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Grand Forks middle school curriculum change focuses on problem-solving

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Catherine Gillach2 / 3
Eric Ripley3 / 3

Grand Forks Public Schools administrators hope changes in curriculum for middle schoolers will better prepare them for problem-solving and innovative thinking as they prepare to enter an ever-changing world.

Sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders will notice a new structure in classes this fall. It's the first time in nearly two decades the district has made major changes to its middle school curriculum, said Eric Ripley, director of career and technical education for the district.

Most of the standard classes—math, science, social studies, English, health—remain or have been adjusted for time. The district will work in several classes that will allow students to take the lead in choosing a topic to help apply critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Sixth- and seventh-graders will spend nine weeks each year in an innovations class meant to encourage research, data collection and hypothesis testing. At the end of the second course, students will present a final project.

"When you think about it, what are people looking for in the workforce?" said Catherine Gillach, Elroy Schroeder Middle School principal and incoming assistant superintendent for the district. "They're looking for people who can persist in problem-solving. They're looking for people who can communicate well.

"They are looking for people who can think differently because our world is changing so rapidly these days."

Why the change?

Though it has been tweaked over the years, the current middle school curriculum has been in place since 1999, according to the district. What hasn't changed before now is the order of classes and the time spent for each class, Ripley said.

"It's a model that served our school and students quite well," he said, but administration has asked if that is the best model moving forward.

A large number of retirements prompted the district to reassess which topics it offered, which classes overlapped in presenting the same information and what was absent that is needed to succeed, Ripley and Gillach said.

"We were taking a look at whether or not these wonderful courses that have been in place for 19 years are teaching kids the portable skills that they need to be successful in today's world," Gillach said. "With that, came the concept of the innovations course."

The district wanted to be more efficient at offering classes while still offering choices to students, Ripley said.

"It's not like we blew up the entire model," Ripley said.

Students and parents wanted children to have more choices, as well as innovative-type classes, according to a survey conducted by the district. In particular, several parents said their children wanted other choices besides band, choir and art.

The seventh- and eighth-graders will have the option of choosing a "special topics" class, though the topics of those classes will be decided at a later date.

It's possible the special classes could vary from middle school to middle school, said Tracy Jentz, communications coordinator for the district.

"That's something each middle school is working on right now and will continue to do over the summer," she wrote in an email.

The Grand Forks School Board approved the changes to the curriculum earlier this month.

Shifting focus

People tend to think of technology classes when it comes to discussions on innovation, Gillach said.

The district has adjusted its middle school curriculum to include a semester of computer applications, but Grand Forks Public Schools wants innovative education to focus on critical thinking on any topic, she said.

For example, one history class in the district studies wars and looks for patterns that contribute to the conflicts, Gillach said.

"It automatically equates to students embarking in critical thinking skills," she said. "They are not just regurgitating information, but they're having to look at themes, patterns and intentions. They are having to analyze cause and predict what the outcome could have been if something had been approached differently."

The district initially explored changes to the art curriculum after a large number of teachers in the allied arts fields announced their retirements, including cuts to music education. Art and music classes remain in the curriculum in their previous capacity.

It doesn't appear the district will make major changes to elementary and high school curriculums, at least in the immediate future. The changes for middle schoolers are less about picking apart curriculum and more about adapting teaching and learning practices to promote student-centered learning, Gillach said. Other schools are looking at ways to provide innovative education, but Grand Forks teachers have begun to shift toward a student-centered classroom, she added.

That means developing 21st-century skills—creative thinking, collaboration, communication and critical thinking, Ripley said.

"Those are the skills that we would really like all of our courses to be able to help students enhance those four key areas," he said.

Teachers still will be a key part of the classroom but will serve more as a guide in learning, Gillach said. They still will teach facts and skills, but teachers will educate children on how to apply that knowledge.

"The role of a teacher is as or even more important," she said. "It's actually a lot more difficult work."

Ultimately, the goal is to have student-centered learning at the core of Grand Forks education and making sure children have the skills necessary to succeed, Gillach said.

"Right now, we focus a lot on the standards, which are necessary, important and good, but learning isn't necessarily about the standards," she said. "It's about the thinking and what you do with that knowledge. That's where we really need to shift our focus in the district."

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers crime and education. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family raises registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as a city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

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