By LINDA LOBECK
KINGSFORD - For the past three years, fifth graders at Woodland Elementary School in Kingsford have been a part of a pilot program - a change in the approach used by the teaching staff.
In reading class, fifth grade students work with teacher Andy Mendini on a lesson. Shown from left are Anaya Jordan, Mendini, Breanna Powers, Emma Linn, Shyann Johnson and in the background, Aiden Paradise.
The fifth grade team at Woodland Elementary School has changed to a departmentalized approach to teaching students. Each teacher instructs all the students in the grade in one subject area that they specialize in. Shown here reviewing student data are teachers, from left, Andy Mendini, Andy Wiltzius, Nicole Kriegl, Mark Novara, Betsy Sielaff, and Rick Cavalieri.
Woodland Elementary School houses students from kindergarten through the fifth grade in separate pods, where like classes are located. The 128 fifth graders are split into different homeroom classes, like the rest of the elementary students, and previously had one teacher that taught all the subject areas for that class.
The five teachers plus the special education teacher are now involved in a fully departmentalized approach to teaching fifth graders, reports Principal Darren Petschar.
"Even with this change, the goal is to keep that elementary school feel - where the kids benefit by having a homeroom teacher in a warm atmosphere," he said.
Petschar added that it was the teachers that came to him with the idea for a change from a self-contained classroom.
"The teachers created their own schedule and approached me in response to what they were seeing. They also put in a response or individualized time in the daily schedule where kids get extra help with reading and math or use it as a study hall," he said.
The fifth grade teaching team includes Mark Novara for science, Andy Wiltzius for math, Nicole Kriegl for English language arts, Andy Mendini for reading and Josee Humphrey for social studies. Betsy Sielaff is filling in for Humphrey, who is out on leave.
Wiltzius said that by teaching all the classes math, he is able to specialize in one subject.
"And it's a way to get students in fifth grade ready for middle school," he said. "They start having a different teacher for each subject in the fifth grade and it's an easier transition into middle school. They also have lockers and have to switch classes during the day."
The teachers looked at making this change in the fifth grade three years ago to help with that transition from fifth to sixth grade, Wiltzius added.
"It also allows us the chance to specialize in one area and do a better job by teaching the same subject all day," Wiltzius said.
He added that they also have Rick Cavalieri as a part of the teaching group to work with special education needs and individualized help during intervention time that some students may need.
The separate homerooms area also maintained in fifth grade at the first 20 minutes in the morning where teachers go over announcements and other classroom business. Then, the fifth graders rotate between the subjects, staying with their homeroom group. All classes meet for 50 minutes - one session for each of the five subject areas.
Science teacher Novara also likes the change to a departmentalized approach to teaching fifth grade.
"The building at Woodland is set up nicely for this approach," he said. "The students and teachers are all in a close area in the pod making it easier to work together and interact during the day."
Kriegl agrees. "It helps with organization for the students and diminishes the anxiety they feel about going to the middle school and getting to their classes on time. In the fifth grade, they have to be ready for each class and we all work with them on getting organized and filling out their agenda books each day - similar to what they need to do in middle school."
Mendini noted that the last session of the day is for music, and the students also need to take responsibility for having their instrument and getting to class on time.
"I also really like the set-up we have here - with 50 minutes allotted for each subject. This way every subject gets the same time commitment, which sometimes doesn't work out that way when you are one person teaching all the subjects in a day. Sometimes you'd run longer on a certain subject and have to cut back time on another. This way, everything is equal. This is a big difference from what I've done before in teaching," Mendini said.
Kriegl added that the administration gave them a year to pilot the program and two years to see if the changes made impacted test scores.
"We found that we are making more progress with the kids by teaching the subjects this way. I see the kids understanding it better when it's taught the same way throughout the fifth grade and bigger gains in what they are learning," Kriegl said.
The team also said that parents like the change because they can have contact with a teacher in one subject area where a student is having trouble. And they can meet with all the teachers at one time.
"I've seen a lot of good benefits from this change. When I'm teaching, something may come to me in the first hour that I can expand on when I go on to other classes that day," Kriegl said.
Mendini agrees. "It's a more efficient way to teach and you also have flex time built into the day so kids don't fall into the cracks. If they are having a problem, we can bring them up to speed during the day."
Kriegl added that they can target kids who are below or at benchmarks in a subject area and boost them with extra help. And for the students not needing extra help, this time is when they can use the laptops, do library work or get their homework done.
"Kids also feel more comfortable asking that teacher for help during that time," Kriegl said.
Petschar noted that the last period of the day is a common planning time for all the teachers to meet.
"This is a great group of teachers, and when they do this, they are able to make an impact on each and every child. During this time, they meet to discuss kids and it's also a time when parents can meet with all the teachers at one time. The teachers are also building a rapport with their students and parents. This is a team that works so well together," Petschar said.
Kriegl said that the intervention or individualized time is built into the schedule each day. "It's nice to be able to get that extra help for kids in anything they need with Rick here. It's nice to work that into each school day."
Mendini agreed. "Rick is ours - just for the fifth grade. And that is a big asset - to have access to his help each day."
Cavalieri noted that with this intervention time, now all the kids in the fifth grade know him as well as the special education students.
In keeping with the elementary school atmosphere, Wiltzius added that there is enough flexibility in the schedule to be able to have parties in their homerooms, fit in the DARE program, library work and other activities that come up.
"Another great thing with this team approach is that they can all set common core subjects and how to teach and assess them with one teacher for each subject. They are also able to do a writing program across the curriculum as well as overlapping assignments in more than one class. This is a unique way to handle this grade," Petschar said.
"This common assessment is huge. We came together and the result would be so different if we didn't do it this way. I feel we have a better hand on how we teach our subjects - it provides great consistency for all the fifth graders," Kriegl said.
The layout the school in pods, where like classes are located, is also a positive, Wiltzius said, since it aids in a good sharing and communication between staff.
Mendini also feels it's a nice approach when parents come in to talk with the teachers and they are all together.
Sielaff agrees that since they all teach the same students, if there is a problem, they can talk with each other about it. This allows for them to come up with plans based on whether there is a problem in just in one class or something similar seen by the rest of the teachers.
"It's nice to be able to collaborate in this way and work together to come up with a solution," she said.
Petschar feels that the program has worked well at the fifth grade level because the students are older. And it's also successful because the teachers are the ones responsible for implementing it.
"They came with this idea to expand the same type of experience that the students will see in the middle school to fifth graders. After three years now, they have continued to make this program better. The change has allowed them to teach specifically in their subject area and take a leadership role that gives their students what they need," Petschar said.
As a new teacher at Woodland this year, Mendini said that he is sold on this approach to teaching fifth graders.
Linda Lobeck's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.