Dr. Amanda Gonczi will lead workshops during the PEF Innovation Institute

The Public Education Foundation of Charlottesville-Albemarle will hold an innovation institute from July 26 to 28, with workshops led by Amanda Gonczi from the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education.

The institute will take place at the Greencroft Club in Albemarle, and will include educators from both the city and county school divisions. Twelve third-, fourth- and fifth-grade teachers from each school system will participate.

“The Public Education Foundation is in support of both school systems’ strategic visions,” said Sharon Deal, the group’s executive director. “I worked with people within both school systems to refine the idea and get it tied in with the work teachers are doing in their classrooms. The focus is on letting students use multiple modalities and interdisciplinary work.”

Charlottesville schools Superintendent Rosa Atkins said she is pleased by the institute’s inclusion of both school systems.

“We’re glad that the PEF is working on collaborative projects that can benefit both Charlottesville and Albemarle public schools,” Atkins said. “Having the support of the PEF in professional development is a real plus.”

Albemarle County schools Superintendent Pam Moran echoed Atkins’ sentiment.

Moran framed the institute as a great sign of the schools’ current upward trajectory after the financial troubles of the past decade.

“We still are trying to recover from the devastating impact the Great Recession had on our professional development programs, which suffered reductions of more than 50 percent,” she said. “The institute is a wonderful example of how the Public Education Fund can benefit all our communities.”

The PEF approached Gonczi on the basis of her prior professional development work with elementary school teachers. Her published research focuses on using innovative professional development programs to strengthen curricula and improve student performance.

Getting beyond the general label of “innovation,” Gonczi said the institute will focus on developing teachers’ skills in four core areas.

“We really wanted to make sure that whatever we planned was going to meet the county and city needs,” she said. “We came up with a plan that focused on four components: inquiry-based learning; technology integration; integrated instruction that’s cross-curricular; and project-based assessment.”

Gonczi describes inquiry-based learning as the type of work scientists actually do. She wants to see students engaged in data analysis and research, learning through discovery rather than from lectures about concepts.

To teach educators this pedagogical approach, Gonczi applies it.

“Teachers often struggle to know how to do [inquiry-based learning] in an authentic way,” she said. “We’re going to really be engaging those teachers in some inquiry-based learning themselves, so they can see what that looks like.”

Technology integration refers to creatively implementing technology to encourage discovery. Gonczi used scientific simulations as an example, explaining that they allow for inquiry-based learning with few physical materials.

Participating teachers also will be surveyed about how they would like to better integrate technology into their classrooms. Given the institute’s relatively small size, Gonczi emphasized the importance of tailoring workshops to the teachers’ needs.

“We’re working with elementary teachers, and a lot of times they’re generalists — they’re teaching math, science, social studies,” said Gonczi, elaborating on the institute’s cross-curricular focus. “They don’t necessarily integrate the curriculum, they don’t see the connections between those components when they could.”

Part of the problem, according to Gonczi, is that teachers lack time during the school year to plan out how to tie together related elements of different subjects. Those subjects are usually taught in separate units during the day, which can make cross-curricular learning difficult to envision.

“We really are going to lay out [teachers’] standards and have them look across the curriculum and see where those ties can be made,” said Gonczi.

The final area to be covered during the institute is project-based assessment, framed by Gonczi as a response to the increasing number of written and computer-based standardized tests students must take.

In project-based assessments, learning is demonstrated in a creative way that yields some kind of product. Gonczi termed this type of assessment as “more authentic” than standardized tests.

“Sometimes a product could just be something they write, recommendations or ideas or drawings,” Gonczi said. “But the key is that every student does something different.”

That means rethinking conventional notions of the school science project. Gonczi used the model volcano and model cell as prime examples of the wrong kind of project — students seem to be creatively engaged, but they all make the same product in the same way.

“They produce something, but it doesn’t show creativity, it doesn’t show individual understanding,” she said. “Project-based assessment is more pushing students to apply their understanding with something that’s unique.”

After the institute, a follow-up will be organized for the teachers who participated. Gonczi said the specifics are still being decided, but made clear that professional development is an ongoing process.

Gonczi’s planned focus for the institute aligns with Moran’s stated hopes for Albemarle schools.

“Recruiting, developing and retaining outstanding teachers, professionals who engage and excite students about learning, who utilize technology to bring global expertise and perspective to the classroom, who emphasize not only the acquisition of knowledge but its hands-on application — these are our competitive discriminators as we prepare our children for tomorrow’s limitless possibilities,” Moran said.