Active Learning Inspires El Paso Teachers & Students

Blog Series, EdLeaders, EdTech, Leadership, Learning, Learning Design, PreK-12, Smart Schools

If you drove west  from Houston to Los Angeles on I-10, El Paso Texas would mark the halfway point. It’s 300 miles west of what east Texan’s call “west Texas.” El Paso and Juarez Mexico straddle the Rio Grande (or Rio Bravo, depending on what side of the river you are on) wrapping around the 7,000 foot peaks of the Franklin Mountains, the southernmost point of the Rocky Mountains. With Las Cruces New Mexico, the combined international metropolitan area is home to almost three million people and is the largest bilingual-binational workforce in the Americas, perhaps the world.

The relative isolation produces fierce loyalty but some insularity. Nearly all teachers are prepared at the local University of Texas El Paso (UTEP). There are few charter or private schools perhaps because of economics, perhaps because of demographics. Despite technology and it’s promise of collapsing the way we see and interact with each other, it’s largely a closed ecosystem.

But for the last two years, the new El Paso Independent School District (EPISD) leadership team, firmly planted with local roots, has been learning from the best schools in the country. After a decade of fruitlessly chasing test prep, the district has embraced a vision of active learning powered by inspired teaching and student access to technology (see a summary of their recently adopted plan).

Visits to two high schools last week provided evidence of recent progress.

Franklin Cougar New Tech. EPISD has a productive relationship with New Tech Network, a project-based school support organization working with 200 schools nationwide. EPISD opened two New Tech schools this school year, one at Irvin High School and one at Franklin High School with plans to expand to more campuses in the future.

EP Franklin NT

New Tech schools feature big integrated projects often combining math and science or English and social studies objectives. In addition to content objectives, projects stress student agency, oral and written communication and critical thinking.

With five teachers and 123 9th graders, Franklin New Tech is off to a good start. Teachers spent the first week setting the stage for a productive and collaborative culture.

Math teacher Sarah Dominguez uses quick group tutorials to keep project teams moving. Sarah selects some projects from the NTN library and creates others. Like many teachers in the New Tech network, she uses a hybrid of preexisting  and self-created lessons.

Dan Leeser enjoys the creative work of designing his own projects but appreciates the NTN Echo toolset. We witnessed a class hard at work creating graphic novels that combined Greek myths with Asian culture–an interesting thought experiment that encouraged students to consider the role of myth in society in the past and the present. Those types of interesting lessons keep student and teacher engagement high.

“This environment is vastly different from my last school,” said Dan. He said it required some comfort with risk and ambiguity. Luckily, campus and district administration are comfortable with lesson experimentation, a hallmark of any effort to implement a paradigm shift.

After a visit to Albuquerque New Tech, Franklin principal Carla Gasway became an advocate. She appreciates the level of teacher and student engagement she sees at New Tech schools.

EP HS

El Paso High School. Inside the classic 100-year-old El Paso High, the oldest high school in El Paso, Math teacher Tim Rall combines the adaptive ALEKS program with problems on the graphing calculator TI-Nspire CX Navigator system (perhaps the coolest product with the worst name in EdTech). The wireless classroom set allows Tim to send problems to each calculator, to see each students on his desktop and to pick a student’s screen and project it to the interactive whiteboard in front of the room (see pictures below). A combination of PC laptops, adaptive math software, and wireless calculators made Rall’s classroom highly engaging–a great example of personalized learning in a cohort setting.

EP Ralls

Freshman in a dual language STEM class (featured image) speak English one week, Spanish the next while designing bridges and race cars in WhiteBoxLearning, a CAD program that supports design with short physics lessons. Students can pressure test their bridge and drag race their cars before building models using jig saws and 3D printers.

Michael Reese teaches a dual credit US history. When the local college refused to give up old-fashioned textbooks, Reese digitized the book and recorded an audio version on a Weebly site. Reese uses careful document analysis, projects and online discussions.

El Paso high schools use digital the district’s Flexbooks, custom created in partnership with CK12 Foundation. The open resource texts are continuously updated, free and available to other schools. The district has now created 30 core area textbooks at the high school level, and no longer plans on adopting traditional texts.

Learning some important lessons from the 1:1 deployment in Houston ISD, EPISD has distributed 17,000 laptops to high school students this year. Teachers benefit from 110 Active Learning Leaders and a dozen Instructional Technology Specialists.

Given its commitment to active learning, dual language and technology innovation, EPISD is a district worth watching.

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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is author of Smart Parents, Smart Cities and Getting Smart. He is co-founder of Getting Smart and Learn Capital and serves on the boards of 4.0 Schools, eduInnovation, Digital Learning Institute, Imagination Foundation, Charter Board Partners and Bloomboard. Follow Tom on Twitter, @tvanderark.

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