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Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District

Boulevard Students Become Super-Learners

Sept. 12, 2018 -- Teachers and administrators at Boulevard Elementary School received a wake-up call last year when they videoed their students answering the questions, “What makes a good learner? What does a good learner do?”

The student responses all centered around compliance: Sit still, be quiet, keep your space neat. “It had nothing to do with actual learning!” said school principal Dr. Michael Jenkins. Nothing about the act of being curious, feeling confused, getting engaged, making mistakes, figuring things out. 

After a year of professional development, staff collaboration and deep reflection about how to put best practices into action, Boulevard School is ready to hit the ground running this year. They’ve instituted a new program under the guidance of education expert Kara Vandas, which has included the introduction of six Learner Super Powers.

The characters, complete with emojis created by Dr. Jenkins himself, include Persistent Pablo, Inquisitive Imani, Problem-Solving Sam, Engaged Emma, Collaborative Corey and Reflective Roxanne. Each super-learner provides students with specific strategies and tips around how to be a better learner. Pablo, for instance, “sees challenges as an opportunity to learn and grow,” while Imani “asks questions for information and clarification.”
 
Super Learners
 
Super learners

“We really need to push the skill of how to learn,” said Dr. Jenkins. His teachers are also adopting the principles of James Nottingham’s book The Learning Challenge. He describes learning as jumping into a pit where the student has to struggle in order to climb back out. The Learner Super Powers complement the learning pit idea because the characters might hold the tools that students need to use to get out of the pit. 
 
Learning Challenge Diagram

Title I lead teacher Joy Curry sees the pit as essential to higher order thinking. She gives the example of young students learning the difference between even and odd numbers. “They can probably grasp that concept pretty quickly,” she says. “But what if you ask them to share three cakes between two people? That’s when they go, ‘Huh?’”

That “Huh?” is critical to true content mastery. “They have to get to their ‘Ah-ha’ moment,” said Dr. Jenkins. Each teacher works with their students to identify clear expectations around success. They ask, “What are we learning today? Why are we learning it?” and, for each individual student, “How will I know when I’ve learned it?”

Boulevard, which was recognized by the Ohio Department of Education as a designated STEM School, an honor only half of the applicant schools received, is also changing the way it offers hands-on science education this year. In the past, because all classes visited the building’s one science lab, they often had to take down and put away all parts of their experiment at the end of their weekly session. Now, there are four “science pods” spread out throughout the building: one for kindergarten and 1st grades to share, another for 2nd and 3rd, and separate pods for the 4th and 5th grades. This allows for exploration over longer periods of time, as the results of an experiment aren't always ready to observe in a tidy 60 minutes. It also allows for increased ownership of science instruction on behalf of both the teachers, who co-lead the labs with Science Specialist Cheryl Walton, and on behalf of the students, who will feel like the science space is really “theirs.”
 
Teacher talking to students sitting on floor

The positive energy is felt throughout the building. “I’m really excited to see how this all plays out,” said Ms. Curry. “It could have a huge impact on teaching and learning.”

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