Janesville8.6°

Delavan-Darien program encourages engagement, higher level thinking

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Catherine W. Idzerda
May 25, 2012
— What happens at the intersection of soap and chemistry, or at the crossroads of a classroom and a creek?

That spot, at that exact moment, is where the world expands and everything becomes engaging.


For the past three years, the Delavan-Darien School District has been working to establish a curriculum driven by "Authentic Intellectual Work."


Authentic Intellectual Work has been shown to raise test scores—even in schools that are struggling with low-income, English-as-a-second-language students.


It's also resulted in students who are better prepared for college, tech school and the workplace. More important, it has shown students that what they learn is connected in a concrete way to the rest of their lives.


Three keys to success


In the mid-1990s, UW-Madison Professor Fred Newmann spent 100s of hours studying Chicago-area schools that were succeeding despite having high populations of low-income and English-as-a-second-language students.


Successful teaching, he found, consisted of three elements that define Authentic Intellectual Work. They are:


-- Construction of knowledge: Instead of becoming mere recorders of facts, students must be able to analyze, synthesize and evaluate information.


For example, instead of a report on the three causes of the Civil War, students might be asked to compare the leadership of Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War and Barack Obama or George W. Bush during the Iraq War. How are they alike? How are they different?


Students still will need to know the three causes of the Civil War, but they also have to make that information relevant.


-- Elaborated communication and disciplined inquiry: Students are asked to develop their ideas in a written or oral form. Students must use evidence, citing sources or proofs. Disciplined inquiry means teaching students how to think as they ask questions like the professionals in that specific discipline.


-- Showing value beyond school: Students often say they'll "never use" the knowledge gleaned from algebra, English literature or biology.


The goal always is to make the information—whether it's about nitrates, the rate of change, planning an orientation for students or understanding brain function—meaningful to everyday life.


Engaging everybody

Recently, Sarah Panucci's Advanced Placement calculus class was determining rate of change using a traditional formula … and suckers.


"We're not supposed to have dessert before lunch," said Joe Smith, 18, as he unraveled a length of dental floss in order to measure the circumference of his Blow Pop.


Students sucked on their Tootsie Pops or Blow Pops for 30 seconds, then re-measured them.


"Do you want to measure it?" Reed Wuttke asked his lab partner, Ben Samuelson.


Samuelson declined, saying, "You've licked it."


A few students had just come from chemistry class where they learned, through soap making, that soap was both hydrophobic (absorbs or dissolves in water) and hydrophilic (does not absorb or dissolve in water). This explained to them why soap cuts grease and other kinds of dirt.


Meanwhile, another student announced he had breached the gum barrier on his sucker, and Smith wondered if they should subtract the circumference of the stick at the center of his pop.


To outsiders, it might seem like a puffy exercise. Really, it involves knowledge of calculus, math and the principals of scientific inquiry.


This is a lesson that could be taught with numbers, letters and formulas on a dry-erase board, but Advance Placement tests require much more from students.


"The Advance Placement tests require teachers to understand problems numerically, algebraically, graphically and verbally," Pannucci said.


In other words it's not just showing your work, it's explaining your work. Then explain how your work could be applied in a variety of fields from engineering to the construction of a candy pop.


Watching the students work, Delavan-Darien Principal Mark Schmitt remarked, "I want all students to have this experience."


Classroom examples

In Amber Baker's biology class, students conducted water tests in local lakes and streams and found some contained high nitrate levels.


But where did those nitrates come from and what harm could they do? Could they impact tourism, drinking water or fishing? What could the students do to change the problem?


These are the questions scientists ask.


"Students in science and math are so focused on finding one answer," Baker said. "The challenge is to get to students to ask some of those deeper questions."


Students in Julie Quartucci's social studies class watched a "Frontline" video about teenagers' brains. Based on what they learned, they were asked to design a school building best suited for the characteristics of that brain.


Challenges and rewards

Special education teacher Amber Urmanski asked her students to prepare a daylong event for next year's incoming special education students. The students practiced their presentations, budgeted for the event, compared food prices and created outlines.


Those are all topics students would cover in their "life skills" classes, but this was a real world application.


Certainly, it would be easier for Urmanski to run the orientation herself. In the same way, it would be easier for Panucci to make her students memorize formulas.


The challenge for teachers is to transform traditional lessons so they lead students to ask the big questions and make the connections.


Baker said she's always believed in making the connections between real life and the classroom, but the emphasis on Authentic Intellectual Work means she has the support of her co-workers and the administration.


"It's nice to have this time to collaborate cross-curriculum," Baker said.


Teachers meet weekly to discuss their future lesson plans and "score" activities students participated in during the past week.


Baker can bring in a traditional chemistry lab, and her colleagues can help her increase its value.


"They're really good sessions," she said.



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