will allow students to advance once they’ve grasped a new concept. To achieve this goal, educators are changing classroom schedules and grading scales.
But the students are already catching on to the teachers’ concept.
“I was used to the other way, but I think going at your own pace will help more people,” said seventh-grader Marley Propes, who said the new schedule might be a little tough to get used to.
The transition will be prompt but gradual. Friday, the first school day of the new year, the students were introduced to their new schedules. Monday they’ll receive their school-issued laptops and by next Friday they’ll be learning under the new format.
The overhaul is funded by a $450,000 grant from Next Generation Learning Challenges, a program backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Piedmont was singled out for the funding because of the changes it’s made over the past five years, through its use of laptop computers.
The plan was developed over the summer months with help from teachers and administrators, and Education Elements, a company that specializes in individualizing instruction.
“We probably worked harder this summer than we ever have,” said Steward, who this year is taking on a new role helping other teachers use the technology more effectively.
Under the new model, educators marry traditional teaching with the technology that has already transformed the way students learn there.
Software will test students three times a year, not for the sake of letter grades or numerical scores, but to determine which skills they have mastered and which they have yet to learn. Based on this data, the technology will then map out a lesson plan to make sure students are on track to learn the skills they need to know according to traditional state standards, Principal Jerry Snow said.
Under this new model, students will advance only when they have mastered a skill. That, educators say, will allow each student to advance when they are ready to.
Under the old model, students advanced as a group, at the end of a teachers’ allotted time for each skill. Whether they failed the subject, or passed it with an A, each moved on to the next lesson, progressing to the end of each year, Snow said.
The schedule will be modified to include a three-day-a-week class called “team time,” the period during which Steward’s sixth-graders built marshmallow towers. This time will be used to help students focus on goals, both long- and short-term and give them the chance to identify, with guidance, what steps they need to take to achieve them.
The modified schedule, built to include eightperiods, will be flexible so that students can spend more time on subjects they need extra help on. The math and science classes will be held back-to-back, as will the English and history courses, making it easier for teachers to make cross-disciplinary assignments.
Additionally, students will have a class called “my time,” during which they will be able to work individually with guidance from teachers.
With a new model will also come the new grading scale. This year, in addition to receiving traditional report cards, students will receive report cards that state whether or not a student has mastered a skill.
To master a skill, Snow said, students will have to be around 80 percent proficient in their understanding of it.
Steward said while the program couldn’t work without the technology, the purpose of the plan is not to promote the tools but to help the students who use them.
“It’s all about making that human connection,” she said. “That’s our biggest goal, to give the kids someone at school who looks after them.”