A fault line runs underneath Napa Junction Elementary school. In 2014, the Napa Valley experienced an earthquake and while there was damage to the region the school remained rock solid despite the chaos.
That memory acts as a metaphor for the learning at this vibrant K-5 community. There is an unshakable belief that the students have to do the learning, and that is demonstrated by the teachers who challenges students with high expectations from as young as Kindergarten.
Principal, Donna Drago, courageously introduced Project Based Learning 5 years ago, 5 yeas after she started as principal at the school. Donna was quickly joined by champions on staff. Together, and over time, the results, outcomes and learning growth of students have all validated Donna’s decision.
Whilst PBL is integral to the work, the greatest observation I made is that there is no ‘dumbing down’ of the learning. Planning is meticulous and implementation of learning is methodical – in a good way. After being introduced to learning targets at the beginning of each unit, all of which remain highly visible throughout the days and weeks which follow, there is great expectation placed upon each student to know those learning targets and their individual progress towards achieving those targets. Furthermore, there is requirement that students can discuss their learning, talk about their highlights and reflect on their struggles – all of which I heard from children as young as 5.
Targeted professional learning provides the focus of teacher learning. The school acknowledges that all teachers are learners first. Each fortnight, extended time for professional learning (although this is not the only time) ensures that teachers extensively plan. This ensures quality teaching, not just through project based learning, but of the critical foundations of literacy and numeracy – it is rigorous!
There is great flow within lessons with smooth and seamless transitions between activities. During each activity, students know where they are supposed to be, with whom they are supposed to be working (individually, in groups or with the teacher) and what work will assist them with the ‘next steps’ towards the learning target. There is great growth for each child. One data set which supports this are the flattering state based test results.
Overall, whilst the classrooms did not have all the ‘bells and whistles’ of a shiny new learning environment, staff were completely committed to supporting students grow as capable learners who can confidently discuss and maturely reflect on their learning.
What else? Among many things,
I heard from Donna… “PBL lends itself best for Science” and “with the big push for the information as part of the (elementary) science course, it can incorporate literacy strategies really well”.
I was reminded that reading is highly instructional – “You have to teach reading. ‘I read’ is an online scholastic program which reinforces rather instructs.”
I saw this wonderful “Peace Path”.
I noticed the excitement of Year 4 students as they learnt how to engineer the fastest gravity powered green car through as well planned, rigorous PBL approach to learning as seen by the pictures below.
In conclusion, “thank you” Donna for taking the time to show me around as well as discuss learning and broader educational matters. “Thank you” to the teachers who warmly welcomed me into their classrooms, and special appreciation to the classroom ambassadors who spoke so articulately well to help me learn.
You know, the more classrooms I see and the more articles I read, the more I come to understand that whilst context is different from school to school, educational challenges and opportunities are universal the world over.
If you ever get the chance to visit Napa Junction Elementary School, please do yourself and favour, and enjoy!