Making Learning Relevant—Bringing the World into the Classroom
When a visitor steps across the threshold of the front door of Lincoln Magnet Middle School in Springfield, Illinois, it doesn't take long to discover that students are at the center of all that takes place there. Student ambassadors greet you, exuding pride in their school and a pleasant confidence in their abilities to serve as your guide into a journey of learning. Often referred to misleadingly by members of the Springfield community as “that technology school,” Lincoln Magnet Middle School serves as an exemplar of how learning and schooling can be transformed.
Long ago, the staff at Lincoln Magnet Middle School realized that if their only approach to “covering the content” of the standards of every discipline was to do so course by course and lesson by lesson, the days would be too few to get the job done. However, by integrating their instruction and the learning of their students across curricular boundaries, they make student experiences relevant and interesting while also “covering the content."
The integration of learning at Lincoln School is largely grounded in building the student experience around four quarterly themes per year per grade level. A student who attends Lincoln for three years (grades 6, 7, and 8) will have completed 12 quarterly learning projects. Students often work in teams. They write about, talk about, and display their work, using the technology of the 21st century to present their message to one another and to partners found far beyond the walls of their school. Over parts of three decades, student work from Lincoln School has been recognized and honored as outstanding in a variety of venues at state and national levels. More important than the awards earned by students, however, is the awareness among students that the world is their learning lab, brimming with challenges and opportunities they are expected to recognize and for which they are acquiring knowledge and skill sets to address.
The concept for learning based on inquiry, exploration, and inclusion was adopted by the faculty of Lincoln School nearly two decades ago. Yes, the success of Lincoln is related to technology, but the power of how Lincoln utilizes its technology is a story of its staff’s teamwork to re-design the learning experiences it offers all students. As in any school, changes in learning standards, curricula, and textbooks require the adaptation of the learning units at Lincoln, a process that is now the continuous, ongoing way.
Many of the original staff members who created and launched the ideas that make Lincoln unique are retired. The faculty is composed of second and third generations of teachers, and the current principal is the third instructional leader at the school. Even so, the teamwork that makes Lincoln a success continues—because that is how business is done there. Lincoln Magnet Middle School lives in the same reality of diminishing resources that face nearly every U.S. school today. Until recent district-wide budget cuts made adaption necessary, teachers at Lincoln Magnet Middle School had an individual preparation period and each team also had team time during which they could plan and coordinate their work. Due to cutbacks in resources, teacher planning and preparation times have been combined into one common preparation period.
Sustaining collaboration is a challenge in itself. When fiscal constraints are added to the mix, the challenge increases. Those of us who know Lincoln Magnet Middle School are confident that the collaborative culture and innovative instructional practices will continue. Many schools change course in the midst of staff turn-over and budget hardships. What do schools like Lincoln have in place that supports sustainability in spite of these types of changes?