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Marshall Middle School promotes active learning during summer school

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Nick Crow
June 27, 2014

JANESVILLE — Shifting summer school from a punishment for kids who didn't finish their work during the year, to an engaging, fun environment isn't easy.

Matthew Wolf, lead teacher for Marshall Middle School's summer school, knows that first-hand.

"Three years ago, we made the shift," Wolf said. "How can we change summer school from remediation to make it something that makes kids want to come and still learn? That was the challenge."

In that time, sixth- through eighth-graders have been exposed to a transition from basic reading and math courses to STEM curriculum, which is science, technology, engineering and math.

"The seventh and eighth-graders participate in three sections," Wolf said. "There is an activity component, where they work in larger groups and solve problems. Projects involve hands-on work, and the problems section looks at innovation and the use of robotics, alternative energy and design to improve on issues."

Nearly 130 students attend summer classes each day at Marshall. The program is free for students and also provides free breakfast and lunch.

Noe Rodriguez, 12, attends summer classes as a part of the academically gifted program at Marshall. He plans to become an engineer when he grows up, he said.

"It's good to come and learn the basics," Noe said. "For parents, this gives kids a head start. You lose what you learned the last year during the summer and have to relearn it. This saves time from having to study to catch-up from last year."

Noe is in the robotics section of his summer classes and said he recommends the program to all of his classmates.

"Kids are having a lot of fun, actually," Noe said. "A lot of kids don't want to come at first, but now they are having fun."

Noe and his classmates recently worked on robots, raced their solar powered cars, decorated air powered rockets and created items through woodworking based on their own blueprints.

"They're engaged the whole time they are here," Wolf said. "It's great for the parents and great for the kids. Parents get their kids out of the house and keep them learning."

An additional benefit to incoming sixth-graders is meeting new friends, getting to see their new school and meeting some of their teachers before classes start, Wolf said.

Incoming sixth-grader Cami Punzel said she didn't know many of her classmates  before summer school. Now, she has a lot of friends.

"We get to work in groups and I think it's really fun," Cami said. "We are getting to know each other more."

Cami's class was working on a density project that tested the buoyancy of objects and whether float or sink in a tub of water.

David Lebak teaches sixth-grade science at Marshall. The group aspect helps the students keep learning through the summer, he said.

"It's kind of like an introduction to my class," Lebak said. "They get to learn about science while working with other people. Without a doubt it teaches them to work in a group."

Wolf said many of the kids who attend summer classes at Marshall find out about the program through word-of-mouth. Getting the word out has been the biggest issue, he said.

"This keeps their brains moving and working," Wolf said. "We push the kids and challenge them to read during the summer, but you can only do so much. This is only four weeks. It doesn't take up the whole summer."

Summer school runs June 16 to July 11. The students rotate through math, reading, science, technology and art courses.

"When I started, summer school was viewed by all of the kids as a negative," Wolf said. "When we did the initial switch, we tried to get kids excited. Kids brave enough to try it came back to school and told other kids how much fun they had."

Wolf said it takes about seven years for such a program switch to take hold. Similar programs at Edison and Franklin Middle Schools are going through the same transition, Wolf said.

"The biggest benefit we've seen is that we are switching the mindset from something that they have to go to, to something they like," Wolf said. "They are having fun while learning and don't even realize they are learning."



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