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NRHS Group Visits Challenge-Based Learning Schools in Dallas

Susan Shinn Turner

A group of teachers from North Rowan High School and their assistant principal are busy this semester integrating what they learned on a trip to the Coppell Independent School District in Coppell, Texas, this past fall. 

The group from North wanted to see the best of the best of schools that incorporate challenge-based learning (CBL) in their curriculums, according to Principal Meredith Williams. 

Challenge-Based Learning is a very different way of approaching learning,” Williams explains. “It puts the student at the center of the learning and requires the application of knowledge to real-world problems. We leveraged our partnership with Apple to gain access to these schools, which are CBL-based schools that have fully embraced this pedagogy.  

“We asked Apple who the best schools in the nation were to see in regards to CBL, and the Coppell ISD was their answer. We paid for the teachers’ travel through our school funds and scheduled them heavily through the two days to maximize the investment. We tasked these teachers with bringing back and implementing what they learned to help continue the redesign of our upper school.”

Those teachers making the trip with Assistant Principal Jonathan Clark included: Lydia Allen, social studies; Christopher Brown, math; Calin Martin, science; Maruca Scruggs, media/tech specialist; and Joshua Yoder, social studies.

Along with CBL, the North team focused on school design, professional learning, and the technology environment.

“We have already begun the process of making the changes that we saw happen at North,” Clark notes. “Students are participating in design classes in the 9th and 10th grade. Being in these courses allows them to participate in challenges that allow them to use content in the context of the real world. An important piece of making this happen is allowing teachers the opportunity to collaborate with both grade level and content colleagues. The alignment of subjects will make sure that students are able to make connections between the different disciplines and do so in an intentional way.”

Here are the teachers’ responses to some questions about the trip.

What were you most interested in seeing as it relates to the subject area in which you teach?

Allen: It was interesting to see how the teachers used the planning time to create projects that no matter what lesson they were on or which subject of history, it would be applicable.

Martin: Types of challenges/projects being completed. I saw more evidence of learning at the elementary and middle school and was surprised the high school was doing assignments that I have done or seen done at our own school. The level of engagement was higher, however.

Scruggs: Since I am involved with technology, I wanted to see how these schools incorporated the use of laptops and iPads in the classrooms.  I was also interested in the role of the librarian.
What were some of your overall impressions of the school system you visited? 

Allen: Coppell had beautifully designed schools that were perfect for collaboration of students and teachers. The buy-in from everyone including students and parents was apparent. Everyone believed in what they were doing at the schools and with that they were able to achieve great things.

Martin: It was hard to not notice that the students were mostly of Asian/Eastern Pacific background. The engagement seemed to be high, but the content and assignments where not so different from what we are already doing. The environment — tons of windows with natural light and seating all over the schools and carpet in the high school — was welcoming and comfortable.
Scruggs: I was excited to observe how the teachers used collaboration across subject areas to create authentic, challenge-based projects. I was glad to see that this was not a forced objective, but was incorporated naturally within the subject areas as it fit.

What was the key takeaway you observed in the subject you teach?

Allen: CBL is not difficult to bring into the classroom because the majority of the teachers here already do certain aspects of it. But it is important to bring all those small pieces together.

Martin: Across all subjects, shifting the work onto the learners is important in creating authentic engagement.

Scruggs: The use of iPads and laptops was seamless. Students were not using them for entertainment, and I was surprised at how the elementary students were creating impressive videos, charts and presentations. By the time the students were in middle school and high school, they had mastered using the tools available on the laptops. I observed how the teachers used a common collaboration room, and the way they worked together to create amazing assignments.

What are some methods/practices you observed that you can immediately implement? 

Allen: I have already begun a CBL in my class. This fall, my Honors Civics students looked at how holidays impact economies in the U.S. and internationally.

Martin: Raising the rigor, having students create more of the work, and creating more projects to prepare for challenge-based learning.

Scruggs: I would like for us to implement the Trust Cards that were used in the high school. I believe our students could benefit from its use.

What are some methods/practices you observed that you can eventually implement? What do you need to be able to do so?

Allen: I loved the atmosphere of each school. It was clear the students had a level of ownership. I would like to see implemented here at North. The teachers and students need to create a framework in order to ensure that happens. I want ensure that when students graduate and leave us. they are more than scholars, they are leaders.

Martin: Office hours, flexible content including electives that I am passionate about, and full challenges for my students. A flexible schedule and more cross-curriculum planning would help me meet these goals.

Scruggs: I want to take a more active part in the planning and collaboration of lessons with our teachers. I need to get out of my office and get in the classrooms. This is often easier said than done, as I am usually bogged down with “fixing” technology.

Why is it so important to observe high-performing schools?

Martin: These were schools that had not real pressure to change what they were doing, because they were already high performing. But they decided to take risks that ultimately, as we heard from administration, cost them a short-term drop in performance but that has bounced back. They are not taking risks to improve scores but instead to better serve students and because they believe there is a better way. A person or organization that takes risks even when they do not need to must believe they have a better way, and those are worth observing.

What else would you like to add about the trip? 

Martin: I got a lot out of visiting the elementary and middle schools for big-idea solutions. Seeing how responsible the students were for their own learning and the content they were able to create was inspiring and the cross-curriculum work was thoughtful and rigorous. In secondary education, you often forget that they have done better before.

North Rowan High


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