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Rigorous Curriculum Challenges All Students

Breakout EDU

For 30 minutes, Katie Covert’s fourth grade classroom at French Road Elementary School was modeled after an escape room. But rather than trying to escape the classroom, students needed to open a series of locked boxes as part of the Breakout EDU lesson.

Students worked together to decipher clues and solve puzzles in order to open the locks. When they opened the last lock, students jumped for joy.

“We have continued to have tremendous success in classrooms with students saying this was the most fun they have had all year, yet this activity is one of the most challenging presented to them,” said FRES Math, Science, and Technology Coach Stefana Monachino, who led the lesson along with Literacy Coach Stacey Wolk-Oshrin.

Breakout EDU is just one of the many rigorous lessons being taught in the Brighton Central School District. One of the Brighton Blueprint’s goals is “that all students should be provided with coursework that is challenging in order to promote individual growth and that each learner will be supported in order to maximize their potential, based on needs and interests. This will necessitate a growth mindset by all.”

According to the District’s definition, rigor is:

  • A goal for all students that assumes high expectations
  • Working to understand content that is complex, ambiguous, provocative or emotionally challenging
  • Using content and skills to develop conceptual understanding
  • A focus on constructing meaning
  • Transferring understanding to new situations
  • Exploration of authentic, real world issues/concerns/problems
  • Students working harder than the teacher during learning
  • Pushing students out of their comfort zone without shutting them down
  • Scaffolding learning to support success, allowing failure and then the opportunity to learn from mistakes
  • Showing students how to deal with complexity and ambiguity

Solving the Breakout EDU puzzles necessitated 21st century skills that are required for college and future careers, such as critical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration. Students needed to solve a problem they had never seen before or been taught how to solve. This lesson is being taught in every classroom at FRES.

Ms. Covert said her students loved the experience and have been begging for similar opportunities.

“The world is full of problems to solve,” Ms. Covert said. “Through these types of experiences, I hope my students see the value in working with others instead of always competing against them. Students are very familiar with wanting to be first, but in situations like this, no one individual can finish alone. In order to be successful, they have to work together.”

At Twelve Corners Middle School, teacher Adrienne Forken asked her eighth grade social studies students to raise awareness about a contemporary problem that they felt needed to be addressed in society. After learning about the problems the muckrakers of the 1900s reformed, students researched issues and wrote op-eds to the newspaper or letters to the appropriate agencies or government officials to propose their solutions and garner support. Their topics included climate change, homelessness, animal testing, pollution, and the media’s influence on body image. The opportunity to explore and address real world problems with their writing excited and engaged the students.

One of the ways rigorous coursework is experienced at Council Rock Primary School is with Seesaw, a digital portfolio tool that helps families engage with their child’s classroom.

"It’s an amazing and powerful communication tool that lets parents see a day at school through their child’s eyes,” said Ashlee Rhodes, a second grade teacher, who is in her third year of using Seesaw. “It allows students to share all of their hard work, especially on tasks that are not easily sent home."

Through Seesaw, teachers are able to share audio, video, text, and images with families. Classroom updates can be received throughout the day on smartphones, tablets or computers.

Kindergarten teacher Carol Flanigan is in her fifth year of using Seesaw. In a recent lesson, students created a sentence using word cutouts. When they finished, students took a picture of the sentence on an iPad and made an audio recording while reading the sentence. Mrs. Flanigan then shared the audio and picture with families.

One of the students made a mistake by saying the wrong word. In Seesaw, Mrs. Flanigan commented on the post that the student did a great job, but he needed to work on his accuracy and he would be able to record again another day. That night, the parent looked at the video with their child in Seesaw and helped him re-record the sentence.

“I told him, ‘We know from our work on Growth Mindset that mistakes are just an opportunity to learn. Keep growing your brain,’” Mrs. Flanigan said. “So that's a really cool example how Seesaw can help connect learning between home and school.”

Parents can comment throughout the day, which shows students that what they’re doing in school goes beyond the classroom and applies to the world around them.

“The really nice part of it is that parents don't just see it, they can interact with it too,” said Rachael O’Gorman, a first grade teacher, who is in her first year of using Seesaw. “Students get really excited when their parents leave a comment about the work that they've done. So it really increases the engagement and the pride that students take in their work and it's nice to have that feedback from parents too.”

The tenets of rigorous instruction transform the classroom into student-centered environments. The physical spaces must be fluid and flexible to offer students and teachers the opportunities to think at complex levels, develop conceptual understanding, construct meaning, and transfer their understanding to new situations. These environments feature flexible seating, movable furniture, transportable whiteboards to make student thinking visible, and help teachers facilitate and foster the habits of highly effective thinkers.

Brighton High School Spanish teacher Linda Palmer was one of the 12 teachers who studied learning environments over the summer and received new furniture in January. When re-designing her room, she wanted to provide an effective space for each mode of communication.

Palmer’s room features café tables with stools, desks that can be connected for group work, standing desks, and comfortable chairs. She also has whiteboards and writing surfaces all around her room and a makerspace cart with supplies for different projects. The seating works well when students need to speak in Spanish with a partner or work on group projects. The new design also allows Palmer to work with students during individual or group assignments.

“It's really taken me out of the front of the classroom,” Mrs. Palmer said. “I don't stand and lecture at the Smart Board screen or chalkboard. I do write on those surfaces, but I write on every surface. I'm constantly writing things down if students need something to be able to refer to.”

Students have assigned seats for some conversation assignments, but they can typically sit wherever they want. Mrs. Palmer said it’s fascinating to see where they prefer to sit.

The District has 24 student-centered learning spaces throughout the four schools.

Furniture in Linda Palmer's class

SeeSaw in Mrs. O'Gorman's class

Breakout EDU

SeeSaw

New furniture