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August 16, 2022

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The Turnaround:

Teachers make the difference in learning, even when classes are large

David Wilson, principal of Chaparral High School, on Thursday, August 18, 2011.

David Wilson, principal of Chaparral High School, on Thursday, August 18, 2011.

We have kids in the classrooms, and they are willing and wanting to learn.

To get to that point is huge, especially if you have 2,400 kids in a school.

The fact that you have few disruptions helps make it possible. What we’ve been doing is working on engaging students. The best analogy I use with my teachers is that we each look back to the one teacher who really made a difference in our lives. The common denominator is the teacher who truly cared about us and wanted us to learn. The classroom information was shared in a way that it made an emotional connection with us as individuals. For me it was a science class.

The teacher was Kay Mormann in Manhattan, Kan., where I grew up. It was my sophomore year in high school, and we were not understanding fossil records and timelines. She went to the principal, got a number of buses and took us to her farm. She had a limestone quarry, and she gave each of us a hammer and a flathead screwdriver. Our job was to come up with 10 unique fossils from the quarry. Limestone is set out in layers. You take a hammer or a screwdriver; you hit the layers and it literally comes off in sheets, and you have the different shells, plants and animals. We went back to school, and our job was to figure out what we had and place it all on a timeline showing the eras each fossil was from. Ever since, I see dinosaur fossils and I understand that process and how they came into being and where they belong on a timeline. It’s those types of experiences that we remember and cement learning.

At most high schools, kids are still learning in traditional methods: teachers lecture, kids take notes, and then they are tested. There’s little emotional connection to what they are learning. Yes, that’s a very broad statement. There are individual pockets of incredible instruction, but where we are moving is to project-based learning, where students learn in such a manner that kids touch it, feel it, see it, learn it, and in the end they demonstrate a mastery of a project and subject.

We’re being innovative, taking the limited resources we have and are moving forward. That’s the only way to describe it. We’re doing it in cooking and arts classes. In our business classes we’ve built business models that find students selling snack products during our daily nutrition break. They’re selling no-sugar drinks to the students, baked chips, fruits and vegetables.

Students are buying them through our vendor, selling them for a profit and putting the profits into clubs, student council and other groups. The point is that they’re actually running a small business. They’re not reading about it. They’re not taking a test about it.

They’re in competition with each other, learning and remembering the experience. In other words, they’re doing it.

David Wilson is the principal at Chaparral High School.

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