A School Within a School… Within a School

New Tech at Gereau is a very unique school, even within the New Tech Network. As I like to tell people, we are a “school within a school… within a school.”

Franklin County has 12 elementary schools that feed into one middle school and one comprehensive high school. Our middle school serves about 1800 students in grades 6-8 in three buildings on two campuses. The campus that is home to NT@G, The Gereau Center for Applied Technology and Career Exploration, opened in 1997. It was originally designed to expose students to a work environment and provide students with experience to new, information-based technologies. Students were introduced to different careers through module classes such as Aviation and Health & Human Services. Coincidentally, the first New Tech school, New Tech High in Napa, California, also opened in 1997. The mid-nineties were a great time for educators to explore new teaching techniques, from multi-age classrooms to a myriad of magnet schools.

What came after the 90’s and all the experimentation that was going on in the world of schools? The pendulum swung toward standardization. In 2001, No Child Left Behind passed, and high stakes testing became the norm. In Virginia, the Standards of Learning went from being the title of a binder we saw on our teachers’ bookshelves to a test we took in core subjects at the end of the school year – and the results of those tests affected whether our schools were accredited by the state. In Franklin County, the pressures placed on students and teachers by SOL testing led to the expansion of traditional academics at the Gereau Center.

In 2016-2017, the year before we opened New Tech @ Gereau, nine career exploration modules were offered to students: Architectural Design, Broadcast Media Design, Computer Career Studies, Digital Media Design, Energy Engineering, Forensic Science, Graphic and Visual Design, Legal Studies and
Criminal Justice, and Medical Science. When we established our school, administration determined that two modules would be blended with core subjects to create New Tech courses, and the remaining modules would be blended to create new elective courses.

New Tech philosophies complement the original mission statement of the Gereau Center in many ways. As we planned this school, we envisioned that New Tech at Gereau could further the founding vision of TGC by working with local leaders in industry and business to develop and enhance curriculum, by
providing students with daily opportunities to use technology in authentic ways, and by involving parents and community organizations in the work in our classrooms.

100 eighth graders in Franklin County have the unique role of simultaneously being New Tech @ Gereau students (their math, English 8/Communications, Physical Science/Forensic Science, and Civics classes are Project- and Problem-Based), Gereau Center students (they have the option of taking one module class or Spanish outside of New Tech), and Benjamin Franklin Middle School students (Band and Choir, as well as all athletic teams, are offered on the BFMS campus). It has been my goal as a school director to maximize rather than limit the opportunities our students have to learn, grow, and explore their unique interests, and being a school within a school within a school helps us achieve that goal.


My Teaching Journey, Part I: Middle School!

I’ve decided to dive back into the world of blogging about education, primarily as a way to reflect on my school’s growth in PBL and my own work as a coach, and what better way to get started than to reflect on my own teaching and PBL journey so far?

There was never much doubt that I was going to be a teacher – I was the child who spent hours every afternoon playing “school” with my stuffed animals, and I started volunteering to work with younger children when I was in the eighth grade. I majored in English and Elementary Education and graduated with a Master’s degree in Teaching – right in the middle of the Great Recession. Schools were cutting staff positions, and instead of an elementary position, I was offered several middle school teaching jobs. I became an eighth grade English teacher and never looked back – even though I was someone who had said I would never teach middle school, I fell in love with these people who have just become teenagers, who are learning to navigate the world.

As an English teacher, I loved helping students who were convinced they hated reading find a book that was right for them, and helping students who hated schoolwork see that they were capable of becoming strong writers. The students who were the toughest to love usually ended up being the ones I fought for most fiercely. I was inspired by my teachers Carol Ann TomlinsonJane Hansen, and Jamie Marsh, and by the work of Nancie Atwell, to create a differentiated workshop classroom. My goal was to make my English classroom a joyful environment that nurtured student voice and choice. I spent a lot of money on a classroom library. Banned Books Week, Teen Read Week, and National Poetry month were holidays in my classroom. I found my groove with a combination of whole-class mentor texts, literature circles, and independent reading. My students and I generally enjoyed English class, but I wasn’t great at managing my time and spent what felt like all my waking hours grading assignments, analyzing assessment data, and planning lessons. It didn’t help that Virginia’s Standards of Learning for eighth grade Reading and Writing were a moving target from year to year.

The world of education changes quickly. While Professor Tomlinson’s ideas about differentiation were novel when I took her class at UVa in 2007, it would be hard to find a teacher who doesn’t at least try to differentiate their instruction now. As I grew in my practice, I read the work of Kelly Gallagher and Donalyn Miller and implemented reading journals which eventually morphed into interactice notebooks. I joined the 2ndaryELA Facebook group, a great community to bounce ideas off of. A coworker introduced me to writing resources created by Steve Peha and to nonfiction reading and oral communication resources from Dave Stuart Jr., and I learned about Angela Watson‘s 40 hour teacher workweek. All of these influences helped me make my classroom run more efficiently so that I could spend more time and mental energy on teaching and less time on paperwork.

Due mostly to teacher turnover, I became co-chair of the eighth grade English department, and though I had reached a point where it would have been easy to use the Virginia 8th grade English curriculum I had developed with my teammates year after year, I kept searching for ways to make middle school English classes more engaging for students. Our department got Chromebook sets for our classrooms, and I became a Google Classroom junkie. I discovered the education side of Twitter and all of the various chats – including #PBLchat. I started trying some PBL moves in my classroom. Looking back now, I was probably doing more project-oriented learning than true PBL, but I got a sense of the way this teaching style could empower my students, enable them to be the drivers of their learning, and allow me to provide more small-group and individual instruction. I was hooked.

To be continued…