As student Jacquelyn Brooks shears a sheep on her charter campus’s farm, she’s getting a hands-on lesson in agriculture that is part of the high school’s focus on careers in agribusiness.
In math, Jacquelyn and her classmates at Visalia Technical Early College (VTEC) built a pig pen, using geometry and algebra they learned in their freshman class. In English classes, students discussed what they read and then worked together to create board games or other projects based on them.
“We have lots of debates,” Jacquelyn said. “It’s more interesting than just reading out of a book. We talk and work in groups. It makes me think more.”
The lessons are homegrown by teachers at VTEC, a charter school within the Visalia school district.
As students and teachers look toward a new school year, the VTEC teachers are among a small but committed group of educators across California who are developing their own lessons to teach the Common Core standards. Their lessons stress literacy across subjects, critical thinking, creativity and collaborative communication in student-led discussions.
The state does not track which curriculum materials are used in individual schools, so it is unknown how many schools and districts use teacher-created lessons. The State Board of Education recommends textbooks and curriculum materials for K-8 and allows districts and charters to select their own for high school.
Like their students, VTEC teachers collaborate with each other and try new and creative strategies, as they devise lessons for the school’s two career pathway academies: Agriculture Engineering and Agricultural, Bioscience and Technology. For the past two years, every freshman and sophomore at VTEC has been required to enroll in one of these academies, which focus on careers in fields such as animal and veterinary science, agricultural systems technology, and agricultural business and food science. The school was named an Exemplar of 21st Century Learning in 2015-16 because of their college and career readiness programs.
Visalia Unified has adopted instructional materials for high schools districtwide, but the district-run charter prefers to stick mostly with its own homegrown curriculum. This includes a math lesson akin to “The Hunt for Red October,” in which students use algebra and geometry skills to plot a submarine route during an intense scenario complete with a captain shouting commands as fog from dry ice fills the classroom and students face the realization that they could be torpedoed if their calculations are incorrect.
Superintendent Todd Oto said VTEC has more flexibility to try new things than traditional district schools because it is small, with only 255 students. The rest of the district, he said, is phasing in the Common Core standards, with an emphasis on meeting each student’s needs.
Assignments created by VTEC teachers get students thinking, speaking and writing about what they’re learning, said Principal Victoria Porter, who has been at the helm since the school opened in 2010.
The state adopted Common Core standards in 2010, but allowed districts to phase them in with the expectation that all students would be taught according to the new standards by 2014-15, when California began administering Smarter Balanced tests based on them.
VTEC began implementing the standards in 2014-15, when it introduced its career academies and moved its campus to the College of the Sequoias farm, Porter said. VTEC teachers embraced Common Core strategies as a way to engage students, she said.
“When the Common Core was implemented, it was like – boom! It fit hand in glove with what we were doing,” Porter said. “We were already collaborating around project-based learning. The teachers had already been trained in making lessons relevant and authentic.”
The school’s curriculum, along with its system of career academies, is starting to show results.
Porter said preliminary state test scores for juniors in 2015-16 showed great improvement over the prior year, when less than 40 percent of juniors met or exceeded standards on the state’s Smarter Balanced tests.
The state expects to publicly release test results by the end of this month. At the high school level, only 11th-graders are tested each year.
At the district level, final exam results in English and math for all high schools through the first semester of 2015-16 showed that VTEC students in grades 9-11 scored higher in math than those at all other district high schools. See end of story for test results.
English and journalism teacher Patrick Beggs said classroom debates spark students’ critical thinking, while board games and technology-based research projects give them the opportunity to express their creativity.
“Vocabulary, plot, structure and writing must all be built into the game along with instructions,” Beggs said, explaining that teachers also express their own creativity in their lesson designs. “I have the freedom to do what I want to do.”
Social studies teacher Chris Cumiford piques students’ interests by asking them to explore the past as “historical journalists,” creating multimedia projects based on their research. With Porter’s support, Cumiford transformed his classroom into a library-like, yet homey environment filled with historical artifacts and modern computer equipment that allows students to design projects such as newspaper stories, magazine articles and brochures related to history.
One student fascinated by horses wrote about World War I veterinarians who cared for farm horses that transported soldiers during the global conflict.
“As the men were going to war,” Cumiford said, “horses were also loaded on ships and headed off to war.”
Providing students with opportunities to exercise “voice and choice” through “authentic lessons” excites them, said Cumiford, who was Visalia Unified’s Teacher of the Year in 2015-16 and the Tulare County Office of Education’s 2015 Excellence in Education Award-winner.
“Intrinsic motivation is everything,” he said, adding that students end up learning at a higher level.
Other collaborative teacher-created lessons included units on endangered species and water management, in which the science and English teachers worked together, Porter said. In addition, she said Beggs teaches his students 100 basic roots of Greek and Latin words, which helps them with vocabulary, especially in science.
Students also prepare agriculture-related presentations and the best are selected to participate in an annual “AgVentures” event in which they teach 4th-graders about topics such as swine, sheep and rabbit production. Because students are working with real animals instead of merely reading about them, they are motivated to excel, Porter said.
Jeff Hohne, Visalia Unified’s high school area superintendent, said Porter’s visionary leadership has helped create an environment on the campus where both students and teachers feel challenged and supported.
“I think what makes this work is having a great principal who believes her job is to create the conditions for success and kind of get out of the way,” he said. “This is pretty radical.”
Cumiford agreed. He said Porter’s enthusiasm for teachers’ ideas motivates them.
Porter said she encourages a collaborative culture between teachers, as well as between students.
“I look for teachers with passion who want to work together,” she said. “They enjoy discussing: ‘How can we make this relevant?’ The payoff is with the kids.”
Just as the Common Core stresses grit and perseverance for students, Porter said she values those same traits in her teachers, who are not afraid to take risks.
Math teacher Shari Williams, who taught the pig pen lesson to Jacquelyn’s class, said Porter promotes learning by doing.
“We learn from mistakes,” Williams said. “If we don’t ever dip our toes in the water, we’re never going to move forward.”
The staff, Porter said, strongly believes that every student can handle rigorous content if it’s presented in a way that helps them take ownership of what they’re learning.
“Once they care and are engaged, they can reach new heights,” she said. “What happens is like magic, almost.”