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Experience breeds wisdom

Veteran Texas facilitator teaches his protégé and others to empower students
  •  Charles Richardson, Facilitator, Lancaster High School
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    Charles Richardson, Facilitator, Lancaster High School

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(Podcast: Students and parents in Lancaster, Texas, ask for more STEM, and the district delivers. Listen here.)

By Tom Farmer, Editor
tfarmer@pitsco.com

LANCASTER, Texas – Charles Richardson wouldn’t claim to be a philosopher, but he is. His area of infinite wisdom is the Pitsco Education Module lab, where he has spent the last decade of his teaching career. He even has followers, and they are growing in number now that Lancaster (Texas) ISD is a STEM for All district.

Richardson is in his first year at Lancaster High School after spending last year at nearby GW Carver Sixth Grade STEM Learning Center. Prior to that, he facilitated a Pitsco lab at Brown Middle School in Dallas ISD.

Facilitators across the country have fully embraced Pitsco’s unique framework for hands-on learning and application of science, technology, engineering, and math, but few, if any, have as deep a passion for the curriculum and delivery method that Richardson says should be implemented in every school across the country.

“If you don’t quite know what’s going on (in the lab) as a teacher or an administrator, you just view it as an elective, and it’s far more than that,” Richardson said. “As a matter of fact, it’s really a core class that got pushed in with the electives. The challenges, the rigor, the demand, the drive, the push, it’s all there. You just have to manage it.”

And manage it he does. The consummate “guide on the side,” Richardson empowers students to be in control of their learning. And now that he teaches in a district where STEM has been implemented at every grade level, K-12, including in six Pitsco STEM labs, the philosopher has amassed an eager group of followers, teachers whom he has mentored to get the most out of their hands-on classrooms.

Four of the Pitsco labs are in their first year, two at Lancaster Middle School and two engineering-based courses at Lancaster High School. As for the second-year labs at Carver, Richardson and Nicholas Keith headed them up last year, allowing the apprentice (Keith) to learn from the master (Richardson) on a daily basis.

“During that first semester, I’d go to him and say, ‘What’s the best way to do this? How do you do this?’” Keith explained. “Charles carries the idea of a Pitsco lab even in how he talked with me. In the lab, it’s never, I’m going to tell you exactly what to do. I’m going to show you some steps to get you unstuck. With him, it was like, here’s what I do, but that doesn’t mean it’s what you should do. You should make it your own and follow your personality.”

It’s safe to say the apprentice has come full circle. Now Keith’s students are hooked on learning, clamoring to get through the door at the start of class and disappointed when a bell signals the end. Every second of every class period is meaningful when Keith is running the show.

The first-year lab facilitators in the district would do well to pay attention to what Richardson and Keith do and say, and the pair are eager to share their knowledge. They do so on a regular basis during network meetings and lab visits. Following are some of their secrets to success.

  • Every day is a new learning experience – for students and the teacher.
  • Resist the urge to always “teach” and instead allow the students to “learn” on their own.
  • Know the Module content.
  • Believe in all students’ abilities and their desire to learn.
  • Love what you do and don’t be afraid to show it.

CHARLES RICHARDSON

A person achieves philosopher status when his comments routinely are laced with wisdom, but that can still be a subjective determination. You be the judge of Richardson’s status after reading a few of his comments:

