School district looks to re-imagine classrooms

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Liberty Hill Elementary School teacher Alison Jalufka (far left) guides her first grade students in “processing” their completed social studies projects as part of a new district initiative, Makerspace. The program emphasizes higher level thinking skills through choice, creativity and collaboration. (Dana Delgado Photo)

By Dana Delgado

On the surface, ongoing creative projects at Liberty Hill Elementary School (LHES) may look like many other student projects at countless other schools.

To understand this project’s underlying premise, however, is to know the genius that is in the making at LHES and all other schools in the Liberty Hill Independent School District this year through a new teaching/learning initiative being piloted primarily in social studies classes. To see it in action is anything but ordinary and a major departure from the traditional classroom, which has for the most part remained unchanged for generations.

Although significantly impacted by technology, a typical classroom is still defined by rows of desks in a confined space and teacher directed instruction with limited resources.

The new initiative, referred to by school officials as Makerspace, involves a “designated collaborative space like the library where students make something — a product or a process,” said Marcy Mueller, LHES Digital Learning Coach who is assisting with the implementation on her campus. “It is engaging and involves critical thinking and learning takes place during the entire process.”

Mueller said the campus is moving in deliberate fashion in implementing the new initiative.

“To incorporate it, we’re taking baby steps first,” she said. “The definition of a traditional classroom is going to change and we want to develop a culture.”

Muller said LHES and Rancho Sienna are fortunate to have specifically constructed spaces for collaborative learning. Other schools in the district have had to adapt libraries or other spaces that can provide for flexible seating, movement and creativity.

The distinctive changes reflecting the striking departure from the traditional classroom were clearly evident last week when LHES teacher Alison Jalufka guided her first grade students in a three-day social studies project.

First of all, the social studies class was meeting in a very unorthodox classroom. Oversized and equipped with floor-to-ceiling accordion doors to adjust the room size and accommodate various groups, the room was filled with an assortment of crafting supplies and recyclable materials stacked along the walls.

Secondly, the room was completely unfurnished. Students sat, stood, or stretched out on the carpeted floor.

Third, and likely most important, was the unique process of teaching and learning. After receiving the general objectives of the lesson on the first day from Jalufka, students collaborated in small teams to problem solve and develop a project blueprint that would represent an American symbol. Students’ choice, direction or creativity were not limited in any way, but had to be true to the process of collaboration and problem solving.

On the second day of the lesson, student teams found a working space on the floor and again problem solved and revised as they actually constructed their projects using the variety of materials in the room including cardboard and Styrofoam with again, very limited teacher intervention.

The next day, the first grade students gathered on the floor to “process” their projects. One by one, the groups explained their completed projects including the American Flag, the Bald Eagle, the Statue of Liberty, and the Liberty Bell. Sitting in a circle, students were then asked to provide feedback on each project by identifying what they liked, suggest ways the projects could be improved, and then congratulate each team on their
project.

While student teams completed a collection of unique projects,
Principal Heather Collison sees far greater benefits.

“In the process, students discover themselves, gain confidence and skills, and develop pride in their work,” Collison said. “We’re building a foundation and we want them to love to learn.”

The Principal added that a campus-wide activity based on arcade games and utilizing the elements of Makerspace was a huge success. Another school-wide project is being considered for the spring.

“I do not believe there is a magic bullet in education,” added Mueller, who previously implemented a limited Makerspace program in Marble Falls using mobile carts of supplies, which teachers borrowed at each campus.

“It’s a matter of surrounding yourself with a great collaborative team that utilizes every resource they have at their disposal for the best interest of each student,” Mueller said. “Makerspace is one of those resources and we are very fortunate to have a dedicated space and teachers who are willing to take a risk with students.”

Dana@LHIndependent.com

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