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A seven-member team of staff members with Bagley schools met Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012, at Bagley, Minn., High School to review each other's lessons plans as part of their Authentic Intellectual Work program. Bagley is one of five area school districts in the first of a two-year pilot program utilizing AIW methods. Shown from left, Mia Reynolds, Becky Rud, Tony Hommes, Jill Bakken, Darres Dahl and Principal Helen Kennedy. Not pictured is Jane Merschman. Monte Draper/ Bemidji Pioneer

Area schools embrace creative learning pilot program

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BAGLEY, Minn. -- Five area school districts are in the first year of a two-year pilot program that aims to foster a more effective learning experience for students.

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The school districts -- Bagley, Clearbrook-Gonvick, Fisher, Kelliher and Laporte (Minn.) -- are utilizing the Authentic Intellectual Work, through which teachers collaboratively meet to present, examine and critique on another's lesson plans.

"It's been a great, great addition to our professional learning communities," said Suraya Driscoll, superintendent of Fisher schools.

AIW goes beyond surface-level review of lesson plans. Teams of teachers meet, some as often as weekly, to evaluate how the lesson will apply to students' lives outside of the classroom.

"The value beyond school, that's very important, something schools have always struggled with," said Harvey Johnson, superintendent of Laporte schools.

The school districts' pilot programs are funded by grants awarded by the Blandin Foundation and Northwest Minnesota Foundation.

AIW, originally developed by the University of Wisconsin Madison, establishes teaching criteria that raises the expectation of intellectual challenge for students and increases their interest in academic work, according to the Iowa Department of Education, which began to roll out AIW to its schools in 2007.

Steve Cairns, superintendent of Bagley schools, said teachers now purposely question how students would apply a lesson in a work or career setting.

"I think students get a more rich understanding of the lesson if they can relate that to real-life situations," he said.

A second phase of AIW includes not only scoring lessons plans, but also looking at the resulting student work.

"That will allow us to see if, in fact, (the students) really got the lesson," Johnson said.

Ideally, a lesson plan receives a high score and the students' resulting work also receives a high score, making that lesson effective.

"But if there is a discrepancy - if the lesson plan gets 3s and 4s and the students' work is getting 1s, well, there is probably a disconnect there someplace," Johnson said.

Another phase of the program will feature in-classroom visits, where staff will observe a teacher as they deliver a lesson.

That component of the program, superintendents said, will aid them in developing teacher-evaluation methods required by the state for the 2014-2015 school year.

"We're hoping to be able to use this (AIW) as part of that," said Tim Lutz, superintendent of Kelliher schools. "This will be a big piece in the overall rubric that will help us with teacher evaluations."

A May report by Iowa's Education Department showed students in AIW schools delivered higher test scores than those in non-AIW schools.

"The consistently favorable results for students in AIW schools suggests that the AIW program should be continued," the 28-page report states.

Northern Minnesota superintendents said they would like to expand AIW into all their schools and keep the program in place beyond the two-year pilot program.

"It provides value to students as they learn something," said Driscoll of the focus on out-of-classroom application. "It's not just, 'Oh, I have to learn this for a test,' it actually has meaning for life."

An added benefit of AIW is the increased trust and relationship-building between teachers. The program encourages teachers to bring in not their strongest, most effective lesson plans, but their weaker plans, the ones they are less confident in. Those plans are then presented to their peers for critiques.

"You get this element of trust," Cairns said. "That is happening; it is really building some strengths in the relationships and bonds between staff members."

Since this is the initial year of the pilot program, most school districts embraced AIW for a smaller number of its teachers. In Clearbrook-Gonvick schools, AIW is being used by a group of middle-grade teachers and a select number of higher-grade teachers. The district plans to roll it out district-wide next year.

"I thought it was something that would really, really add another piece to the puzzle for us," said Allen Ralston, superintendent of Clearbrook-Gonvick schools. "The intellectual reflection with this process, with their peers, it is significant."

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