  • On helping students find their interests: “I tell them in here, they are designers, architects, inventors, innovators, engineers. This room is filled with potential, and we just want to see it come to life. They get excited. Now, you can’t always get every kid excited, and you can’t always get every kid excited at the same time, but some kids hold an enthusiasm for things without really wanting to let you know. The Pitsco method just helps bring that out.”
  • On getting students to become self-reliant: “This lab is set up in modular form, seven days of what I call saturation of the same subject. Now this kid is being bombarded with the same subject for seven days, and he or she sees how it started and what’s going on in the middle and how it will end and how it all fits together. And they had a whole lot to do with that, and the teacher had less to do with it. So they’re relying more upon their abilities than they are upon mine.”
  • On each student having a different journey: “In Gravity, I asked the kids a couple of weeks ago, ‘Where have you seen this before?’ One student says, ‘In algebra.’ The other kid said, ‘Geometry.’ See, it’s my job to bridge those gaps and to help them see how the information makes a difference. So I call the lab an expressway. Everybody’s going somewhere, and it’s up to me to make sure they get in the right lane because we have everything they need to be successful.”
  • On the lab being their best class all day: “I always believed after my first encounter with a Pitsco lab that every school should have it. . . . I tell the kids, ‘This should be the best class for you all day. I’m not breathing down your neck. I’m not standing up in front of the room lecturing to you 85 percent of the time. You’re getting to use your brain, your hands, your ears, your eyes for your own benefit. And you have something in front of you that you can see. You have something at the end of the day to say that I did it, and you understand how you did it.’”
  • On optimism stemming from empowerment: “What I want them to focus on is being the best person they can be. And part of that is being academically sound. . . . Let’s build a foundation that nobody can break, and you do that in the Pitsco lab. You’ve got 12 subjects. If you rotate to even half of them, look how much that kid has been exposed to.”
  • On being the guide on the side (facilitator instead of lecturer): “You always want to throw a hook out, and you want them to grab it. You don’t ever want to be the one up front. You don’t ever want to be the one in the spotlight. . . . It’s an interactive classroom where you have movement and you have positive noise and you have accountable talk amongst kids. I tell them, ‘When you see me moving around, I’m not looking for what you’re doing wrong. I’m listening for learning.’”
  • On his advice to other teachers: “Just drown yourself, immerse yourself in your lab. Let it become a part of you and your personality become a part of your lab. You want to know the information. You don’t want to teach the information; you want to know it. If you know it, it becomes a part of you and then you relate that to the kids. You’re not talking to them. You’re engaging them. You sit down beside them and you work with them.”

NICHOLAS KEITH

It took a few years, but Keith has finally found the classroom setting where all of his skills mesh as he introduces sixth graders to the wonder of the working world and possible careers. “In the course of teaching math and science, I didn’t enjoy teaching to the test,” he says. “That’s not what I wanted to do. I wanted to teach and show students how it worked in real life. Then this opportunity came up, and it was like everything blended together. The creativity of an arts classroom, the content of a math and science classroom, and the technology that I love – all those things came together in the classroom. When I took the job, it was awesome!”

A former elementary music teacher, Keith was everything that Carver Principal Cosheda Hurd was looking for in a Pitsco lab facilitator. “Honestly, you have to have a teacher who’s willing to step outside of traditional teaching because this is not traditional. You can’t be the stand-up-front, lecture-type teacher who says this is the way it’s going to be. You have to allow students to do discovery learning,” Hurd said. “Mr. Keith is very much an out-of-the-box teacher.”

His creativity has led to several additions to his Pitsco lab that other teachers might find worthwhile, but his greatest example to peers and students alike is his constant quest for knowledge and understanding.

“I learned a ton going through the Modules. My comfort level in the lab is with Video Production, Computer Graphics & Animation – the technology-based ones. When it came to the life sciences like Genetics, Body Systems, and Fitness & Health, I had to go back and really, really research and get comfortable with those content areas.”

His math skills also needed a boost, so he visited Khan Academy online and is working through free tutorials that start with addition and go up through calculus. “I’m doing that to fill in the gaps in my knowledge,” he says.

Not surprisingly, as a devout follower of Richardson’s teachings, Keith is most pleased when his students succeed on their own. “They like the independence they’re being granted. What I’ve seen every semester is the students saying, ‘He trusts me to figure this out. He got me unstuck and then he walked away because he knows I can do the rest.’ Now there are fewer and fewer call lights because they can solve their own problems. That’s a great progression to see as the semester goes on. I love that.”