Marathon could adopt new teaching technique

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Xeng Xiong, standing, and a group of elderly Hmong from the Wausau Area Hmong Mutual Association speak to Marathon Middle School students about their heritage and culture. The presentation was part of an Expeditionary Learning program called “Becoming American.” (Photo courtesy of Marathon Middle School)

MARATHON -- Educators are taking the first steps to essentially transform Marathon Middle School into a charter program that would teach students through multidiscipline projects.

They are awaiting approval for a $225,000 planning grant from the state Department of Public Instruction and expect an answer by July.

If it receives the grant, the district would begin a process that, if continued through its full course, would teach most Marathon Middle School students through a concept called Expeditionary Learning.

Expeditionary Learning centers the entire curriculum -- math, science, history and language arts -- around one over-arching theme. Students work together in the project-based work, and the idea is to make classroom learning more relevant to everyday life and show how subjects connect to on another.

"It's hands-on, task-driven research," said Jeff Reiche, principal of Marathon Middle School. "It just makes more sense to do it this way. ... We've overrun (the old system), so to speak. We've gone past it."

The traditional style, in which a teacher stands in front of the classroom lecturing, tends to be effective for 75 percent to 85 percent of students, but leaves 15 percent to 25 percent behind, Reiche said.

Students who struggle and those who are gifted tend to do better in the Expeditionary system, Reiche said.

The new concept works well with middle-schoolers, said Mia Chmiel, language arts teacher at Marathon.

"They need to understand why what they're learning is important," she said. Expeditionary Learning does that because classroom lessons are used in more real-life situations.

Marathon educators are basing their judgments on what they've seen in other schools that use the Expeditionary Learning model. Marathon, too, has used the system on a limited basis.

A chunk of this year's curriculum was based on a theme, "Becoming American." That theme had two parts, one in which students did genealogy work based on their own families and learned about the immigration process through a mock Ellis Island re-creation.

The second part was based on the Hmong culture and immigration story, and the educators invited people from the Wausau Area Hmong Mutual Association to tell their personal stories.

"Becoming American" ended with a Celebration of Learning at the end of April, in which students presented their projects to the community.

The whole experience only strengthened the idea to base the entire curriculum on the concept, Reiche said.

"Parents were saying, 'I didn't know my kid could do that,'" he said.

Transforming the middle school into a full-blown charter would give the school greater flexibility in its curriculum to focus full-time on Expeditionary Learning.

It also would give the school access to three years of planning and implementation grant funding at $225,000 a year. That money could be used to upgrade the school's technology and teacher training.

If the concept moves forward as educators hope, Marathon's fifth-graders would move into the middle school, putting total enrollment at about 170, Reiche said. For the charter school to work as planned with the number of teachers in the school, about 120 students would need to opt into the charter program.

A more traditional educational track would be offered for the remaining 50 students, in a program that would feature split-grade classrooms.

Gina Smith, 35, of the town of Marathon hopes her two children, a kindergartner and a preschooler, will be able to take part in the charter school.

She likes the idea of a focused curriculum that encourages students to make connections among subjects.

"I think it's outside the box," Smith said. "I would like to see my kids go through it."


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