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A pathway to the pathways

Bertie MS (NC) teachers and students discover interests, options before high school

Published April 6, 2018
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WINDSOR, NC – Last year, leaders in Bertie County Schools in Windsor, NC, moved to refocus Bertie Middle School’s career prep, implementing Pitsco STEM Units at the sixth-grade level and Pitsco STEM Expeditions® at seventh- and eighth-grade levels. The ambition was to provide more exploratory options for students and a pathway to the STEM offerings at the high school level.

CTE Coordinator Stephanie Cottle explains that the school considered Pitsco Education at the recommendation of a previous superintendent. “The options that Pitsco had for the middle school were so numerous and in-depth and there were so many different titles, we felt we could serve all our kids.”

Add to this the fact that the school had elected to become the subject of an ongoing pilot study by the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation looking at the success of the Expeditions curricula. Exciting? No doubt. But a sweeping change meant transitions for both teachers and students.

‘JUST WAIT’

Business education teachers Latisha Freeman and Jacqueline Thompson were skilled at teaching computer applications, but STEM was a whole new game – different content, different teaching methods.

Freeman explains, “We were used to the class being teacher led. The Pitsco model is more student led and the teacher does facilitation. At first it was difficult to wrap our heads around this!” Would the new model be beneficial or a burden?

“Initially, I was extremely nervous,” said Thompson. “Though I like science, I had never taught it.” She understood that her role in the lab would be facilitating student-led learning, but she worried about being overwhelmed by the new content.

The verdict? Over the course of a semester, the two teachers went from apprehensive to enthusiastic.

“All I would say is just wait,” says Thompson. “It will get better over time. It seems so overwhelming in the beginning, but it is something you can do. And it helps you professionally. You get to experience new skills as far as facilitation versus direct instructional teaching.”

Thompson likes the effect it has on her students. “It forces them to think on a higher-order level versus someone always telling them the answer. That looks so uncomfortable in the beginning. But as the children go along, they are seeing what the requirements are and what our expectations are.”

Freeman as well found the benefits of the facilitation model. “It gives me a chance to walk around and talk to my students. If there is something they don’t understand, I can go to them directly and work with them one-on-one versus having to deal with the class as a whole group.”

Freeman likes all the hands-on experience her kids get. “I thought when I taught computer applications that working on the computer was hands-on, but teaching the Pitsco model I get to see a different kind of hands-on activity. . . . And the students can see the content they are learning is relevant to their lives.”

A BUZZ IN THE HALLS

Have students discovered the same enthusiasm for the new paradigm as their teachers?

Though they may have been uncertain at first, student buzz has begun to surround the program. CTE Coordinator Cottle hears this buzz firsthand from her son, a sixth grader now in Ms. Freeman’s class. His enthusiasm started before the semester even began.

“He came home excited. I hadn’t talked about it with him at all, but he said, ‘Mom I’m ready to be in Ms. Freeman’s class.’ There’s chatter among the students from the student body about the things that they’re doing in these classes. They’re getting to experiment and explore and work hands-on with different things.”

Ms. Freeman has heard the same buzz. “In the beginning, they were really unsure what an Expedition was. . . . Now you might be down the hallway and hear them talking about things within the Expeditions, using Pitsco vocabulary. And the other kids are looking at us like ‘What are they talking about?’”

Perhaps part of this buzz comes from the relevancy students can see between their coursework and their lives.

“I like the career connections on the back of the logbook,” says Freeman. “It gives the kids an opportunity to see some careers that connect with the Expeditions.”

Thompson agrees. “One of my students wanted to be an architect after working on one of the Expeditions. That might never have been in his thought pattern before.” According to her, most students have similar answers when asked what they want to be when they grow up. The Expeditions help expose them to new possibilities. Thompson highlights this by having her students create PowerPoint presentations about the listed careers: what they like about them, what they require, and how they pertain to what is being learned in class.

Any drawbacks? Well, in one case, excitement for the program may have helped spread the common cold. Thompson tells the following story: “One of my students, she came to school sick. I asked her, ‘Why are you coming to school?’ She said, ‘The only reason I came is because I didn’t want to miss this class. This class is fun. It is engaging. We get to do things. It is different than other classes.’”

“The level of individualized support you offer our teacher is amazing. It’s like having another instructional coach on our staff. Your relationship and ability to coach with empathy is appreciated. You took time to not only see a successful launch, but ongoing implementation; that level of capacity building is needed to sustain a successful program.”

– Sharrah Pharr, PhD, director of federal programs and grants, Hays CISD, Kyle, Texas

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