There’s a scene near the beginning of the film Men In Black in which Agent J (Will Smith), newly selected to join MiB, tells Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) to “recognize [his] skills.”  K replies to him, rather nonchalantly, “I need to tell you something about all your skills. As of right now, they mean precisely dick.”

Now, as it relates to my new job at Research Triangle, applying that quote would be a bit of an overstatement.  I’ll draw heavily upon my five years at Robinson in approaching my new job, especially in the areas of relating to my students and content knowledge and the like.  But in other areas such as utilizing the Flipped Classroom model of disseminating content via videos that students watch at home and enforcing that knowledge through in-class assignments, I and a lot of my colleagues are quite green. We have teachers with 20 years of experience and teachers who only have student teaching under their belts, but when it comes to a lot of what we’re doing, we’re all starting from zero.

Students working on their own is one of the primary tenets of the Layered Curriculum.

On one hand, this realization is a tad bit terrifying.  I was comfortable with my traditional method of instruction and felt that I was able to diversify instruction enough on the block scheduling model to be effective, so moving away from that will be tough at first.  At the same time, working at a school that provides teachers with the latitude and the resources to implement some cutting-edge teaching techniques is an incredible opportunity, and I’m eager to try it out.

Right now, my ideas for the setup of my classes is still a jumbled cloud in my mind that becomes a little clearer each day.  My classroom was always fairly student-centered, but I readily admit that the types of projects and assignments students worked on in my classes could at times become redundant.  The challenge is to differentiate instruction (our classes are going to be a mish-mash of honors and non-honors students), cater to various learning styles, and keep instruction fresh – all while utilizing the flipped model.

Well, challenge accepted.  Several years ago, I sat in on a workshop at Robinson with Brian Hamilton, who was then our assistant principal and is now the assistant principal of instruction at a middle school in Cabarrus County.  He was introducing the Layered Curriculum, a system in which students basically have choices in what assignments they complete, and the number and difficulty level of the assignments completed would determine the grade for the unit.

At the time, I liked the idea of it in theory.  I wasn’t sure how well it would work given our limited resources, but I gave it a try anyway.  The other U.S. History teachers and I tried out a modified version of the idea on a short unit on 19th century westward expansion.  We created PowerPoints for each of the main ideas of the unit, presented those for the first 20 minutes or so of the 90-minute block, and then cut the students loose to complete assignments they had on a checklist.  There were basic assignments that every student had to complete to reinforce the content that was taught, but then students had choices of more involved, creative assignments, e.g. create a manual explaining how to farm out west, or a travel brochure encouraging new settlers to move westward, or staging a debate on Native American rights.  (If anyone teaches American history and wants to see my material for this unit, I’d be happy to share it.)

I loved the way the unit worked.  Students remained engaged throughout the class because they had no shortage of things to work on, they enjoyed the freedom they had to do assignments that were more suited to their skill sets, and our students’ performance on the end-of-course test’s questions on westward expansion skyrocketed.  A year or two later I implemented a similar unit on labor unions – one of the most miserable units for students and teachers of U.S. History alike – and I got pretty good results with that as well.  From a logistical standpoint, it also allows me to provide the honors-level students with more challenging work while providing me time to assist the struggling students one-on-one.

But Alex, you might be asking, if the Layered Curriculum was so effective, why didn’t you implement it for ALL of your units?  I’ll concede that it’s a lot of work up front to get the PowerPoints/videos prepared and the assignments put together, and that was sometimes prohibitive.  Furthermore, some of the assignments in each of the units were technology-based, and I was not able to procure space in our computer labs or media center on a regular enough basis to do this for every topic.  At RTHS, that limitation is greatly diminished, so I’m eagerly implementing it for the first several units to see how it works.  I’m confident that students will love it, and if anyone reading has feedback on their use of such methods, I’d love to hear it.

One of my primary goals in creating this blog was to share how our cutting-edge educational methods are working at RTHS in hopes that other teachers can take something from it.  I look forward to updating everyone on how things are going in my classroom as the school year gets underway.

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