School Trends


Contentious headlines about Common Core curriculum and standardized testing have monopolized the education discussion of late. Controversies aside, there’s much progress to cheer about within our kids’ classrooms. With STEM and STEAM programs proceeding apace, here’s a quartet of other emerging school trends we’ll closely follow as they take root in area schools.

1. Expanded digital learning

Technology in the classroom is now firmly ensconced, with student-utilized iPads and laptops and teacher-guided Smartboards proving their worth as world-broadening educational tools.

“Between the hardware, software and apps, we are finding that access to digital devices and content is leading our students to become self-directed, independent learners,” says Randy Ziegenfuss, EdD. He’s superintendent of Salisbury School District in Allentown, PA, which is in its fourth year of providing take-home laptops to all 6th- through 12-grade students. Younger Salisbury kids, Kindergarteners through 5th graders, have access to a school-based bank of laptops and iPad minis.

Once a school is tricked out with devices, choices on how to utilize its technology are virtually endless. The following five options are gaining particular traction.

  • Bring Your Own Device: A trickle-down trend from the business world, BYOD lets students bring the phone, laptop or tablet they use at home to class. This augments the school’s supply of available electronics and gives kids a comfort level that allows them to focus on the work at hand, not on how to work a new gadget.
  • Collaborative learning: Sharable Google Docs and instant-messaging capabilities enable teachers to assess and instruct in real (or nearly real) time. Likewise, kids give and get peer feedback by commenting on one another’s assigned blog posts.
  • Digital textbooks: Less expensive than physical books, the available library of digital primers and online content offers teachers a wider array of texts to enhance Common Core lesson plans.
  • Personalized learning: Online distance learning gives access to high-level classes a school may not be able to afford to staff when student demand is limited. For example, kids at three high schools in Delaware’s Red Clay Consolidated School District have recently taken AP military history, human geography and Italian online, classes they otherwise would not have been offered.
  • Gamification: With kid-popular video games like Minecraft subtly instilling STEM principles, teachers are eager to adopt the format for fun but formal instruction. Classcraft is just one platform that allows teachers to customize quest-type games in multiple subject areas — essentially brief educational activities supported by task quizzes that measure students’ learning.

2. The flipped classroom

Flipped classrooms operate by requiring students to discover, explore or review content while outside of school, then bring in the info to discuss and/or apply in a classroom setting. The term comes from “flipping” the traditional approach of having a teacher deliver content during class, then asking students to apply its lessons elsewhere.

“With digital devices, students now have access to just about any content or idea. This shifts the role of teacher and students,” explains Ziegenfuss. “Learners can pursue any interest or curiosity, and teachers curate content and apps to help learners answer their questions.”

Aura Elementary School in Elk Twp., NJ offers a flipped gifted and talented program for 4th through 6th graders that integrates expanded digital learning, with a 1:1 Chromebook initiative. Students are assigned weekly blogs and monthly thematic units, working in virtual groups with interactive cloud-based platforms such as Google Presentation, Google Blogger, Prezi, Emaze, Powtoon and Voki. The kids regularly review each other’s work, in order to shift learning from teacher-directed to peer-based. By doing so, says Principal Wayne Murschell, “We are creating students who are critical thinkers.”

Next page: TWI dual-language immersion and outdoor learning


3. Dual-language immersion (TWI)

Language teachers will attest that the ideal way to learn a foreign tongue is to immerse students in it for extended periods, not chunk it out a  class period at a time. Dual-language immersion programs, also known as two-way immersion (TWI), steep kids in a foreign language for the entire school day. Teachers instruct in both English and, say, Spanish in a given ratio determined by grade level, developing true bilingualism and biliteracy.

Six public Philadelphia elementary schools have instituted an in-demand TWI Spanish-English program, known as Dragón TWI, a feather in the cap of the struggling public-school system. The program is proving successful, according to Andrew Lukov, principal at Southwark Elementary School in East Passyunk, one of the participating schools. “Students become not only bilingual and biliterate, but they also develop intercultural skills and an appreciation for linguistic and cultural diversity,” he explains.

Spanish isn’t the only TWI language offered in the area. Several Delaware public elementaries in the Caesar Rodney, Christina and, come September, Colonial school districts mount much-sought-after immersion programs in Mandarin Chinese.

4. Outdoor learning

Finally, more and more area schools are capitalizing on the natural resources at hand to take schoolwork outside, breaking the monotony of desk-sitting and giving kids a literal fresh perspective on their schoolwork. (Click here for more about area schools with established nature programs that formally promote environmental stewardship.)

At Elizabeth Haddon Elementary School in Haddonfield, NJ, kids learn in an outdoor classroom setting, funded last year by the PTA and 5th-grade committee. The site is furnished with school dad–built, picnic-style worktables and stadium seating for about 50 kids. It’s not unusual to find students there doing anything from individual learning to group work in a variety of subjects.

The school also has a garden that provides veggies for the school salad bar and another place for students to partake in science and math lessons. Both outdoor arenas, says Principal Gerry Bissinger, help his grade-schoolers “see what they’re learning in the classroom and make the connection between that and the outside world.”

Cheryl Lynne Potter is a freelance writer from South Jersey.


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