TONASKET – School board meetings usually involve hours of talk about finances, assessments, legislation and educational theory.
The Tonasket School Board meeting of Monday, Jan. 13, provided a change of pace as a number of district staff, primarily from the middle and high schools, presented highlights of recent teaching that showed that student’s experiences of late have been anything but dry.
Bob Ashmore, GEAR UP (Gaining. Early Awareness and Readiness for. Undergraduate Programs) director and a number of staff and administrators took two groups of eighth and ninth students to Stehekin, a remote community at the north end of Lake Chelan, for an out-of-class learning experience in September that he said yielded the kind of results he’d been hoping for.
“To sum up my goal, it was to provide not only students but staff the opportunity to experience experiential, out of class, common core, rigorous, fun learning,” Ashmore said. “To sort of prove to all of us what we know is right, that all can of that can coexist in the same experience.”
Ashmore said the students, after arriving, had to hike into a camp site and had to learn to set up camp even before the academic portion of the trip got underway.
“We placed a heavy emphasis on students in groups, preparing and cleaning up meals, setting up tents, cleaning up camp,” he said.
“There were a lot of kids on our trip who had never even been camping,” said middle school principal Jay Tyus. “It was insane that that was an experience in and of itself. And being on a boat. It’s a long ride. It didn’t wear off, the newness, at least on the way up.”
“We had learning activities that were rigorous and aligned with state standards,” Ashmore said. “They took iPads and field guides and they formed teams and went out. If the field guide was on trees, they had to find trees that were in the field guide, and with their team had to determine that really was that tree.
“They had to take two pieces of information from the field guide and one piece of observation and create a PowerPoint slide.”
Ashmore said that particular activity took three hours, which included a basic tutorial on how to use the computers and field guides.
“They didn’t know yet how to use them,” he said. “We gave them 10 minutes of basics, and had them work together to figure it out.”
“At first we started out right with them,” Tyus said. “They started problem solving. After the first set, Bob and I backed off about 10 yards away … then we were about 50 yards away … and then we were sitting at a picnic table keeping them in sight, but fully transferring the ownership of the work to the kids.”
Ashmore said that one of the teachers on the trip said that what the kids accomplished in three hours would have taken several weeks to accomplish in the classroom.
“One student I’ve never seen engaged – ever – getting him out of the classroom was the key,” said science teacher Emily Bjelland. “We had kids, ELL students who struggle to read, who were reading these technical field guides. It was awesome to see them rising to that kind of situation. You can build on that in the classroom and tap into that later.”
English as a Second Language instructor Tyler Graves, who missed the meeting, wrote that “It changed the way I look at education … they were so engrossed and engaged, they forgot about everything else and lost track of time.”
Others talked about how the relationships of students with one another, as well as staff, improved, and non-science aspects of the trip such as creative writing and songwriting that were worked into the experience.
Michael Gonzales, a student who put together a PowerPoint presentation highlighting the trip, said he would take another such trip if given the chance.
“I liked how much free time we had,” he said.
Ashmore pointed out that the trip had been highly structured; free time wasn’t a big part of the menu.
“You didn’t know you were learning all that time, did you?” he asked.
Gonzales smiled, and said, “No.”
Middle school offerings
Tyus took the opportunity to show off several new offerings in the middle school.
Cari Haug presented on her Crime Scene Investigation class she’s been teaching to 31 seventh and eighth graders.
“I had an edge with the kids because they all were really curious,” Haug said. “And I have a dead guy’s outline plastered to the door.
“What I’ve really liked is it entails so many disciplines – not just science. Exposing the kids to this, it’s really an applied science, so we’re always doing things. Most of the time we’re in a lab. Photographing evidence, fingerprinting, DNA, trace evidence like fiber analysis, to determining time of death by analyzing maggots.”
Michelle Fancher has been working with a class of 27 seventh graders in a leadership class that she said is as much about self-empowerment as anything.
“We focused first quarter on anti-bullying,” she said. “This quarter we worked on the Martin Luther King assembly and civil rights. The kids did everything; I worked with Tyler Graves and it was a great collaborative effort with his kids.
“Next quarter we will focus on how stereotypes form and why people discriminate and how we can rid the world of racism – you can’t, but slowly we can make changes.”
Michelle Silverthorn has worked with 31 sixth graders in a service learning class (not to be confused with court-mandated community service, which she emphatically said it is not).
“We talked about what and who the community is – (for the kids it meant) anything from their family, to their school, to the county, town, the country. So that was very diverse.
We have explored areas, student driven, to come up with. The elderly and children, animals and environment, safety, and the homeless/hungry… We found experts in our community and learned about what they do. We’ve had them teach us, experience what they do, we’ve done it and reflected on it, and tried to thank everyone who has helped us along the way.”
The council also discussed the problem of class overcrowding in the fourth grade, where the numbers of hovered around the 30 student per classroom range. No decisions were made, but finding more hours for paraprofessionals to work in the classroom if those numbers grow at all was a possibility discussed to get through the remainder of the year if necessary.
Board member Lloyd Caton reported that the there was proposed legislation that could result in the return of timber dollars to state school districts. Those monies have been redirected for a number of years.
“Last year alone that meant $150,000 to us, $200,000 to Omak, and just over $100,000 to Oroville,” Caton said. “It’s a significant amount of money for some districts.”