Classroom upgrades create interactive lesson plans in Oakland Mills

Classroom upgrades create interactive lesson plans

An Oakland Mills High School math classroom received a six-month-long makeover, which was revealed to students on Wednesday, to increase class productivity for English learners and overall student collaboration.

Co-taught by teachers Christine Sweigart and Renato Gonzales, the school's Algebra I class has a high percentage of students who are also learning English as a second language. Maha Abdelkader, coordinator for the ESOL and international programs, said some of the school system's students, who are learning English, have an "interrupted education," meaning their time spent on language instruction interferes with the day-to-day course instruction.

At 9:39 a.m. on March 29, Sweigart and Gonzales opened the door to their new classroom and welcomed the third-period students, all gasping in excitement at what they saw. Two light blue and two dark blue walls enclosed the classroom, except for an orange corner by the door to reflect the school colors. Six sections of four triangular desks were spread out in the room, each with their sets of wheeled chairs.

A row of Macbook Air laptops sat on a table against one side of the room, where a taller, arch-shaped table stood with tall, wheeled chairs. Instead of the gray top found on the desks, the tall table had a whiteboard surface to allow students to write down and solve their math equations. Three of the four walls also had whiteboards, while a large interactive television rested on the remaining wall.

When lights were turned off, one light stayed on in the center of the ceiling, revealing a "skylight."

Abdelkader said the classroom was created as a learning environment that allows language and math instruction to be presented simultaneously.

"We know there are students who have to learn English, but [they] also have to learn content and earn critical credits to graduate," Abdelkader said.

The Algebra I course is required for graduation, she said.

Spokesman John White said some students learning English language are at risk of "aging out" of the school system because of the high enrollment of English learners and the time lost when educators teach the language first and content second. Once students are over age 21, state law says they can no longer be enrolled in the school system.

Enrollment growth of non-English-speaking students has increased in the Howard County Public School System, White said, with 2,700 students learning English in kindergarten through grade 12, including 67 students at Oakland Mills High School.

White said the Howard school system enrollment has an average of 5 percent of non-English-speaking students, falling below the state and national averages of seven and nine percent, respectively.

William Reinhard, director of communications for the Maryland State Department of Education, said school systems across the state are looking for the most effective way to provide services to a growing number of students who don't speak English.

"We have over 100 languages spoken in Maryland public schools and English learners are part of the population in virtually all of our schools at some point," Reinhard said.

To address the issue in Howard County, Abdelkader said the international and ESOL, secondary mathematics and instructional technology offices worked together to re-examine the classroom's layout and its tools to incorporate math and language into a lesson.

Early stages of the classroom project began last fall when the International and ESOL Office received $12,168 in funding through the English Language Acquisition Immigrant state grant in order to pursue a classroom redesign. White said the classroom's redesign was then adapted from Edutopia's model, "Remake Your Class: Building a Collaborative Learning Environment."

Edutopia is part of the George Lucas Educational Foundation, a nonprofit founded by American filmmaker George Lucas, that works to improve classroom experiences and develops new learning methods through the Lucas Education Research.

Julie Wray, coordinator of digital learning innovation and design, said this is the second classroom redesign completed in Howard County public schools, which started with another math class at Bonnie Branch Middle School last March. Schools were selected based on the student population and their need for assistance in the classroom.

Wray said the previous project's objective focused on enhanced collaboration.

"This year, the redesign was still around collaboration, but really more about providing that language-enriched environment for our students and providing them with accommodations and resources to support that," she said. "We also make sure that teachers have the resources and strategies they need to have students engage in those collaborative learning opportunities."

Using data collection, including teacher and student interviews, the Howard schools project design team presented their latest plan to building services staff, which were finalized in February.

On March 22, Wray said, students and the co-teachers cleared out the math classroom's furniture, wall decor and materials, and painted and assembled new furniture the following two days. All other classroom materials were set up through March 28.

Making her way around the room, Sweigart said her classes have many different types of learners and diverse students, which requires their lessons to have individualized learning environments. Her previous classroom allowed students to break into groups, she said, but it was more difficult with the arrangement.

During the design process, Sweigart said students were asked to give input for the classroom improvement, including what they'd like to see and what amenities would benefit their learning.

"It's really easy for students to record their thoughts, for us to see their work [and] for them to collaborate," Sweigart said. "Because this was designed by them, I think there's this sense of personal satisfaction that comes from being in this class every single day and being able to be engaged with others."

New resources, such as the interactive TV, also aid English learners, she said.

" If there's a word or an idea or they need to look up an image of something, they can go ahead and do it really quickly," she said. "It allows them to really access all of the language and the math around the room."

Ninth-grade student Valentina Idore, 15, said she loved the revitalized classroom mostly because of the many whiteboards.

"I like the whiteboards because we can use them to solve things," Valentina said. "When you go around the room, it's hard to do everything on your paper. If you get it wrong, then you have to erase it. If you have the whiteboards, you can erase everything and then start over."

Moving around the classroom is easier, she said, and the chairs are more comfortable if students are sitting for a longer period of time. Valentina's classmate, Jaelan Mathews, 14, said the classroom is much brighter than its predecessor, which also had malfunctioning equipment.

"I feel like I'll do better in that classroom because … we don't have to worry about the projector breaking down, getting calculators and new batteries for them or everybody rushing to do their work because there's something wrong with the calculator," Jaelan said. "I feel like it's a better experience. … The classroom before was like a D-; this is like an A+."

With the completion of the physical redesign, Wray said students and co-teachers will focus on developing goals based on the classroom's new amenities.

"We're excited. It has been a lot of work and we're putting in the finishing touches," Wray said.

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