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UV students sharpen critical thinking skills during student-centered learning projects
A peek inside of Karen Ramirez’s home and careers and technology classes at Unadilla Valley reveals a host of seventh grade entrepreneurs. A visit to her classroom shows students in aprons juicing different fruits, tasting their creations with large wooden spoons, and then writing in a notebook.

Some students seem pleased with their results (a wide smile always gives it away) and others acknowledge the results with a pensive look and head back to the juicing machine.
Groups comprised of four or five students have been busy throughout the fall creating a juice drink, naming it, building a box for it, recording the recipe, picking the right advertising, and marketing the product.

“One student works on building skills as they build the package, and other student does the advertising and creates a 30-second radio commercial or a jingle,” Ramirez said.

“The last person in the group focuses on marketing where they complete a 10-question survey that focuses on people’s likes or dislikes. They then gear the rest of their project on the results.”

Ramirez’s project doesn’t resemble cookie cutter instruction (think students regurgitating facts), rather, it focuses on “student-centered” learning, which isn’t just a buzz word related to the Common Core Learning Standards, but a growing way of life at Unadilla Valley.

Teachers cover topics more in-depth than they did years ago with an eye on cultivating critical thinking, analysis and investigative skills.

“As teachers, we give them the parameters of the project, back away, and allow them as a group to brainstorm together and come up with solutions and a final outcome on their own,” Ramirez said.

“If their juice is sour, I ask what they need to do to change it. I guide the learning, but I don’t tell them how to do it. They have to come up with it on their own, and they do if you give them time to think about it.”

Seventh grade student Mark Hine – whose focus and concentration were evident as he mixed his juice – said he appreciated the learning benefits of the project.

“This teaches us how to put things together and gives us a chance to learn from our mistakes. It makes you think harder, and you work more so you don’t make as many mistakes,” he said.
Lecturing Less
District leaders at Unadilla Valley aren’t trying to lessen the load on teachers, but they are striving for a classroom that features student-led instruction about 50 percent of the time.
Secondary school principal Frank Johnson said instruction at Unadilla Valley mirrors the Common Core shifts in ELA/Literacy and math.

“Our teachers work hard on lesson planning and assessments. We’re getting away from retrieval and recognition to more analyzing information, doing investigations, and comparing and contrasting. Those represent higher level thinking skills,” he said.

“The bare bones of it are that teachers introduce the topic, such as what it’s like to have your own apartment, and have the students do the reading and investigation (think conducting web research or reading consumer resources articles about entrepreneurship). The students who do the work will learn more.”

Helping students hone their critical thinking skills isn’t a new concept either.

District leaders at Unadilla Valley know that preparing students to succeed in a global economy in the rapidly changing 21st century requires helping them develop essential skills. They know the future students will grow up in differs drastically than it did 25 years ago.

In line with the shifts, teachers in the district instruct students to read more-nonfiction and work with primary source documents to develop a hypothesis on an issue and make claims using the information they’ve researched.

“We’ve been doing this for the last three years,” Johnson said. “Kids can do complex work.”

Lessons in learning
Student-centered learning at Unadilla Valley stretches across the district and involves every subject. Algebra and geometry teacher Danette George actively tries to shift away from walking around her classroom and lecturing, to facilitating more group work and collaboration.

During an algebra lesson on applying inequalities (think 2x + 3 < 7), George wrote a list of problems on her iPad and connected it to big screen. She split the students into groups and assigned each group a few problems.

As the students worked on the problems, she walked around helping those who needed it. When the students solved the problems, they then taught the students in the other groups how they found the answers.

George said if students can teach what they’re learning, they tend to remember more.

“By the end of class, we had the entire worksheet done,” George said. “In class the day before, we went over the skills they would need to solve the problems.

“During lessons like that, I feel like I can actually talk to every student in class one-on-one. It buys me more time to get to a student who’s struggling or needs more help.”

Biology/living environment teacher John Jackson also embraces group projects and students testing their hypotheses. He often splits students into groups, assigns each a role, and monitors the group.

He said during a lab on an abnormal growth on a plant stem, students made a hypothesis about what happened to the planet and subsequently tested it.

“I teach them a scientific method,” he said. “Once the students see the bump in the stem, they figure out why it’s there and slice it open to verify if they were right or wrong.”

Sophomore McKayla Brown praises the student-centered learning approach and its hands-on qualities.

“When we learn from others, we learn from their perspective and we get more ideas, instead of just the one from the teacher,” she said.  “If you read about it, you usually forget, but if you do it, you remember it better.”

Of course, student-centered at Unadilla Valley doesn’t always involve groups. And it’s not without hints of creativity.

On just the second day of school, Will Rexroat asked his engineering design students to build an airplane out of some basic materials he gave them. The student whose airplane flew the farthest would be the winner. He also let students express their creativity and the freedom to design whatever he/she wanted.

“I’m teaching the design process and the thinking that goes behind engineering this year, so I wanted to see what the students already knew,” he said.

“It was more realistic for the world of engineering because there were no right answers, there were just better ones.”