Charlottesville City Schools students at Monticello Credit: Charlottesville City Schools

Charlottesville’s teachers are starting to design instruction that hinges less on tidbits of information, and focuses more on situations that grab students’ attention.

School officials call it Project-based Learning, and they feel so strongly about the model’s potential to engage students, that it’s the first objective you’ll find in the division’s strategic plan.

“[Project-based learning] is not the experience after the unit of study…it’s just the approach that you take to do that unit of study,” Beverly Catlin, Charlottesville’s Coordinator of Gifted Instruction, said.

After a few years of staff training and preparation in central office, the schools have moved into a phase of co-planning and co-teaching.

“We have a good understanding of what [project-based learning] is, and now we’re here to help [teachers] make it happen,” Catlin said.

In order to decide what should be taught in a project-based way, Catlin said there has to be significant content.

“You cannot do a project-based learning experience about what I’ll call ‘fluff,’” Catlin said. “We really have to make sure we’ve got significant content that the students want to delve into.”

One obstacle to a more widespread shift in this type of instruction, Associate Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Gertrude Ivory said, is the reliance on Standards of Learning test scores to evaluate a school’s success. However, due to recent changes reducing the number of SOL tests students are required to take, Ivory is hopeful project-based learning will grow.

“I think we have some impetus now with the changes in the accountability system that will free up just the embracing of the idea that we can let go and do some things, and not be so focused on some of the accountability measures,” Ivory said.

School Board member Ned Michie said the SOL curriculum doesn’t help either.

“One of the problems we know with the SOLs is that the curriculum is so broad that it just sucks up so much time…and so you can’t dig as deep as you want,” Michie said.

Currently, Charlottesville students visit Monticello in the 3rd grade. To provide a project-based experience, teachers focused their instruction on the theme of Thomas Jefferson’s gadgets and inventions.

“They did a lot of research before they went to Monticello, they worked on pieces, and actually the word was that when our kids got to Monticello, our kids were little experts on this,” Catlin said.

After the trip, the students returned to their home schools and made displays and presentations to show what they learned. Monticello then put the student work on display at their visitor’s center and invited the students back to talk to the public about their work.

The division is also applying project-based learning to the secondary grades.

Using 3-D printing technology, Buford Middle School students are learning engineering principles and collaborating with scientists from the University of Virginia. At Charlottesville High School, students are analyzing the school’s recycling and composting levels.

In addition to refining what’s already taking place, Catlin said the school division’s next steps include planning how 5th 8th and 10th grade students can present their work to community panels.

“They are actually talking about and defending what they’ve been doing with [project-based learning],” Catlin said.

School Board member Jennifer McKeever said she supports project-based learning in all subjects, but hopes writing isn’t left out.

Another mechanism the division is using to bolster student engagement is ePortfolios, which are digital collections of student work.

“Students become the authors and publishers of the content, and they have some ownership of what has been created and shared within their portfolio,” Maria Lewis, Charlottesville’s Coordinator for Instructional Technology and Instructional Media,  said.

Additionally, Lewis said, the ePortfolio system allows the division to teach digital citizenship skills by showing students how to present themselves online.

To implement the ePortfolios, the division is using Google Apps for Education at Charlottesville High School. They have recently trained 3rd and 4th grade teachers and students on Google apps, as well.

The ePortfolio consists of five sections, each of which contain prompts and questions to guide the students’ use: home, about me, gallery, work space, and reflections.

‘Gallery’ is where students house their work. ‘Work Space’ is a private area for students to work before publishing a final product. ‘Reflections’ will provide a space for students to comment on their work.

Lewis said the reflections area is particularly important.
“As a teacher I can tell you what I want you to learn, but I actually need to know what you’ve learned, so I need them to put that evidence on the page,” Lewis said.

Currently, Walker Upper Elementary School has two English classes piloting the ePortfolios with writing assignments, and Buford Middle School has two physical science classes using the portfolios to reflect on the school’s new STEM labs. Sixty-six English students are using the ePortfolios at CHS as well.

Moving forward, Lewis said the division plans to continually evaluate the pilot, to determine how long it will take to train students to use the portfolios, and to train teachers. Staff is also working to establish grade level benchmarks, so all students and teachers know what is expected each year.

School Board member Colette Blount asked how the new instructional coaching model would relate to the use of portfolios.

Lewis said that the Instructional Technology team is already similar to a coaching model.

“There are individual times that we meet with teachers, small group times that we meet with teachers, as well as whole faculty times,” Lewis said. “It’s just based on the comfort level of the individual involved to the level that we would support.”

Blount also wanted to know how a teacher’s use of the ePortfolio would be accounted for in a teacher’s performance assessment.

Charlottesville Superintendent Rosa Atkins said it wouldn’t be treated as an isolated section of the evaluation, but would be considered, adding that teachers could set ePortfolio use as a professional goal.

McKeever said she was glad to see the division using these tools.

“In my opinion, this is how school should be,” McKeever said. “I think it shouldn’t go unsaid that this is how most students learn, through touching and feeling and growing a project.”