Clinton students learn through hands-on projects

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Wednesday, December 5, 2007
— It’s a multiple-choice test.

How can you show what you know?

a. Produce a digital recording of information.

b. Build a replica of the city of Babylon.

c. Give a speech on Mesopotamian gods.

Some Clinton sixth-graders are doing all of the above.

Clinton Community School District's new Partnership Organizations Work Environment and Relationships (POWER) Charter School is gearing up to show what a project-based curriculum can do.

POWER, in its second semester, serves 20 sixth-graders in Clinton Middle School.

In a project-based curriculum, student knowledge isn’t always measured with tests. Instead, students might show what they know by finding ways to teach others.

Many students agree it’s not easy.

“It’s more work,” said student Adam Nintz. “Not out-of-the-book work. Only in math (do we work out of the book.)”

Curriculum planners around the country still are working kinks out of teaching math with a project-based lesson plan, said teacher Gena Gilbertson. So POWER students learn math in the traditional way. They take the same math and science tests as the rest of the sixth-graders and are responsible for taking the same standardized tests as the rest of Wisconsin.

But when she wrote social studies and language arts lesson plans, Gilbertson pulled from project-based curriculums approved by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, keeping an eye on the benchmarks for standardized tests.

The kids just see it as building a history museum.

Thursday night the students will invite the public to see what they’ve learned about prehistoric man and ancient Mesopotamia. Using laptops, poster paint and miles of butcher paper, the students will show the similarities between those cultures and life in modern Clinton.

Although the kids aren’t taking a social studies test, it’s easy to see they’re learning, said Dave Fridley. He teaches a traditional sixth-grade classroom and helps with technology expertise in the POWER school. Students come to him wanting to create audio files, Powerpoint presentations and movies, he said.

“That, to me, is a sign they’ve made some progress,” Fridley said. “They know what they have, where they want to go and what tools they want to use to get them to that point.”

Sixth-grader Faith Damman was in charge of creating audio file to describe the life of prehistoric man. First, she and her classmates searched the Internet and wrote a script. They recorded and produced Damman’s voice using GarageBand software on a MacBook—each child in the POWER school has one of the laptop computers.

They added sound effects and will burn the whole thing onto a CD for the night of the museum opening, Damman said.

Multi-media options allow POWER students to extend their creativity and become experts in something, Fridley said.

Sixth-grader Brittany Kalk agrees, although not in so many words.

“We learn more,” Kalk said. “We reach out farther about a subject whereas (students in a traditional classroom) stay on one subject longer.”

Building a museum takes more teamwork than other sixth-grade classes need, said POWER student Garrett Vinke.

“We get to work a lot more and talk, communicate a lot more,” Vinke said. “You make a lot more friends that way.”

Fridley sees that, too.

“I have seen the group grow in how they work together, how they look out for each other and how they assist each other,” Fridley said. “They’re respectful of each other. It’s refreshing to see.”

The challenge of the project-based classroom brings out the best in her students, said Gilbertson, who is in her fourth year of teaching and working on her master's in environmental education.

“In this classroom, there are people who—if they were in a traditional classroom—would do as little as you ask,” Gilbertson said. “Here, I can say, ‘I want to know more about this.’ And they do it.”

Gilbertson said each child contributes differently, some with big ideas and some with simple ones. But there is one common factor, she said.

“I’ve never seen a bored kid in this class.”


The POWER Charter School was launched last fall with a $10,000 grant from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

The grant paid for curriculum planning and some classroom equipment to get set for project-based learning, where students demonstrate knowledge by teaching others rather than taking traditional tests.

The district is working hard to determine future funding, Administrator Pam Kiefert said.

The issue is stricter federal criteria for charter schools, Kiefert said, and the district must decide if the charter is a separate, independent school or merely an alternative program.

“We’re going to deliver project-based learning, because we think it’s effective,” Kiefert said. “But we’re wondering, when should this be disseminated into the school?”

If the POWER school became a program offering rather than a charter, it would not affect curriculum in the POWER classroom or any other classrooms, Kiefert said.

Last updated: 10:17 am Friday, December 21, 2012

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