City teachers experiment in lab of learning

New educators learn how to boost class participation

February 21, 2005|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

Karen Zipp has been teaching math for two decades, but it took her four hours to prepare for a lesson last week.

Getting pupils to graph algebraic equations was not new to the Diggs-Johnson Middle School teacher. The hard part was the unfamiliar teaching method that the school system asked Zipp to use - and the dozen pairs of adult eyes watching her from the back of the classroom.

Zipp is one of many middle-school math and language arts teachers being trained by the Baltimore school system to demonstrate to other educators a new teaching method that emphasizes pupil participation. In her class last week, two less-seasoned teachers were among a group of administrators and visitors watching the lesson unfold.

The demonstration at the Southwest Baltimore school was the first of a series of "learning labs" to be conducted throughout the city in coming months. The teacher training is part of the system's new middle-school reform initiative, an extension of the movement to improve high schools in recent years.

The teaching model - developed by the system and dubbed the "20-60-20" - requires less lecturing by a teacher and encourages pupils to be actively involved in learning a concept. School officials want all middle-school teachers to adopt the model eventually.

"It's good teaching. That's all it is," said Peggy Jackson-Jobe, who oversees the city's middle schools.

Under the model, teachers spend only the first 20 percent of class time on a traditional lesson. During the next 60 percent of the period, pupils work on the new concept on their own or in groups. In the final 20 percent of the class, the teacher and pupils summarize the lesson.

During Zipp's class, for example, she opened the class with a short lesson, then solicited pupils' input on a practice math problem. For the bulk of the class period, her pupils worked on problems in small groups and Zipp walked around, monitoring their progress.

"You get this shift in `Who does the real work? Who does the talking [in class]?'" said Roxanne White, director of Achievement First, a mentoring program for educators run by the nonprofit Fund for Educational Excellence that is helping the system run the learning labs.

Administrators from the central office will serve as classroom substitutes on days when teachers are attending the learning labs. "We don't want any excuses for a teacher not to be able to come to a demonstration," Jackson-Jobe said.

Zipp said that the new teaching model might not catch on quickly because of the amount of preparation it requires. But, she said, "I do think it's better for the kids. The kids feel more important. They're totally involved."

The teacher training is a first step in the middle-school initiative. School officials are studying the best way to improve 24 traditional middle schools that serve grades six through eight, many of which have low pupil achievement and discipline problems.

Among the issues being considered is whether such schools ought to be phased out and replaced by schools that serve kindergarten through eighth grade. The K-8 schools, which already exist throughout the city, have small numbers of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders and are generally higher-performing than traditional middle schools, Jackson-Jobe said.

Jackson-Jobe is also working to strengthen her team of middle-school principals. She plans to replace some principals next year and is mentoring assistant principals who have the potential to become effective school leaders.

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