Evergreen Park School District 124 has continued to redefine the role of a “typical” classroom in the third year of a renovation project that aims to shift instruction toward student-centered learning.
From replacing furniture to adding valuable resources across various subject areas, a wide variety of classroom improvements have resulted in enhanced learning environments across all five District schools.
Kathleen Prado, the District’s Director of Curriculum and Instruction, began implementing these changes years ago with hopes of increasing student participation and engagement, and to allow for more student interactions. To this point, she has been pleased with the progress.
"I love that when I walk into a classroom I have to search for the teacher because there is so much purposeful interaction happening," Prado said. "When I lean in to listen to the conversations our students are having about the content they are learning, I am amazed at how rich the conversation are."
The transition to 21st century classrooms has proven to be key in this transformation process. Tables of all shapes and sizes have replaced standard desks, and many students are now sitting on cushioned crates and yoga balls instead of traditional chairs. These changes create a comfortable learning environment for students that leads to increased student discussion and peer-to-peer learning, as opposed to learning solely from a teacher’s lecture.
Northwest fifth-grade teacher Allison Grazevich is using the flexible seating for the first time this year and has already noticed the many advantages.
“My classroom is now student-centered. I am able to work with students in different capacities, such as whole group, small group, and individually in all areas of the classroom,” she said. “I enjoy seeing students so engaged in their school work because of the ability to make a choice of a seat that works best for them.”
Her students are big fans of the new seating arrangement, as well.
Riley Sizemore said she likes it because, “if someone’s chatty, you can move to a different spot.” Sofia Panatera – who has seen a noticeable improvement in her grades – describes the layout as “way better” and Peyton Schwarz said she’s fond of the new setup because it allows her to “focus more.”
Replacing furniture is just one of several steps in the District’s shift toward student-centered learning.
EPSD 124 has also brought in more than 10,000 books over the past three years to ensure that students in every classroom have the reading materials they need. Each classroom has its own “leveled library,” where students can find the books that match their own interests and reading levels. The books are grouped together by genre or level and placed in baskets within the classroom library.
Each week, students have the opportunity to go “shopping” in the library for books they would like to read. Teachers help in this process, guiding students to books that match their reading level and incorporate characteristics that a student needs to work on. Then, during 20-30 minute independent reading sessions each day, teachers work with students on an individual basis to ensure they comprehend all of the different aspects of the chosen title.
Northeast third grade teacher Mary Eisenbraun said she has noticed an increase in excitement about reading now that she has an easily-accessible leveled library in her classroom.
“It allows students to freely choose books of interest and comfort,” she said. “This helps promote reading and fosters a joy in personal selected reading, versus assigned reading.”
The improvements to the curriculum do not end there. In math, an emphasis has been placed on differentiating instruction to help students learn at their own pace. To further develop writing skills, designated stations with tools like colored paper, Post-its and highlighters have been added to classrooms to give students the tools they need to get their creative juices flowing.
All of these classroom enhancements were made with the intention of equipping students with the tools needed to succeed – which they have – but the benefits stretch further. Teachers such as Bree Billow, at Central Middle School, can now take pride in creating environments where students are comfortable and enjoy learning alongside one another.
“My students know that the classroom is a place in which we all support each other and we're not afraid to ask questions, even if they may sometimes seem ‘silly,’” Billow said. “School is challenging for so many reasons, especially for middle-schoolers. If I can create a classroom where students feel comfortable and relaxed, I feel as if I have succeeded in one small way.”