By E.C. Barrett
Ithaca City School District (ICSD) elementary school teachers are training to use a case study model (CSM) for building their curriculum, with the goal of transitioning all elementary teaching to the CSM by 2017-18. ICSD Teacher on Special Assignment Jen Wilkie explains the principles of the CSM and why the district hopes to make case study learning a hallmark of the local educational experience.
The CSM, inspired by Expeditionary Learning, an organization promoting research-based teaching strategies, has teachers develop six-week-long units around a specific issue or need, either global or local in scope. Utilizing ELA, math and the arts to explore a science or social studies standard, ICSD’s CSM promotes hands-on research, meeting with local experts and developing projects that respond to the issue or need at the heart of the case study.
“In real life, people learn about the world in holistic, integrated, authentic and personal ways,” Wilkie explains. “Our goal is to build on children’s natural proclivities to see the world in interdisciplinary ways through case study work.”
ICSD’s exploration of the CSM began with 40 teacher volunteers in 2013-14. This year more than 140 teachers across the district’s eight elementary schools participated in five professional development days engaged in learning the CSM. Typical trainings have teachers work in teams to develop their case study and engage in facilitated work to make sure teachers understand case study elements.
For Wilkie, these professional development days are an opportunity not only to teach, but to apply the case study method. “We want teachers to engage in professional development that mirrors the active learning experiences students need, and will support the use of different types of teaching methods as they experiment and design learning for their students,” she says.
Randi Beckmann, a first-grade teacher at Belle Sherman, employed the CSM when her students asked if they could grow something to eat before the end of last fall. Beckmann brought in seeds and had the children track and determine which grew the fastest.
“They learned to read the temperature and figured out that we needed to create something to protect the plants from the cold weather, but still allow in light,” Beckmann says. “The children brought in bowls and jars and zippers and pieces of plastic. When we decided that a hoop house made the most sense, you could see the children finding twigs to make model hoop houses on the playground. It didn’t matter which method for plant protection we chose, what mattered was that the kids were engaged.”
The hoop house project fulfilled the CSM requirement for students to investigate a local issue, engage in hands-on research and create a high-quality product that exists in relation to the issue, the community and their experiences outside of the classroom. Beckmann’s students not only produced food, they shared it in a community celebration and responded to the need for more readily available information on hoop houses by creating a narrated slide show to share their research, findings and construction instructions.
For Beckmann, the case study unit she created that focused on the question of “can we grow something to eat this fall,” not only taught grade level content, it encouraged curiosity. “The children became involved in testing a hypothesis, of creating inquiry projects and of critically considering and solving problems,” she says. “My class felt like a place of discovery and wonder and it set an amazing tone for the entire school year. What was beautiful about it is that neither I, nor the six-year-olds in my class, had a clue how to build a hoop house. It put the students and me in a place of learning together.”
Part of the move to case study learning is redefining how to assess student comprehension and acquired skills. Beckmann learned the ICSD workshops not only helped her develop specific learning targets and to connect that work to the new science standards, they also helped her create methods for assessing student progress. “Since the learning was based on children’s curiosity and passion, the content itself was like cognitive Velcro,” she says. “The children truly retained what they learned.”
Still, the question of how to align CSM assessments with the need for state and district-wide assessment remains. “We are in a transitional time period,” Wilkie says. “Our teachers are designing a leading-edge, learner-centered curriculum, but yet we also administer state and district-wide common assessments that are an ill fit for this type of work. Our goal is to evolve our assessment model to reflect our values.”
To that end, district educators will spend this summer prioritizing standards for each grade level, hoping to lay the groundwork for teachers to share and evaluate evidence of student progress, comprehension and skill.
By E.C. Barrett