It’s Teacher Appreciation Week, so be sure to give an extra-big hug to your favorite educators!

Education has changed in many ways over the past generation, and it continues to evolve with the demand for smart, talented people who can make the world a better place.

In the Rockford area, the reality is that our educational approaches are rapidly transforming in ways that promise to put our youngest citizens on a fast track to success.

Here are four meaningful ways you’ll find local educators making a difference.

  1. Encouraging Students to Learn by Doing

Remember the days of asking, “How am I going to use that after high school?” Now, teachers are providing real-world applications for the things students are learning in the classroom.

In Rockford’s public high schools, a series of “academies,” or small learning communities, are focusing the curriculum around particular career tracks, including manufacturing/engineering, health care, public service and college prep. Through a combination of core classes (English, Math) and career-track specialties (shop class, anatomy/physiology), students are applying what they’re learning in practical ways.

Project Lead the Way is a national nonprofit organization that’s actively equipping school systems with the tools to reinforce this approach. You’ll find elements of Project Lead the Way in schools all across our region, and you’ll see it in every classroom at Rockford Lutheran Schools.

Under this new system, no longer does the teacher own a single answer to a problem. Rather, it’s like building a Rube Goldberg machine, says Don Gillingham, executive director of Rockford Lutheran Schools.

“You need to figure out how to move the ball from Point A to Point B,” he says. “That’s a great way for kids to have ownership of their learning, whereas if they’re simply answering the questions the teacher asks and aren’t able to connect that to a tangible outcome, they might become a little lost.”

  1. Guiding Self-Initiated Study

As students take charge of their own education, they’re also initiating their own paths of discovery. In Rockford Public Schools, a new approach called PDSA (Plan, Do, Study, Act) is emphasizing short-cycle goals that encourage students to set goals, monitor their progress and adjust accordingly. According to Heidi Dettmann, the district’s Executive Director of Academics, students are embracing this path well ahead of schedule.

Within science and social studies classes, teachers are employing a strategy of inquiry-based learning that encourages students to ask big questions and then pursue them through the learning process. Seven certified LEGO trainers are helping kids to explore concepts of coding, design and engineering as part of their ordinary curriculum. And, when it comes to teaching literacy, students are initiating their own path to discovery as they couple science and history concepts with their reading skills.

  1. Providing Dual Credits

How cool would it be to show up to college your freshman year with actual college credits you’d already earned – while you were in high school? Think of how well-prepared you’d be for school – and how much money you could save.

Rockford Lutheran is jump-starting its students by certifying teachers as adjunct faculty members at Concordia University, Nebraska. Lutheran high school students then take a college-level course, in high school, with all of the support you’d expect for a high school classroom.

“We get the same kind of academic experience, we have the same outcomes and syllabus as the college class, and it’s identified by a number of colleges and universities across the Midwest,” Gillingham says. “So, they’re guaranteed to take that credit with them.”

Students in Rockford Public Schools are enjoying a similar experience as they earn college credits and actual job certifications through Rock Valley College, placing them that much closer to an attainable (and affordably achieved) job post-graduation.

  1. Engaging with the Community

When Rockford Public Schools revised its curriculum and created academies a few years ago, teachers began bringing the outside world into the classroom, encouraging members of the community to show kids how they apply skills in the real world.

Now, freshmen students visit an annual career expo designed to introduce them to local companies and to show career paths they might want to pursue. Every October, high school students tour through area manufacturers as part of Manufacturing Day – yet another chance to peek inside a career track.

Even as the community is coming into the classroom, students around the Rockford area are being pushed out of the building into real-world learning environments, especially through service learning.

Next week, all 325 Lutheran students will spend a day serving others – packing lunches for the hungry, helping a food pantry, cleaning the highway, maybe even giving manicures to seniors. As they do good by helping others, they’re also gaining insights into their world and learning important traits such as intergenerational awareness and positive values.

If you’re interested in helping our youngest citizens on a path toward learning that’s fun, engaging and rewarding, first thank our area teachers. Then, sign up to make a difference yourself. Contact Transform Rockford today to learn how.

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