Working On the Work; everyday is a wow at MCES
By Meg Ferrante
If you’re up on your pop culture, you’re probably familiar with a recent juvenile musical in which a certain unruly student population sits staring at a giant clock wildly tapping their toes, drumming their desks and bobbing their heads as they countdown for class to dismiss. It’s a scene playing out in classrooms across America every hour of every day, right?
Not if the Working on the Work leadership team at Morgan County Elementary has anything to say about it.
And in fact, team member and third grade teacher Christa Good is happy to report, ever since WOW has come to the elementary school, she’s had more than a few days where they’ve lost total track of time and she’s had to rush her reluctant-to-leave students out of class so they aren’t late to their next one.
“I have really seen a difference,” Good said. “The kids will walk in saying ‘I love coming to reading’ whereas before it used to be ‘Oh no. I’m going to reading again.’ Everyone can’t stay engaged all the time, but it’s where we aim to be. If you don’t care, you can’t learn.”
MORE THAN A PROGRAM
About six years ago, principal Jean Triplett heard school-reform advocate and WOW creator, Dr. Phillip C. Schlechty, speak at a school in Social Circle. What he said made total sense to her. “He asked us ‘Why do kids rebel? Why do they cheat? Why do they not do what we ask them to do?’” Triplett said. “He said ‘I don’t believe children want to fail. So how do we get them and keep them interested in doing what we ask?’”
According to Schlechty, the key to a successful school is to boost the elements of the schoolwork that are likely to make it more engaging. These elements, known as design qualities, include giving a student choices, allowing them to work in small groups for a feeling of affiliation, displaying or sharing the work to affirm the child, protecting the child from adverse consequences and giving them an opportunity to succeed, and most importantly, making sure the assignment is authentic and related to real life experiences, yet novel enough to stave off boredom.
“It’s not a program,” Triplett said. “It’s a framework. And it helps us think about quality and develop more effective plans for implementing it.” Good teachers do this anyway, she said, but “our teachers are becoming more and more mindful of their classes. They are watching to see what happens in the room. They are constantly asking themselves what they can do to improve and make changes.”
The teachers gather monthly to review their projects and analyze their students’ outcomes. Staff members from across the school can bring suggestions to the table, like tying in a music lesson here, going on a related free field trip there. Triplett said, “We try to look at the work and ask the students to do it, too. Are the design qualities in the work? How can we make this more engaging? Our goal is to have an honest conversation about what we ask the kids to do.”
NEW THEME KEEPS WOW IN PLAIN SIGHT
Last year’s fun-in-the-sun Sensational Splash theme has given way to a brand new WOW theme this year: A Safari of Knowledge: We’re Wild about Our Work.
Now the front hall of the school is decked out with jungle creatures peeking from behind banana and palm trees and the grill of a jeep bursting through the floor-to-ceiling bulletin board which is set to display all that engaging schoolwork going on up and down the halls. There are monkeys in third grade where the new mantra is “We’re not monkeying around!” On the fourth grade hall, look for elephants… as in “We’re a trunkful of knowledge.” And the 5th graders are driving the knowledge home in their jungle accessory of choice: the Jeep.
Triplett said the theme will change every few years to keep things fresh.
The theme and all the decorations are just one more way to introduce WOW and keep it always present in students’ minds. It can even help with another component of WOW -- levels of engagement. Loosely explained, the top level is the kids who are excited and want to learn, followed by students who do their work because they have to, all the way down to “I don’t care” and then rebellion, as in “I won’t do it.” The goal, Triplett said, is to promote more kids up to the next level. “If they are learning, then they are progressing.”
Thanks to the constant assessment of how engaging the work is and what level of engagement a child is experiencing while doing the work, Triplett reports that discipline problems have decreased. She said that now teachers can ask, “What made you get in trouble? What made you not do your work?” They can even give a choice to let the student correct the situation.
“WOW has worked for me,” said 5th grade teacher Amanda Pickles. “It is a way for teachers to come up with those creative lessons that the students love so much. Too often simply reading out of the book and taking notes seems like the easiest and quickest thing to do, but WOW does not allow that. WOW activities are designed to help all students, no matter their motivation level or ability level.”
Triplett said that while the specific details of WOW can be intricate, the outcome is always simple.
“Sometimes I’ll observe an activity and ask the kids ‘What standard are you learning here?’ And they’ll say ‘We don’t know, Ms. Triplett. But we’re engaged’!”