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Teachers aim for big ideas

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Every six seconds a child somewhere in the world dies from hunger. Leaders hunger for power, scholars hunger for knowledge, and demonstrators hunger to make statements about change. And everyone, big and small, hungers for love. Hunger is a big word, and its many iterations are the theme of this year’s McKinney School and Yellow Springs High School experience.

High school Spanish teacher Kathy Burkland, for example, welcomed her students back to school two weeks ago with a quiz about hunger from the World Food Program. Questions such as “Is there enough food to feed the world?” and “How much does it cost to feed a school child for a day?” are meant to be dinner table conversations that students can continue in class.

McKinney social studies students in Cameron McCoy’s class will spend part of the year exploring how founders of the Roman Empire and other civilizations used their hunger for power to build nation-states and organized their governments around the production, distribution and taxation of food. And English teacher Beth Lutz plans to explore a subtheme of hunger each quarter, starting with the issues of hunger in small towns versus urban environments.

Teachers began talking before school started two weeks ago about how to build bridges across the curriculum to help students contextualize new concepts and apply their ideas to the needs of the real world. The thematic approach, according to McKinney/YSHS principal Tim Krier, is part of the school district’s aim to promote more interdisciplinary, active learning, a goal of the current strategic plan. Teaching cooperatively between disciplines is another way to promote broad, critical thinking, and many teachers are planning units together that tie the sciences to math, literature, art and other subjects.

Chemistry and physics teacher Brandon Lowry, for instance, has begun meeting with math teacher Dee Ann Holly about a cross-disciplinary project involving students in both classes building trebuchets. Students can use math skills to measure the rise and distance of their arms and physics skills to make the adjustments necessary to hit a target.

“We’re hoping to strengthen the math part of physics,” said Lowry, who organized a science fair last year at Preble Shawnee, where he taught physics and biology before coming to Yellow Springs schools. “When you learn things it helps to figure out how they fit together in the web of other concepts. The more we can work on that web, the easier it will be to catch more kids” from losing interest or failing, he said.

And as Holly is offering advanced calculus this year for the first time ever at YSHS, pushing math concepts early on will prepare students for advanced courses later, Lowry said.

McKinney students will have their math and science concepts tied together all year with Jeff Collins, a STEM fellow, teaching all eighth-grade math and science and Jack Hatert teaching all seventh-grade math and science. Both teachers are creating their own curriculums this year as well, pulling from online academic sources and having students solve their problems on two dozen Netbooks that were recently donated to the school.

Teachers at McKinney and YSHS are leading the effort to weave their curricula together, and are encouraged to decide how much or how little they want to tie into the hunger theme, Krier said. The district is contracting with the Mathile Institute for the Advancement of Human Nutrition to host guest speakers and show films for discussion. And Krier hopes the initiative will excite both students and teachers to engage more deeply in the education process.
“This is good, engaging, compelling stuff,” he said.


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