District administrators and Revere High School (RHS) officials this week are touting a $450,000 grant from the Nellie Mae Foundation as one of the biggest things to happen to RHS in decades.
Though there has been talk of the innovative grant coming Revere’s way for about two weeks, the official announcement came late last Wednesday. RHS was one of only two schools in Massachusetts to receive the grant, with Chelsea – ironically – being the only other.
The 20-month grant from the private Nellie Mae is looking to help implement and speed up innovative approaches to urban education, and in addition to Revere and Chelsea, Nellie Mae also picked four districts in Connecticut and Providence, RI. The $450,000 grant will look to cover the costs of speeding up the work already begun at most districts in a variety of different areas. In Revere’s case, Supt. Paul Dakin and Fellowship Administrator Chris Fraser said the district would be using the money to continue instructing teachers on how to best utilize new technology in the classroom.
In school speak, what RHS is looking to do is speed up a project that currently exists in the Freshman Academy – a project where the traditional teacher model of lecturing in front of the classroom is obliterated with iPads, independent student investigation and a “Flipped Classroom.”
“The ultimate goal is to make RHS such a laboratory for this that other districts and schools will want to come and take a look at what we did and what we are doing,” said Dakin. “Nellie Mae likes what we’re doing now and wants us to continue doing it. The philosophy and groundwork here have been set and we’re already pushing along with this. We’ll let the grant’s funding mechanism catch up to us. I want to look at RHS in four years and say it’s a model for the rest of the country. Nellie Mae believes we can do that, and they’ve given us the grant so we can do it quicker.
“This is the biggest thing to happen to RHS that I’ve seen,” he continued.
“It’s fertile ground here for the new innovation team,” said Fraser. “I’ve been in classrooms in California and Texas that gave computers with all the bells and whistles to students. However, there’s no proof they are learning things.
“The reaction here so far is not that there is this new gizmo,” he added. “I would say three out of four teachers are excited about this after seeing how it worked at the Freshman Academy this year. The one in four are apprehensive because of the paradigm shift. What has happened in the PILOT program at the Freshman Academy this year has shown most teachers that this is something they need to grab onto.”
The trick will be getting teachers and students to let go of the traditional way of teaching and learning – that being the idea of having every student quietly paying attention as the teacher lectures day after day about a particular subject.
That sort of learning model, both said, is becoming a relic of the past due to the rapid changes in information technology.
“The trouble is our traditionalists in the profession teach how they were taught,” said Dakin. “It’s a generational change we have to accelerate. As I math teacher, I thought I earned my pay the most when I had filled the blackboard with math problems, the kids had taken eight pages of notes, and I went home with chalk all over me. I used that approach for years and it’s a dead approach now. It’s not how employers want their employees to think. They want critical thinkers. It’s a completely different approach to solving a problem.”
Fraser, who started out as a teacher before delving into school redesign issues, said making the transition is very uncomfortable, but eventually frees up much-needed time for one-on-one instruction.
“It feels uncomfortable as a teacher to see all these students doing different things,” he said. “As a teacher, you want control and you want everyone paying attention to you as you stand in front of the room and lecture. That isn’t always helpful. When you give up control and have several different pods of learning going at different paces, it can feel awkward. Some students might learn well by themselves and very independently. Some students might need to collaborate more and get more teacher input. The good thing is that this change will free up teachers to provide that kind of attention.”
The grant is pictured as a way to speed up the acclimation process for teachers concerning this uncomfortable shift in the classroom – a shift that is known as going from “teacher-centered” learning to “student-centered” learning.
Dakin said he envisions pockets of teachers being pulled out during school days to participate in training sessions. He even sees some teachers going out of state to observe other programs.
“I see teachers, three to five of them, going out to a place and observing, researching and bringing it back to share with us,” he said. “Professional development will likely be in the schools, after school and in the summertime. There’s money there now to pay for and buy additional teacher time for them to learn. We will be able to pay them to learn on days that were traditionally a day off.”
In the end, Dakin said the change would have taken place whether Revere won the grant or not. And he added that they were headed in that direction anyhow. Now, however, the school and Principal Lourenco Garcia are guaranteed to be on the cusp of the change.
“As much as a mechanic’s job, a doctor’s job and even a farmer’s job has been changed by technology, it’s only a matter of time before that kind of major change happens for a teacher,” said Dakin. “We want to be on the forefront of this change rather than on the back of it – for our kids’ sake.”