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Veteran science teacher Craig Fischer tries to give his students hands-on learning opportunities as often as possible. Credit: Photo courtesy of Craig Fischer

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Future of Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every Wednesday with trends and top stories about education innovation. Subscribe today!

Middle school teachers in southern Wisconsin’s Janesville School District spent the summer giving kids opportunities to learn while doing. They gave them real-world problems to solve, they sent them outside to explore, they prioritized hands-on projects. In this modern summer school, where more students enroll for the enrichment opportunities than to make up credits, teachers have a greater incentive to make learning fun. They face stiff competition when attendance is optional.

Given the lesson content, it’s not surprising that Janesville teachers say their students were much more engaged over the summer than during the academic year. Kids who were behavior problems last spring suddenly stopped being a challenge in July.

Now, with school back in session, Janesville administrators want teachers to bring some of the magic of summer school into the school year.

But that can be hard to do.

In the summer, teachers face far less pressure. They don’t have to teach a dizzying number of standards or move at a tightly defined pace. They don’t have to prepare students for tests that will impact their own reputations as well as their schools’. There is time to innovate over the summer. And many teachers take it for granted that the same is not true during the school year.

Allison DeGraaf, director of learning and innovation in Janesville, said district administrators are committed to helping teachers find that time between September and June. That means giving their blessing when teachers decide to cut certain units or skip teaching certain standards in favor of spending more time on new projects – a shift that doesn’t necessarily come easily to anyone.

“We’re just so used to having to be compliant that it’s hard for us to make that change,” DeGraaf said. “We want to do the right thing and be the best teacher that we can be, but I think it’s all a whole shift in mindset for all of us, from the district on down to the classroom.”

Craig Fischer, a veteran science teacher, taught an engineering course last summer in Janesville. Fischer said he let kids take the reins in the classroom, puzzling through challenges and tackling the engineering design process, while using him as a resource, not so much the direct instructor.

That’s the kind of teaching Janesville administrators want to see all year.

Related: Project-based learning and standardized tests don’t mix

While Fischer agrees he has more freedom during the summer to try new things, he doesn’t think teachers should leave experimentation for that time of year.

“We’re just so used to having to be compliant that it’s hard for us to make that change. We want to do the right thing and be the best teacher that we can be, but it’s all a whole shift in mindset for all of us, from the district on down to the classroom.”

“I think sometimes, as teachers, during the school year we get caught up in what we’ve done in the past and we don’t try different things within our curriculum or try to innovate or tie it to something else,” Fischer said. “We tend to stand alone in our silos and not break out of them, because it’s comfortable.”

Last year, he found the Janesville administration’s embrace of letting teachers try new things to be refreshing. Instead of urging teachers to focus only on test scores, Fischer said they prioritized making student learning experiences engaging, and trusted that the test scores would fall into place from there.

This shift in Janesville has been catalyzed by a new focus on computational thinking, which administrators believe will help prepare students for college and career. This means teaching students how to collect and analyze data, identify patterns, break down complicated problems into their more manageable parts, extrapolate solutions, build models and develop algorithms. Projects, more than lectures, tend to give students opportunities to hone these skills, and summer, as it turns out, is the perfect time to practice this.

At Edison Middle School, Amanda Spranger, an academic learning coach, said a handful of summer school teachers led the way in experimenting with the Ignite My Future curriculum. They tested hands-on lessons that, among other things, had students design drones that could deliver pizzas and build prosthetic elephant legs and eagle beaks. Spranger said she hopes the summer successes with that small group will inspire the approximately 65 academic-year teachers to embed more computational thinking in their own classrooms. She plans to advocate for hands-on activities in particular – urging teachers to keep going beyond the research phase of assignments and let students actually make something.

“We hope that we can start bridging the gap between the structure of our summer school to the structure of our school year,” Spranger said.

This story about project-based learning was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Tara García Mathewson

Tara García Mathewson is a reporter covering inequality and innovation in K-12 education, nationally, and she oversees coverage for Hechinger en Español as the languages editor. She has been writing...

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