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Salmon River sixth graders geared up by STEM program

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FORT COVINGTON - It’s Monday morning at Salmon River Central School and the bell rings. The volume in the hallway goes from dead silent to a muffled roar. Lockers slam and groups of giggling, yelling and chatting students rush back and forth, scurrying to their next class.

But inside one classroom, more than 70 sixth graders sit still. The bell has no effect as they listen quietly and politely to their teachers. They’re engaged and interested.

This is a new kind of learning. This is a new student-teacher relationship.

This is the sixth-grade STEM program.

The Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Program is a project-based learning curriculum developed to spark curiosity. It pushes for self-driven learning, critical thinking, leadership skills, and the ability to work in both large and small groups. STEM embraces what its team of teachers likes to call “21st century skills..

Much like the Common Core standards, STEM is focused on making students college and career ready –– particularly in the math and science fields that are both high-paid and high-demand in the U.S..

“STEM is about standing back and letting students do things on their own,” said David Bish, the English/language arts and science teacher on the sixth-grade STEM Team. “We’re more facilitators than instructors.”

STEM breaks the mold of a typical lecture-based classroom, where pre-planned lessons, strict time limits, and teachers working alone were the norm. The teachers of the STEM program share time, keeping students for lessons only as long as they need to be. Whether that makes their particular lesson 10 minutes or 90, it’s whatever is best for the kids.

Projects are big, class-wide affairs, and based on student interests in lessons. At the same time they challenge students to mimic real-world pursuits in the safety of the classroom.

An example of this is the ongoing full-fledged political campaign for positions on the STEM student leadership council. Student nominees had to get 25 signatures on a petition just to run for office, while others took up the duty of slogan writing, poster design and policy lobbying. The potential legislators have to make campaign speeches over the school’s PA system following morning announcements. Once elected, the STEM teachers assure them they’ll have real power over how their grant money is spent.

“We’ve had a hard time in the past just getting kids to do the morning announcements,” joked middle school Principal Tammy Russell. “Now they’re making speeches for over 300 students.”

Meanwhile, in class they’ve written resumes so they can apply for different jobs to run and facilitate their upcoming fair. The teachers will interview for positions such as grounds management, reporting, design, and presenting. They’ll be placed in the job that best suits their strengths in organizing the event, just like in the real world. The students even have references that the teachers can call to check on certain skills and employment.

Teachers say the day goes by faster, and when asked, the students agreed. Lessons are more interactive. Curiosity is satiated.

“It’s the first time I’m excited to come to a school,” said student teacher Angelica Smith.

Many on the team expressed a similar excitement. English-language and writing teacher Ben Barkley even admitted imagining new things to teach and talk about sometimes keeps him up at night.

The STEM program isn’t just different, it’s new. And it isn’t just new to Salmon River, it’s new to the state. Salmon River is the first school in the north country to implement a STEM program. This is the first year, so there are going to be problems. The teachers working through this test year said it’s a much larger time investment than a regular lecture schedule.

Then there’s the added Common Core requirements and state module system. These sixth graders must meet Common Core standards along with STEM initiatives. While teachers outside the program proclaim frustration, the STEM teachers note that the two programs actually complement each other.

Common Core’s college-and-career-ready slogan pretty much embodies the real-world learning the STEM program pushes.

“I’m proud of these teachers to take on these big initiatives along with the new modules and common core standards,” said Ms. Russell. “It’s definitely a learning year, and they’re still learning as the year goes on. But hopefully next year will be even better.”

Ms. Russell hopes to implement the STEM program as this year’s class moves up through the grades. The STEM teachers expressed excitement at the idea that these students may never have to enter a standard classroom again, but the principal says she won’t force anyone to teach this way.

“Teachers are very excited, but I wanted to start out small and build from the bottom up,” she said. “I would never have a team do it unless they wanted to.”

Either way, she’s optimistic about a few seventh-grade teachers rising to the challenge. And the group of sixth-grade teachers seem unlikely to ever return to classic teaching methods, despite the time investment.

“They’re thriving,” Mr. Bish said of the students’ progress so far. “And we are teaching. We’re all teaching our curriculum. It’s just a different environment.”

For more information on the SRCS STEM Program, visit srcstem.blogspot.com.

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