Doing School Differently to Ignite Student Innovation

While many other teachers across the country enjoyed one more day of summer break in mid-July, thirty some teachers, three school administrators, Morehead Writing Project’s director Deanna Mascle, and teacher-leader extraordinaire Liz Prather gathered  in Bath County Middle School’s library in Owingsville, Kentucky.  Normally, teacher PD’s wouldn’t occur for another couple of weeks; yet, here we were gathered together over donuts and fruit trays ready to kick off our first professional development day of the 2017/2018 school year.  Why so early?  

The answer is positive change.  Our school was awarded one of ten Educator Innovator grants this year.  After learning about this in May, it was time to roll up our sleeves and prepare to launch our project for the upcoming school year.

This opportunity was a direct result of Deanna Mascle’s vision.  As site director of the Morehead Writing Project, she has worked with many of Bath County Middle School’s teachers over the last decade.  Many teachers from the school had taken  Morehead Writing Project’s Summer Institute.  Often, those teachers become involved in leadership opportunities offered through the Morehead Writing Project.  So when Deanna saw the grant, she immediately thought of our school as a place where this opportunity would be embraced by the staff.  She was right.  

She pitched the idea to several leaders at our school, the proposal was written, and the rest is history. Funded and supported by the National Writing Project, John Legend’s Show Me Campaign, the John D. and Catherine T. Macarthur Foundation, and Collective Shift (lrng.org), this grant will change the way Bath County Middle School students learn this year, and teachers at our middle school were eager to get started…so eager that they were willing to meet on a 90 degree day from eight to three to make Genius Hour a reality for our students.

Here is a brief overview of our project:

Making A Future for All: Connecting Passion To Profession

Owingsville, KY

After engaging in a wide range of opportunities to imagine diverse professional paths and investigate their personal interests and academic work, the students at Bath County Middle School in Owingsville, Kentucky, will design, develop, and create passion projects. The students will work both  the classroom and out in the community to learn skills that support their passions and professional futures. Working collaboratively with near peers in high school, students will create a range of multimodal projects, from websites to video games to podcasts. The year-long investigation and creation process will culminate with a block party showcasing the projects to local elementary students and the wider community.

I was excited about this opportunity for our school, which serves anywhere from 475 to 550 students in our county depending upon the year; but, I didn’t fully realize the potential impact this grant could have on the future of this rural county that has lost much of the industry it once sustained.  Tobacco farming is not as profitable as it used to be.  Residents often seek employment opportunities in surrounding counties.  In short, there are few job opportunities within the county.

My epiphany of what this grant could bring to Bath county took place after attending a National Writing Project conference last week in Denver, Colorado with Deanna Mascle and Liz Prather. We were invited to write a monograph to help other writing project sites develop an online writing project summer institute, an exciting opportunity in itself.  But the conference also gave me a chance connect with 60 other passionate educators from a number of states across the country.  There were five or six past recipients of LRNG grants at the convention, and after talking with them about their projects impacted their students and communities, I saw how this grant could not only transform my students’ lives but  the community I serve as well.  It was then that I realized that the students of Bath County could be the most effective innovators in the county.   

Bath County is different from any other places I have taught. Small communities are knitted together by an intense love of God, the land, and tradition. The people in this area protect their way of life with admirable ferocity. Change doesn’t come easily to the generations of people who have made their home in the foothills of the Daniel Boone National Forest.  Family cemeteries evidence the deep connection between place and family.  I feel unqualified to share their stories, but as a teacher in the area for the last 11 years, I appreciate the values of the people who live here.  

Because of these values, there is often a nervous trepidation that sets in when change is suggested.  While people in the community want the area to grow enough to provide viable employment opportunities for their children, many don’t want it to grow so much that big city problems impact their way of life.   

A perfect example of this delicate dance occurred this summer when an initiative to legalize the sale of alcohol in the county was placed on the ballot.  The wet/dry vote evenly split many people into two camps as witnessed by the “Vote No – Do it for the Community. Do it for the Kids”  and  “Vote Yes for Progress” signs that dotted lawns up and down the hill on KY-36 and along both sides of Main Street in Owingsville.  The community ultimately voted to keep Bath County dry, but only by about 40 votes.  People in the area know job opportunities are needed but seem unsure of how best to meet that need.

It is also unlikely that people from outside the community will have much success in bringing change to the area. People who don’t live there fail to realize how deeply invested the people are who have made this county their home for generations.  There is a healthy amount of skepticism when someone comes in with “big city” ideas. If Bath County is going to change, ideas for revitalization and growth for the area will most likely come from the people who live there.

This grant gives our students the chance to be innovators who can bring positive growth to the area in a way that is acceptable their people.  My students understand Bath County because they are Bath County.  They can find ways to promote growth in the area without sacrificing the values held sacred to most who live there.  However, to make that happen, our schools require a different model that enables students to dream, imagine possibilities they never knew existed, and develop ideas that will bring positive change to the community.  

At yesterday’s PD, the change began.  Our staff learned about the scope of the grant and thoughtfully questioned the specific requirement that must be fulfilled.  They looked at ways to structure  the dedicated time devoted to the “Genius Hour class” concept. They reviewed  flexible curriculum frameworks that provide enough scaffolding to allow students to dream without stifling creativity, yet still hold them accountable.  They saw the potential, and they worked tirelessly to think of different ways to ignite students’ passions.  

This project cycle replicates the journey of every scientist, writer, musician, entrepreneur, and innovator who has ever dared to dream.  The first third of the year will be devoted to discovery, the second third to development of a project, and final third to the sharing of their ideas.  At the end of the year, students will showcase their products, presentations, published work, and performances at a block party allowing the young and old alike to come out and see the possibilities our students see for themselves and for Bath County .

The Education Innovator grant will allow us to purchase materials needed to make our students’ visions of the future a reality. Possible purchases may include traditional makerspace materials, coding kits, green screen kits, and audio recorders so students can make high quality podcasts.  There is money set aside that can be used for things we don’t even realize we need yet.  

As our students embark upon their passion projects this year, I hope they discover the limitless possibilities for themselves and for Bath County.  This grant puts our students in the driver’s seat to move Bath County forward in a way that doesn’t contradict the values that make it the wonderful place it is.  What a fantastic way to start out a new school year.  I can’t wait to see what our students do!

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